Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Balzac's Cousin Bette

"I am a man of my time; I respect money."

Balzac doesn't necessarily approve. 

Lisbeth Fischer (Cousin Bette) is in the title of the novel, and is in some ways the catalyst for events, but she main not even be the main character, and Balzac's picture of society is quite broad.

Hector Hulot, later Baron d'Ervy, was a military quartermaster in Alsace during the Napoleonic years. He was good at his job, and his older brother was a Marshal favoured by Napoleon. Hulot was a rising man and married Adeline, a beautiful peasant from the region. Adeline's father and uncles supplied forage and wood to Hulot and succeeded as he did.

It's Adeline, whose cousin Bette is.

By 1838, Hulot's a respectable upper civil servant, with what ought to be income enough, except he will spend it all on kept mistresses. At the beginning of the novel he's about to lose Josépha, a celebrated actress, to someone even richer. But Hulot had earlier stolen her from Crevel--it's Crevel I quote above, but the sentiment would be true of many--and Crevel is plotting revenge for that 'theft.' Crevel, much richer than Hulot, though a tradesman, is also the father-in-law of Hulot's son Victorin. Crevel's idea of revenge is to seduce someone attached to Hulot, and his first target is Adeline, who's unapproachably virtuous. Or is she?

Got all that? But that's only the start. Hulot can't do without a mistress, so quickly finds another: the grasping Madame Marneffe, who lives in the same cheap apartment block as Bette, and is married to a dissolute rake, with whom she does nothing except plot how to get rich. (I think Marneffe codes as having syphilis, but my translation isn't explicit, and probably Balzac isn't either.)

Meanwhile Bette is looking after a Polish refugee with a budding talent for sculpture. She's fifteen years older than him, and can't quite decide in her own mind whether Wenceslas Steinbock, her adoptee, is her son or her lover. But when Hortense, Hulot's daughter, falls in love with Steinbock, at first without even seeing him, Bette is quite sure that is another 'theft' and she, too, is plotting revenge against all the Hulots, Hector, Adeline, and Hortense. (She's already resented Adeline's beauty and success for years.)

Who gets revenge? Who doesn't? There are a couple of other people out for revenge, too, by the end, all of which results in two murders. The novel has several references to Shakespeare's Othello, in particular Iago. '...all these Iagos', says a Brazilian, just before he's about to be compared to Othello. Bette is a sort of Iago, her need for revenge is her everything. (Crevel less so, though in fact he's more successful in his revenge, just not how he thinks at first.) "The joys of gratified hatred are the fiercest and strongest the heart can know." We're in Bette's consciousness when that line is delivered, but it could apply to more than one character.

It's a dark story, but not all is dark. Balzac strikes me as capable of anger, and if you can get angry, it's because you think things could be better. Hulot does a lot of damage in his quest for money for his mistresses, but that ugly quest for money is representative of his time. At one point, needing two hundred thousand francs, here's Hulot, sending Adeline's uncle to Algeria as quartermaster for the French occupation there, describing a plan to cheat both suppliers and consumers enough to acquire the needed amount:

"There is a great deal of fighting over the corn, and no one ever knows exactly how much each party has stolen from the other. There is not time in the open field to measure the corn as we do in the Paris market, or the hay as it sold in the Rue d'Enfer. The Arab chiefs, like our Spahis, prefer hard cash, and sell the plunder at a very low price. The Commissariat needs a fixed quantity, and must have it. It winks at exorbitant prices calculated on the difficulty of procuring food, and the dangers to which every form of transport is exposed. That is Algiers from the army contractor's point of view.
    "It is a muddle tempered by the ink-bottle, like every incipient government. We shall not see our through it for another ten years [Ed. note: it took a little longer than that]--we who have to do the governing, but private enterprise has sharp eyes. -- So I am sending you there to make a fortune..."
Cynical, but not exactly an endorsement of empire on Balzac's part.

But then I was amused (though maybe horrified?) by the near-tenderness with which Balzac treats Hulot. This is Josépha, long after she's thrown him over for her richer lover:
"Is there a man among you who ever loved a woman--a woman beneath him--enough to squander his fortune and his children's, to sacrifice his future and blight his past, to risk going to the hulks for robbing the Government, to kill an uncle and a brother, to let his eyes be so effectively blinded that he did not even perceive that it was done to hinder his seeing the abyss into which, as a crowning jest, he was being driven?...I never but once even saw the phenomenon I have described. It was...that poor Baron Hulot."
Now this is a bit undercut by the context in which Josépha says it, but at the same time, at the end of the novel, it's only Baron Hulot who gets to carry on with his (low-down) ways.

Jealousy and revenge; greed and corruption. There's one other theme, which I will only mention: the fact that an artist needs to work at it. (Balzac had a famous work ethic.) We're told Steinbock has real talent, and we see it, but after he joins in the general dissipation of pursuing adulterous affairs, he has no time for work and his talent is lost. "Perpetual work is the law of art." Artists make interesting appearances in other Balzac tales as well.

But I'm no expert in Balzac. I've read two other novels (Pére Goriot, The Chouans), and some of the stories. I now think this might have been the one to start with. I read it in the Modern Library edition, translated by James Waring, who translated the entire Comedie Humaine in the late 1800s. It read pretty well, I thought, but I do wish the edition had notes.  Here's one I wanted somebody to explain:
"Dessert was on the table, the odious dessert of April."

It was such a weird thing that I went and looked up the French (the Other Reader's copy shown above--I did NOT read it in French). Here's the French:

"Le dessert, cet affreux dessert du mois d'Avril."

Waring's translation seems reasonable. (Awful or atrocious says WordReference.com for affreux) What the heck is an odious dessert? It's probably early for berries in Paris in April, but, hey, who'd object to a nice gateau? I'm personally of the opinion that no dessert is odious. 😉

This was my spin book, and here I am blogging about it on the day the next spin is announced. Ouch! I was doing pretty well, but then Covid stopped me from reading anything serious for a bit, then I had some library books I wanted to read so I could return them, and by then I thought I'd better start over again. So here we are a month and a bit late...still it's another book off my Classics Club list, and a good one at that.


  1. Congrats for finishing another book on your Classics Club list! I've never read anything by Balzac.