Thursday, April 14, 2011

Cousin Bette, by Honore de Balzac

This book provoked another Battle of the Reading Media.  It was a short but decisive contest.  I'd bought an excellent recording of Cousin Bette as part of the spree that ended my Audible membership (when they announced that they could no longer provide audio books to someone with a Malaysian billing address.)  During the first half hour or so, I found myself fussing with the MP3 player. I wished that I could slow it down in certain parts.  I wanted to review passages without missing the mark and going back too far.  I wanted to pause and reflect without having to find the right button (instead of hitting the wrong one and jumping to the next book).  I very much wanted to underline and scribble margin notes. In short, I wanted my MP3 player to be a book.

I downloaded a Kindle version of the novel from Gutenberg and began again.  And it was good.

This does not mean that I will stop listening to audio books.  Nor does it mean that I'll never listen to my recording of Cousin Bette.  I still maintain that some books are better suited for audio than others, and the experience of re-reading a novel is quite different than reading it the first time.  Although I chose to read the book the first time in print, I can imagine myself quite contentedly listening to it the second time around.

Best, of course, would be to read it in the original French.  This was one of Balzac's later novels, and I think the translator of my version, James Waring, did a great job at conveying the acerbic wit, particularly at the high-society soirees, but even he felt compelled to insert a note in one place to indicate that there was simply no English equivalent to the double entendres in the previous passage.

Cousin Bette is the first of Balzac's novels that I've read, and reading this so closely on the heels of Flaubert's Sentimental Education feels like a minor immersion in mid-19th century Paris.  People then were different than we are today, and the French are different from the rest of us.

Then again, some things are universal, like the advantages of wealth, and the fact that those who have plenty of it nearly always sail through life more easily:
The concierges of Paris have sharp eyes; they do not stop visitors who wear an order, have a blue uniform, and walk ponderously; in short, they know a rich man when they see him.  
The title character, properly known as Mademoiselle Lisbeth Fischer, is a spinster.  As Balzac first introduced her, I thought he was giving us an early pioneer, a single woman supporting herself honorably and moving independently about Paris.  Mais non.  Bette is the embittered, resentful and venomously plotting species of spinster:
Jealousy was the fundamental passion of this character, marked by eccentricities -- a word invented by the English to describe the craziness not of the asylum, but of respectable households... Gifted with a cunning which had become unfathomable, as it always does in those whose celibacy is genuine, with the originality and sharpness with which she clothed her ideas, in any other position she would have been formidable. Full of spite, she was capable of bringing discord into the most united family.
This is a novel of manners.  Mostly bad ones, mind you, although the sinners are as elegant as they are depraved.  I thought often of Les Liaisons Dangereuses as I read this book, but while Balzac's courtesans are schemers extraordinaire, the men who take them as mistresses are little more than purse-holding puppets.  He makes it clear that Parisian women take their beauty seriously, as they must if they are to survive in anything more than poverty and obscurity:
Now a woman devoid of all the graces, in Paris simply does not exist... in the immense stir of Paris street-life, only pretty women are ever looked at.  
Balzac makes some very keen observations on love  vs. dalliance.  You can always go home after a spat with the mistress, for example, still feeling quite pompous:
The deceptions of a venal passion are more delightful than the real thing. True love is mixed up with bird-like squabbles, in which the disputants wound each other to the quick; but a quarrel without animus is, on the contrary, a piece of flattery to the dupe's conceit.  
And dupes they are, these men.  Madame Valerie Marneffe, a world-class schemer, strings five of them -- including her husband -- along at one time, vowing her undiluted love to each.  The Brazilian baron, out of his mind with passion, begs her to escape to his enormous estate with him.
"Where?" said Valerie, with one of the pretty sneers by which a woman makes fun of a man she is sure of. "Paris is the only place where we can live happy. I care too much for your love to risk seeing it die out in a tete-a-tete in the wilderness. Listen, you are the only man I care for in the whole world. Write that down clearly in your tiger's brain."  
For women, when they have made a sheep of a man, always tell him that he is a lion with a will of iron.  
Valerie and other courtesans of her ilk reduce besotted men to penury, and one of them, the Baron Hulot d'Ervy, comes to total ruin when he embezzles funds from his government bureau.  I felt a pang of nostalgia as his peers in the government express their horror and shame at his misdeeds.  Nowadays, most of us assume that our politicians are petit (or grand) criminals.  The Prince who heads the War Ministry, however, chides the embezzler soundly, suggesting that an act of contrition like that taken by a disgraced soldier recently might be a fine idea:
"Do you know what this lancer did, Baron d'Ervy? He swallowed some window-glass after pounding it down, and died in eleven hours, of an illness, in hospital.  Try, if you please, to die of apoplexy, that we may not see you dishonored."
There are a few honorable characters in the novel, but just enough to show off the dishonor of the others to full effect.  Early in the book, I pegged Balzac as a misogynist, but then I saw that he holds equally dim views of men, married or single, French or Polish, commoners or titled, politicians or ex-perfumers. He is an equal opportunity misanthropic grump.  But who would want to read pleasant books about virtuous people by nice authors?  

1 comment:

  1. You know, you really ought to consider writing a book of your own. I've found that I sometimes enjoyed reading your review more than the actual book you were reviewing. You are one gifted writer, and it's a waste of your talents to be writing/editing for others when you could produce your own work.

    By the way, I've found Agent Zigzag, and there's one copy of Mincemeat Operation or something by the same author in our Kindle library. ;)


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