Saturday, July 13, 2013

Cousin Bette by Honore de Balzac


Cousin Bette
by Honore de Balzac
1846
****
4 stars - oh how naughty



He left River City the library building
But he left all the books to her!
Chaucer!
Rabelais!
Balzac!
Cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep.


It is clear to me why the ladies of River City did not want their young people reading such stuff. Oh my goodness. Page after page of bad behavior. And not "titter titter, people were such prudes" bad behavior. I'm talking about cheating, stealing, adultery, greed, gluttony, disregard of family, and even murder most vile. Timeless stuff.

But I must set the record straight. This book, my friends, is most decidedly not about Cousin Bette (who is actually a somewhat minor character in the story). In fact, I found Cousin Bette herself to be a sympathetic character. The ugly sister of a poor family, she watches her beautiful sister make a wonderful marriage while she herself is consigned to the role of "ugly old maid." Sure, there are the odd prospects thrown at her in her youth, but they are disagreeable chaps and good for her for not agreeing to marriage for the sake of marriage. But Bette appears only occasionally and is not fully engaged in the action.

The real villain in the story (and the main character) is Bette's cousin by marriage, Baron Hector Hulot. Bah!

The Baron suffers from a total inability to keep his pants buttoned up. His succession of increasingly demanding mistresses cause him to squander all the money he has and then to move on to borrowing in the most convoluted pyramid schemes and ultimately to some bizarre strategy involving sending a relative to a military post in Algeria and siphoning off the money intended to keep the poor soul safe from the natives. 

He is incorrigible! Every decision in his life is directed by his "little soldier." His downfall, while possibly hastened a trifle by Bette, is nothing but his own doing. 

Page after page of this novel is filled with women seducing men, men seducing women, people plotting against each other, endless debauchery. 

The Baron writes to his (married) mistress thusly:

My wife has never, for the last twenty-five years; interfered with my pleasures, as I have told you. I would sacrifice a hundred Adelines for you! I will be there this evening at nine, in Crevel's temple, waiting for my divinity. Oh, that your deputy clerk might soon die! Then we need never be parted again.

Excuse me?

And what of the mistress herself? Here in full form convincing the Baron that the other men in her life (including her husband) are nothing to her and she loves only him.

"You don't love me any more, Henri - I can see it." said Madame Marneffe, hiding her face in her handkerchief and bursting into tears.

It was the cry of real love. The outcry of a woman's despair is so persuasive that it draws forth the forgiveness that is latent in every lover's heart when the women in question is young, beautiful, and wearing a dress so low cut that she could slop out at the top in the garb of Eve.

Oh indeed.

And what of Cousin Bette? Apparently she primarily suffered from terminal virginity which, according to the author, can make one truly terrible.

Virginity, like all monstrosities, has its peculiar richness, its absorbing grandeur. A life whose energies are conserved, takes on in the persons of virgins an incalculable quality of endurance and strength; the reserved faculties of the brain are enriched in their entirety. When chaste people have occasion to exert their bodies or their minds, when they are required to act, or think, they have muscles of steel; their intelligence is reinforced by intuitive knowledge - diabolical energy, or the black magic of will.

Why four stars and not five? Well, to be honest, the book is fairly rough going. The plot is so detailed and twisted that one is forced to take the odd time out to consider what has been read. In fact, it is on page 146 when the author informs us "Here, then, ends the introduction to this story." Yup, a 146 setup. 

Which is all to say that as much as I enjoyed this novel, I will not be tackling the multi-volume La Comedie Humaine any time soon.

Now then, is there any reader not familiar with the little ditty at the opening of this review?

1 comment:

  1. Books of that era tend to be wordy, but if there's a good story, it can be worth deciphering the excess verbiage. Good for you for getting through the words to find a fun story!

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