I am reading eclectically this summer. It began with a little-known classic by Balzac, Cousin Pons, which is perhaps the greatest 19th-century novel about an inheritance scandal – greater than Middlemarch. Then I hunkered down with G. S. Kirk’s The Nature of Greek Myths, a definitive work first published in 1974. Kirk takes an intellectual approach: he explores the difference between myths and folktales; subdivides myths into categories; skewers psychoanalytic and anthropological theories of myth; compares literary versions of myths by Homer, Hesiod, Herodotus, Callimachus, and the tragedians; and describes the transformation of a myth-dominated culture into one which valued philosophy.
That is enough about Kirk, whom few of you will read.
Let me unreservedly praise Balzac’s Cousin Pons (1847), which he paired with Cousin Bette, his brilliant novel about greed, money, art, and family revenge. Unlike the scheming, vengeful Cousin Bette, Cousin Pons is a good, generous man, an impoverished theater orchestra conductor whose wealthy distant cousins no longer welcome him to dinner as he grows shabbier and older. Then he falls ill, and is circled by human vultures who have discovered that his collection of rare paintings, fans painted by Watteau, snuff boxes, and bric-a-brac is priceless. He has spent years searching shops for masterpieces. and spent what little money he has on his collection.
People love people with money – especially people who want to take it from you! Suddenly everybody wants to be Pons’s friend – or should I say” friend”? – though he hasn’t a franc in actual money. The wicked concierge, Madame Cibot, one of the most memorable liars and villains in French literature, “gaslights” Pons by admitting ghoulish antique dealers into the flat at night to pick over what they want. (She gets a percentage.) Pons awakens and sees them, though Madame Cibot says he is dreaming. But he hobbles with great difficulty into the front room after her departure and is appalled to see that minor paintings from a back room have now replaced his masterpieces. Pons’s guileless German musician roommate, Wilhelm Schmucke, an old man, approved the sales because Madame Cibot bullied him and claimed he and Pons were in debt to her. As Pons puts together what is going on, he determines to stay alive long enough to take care of sweet, silly, Schmucke – and make sure Schmucke inherits his fortune, rather than the greedy dealers and his cousins.And vultures they are! An unscrupulous lawyer, Monsieur Fraisier, and an unethical doctor, Poulaine, descend upon Pons with a plot to hasten his death and to prove him non compos mentis to win the inheritance for Pons’s aristocratic cousins – in return for prestigious jobs for themselves.
Are there any good people in Balzac’s world? Well, yes, there are. The people of the small theater, whose morals might not stand up to those vaunted by Pons’s cruel, hypocritical, rich cousins, are loyal and unselfish, if not especially interested in the old man Pons. They willingly help him trick Madame Cibot and Monsieur Fraisier by witnessing a will that leaves everything to the Louvre – which the deceitful Cibot and Fraisier read with horror and purloin in the night. But in the morning Pons makes a second foolproof will with a different notary, which also is witnessed by friends, making Schmucke his sole heir.
.Does it work out? I was breathless till the end. It doesn’t end as I had hoped, but it does not end without hope. It’s not that people are VERY good – Balzac certainly vilifies most of the characters in Cousin Pons – but a few are incorruptible. And it fascinated me that these few are actors and musicians involved with a small theater, where they must struggle to make ends meet.
N.B. I very much enjoyed Herbert J. Hunt’s translation of Cousin Pons (Penguin)