Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Cousin Bette - he thus was making himself desirable and charming

There was some point I wanted to make yesterday that slipped by me because I was too sleepy. What was it? Right, the whole Human Comedy business, the characters that show up in multiple stories.

I think the whole thing is a bit overrated. In some ways, it's just shtick. If Balzac needed a doctor in his story, he pulled in Bianchon. Rastignac is a dandy, Nucingen is a banker, Derville is a lawyer; employ as necessary. Mostly, they're just cameo appearances. The same names keep reappearing, but rarely are they much more than names.

At its best, though, the reader who knows the character from another story is rewarded somehow, with a joke or an irony. Rastignac,the hero of Père Goriot, appears again and again, even though there is never, to my knowledge, another story that is actually about him. But the reader who is keeping up with Balzac over the decade from Père Goriot (1835) to, say, Cousin Bette (1846), is constantly informed about Rastignac's rise in society.

Cousin Bette provides a good example of another problem with the Human Comedy concept - Balzac leans on it to solve plotting problems. The story of Cousin Bette is excellent - Balzac is pretty much an ace with plots - and mostly proceeds with its own internal logic. Bette is a plain and sour peasant woman whose pretty and lively cousin married well. Over the years, Cousin Bette's resentments have turned into hatred; the novel is the story of her revenge on her family, turning their weaknesses against them, all behind a facade of perfect service.

The problem is that, near the end of the novel, Balzac decides to tie up a big chunk of the plot by dragging in a bunch of previously unmentioned characters from his other novels. What a tiresome episode. It's all mixed up with the Brazilian Baron, another part of the novel I wish had been snipped. It's ridiculous stuff. Fortunately, the last chapter, the end of the part of the story that really matters, is one of Balzac's best.

Let's have some real human comedy. The rich, ludicrous ex-perfumer Crevel and his "attitude":

"The ex-perfumer got up with considerable difficulty. This circumstance made him so angry that he struck his attitude again. Nearly all men affect some posture that they believe brings out all the advantages with which nature has blessed them. For Crevel, this attitude consisted in crossing his arms like Napoleon, turning three-quarters face, and looking in the direction that the painter had made him look for his portrait - that is, toward the horizon." Ch. II

And that painter, it turns out, is Pierre Grassou, star of the earlier story Pierre Grassou! Crevel is a buffoon, so it's always a good laugh when he strikes his pose, and even funnier when other idiots begin to imitate him. The joke reaches its culmination when, several years later, Crevel's mistress convinces him to "improve" his pose, just to make him look ridiculous:

"He put his thumbs in his armholes and beat his chest with both his hands, for all the world like a flapping pair of wings, thinking that he thus was making himself desirable and charming." Ch. XXIX

I guess I can tolerate a Brazilian Baron or two for this.

Translations by Kathleen Raine, Modern Library edition.


  1. I've been meaning to read Balzac for ages, and Cousin Bette is the one on my shelves, so I'm glad to hear it has such a good plot, but it is too bad about bringing characters in from other novels. When I read it, I'll make sure I'm prepared.

  2. Cousin Bette is the first Balzac novel I read, the only one until a couple of years ago. The Brazilian Baron episode was exasperating when I didn't know about the recurring characters, and equally exasperating this time, when I did.

    Just a flaw in the novel, I'm afraid. I would be interested to read a defense of it, actually. I've looked at two introductions (Penguin, Modern Library) and I think they both politely ignore it.