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.