Monday, May 18, 2015
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "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 four or more years ago.
“LA COUSINE BETTE” by Honore de Balzac (written in six weeks in 1846; many English translations as “COUSIN BETTE”)
Honore de Balzac’s novels often have rambling plots and a pitiless view of human nature, in which scrupulous and idealistic characters suffer defeat at the hands of unscrupulous and worldly characters. There is room for wit and insight into social classes in the Balzac universe, but there is little room for sentiment or tenderness as characters go about the business of gaining money, snaring fortunes and winning personal sexual satisfaction at the expense of others. This may be why, as I’ve said before on this blog, my two favourite Balzac novels are one with an uncharacteristically well-wrought plot, La Rabouilleuse / The Black Sheep; and one with two characters whose essential goodness is not seen as weakness, Le Cousin Pons / Cousin Pons. [Look them both up under “Honore de Balzac” on the index at right].
But having asserted all this, there is a lot to be said for Balzac in his more frequent rambling mood, where the plot is crammed with named characters and complex back-stories about who is related to whom. This is especially true when there is a central character so well drawn that all the elements of the plot mesh in her being. Such is the case with La Cousine Bette, which has always been one of the general reader’s favourites from the whole sequence of La Comedie Humaine.
La Cousine Bette does indeed have a complex plot, and when I go back to my reading diaries, I find that I have taken three full pages to summarise it. I shall spare you this, and point out that the essence of the plot may be conveyed in one sentence.
Using sexual jealousy as her weapon, a vindictive, cunning and vengeful spinster gets her revenge on the family she believes have destroyed her happiness.
To be a bit more specific, but still simplifying furiously, the plot goes like this; The minor aristocrat Baron Hector Hulot and the wealthy bourgeois Celestin Crevel are related by marriage (Hulot’s son Valentin is married to Crevel’s daughter). But they are sworn enemies. Both being philanderers, they feud over the fact that Baron Hulot once stole Crevel’s mistress from him. As it happens, the spinster Lisabeth (“Bette”) Fischer also hates Baron Hulot, even though she is the cousin of Hulot’s wife Adeline. (She has a German name, Fischer, because she is from Alsace). Bette, in her forties, plain and unmarried, once rescued a struggling Polish artist, Wenceslas Steinbock, from suicide, became his mentor and had more-than-maternal feelings for him. But then Baron Hulot’s daughter Hortense came along, stole Wenceslas Steinbock from Bette and eventually married him.
So Bette, bitter in her singleness, sets out to destroy the fortunes of the Hulots. She happens to live in the same apartment block as Madame Valerie Marneffe, a demi-mondaine whose compliant husband is perfectly happy to live off what her lovers give her. Valerie Marneffe is currently the mistress of Baron Hulot. Bette strikes up a friendship with her and is really impressed with her. Bette deliberately introduces Valerie Marneffe to Celestin Crevel, knowing that he will become her next (paying) lover and that Baron Hulot will be “cuckolded”. Then she arranges a meeting between Wenceslas Steinbock and Valerie Marneffe. The weak Polish artist easily submits to the courtesan’s practised charms, and the marriage of Baron Hulot’s daughter Hortense is conveniently ruined.
Bette has gained a big part of her revenge on the Hulots.
In all this, it should be noted that Bette and Valerie Marneffe act very much as partners. Indeed, as a discreet subtext, there are hints of a lesbian attraction between them, Bette being the “manly”, strong-willed and plain peasant woman and Valerie being the more obviously “feminine” and pretty one whom philandering men crave. But Valerie is not merely Bette’s creature. Dangling three lovers on the hook at the same time (Crevel, Hulot and Steinbock) and milking them for their wealth, she has her eyes on a fourth, a Brazilian millionaire whom she hopes to marry when she gets rid of her silly husband.
I won’t give you all the details that follow. It’s sufficient to say that Baron Hulot’s follies lead him to disgrace his family, to commit business indiscretions that lose the family fortune and impoverish his wife, and finally to sink lower and lower down the social scale, residing in successively seedier parts of Paris and taking mistresses further and further down the social scale (his last two being a 15-year-old proletarian and a chambermaid). Bette’s revenge seems triumphant.
But, as so often in Balzac, fortunes change when there intervenes a character every bit as cunning as the destructive protagonist. This is the element that in a previous discussion on Balzac I called “virtue leaning on vice”. Hulot’s lawyer son Victorin is not the dupe that his philandering father is, and by various means (including the help of another knowing demi-mondaine “Madame Nourrisson”) he is able to negate Bette’s plots, and restore the fortunes of Hulot’s aggrieved wife Adeline and aggrieved daughter Hortense. He even destroys Valerie Marneffe’s fortune-hunting.
Valerie dies penitent for her sins. Bette basically dies of grief that all her years of plotting have come to naught and that her enemies, the Hulots, once again prosper. But there is a sting in the tail. Balzac (unlike Dickens) rarely does unqualified happy endings, and there is a nasty twist when Adeline at last finds her erring husband Baron Hulot.
Now please don’t rage against me, dear reader. I assure you that this is in fact a concise summary of the novel’s plot and there is very much that I have left out. (Lawks-a-mercy, I haven’t even mentioned a double poisoning, and the episodes where Valerie Marneffe’s husband is sent off to Algeria.) One is once again struck by the white-hot genius of Honore de Balzac who – doubtless aided by those all-nighters he often pulled, fuelled by thick black coffee – wrote this whole complexly-plotted novel in a mere six weeks. For the record, it runs to nearly 500 pages in both the French edition and the English-language translation (by Kathleen Raine) that sit on my shelves.
One of the most obvious things to be said about it is how very frank it is on sexual matters. Can you think of any English novels, written in the 1840s, which speak so freely of feuds over mistresses (specifically identified as such), present sex as the machinery of revenge, and heavily imply a lesbian relationship? Dickens would ignore or euphemise such matters. Thackeray would nudge and wink. But Balzac calls a jade a jade. Another obvious thing is the way many minor characters, in the background of the central intrigues, are those “recurring characters” that are such a feature of La Comedie Humaine – Popinot, Rastingac, du Tillet, de Nucigen etc. Many of the ancient forbears of the Hulot family were people who appeared in Balzac’s early historical novel Les Chouans.
There is also the social perspective. La Cousine Bette is very much comment on Balzac’s own times. Written in 1846, its action covers the seven years from 1838 to 1845. This is the Louis Philippe Paris of the schemer, the sexual adventurer and the careerist, where the trusting and the honourable go to the wall. In some of the minor characters, whom I have not named, Balzac suggests that public morality has degenerated from the rectitude of an earlier generation. Wives and mistresses are openly bartered, especially on the basis of their incomes. (There is a scene in “Madame Nourrisson’s” establishment where bets are laid on whether the Brazilian millionaire whom Valerie covets already has a mistress.) Virtue is only for show. Most people believe that Valerie is the respectable housewife she has claimed to be. When Bette dies, she is mourned as if she had been the loyal family friend she pretended to be.
But for all the pungency of Balzac’s comments on these matters, the thing that leads people to read La Cousine Bette now is the title character herself. Ugly, cunning, hypocritical and vengeful, Lisabeth Fischer is a complete bitch, incapable of any altruistic action. As a person she has no redeeming features. But as a character in a novel, she is compelling. Like Shakespeare’s Richard III or Dickens’ Quilp, she has both the force and the delight in the evil she is doing to become a grotesque and make us almost like her. And given that the people upon whom she avenges herself are mainly spineless roués and their dupes, we almost applaud her actions. A pity some innocent people get in the way, but she takes the role of an avenging angel upon a corrupt society. Or at least she does until somebody of even greater cunning than her own cuts her down to size.
That is how it works in the Balzac universe.
Typically dyspeptic footnote: I mentioned this before in one of my earlier Balzac postings. But it’s fitting to repeat it here. I understand that La Cousine Bette has been dramatized a number of times for French television, but I have seen none of those versions. I have, however, seen two English language filmings of it, one trite and dreadful and the other quite convincing as a rendition.
The trite and dreadful one was directed by Des McAnuff (anuff already!) and released in 1998. It was an expensive Anglo-American co-production, which bombed at the box office and sank without trace. This Cousin Bette not only alters the story beyond recognition (e.g. it kills off Baron Hulot’s wife in the opening sequence) but changes its whole tone. Jessica Lange is cast as Bette, though she is clearly still too young and too attractive for the role of a plain, embittered, vengeful old spinster. The character of Valerie Marneffe simply disappears. Instead, Bette’s bait for philanderers becomes the actress Jenny Cardine, played by Elizabeth Shue. The film has a sequence in which she gains applause in a theatre by baring her derriere for male admirers (no such sequence in the book, of course). Hugh Laurie is vaguely amusing in the role of Baron Hulot, presenting him as the same cretinous upper-class twit he perfected on television as Bertie Wooster. Bob Hoskins growls and rants as the bourgeois businessman Crevel. I do not condemn films for not being exactly faithful to their literary sources, but there is really so much wrong with this inept film that it is hard to see what the producers were trying to achieve. A comedy? A revenge fantasy? Commentary on history? It doesn’t work in any of these categories.
The convincing English-language rendition of La Cousine Bette is a real oldie, but [as I discovered in Auckland library’s DVD rental collection] it is still quite accessible. This is the five-part BBC serial adaptation of the novel made way back in 1971, so you have to make allowances for its relatively primitive technical aspects. Not only is it quite faithful to Balzac’s plot, but it centres on two very good performances. Valerie Marneffe is played by a very young Helen Mirren, who is good at looking innocent and then going all cunning. But it is Margaret Tyzack who is outstanding as Bette – gaunt, angry, cunning, vengeful, all of that, but also actually looking the part. Her howls at losing Wenceslas Steinbock are wrenching; her plotting scary. I think she’s the character Balzac created.