Balzac’s Cousin Pons

Never become a collector.  You would be selling yourself to a demon as jealous and demanding as the demon of gambling.”–Balzac’s Correspondence, V 93


Portrait of Balzac, by Louis Boulanger

Balzac had reason to warn collectors.  He was addicted to collecting antiques, and knew of what he spoke when he wrote one of his last masterpieces, Cousin Pons, in which an obsessed collector spends all his money on old paintings and ornaments.

Much to the chagrin of Balzac’s beloved Eveline, whom he finally was able to marry in 1850, he spent 100,000 francs in three years on antiques. He said it was a nest egg for her, but the collection was a variety of shopping mania.  And he misidentified the value of several of his antiques, due to cheating dealers and his own imagination.

Some of you, like Balzac and Cousin Pons, are real collectors.  I’m sure you have New York Chippendale armchairs, Chinese vases, and engravings by Albrecht Durer.   As for myself, I prefer cheap furniture intended for vacation cottages to objets d’art so I have more money for books (reading copies, not rare editions.)

Herbert J. Hunt translated many of Balzac’s novels for Penguin, and his translation of Cousin Pons, the only modern translation I could find, was done in 1968. (Why doesn’t someone in the 21st century translate Balzac?)  I found Cousin Pons, the second volume of Poor Relations and a companion to Cousin Bette, utterly absorbing and incandescent, and didn’t even stop to put asterisks in the margins.  Pons, the hero, is a lovable musician in his sixties who has two vices:  he is an antique collector and a gourmand. He knows all the antique shops in Paris and can identify treasures and bargain slyly with the dealers; but he also is a parasite who dines every night with rich relatives (to whom he isn’t really related) and friends.  Balzac’s vivid description of Pons is both humorous and endearing:  he is a complete innocent, who has no idea of the politics of society, and whose gourmet sensibilities are his only real sin.

I wish I had read Balzac when I was young: perhaps I would have understood social politics.  Balzac’s depictions of the cruelty, shallowness, and greed of high society are appallingly apt.  Poor Pons is mistreated by a powerful, ruthless rich woman who dislikes him and decides to destroy his reputation.  But the poor are just as cruel as the rich.

As Pons gets older, his friends and relatives value him less:  his  “cousin,” Madame Camusot, known as Presidente, is the wife of the rich President of the Royal Court of Justice in Paris.  She and her 23-year-old daughter, Cecile, whom no one wants to marry, deceive Pons one night, saying they have an urgent summons when they want to get rid of him before dinner.  They laugh at him when he overhears the maid joking about it.  Poor Pons, who has given a Watteau fan to Madame Camusot, is devastated.  He stops dining out.

Balzac Cousin PonsPons shares an apartment with his German friend, Schmucke, another musician, and I would think they were gay, except that Balzac makes a point of their utter innocence.  Schmuck is thrilled when Pons stays home for dinner with him.  He agrees to go “prick-a-pracking togezzer” (bric-a-bracking together) to compensate for Pons’ giving  up of dining out.

Here is what Balzac says about Schmucke:

It needed all the motive force of his friendship for him to avoid breakages in the drawing-room and study given over to Pons for his art collection.  Schmucke was wholly devoted to music:  he composed it for his own pleasure, and he gazed at all his friend’s baubles as a fish supplied with a complimentary ticket would gaze at a flower-show in the Luxembourg gardens.”

When the President of the Court discovers Pons has made the gift of the valuable fan to his wife, who is ignorant of who Watteau is, he makes “Presidente” and Celia apologize.  But Pons makes a mistake:  he introduces a wealthy man to the family as a potential  fiance for Celia, and after the suitor rejects her, the Presidente destroys Pons’ reputation by saying Pons had done it maliciously.

Everybody cuts Pons, and he gets ill, but news of his valuable collection gets out.  Suddenly parasites  like Madame Cibot, the portress, who cooks and does laundry for the two men, want to get mentioned in his will.  Antique dealers want his things, Pons’s doctor and a lawyer get involved in the scheme to deceive him, and “Presidente” also finds out about it.

I love Balzac’s descriptions of the theater where  Pons is the conductor of the orchestra and Schmucke is the pianist.  Balzac is a dazzling social historian.

His lively prose, pitch-perfect dialogue, and brilliant portrayals of all kinds of characters had me racing through this as though it were a best-seller.

I love the classics, but never fear, I do have a couple of contemporary novels in the works.  One day I’ll write about one or the other of them.

Blue Woman & Balzac’s Louis Lambert

women in jeans

Wash-and-Go Blue Jeans.

Years ago I wrote a story called “Blue Men,” in which the narrator falls in love with a blue man.  I was thinking of Druids.

It is probably in a box somewhere.

I thought of it today when my legs turned blue.

I went on a walk in the snow.  When I took off my boots, I found Druidical blue shadows above my ankles.

I then read the label on my new jeans and it SAYS the color may run.

Now wait.   I dashed into a store and bought the first jeans that fit, expecting them to last for years.  I paid $80.  Does one have to pay $100 for good quality now?

My last pair of jeans a decade ago was cheap and the dye never ran.

The label also suggests I should wash the jeans separately.  Waste of water.

Too late to take them back.

I am now a Blue Woman.

louis-lambert-honore-de-balzac-paperback-cover-artBALZAC’S LOUIS LAMBERTThis tragic autobiographical novel, one of Balzac’s Études philosophiques (“Philosophical Studies”) in La Comédie humaine (“The Human Comedy”), is the story of a tanner’s son who becomes a philosopher.

I am in the total immersion school of reading Balzac.   Reference books?  I don’t have any.

I know little about Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell, which comes up a lot in Louis Lambert.

This 1832 novel, narrated by “the poet” (Balzac), is the story of Louis Lambert,  a brilliant man with a photographic memory.  The narrator meets him at school and later writes his “intellectual biography.”

The novel begins with Louis’s childhood. At the age of five, after Louis reads the Bible, he walks around town borrowing books.  When he is ten, his mother sends him to live with his uncle, a priest, and study to be a priest to evade conscription.  He reads most of the books in his uncle’s huge library,  “derived from the plunder committed during the Revolution in the neighboring Chateaux and abbeys.”

On  holidays Louis doesn’t want to buy sweets: he goes out every day into the woods with his books and a loaf.

From that time reading was in Louis a sort of appetite which nothing could satisfy; he devoured books of every kind, feeding indiscriminately on religious works, history, philosophy, and physics.  He has told me that he found indescribable delight in reading dictionaries, for lack of other books, and I readily believed him….  The analysis of a word, its physiognomy and history, would be to Lambert matter for long dreaming.”

College de Vendome

College de Vendome

When he meets the Baroness de Stael on a walk, she is impressed that he is reading Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell, and sends him to the High School at Vendome (Balzac’s alma mater) to free him of serving the Emperor or the Church.

The teachers expected a prodigy: they beat him for doing poorly in his classes.  Instead of doing homework, Louis hangs out with the narrator, and writes a Treatise on the Will (as did Balzac at school).  The teacher takes it away, selling it to a grocer to wrap food, he suspects.

When Louis is an adult, he has trouble coping in Paris.  Part of the novel is epistolary:  a long letter to his uncle explains his interest in philosophy and despair over the materialism; then letters to a woman he falls in love with.

Even in the 19th century translation of Clara Bell, the writing is rich and romantic, the philosophy fascinatingly interwoven with the story.

If there is a newer translation, I have been unable to find it.

Shouldn’t someone have translated all of Balzac for Penguin?

Balzac Mania: Eugenie Grandet

Balzac mania.

Others have had it, never I.

I prefer Zola to Balzac and have read many of Zola’s 20 Rougon-Macquart novels.

Balzac, my new hero.

Balzac, my new hero.

Of course I’ve also read Balzac over the years, and I love Cousin Bette. But Balzac is choppy.  He includes too much background at the beginning of his novels.  Once you get to the true starting point of his books, however, they are remarkable.

Last week I read and fell in love with Pere Goriot.

There are 90 novels, novellas, and short stories in Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine (The Human Comedy), a series in which Balzac portrays French society during the 19th century period of Restoration and July Monarchy.

And I just finished Eugenie Grandet (1833), a realistic novel about miserliness. Like the other hundreds of my favorite books, it is a stunning, richly-colored novel.  It has been compared to the dramas of the 17th century, and Balzac himself was thinking of Moliere’s Harpagon in the play, The Miser, when he conceived the character of Grandet.

Set in a small country town, it is the story of a miser, Grandet, and the effect of his inability to love on the fate of his wife, Madame Grandet, and daughter, Eugenie.  When his brother commits suicide, he is equally unable to care for his nephew.  And it is this, in the end, that ruins lives.

eugenie_grandet old penguinGrandet, a master cooper, owner of vineyards, and financier, began to make his millions “when the French Republic put the Confiscated lands of the Church up for sale.”

His isolated wife, Madame Grandet, and daughter, Eugenie, are accustomed to living penuriously:  the house is cold–fires are allowed only Nov. 1-March 31–and they are half-starved, because Grandet doles out the food and provisions to their maid, Nanon.

Grandet keeps the women sewing full-time, keeping the linen in good condition.  Grande is so strict that if Eugenie wants to embroider a collar for her mother, she must do it late at night.

And if not for Nanon, the quality of life for the Grandet women would decline:  although Nanon, whom no one except Grandet would hire because of her ugliness,  accepts his ways, she calculates how to make the food go further, warms them with her brazier on cold days,  and often schemes to help her favorite, Eugenie.  Madame Grandet and Eugenie are meek.

The novel begins with a description of the gloomy houses in a quarter of the country town, Saumer. The stark setting of the houses reflects Grandet’s severity.

In some country towns there exist houses whose appearance weighs as heavily upon the spirits as the gloomiest cloister, the most dismal ruin, or the dreariest stretch of barren land.  These houses may combine the cloister’s silence with the arid desolation of the waste and the sepulchral melancholy of ruins.  Life makes so little stir that a stranger believes them to be uninhabited until he suddenly meets the cold listless glance of some motionless human being, shoes face, austere as a monk’s, peers above the windowsill at the sound of a stranger’s footfall.”

Once Balzac finshes the exposition, the plot of the novel fascinates.  Whom will Eugenie marry?  That’s what the people of Saumer want to know.  On Eugenie’s 23rd birthday, the Grandets  entertain two families, the Cruchots and the des Grassins, each with a young men who wants to marry Eugenie.

eugenie-grandet-honore-de-balzac-paperback-cover-artMonsieur Cruchot, a notary, and Abbe Cruchot, an official of the church, have a self-confident, successful nephew, a magistrate and president of the court.  Madame des Grassin and her husband, a banker, hope  their 23-year-old son, Adolphe, a law student, will prevail.

The townspeople gossip and are divided in their opinion about who will marry Eugenie, but most reckon without the presence of Charles, Grandet’s nephew.

That night, Charles arrives at the party uninvited, because his father, a Parisian millionaire, has sent him to stay with his uncle for a few months.  Having been  told Grandet is rich, Charles has had a manicure, bought rich new clothes, and arrived in style in a beautiful carriage.  When he sees the starkness of the house, he believes his father must have been mistaken about the money.

Grandet is displeased to see him.  The women, on the other hand, have never seen anyone as beautiful as Charles and welcome him.  Eugenie does everything she can to make his room nice, even sending Nanon to a store to buy a wax candle (they use tallow, because they’re cheaper).

This could have turned out to be a comedy of errors.

Instead, it is a tragedy, because Charles’ father lost his money, sent Charles away, and then committed suicide.  Grandet will not help Charles, and sends him away to the Indies with only money for his fare.

When Grandet finds out that Eugenie gave her birthday money to Charles, he is furious.  And this causes a falling-out with the women that changes their future.

The incredible detail with which Balzac describes Grandets’ household, in particular the lives of the three women, makes for a striking, vivid social history.

Balzac does some moralizing.  He believed immorality and materialism were rampant in post-revolutionary France. He lets us know that Paris corrupted Charles.   When Charles tries to make money, he deals in slaves, because it is the most profitable.  He cares only for money when he goes back to Paris.  He has no compassion for people.

To see things as they are, there, means to believe in nothing:  in no affection, in no man, not even in events–for events can be falsified or manufactured.  To see things as they  are you must weigh your friend’s purse every morning, know the proper moment to intervene or twist whatever may turn up to your profit, suspend your judgement and be in no hurry to admire either a work of art or a fine achievement, in every action look for the motive of self-interest.”

Honestly, are things so different in contemporary America?

Fabulous book!

“Post Balzac” & Our “Deconstructed” Edition of Pere Goriot

"Post Balzac," cast bronze and stone, by Judith Shea, American artist, 1990

“Post Balzac,” a sculpture by Judith Shea (1990)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that everybody photographs everybody else standing beside Judith Shea’s sculpture, “Post Balzac,” at the sculpture park in Des Moines.

Shea’s sculpture is based on Rodin’s 1898 “Monument to Balzac,” but they are very different.  While Rodin shows Balzac wrapped in his coat, Shea reveals an empty coat.

Rodin's Monument to Balzac

Rodin’s Monument to Balzac

Shea said in an interview that she contemplated Rodin’s monument, a turn-of-the-century marker of modernism in sculpture, as she thought about how to bring the figure back after a century of post-modern abstractions.  She said of her “Post-Balzac”: “The coat is hollow–a metaphor of the condition of the spirit, for emptiness.”

Seeing the sculpture made me think about Balzac, the brilliant pioneer of realism who, with an inexhaustible attention to detail, portrayed the manners, history, philosophy, and social structure of 19th-century France in his novels.

Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine (The Human Comedy) is a cycle of approximately 90 novels, novellas, and short stories portraying French society during the 19th century period of Restoration and July Monarchy.  In the late 19th century, Ellen Marriage translated most of them into English for a project edited by George Saintsbury.  Although perhaps a dozen  are available in modern translations, we must still depend for the majority on Marriage’s translations.

IMG_2292Probably most of you have a copy of Pere Goriot (or Father Goriot, or Old Man Goriot).

I thought mine was in the back room, but I couldn’t find it.

Our book database said we had no Balzac.

It turned out Balzac’s books were catalogued under de Balzac.  I’m sure that’s proper, but I just call him Balzac.

I started reading Pere Goriot Saturday night, and by Sunday night it had been deconstructed.

That may mean semiotic analysis to some of you.  To me it simply means that the cover fell off.

Pere Goriot Deconstructed

Pere Goriot Deconstructed

In this stunning, disturbing novel, we meet the widow Madame Vauquer and her seven lodgers at a cheap boarding house in a poor neighborhood in Paris.  At first glance they are an unexceptional lot, but all have complicated pasts and financial problems:  the best apartment is inhabited by Madame Couture, the kind widow of a commissary-general, and her ward, Victorine Taillefer, a schoolgirl whose father has disinherited her.  In two suites on the third floor live Poiret, a colorless, dull old man, and Monsieur Vautrin, a brilliant, blunt, greedy middle-aged man who claims to be a retired merchant.  On the fourth floor are a shrewd spinster, Mademoiselle Michionneau; Pere Goriot, a retired vermicelli manufacturer; and Eugene de Rastignac, a law student.

Overnight, the charming Eugene becomes obsessed with luxury and women.  In the glittering upper-class society he suddenly aspires to, he finds incomprehensible social barriers, debts, and infidelity.  He is infatuated with Countess de Restaud, a beautiful married woman whose manner changes after he mentions that he saw his fellow lodger Pere Goriot leaving her house on a private staircase.

He has no idea what he said to alienate the Restauds.  He goes to his wealthy cousin, the Viscountess de Beauseant, and begs her to be his tutor in society.

“Yes, indeed.  I am such an ignoramus that I will set everyone against me, unless you will help me.  I believe it must be terribly hard to meet in this city any young, beautiful, rich, and elegant woman whose heart is free.  I need someone to explain for me what you women understand so well:  Life.”

The Viscountess explains that Goriot is the father of the Countess, who married “up,” and that her husband will not permit her to “receive” him.  Pere Goriot’s other daughter, Delphine de Nucingen,  also married up:  her husband is a banker, and she, too, stays away from her father unless she wants money.

At the lodging house, people joke that Goriot has two mistresses:  no one believed him when he said  the well-dressed women who visited him were his daughters until Eugene interceded and confirmed it.  Pere Goriot is so besotted with his daughters that he lives in dire poverty so he can pay their debts for diamonds and gold lame dresses.

On the Viscountess’s advice, Eugene pursues the beautiful Delphine de Nucingen amorously to break into Parisian society.  When his fellow lodger, Monsieur Vautrin, proposes a horrifying financial scheme that will help Eugene but send him over the edge from immorality into criminality, Eugene staunchly tries to refuse.

Eventually he understands the true horrors of society in the form of Goriot’s two daughters’ exploitation of their father.

Near the end, Eugene says:

“I am in hell, and I must stay where I am.  Whatever evil you hear of society, believe it; there is no one, not even a Juvenal, who could paint the horror of it, covered though it be with gold and precious stones.”

Such a great book:  I loved E. K. Brown’s translation.  And there is, I am afraid, lots to shock us even in the 21st century.

Balzac was hyper-realistic.