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Cousin Pons: Balzac

“And here begins the drama, or if you prefer, the terrible comedy of the death of a bachelor delivered over by the force of circumstances to the rapacity of covetous people assembled around his bed.”

Balzac’s Cousin Pons, published first as a serial in 1847, is subtitled: Part Two of Poor Relations. Part One of Poor Relations is Cousin Bette–in my opinion, a much better novel. That’s not to say that Cousin Pons is bad; it isn’t, but while Cousin Bette is the story of a bitter, twisted poor relation’s plot to destroy the Hulot family (and they fall into her spiteful hands), Cousin Pons is the story of a harmless bachelor whose illness and death are accelerated by his greedy landlady, local art dealers and relatives who all plot to get their hands on Pons’s valuable art collection. Cousin Bette’s relatives fall victim to her dastardly plot, and the Hulots are mostly destroyed through actions of their own choosing, but in Cousin Pons, Pons and his innocent, child-like friend, fellow musician, Schmucke, are no match for the vultures who gather to strip the two men of Pons’s fortune. So while we expect the Hulots to fall in Cousin Bette, it’s painful to read about the systematic stripping of Pons’s fortune. For a great deal of the novel, Pons, who really should be a central character, is ill in bed, and that leaves secondary–albeit much more interesting characters–to carry the plot. It’s in these secondary characters that the book’s strengths can be found.

cousin ponsBut now to the plot…

Cousin Pons is the poor relation of a large extended family. The first few pages of the novel describe Pons’s appearance. It’s 1844, but Pons is dressed with “an unconquerable fidelity to the modes of 1806.” And here’s a beautiful long quote about his attire:

And so this thin, dried-up old man wore a nut-brown spencer over a greenish coat with white metal buttons! In 1844, meeting a man in a spencer made it seem as if Napoleon had deigned to come back to life for an hour or two.

Now spencers were invented, as the name implies, by an English lord who was doubtless vain of his elegant figure. Some time before the Peace of Amiens, this Englishman had solved the problem of covering his torso without burying himself in a carrick, that horrible garment which is now ending its days on the shoulders of old-fashioned cabmen. But as slender waists are scarce, the male fashion in spencers was short-lived in France, even though it was an English invention. At the sight of this gentleman’s spencer, spectators in their forties and fifties mentally arranged him in top-boots and ribbon-bowed, pistachio-green kerseymere breeches. They saw themselves back in the costume of their youth. Old women started living their love lives over again. Young people wondered why this Alcibiades had cut off his coat-tails. Everything else about him went so well with this spencer that you would not have hesitated to set this passer-by down as an ‘Empire Man’, just as one speaks of ‘Empire furniture’. But he symbolized the Empire only for those who knew something, at least from illustrations, about that superb and impressive era. The Empire is already so distant from us that not everybody can conjure it up in all its Gallo-Grecian reality.

So Pons is the sort of man it’s easy to poke fun at. He’s very thin, unattractive and he holds a position as a conductor in a theatre. Pons appears to be very poor, but in fact he’s managed over the years to amass a fantastic art collection. Balzac, ever a writer to exploit the hidden fixations of his characters, states: “you could see at a glance that he was a well-bred man addicted to some secret vice, or one of those persons with private means whose every disbursement is so strictly limited by the modesty of their income that a broken window-pane, a torn coat, or that plague of our philanthropic age, a charity collection, would cancel out their petty enjoyments for a month.”

So that’s one of Pons’s vices–almost all of his money goes towards this fantastic collection of objets d’art including “forgotten relics of seventeenth-and eighteenth century art,” Sèvres porcelain, snuff boxes and miniatures. But Balzac doesn’t think that Pons’s obsession with his art collection is necessarily a bad thing:

For in truth, to adopt a mania is like applying a poultice to the soul: it can cure any taedium vitae, any spleen. Let all those no longer able to drain what has always been called ‘the cup of joy’ take to collecting something (even advertisement bills), and in this they will find the solid gold of happiness minted into small coinage.

But Pons does have a weakness: he lives to eat well, and he cannot bear to eat simply. Over the years, he’s managed to meet his gastronomic cravings by invitations to the best houses in Paris, but as the years wear on, and Pons ages and becomes more and more unattractive, the invitations to dinner are few. There was a period when he made himself useful to his hosts and even served as a sort of spy, but those days are over. There are just a couple of houses where he is considered the poor relation who must be tolerated, and he becomes that dreaded figure; the “hanger-on.” And this is where all the problems begins when he shows up at dinner time at the home of his relatives, the Marvilles. Pons is such an object of ridicule that the servants feel free to treat him badly, and even though Pons arrives with an extremely valuable Watteau as a gift, 23 year-old Cécile de Marville fabricates an excuse to leave so that they can ditch Pons. There’s not much of an attempt made to hide the ruse, and Pons is humiliated….

More in part II

Translated by Herbert J. Hunt

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