Monday, August 20, 2012

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“LE COUSIN PONS” by Honore de Balzac (first published 1847)

            You can have literary idols who often disappoint you, yet you do keep coming back to them, for all their faults.

            This, over the years, has been my relationship with Honore de Balzac. Time was I thought him The Greatest Novelist Who Ever Lived, before I got over the silly phase of nominating anybody for that role. I loved the broadness of his social panorama, the fun of chasing the same characters through the connected-but-separate novels and novellas of La Comedie Humaine, the general lack of sentiment and the relative frankness about sexual matters, so different from the approach of contemporaneous British novelists.

            I was fascinated by what his novels revealed about France and the French. I loved the extremely clever plot-spinning in novels like La Rabouilleuse (The Black Sheep). I thought Balzac was at least as good as Dickens at painting grotesque supporting roles. He could sometimes be tender, though usually in a regretful way when goodness was crushed by expediency and human nastiness (as in his provincial domestic tragedy Eugenie Grandet).

            And yet I often got impatient with him too. So much so that I read only four or five of his novels in the original French before resorting to good English translations (especially the Penguin Classics ones) for the rest of his opus. I wanted to rush through them without being bothered by his longueurs.

            For the faults of Balzac are as glaring as his many great virtues. There is that fixation on hard cash, where his realism about economics turns into mere accounting. (If you want a really boring book about business – and one that would completely put you off Balzac if you knew nothing else of his – look no further than Cesar Birotteau, where the cash is scrupulously counted up in each chapter as the author chronicles a series of business deals.) There is the frequently banged-together nature of the plots, often (as with Dickens) the result of writing at speed and sometimes for serial publication. There are pages of flashy, theatrical melodrama, including the attempts to turn his villains into titanic supermen. And there is the constant sense that virtue is weak, and can survive only if unscrupulous people give it a hand.

            Of course you know that in Balzacland the na├»ve young man who goes to Paris (in Les Illusions Perdues/ Lost Illusions) to make a name for himself will be destroyed by more unscrupulous people. Balzac did write tracts about good people, such as Le Cure de Village (The Country Priest) and Le Medecin de Campagne (The Country Doctor). But where his real novels are concerned, I think Ursule Mirouet is the only one in which morally-good people also prove to be people with enough back-bone to look after their own interests. For the rest, the virtuous have to lean on the sharpers for their salvation.

            And yet Balzac was a literary giant – the man who could write the whole of one of his best novels, La Cousine Bette (Cousin Bette), in the space of six weeks – and a man of endless invention. When he roused himself he could also be a man of powerful perception. His greatest short story, Le chef-d’oeuvre inconnu (The Unknown Masterpiece) is a strong meditation on the real difference between art and the criticism of art. And when he disciplined himself, he could devise tight plots with the force of classical tragedy.

            This is the case with Le Cousin Pons, a mature work which was almost his last completed novel.

            While it has a relatively large cast of characters, its focus is tight.

            Sylvain Pons is the “poor relation” of a wealthy family. (Balzac paired this novel with La Cousine Bette as a story of “poor relations”). He is a middle-aged bachelor, formerly a minor composer, who earns a meagre living conducting a theatre orchestra. Despised by his relations, Pons has only one friend in the world, the inoffensive German pianist Wilhelm Schmucke who shares his modest apartment. But Pons has an interesting hobby. He collects art. In fact, though his disdainful relatives don’t know it, he has gradually built up a priceless collection even though he himself has never reckoned up its cash value.

            Much of the first half of the novel shows Pons being patronised by his wealthy relatives, the Camusot de Marville family, and trying to make some return to them for the dinners to which they, purely for the sake of propriety, have invited him. Pons believes he can gain the family’s esteem by being match-maker and arranging an advantageous marriage for a young member of the family. But his scheme goes horribly wrong and the family finally cast him out. He will never receive a dinner invitation again.

            Heart-broken, Pons’ health goes into decline. He is confined to bed in his apartment, with only the faithful Schmucke to attend him. And it is at this point that the real intrigue begins, for the true value of Pons’ art collection begins to become known. Suddenly people are falling over themselves to befriend Pons, praise him, get some advantage out of him. Eventually the novel turns into a most unedifying tussle over a will as rival branches of the venal family and assorted hangers-on lay claim to Pons’ estate.

            There are many things here that are typical of Balzac. Tussles over inheritances fuel the plots of a number of his novels (La Rabouilleuse, Eugenie Grandet and Ursule Mirouet among them). There are the  famous “recurring characters”; that is, characters who appear in novel after novel of La Comedie Humaine and help to bind the series together. In Le Cousin Pons there is the theatrical entrepreneur – and one of the novel’s more sympathetic characters  - Gaudissart, who is the leading character of some of Balzac’s other stories. There is the broad social survey. This story of King Louis Philippe’s Paris of the 1840s moves from seedy boarding houses in run-down suburbs to the mansions of the arriviste middle classes.

            Yet, as well as the tightness of its plot, there is something special about this novel.

            Balzac’s characters never divide into the good and the bad, but rather into the strong-willed (or cunning) and the weak-willed (or artless), and that is indeed the case in Le Cousin Pons too. But while recognizing that virtue rarely gains a material reward in this world, it seems to me that Balzac’s outlook is not as harsh and bitter in Le Cousin Pons as it is in most of his novels. For all the absurdities of Pons himself, and the absurdities of Schmucke with his dreamy poetic German soul and his stage German accent, Balzac for once succeeds in making virtuous characters attractive and something more than “honest dimwits”. Quite simply, Pons and Schmucke are loveable and they give the novel a soul, for all the chronicle of worldly greed and vice that goes on around them. In material terms they go down to defeat, but we still like them.

            Bracing as a narrative, the other “poor relations” novel La Cousine Bette centres on an impoverished bitter and twisted spinster who gets revenge on the family who scorn her by exploiting their weaknesses. Le Cousin Pons is not a novel of revenge. It has an odd serenity about it. In strong contrast to his rushed composition of La Cousine Bette, Balzac pondered over Le Cousin Pons for many months and wrote and re-wrote it carefully and thoughtfully. In this respect, in stands in relation to much of his work as the carefully plotted Great Expectations does to Dickens more capacious and rambling novels.

            It is the well-wrought moral fable with a strong sense of compassion.

            Balzac’s Pons and Dickens’ Pip are very different characters in many respects. But they both eventually reach a mature middle-aged sense of acceptance and rueful wisdom about the way of the world.

            To me Le Cousin Pons is Balzac’s most ‘finished’ novel, and therefore my personal favourite of all his novels.

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