Monday, April 25, 2011

Cousin Bette

In the end we always go back to Balzac.

Even a reader with only a smattering of French can appreciate La Comedie Humaine (The Human Comedy), Balzac's cycle of approximately 90 novels, novellas, and short stories portraying French society during the 19th century period of Restoration and July Monarchy.  All the antithetical pairs of qualities mentioned above can be found in Balzac. 

Balzac is easier to read in French than Flaubert or Proust, and his novels translate well into English.

Cousin Bette is one of my favorites. I'll briefly synopsize the plot, because I haven't the inclination nor years of study necessary to analyze this very funny French novel.  Balzac's vivid characters' flaws and foibles, and the elaborate machinations of the plot, make the action unroll so rapidly that one breathlessly feels as though one inhabits the novel.  The characters are weak or villainous people you might not wish to know, but they are your friends in this tragicomedy.  Bette, a provincial old maid who has worked for years as a seamstress and lived in poverty in Paris, conspires with her neighbor, a clerk's beautiful wife, Madame Marnieff, to destroy her cousin Adeline's family fortunes.  Bette has always envied Adeline Hulot, who years ago married a baron and has, in Bette's view, had an easy life.  How to bring them down?  By the neighbor Madame Marnieff's seduction and fleecing of Baron Hulot.  

With the exception of Adeline, all the characters have frailties and imperfections, and Adeline's daughter Hortense, who deliberately sets out to seduce Bette's "lover," Wenceslas, a Polish count and artist who depended on Bette's advice and affection, brings Bette's vengeance down on their heads, and almost deserves her fall.  Eventually, Baron Hulot installs Madame Marnieff in a rich, luxurious apartment, with Bette  upstairs, while Adeline, her son, and daughter, Hortense, fall into terrible poverty.  One man after another in the family falls for Madame Marnieff; the women are soon on their own. The susceptibility of Baron Hulot to women is humorous, even though one desperately empathizes with Adeline.  

Can anything stop Madame Marnieff?  Even Baron Hulot's actress-singer courtesan mistresses were more compassionate than this greedy bourgeois woman. 

Balzac's detailed accounts of money make this a very realistic novel.  Money and debt are intertwined with love when it comes to old men with young women.  Things haven't changed much--money is still an obsession--only we're maxed out on credit cards instead of unscrupulous moneylenders.


Vintage Reading said...

I read this for a course a few years ago. It made for uncomfortable reading a times but Balzac had a great insight into human nature. Although the book is not fresh in my mind I remember being struck by the Wenceslas who 'could have been an artist but settled for being a critic.'

Frisbee said...

So ironic that Wenceslas did his best work with Bette. It's a complicated novel.