Gaslighting in Balzac’s “Cousin Pons” and a Reread of G. S. Kirk’s “The Nature of Greek Myths”

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)

Memorial Day Weekend: Two Balzacs and a Mystery

Mary Cassatt’s “Woman Reading”

It’s Memorial Day Weekend!  And lest I forget, let me remind you that Memorial Day used to honor all the dead, not just the military.  Doctors, nurses, housewives, factory workers, construction workers, teachers, professors, writers, administrative assistants, bookstore clerks – any person once alive, of any or no profession.  My husband and I grew up in different parts of the country and heard nary a peep about the military on Memorial Day.  We accompanied our parents to visit the graves of their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends. 

Memorial Day is also the unofficial beginning of summer. 

And here are three books I recommend –  great, but very different, reads.

Balzac’s Grand Illusions.  This magnificent novel, which centers on Lucien Chardon, a gorgeous young man and a talented poet,  traces his fall from grace – which involves bankrupting his family so he can live the high life in Paris. Balzac’s vivid portraits of dozens of characters, and the detailed description of the history of printing and the corrupt power of journalism, make this an incredibly fast, absorbing read.

Balzac’s A Woman of Thirty.  Romantic love ruins Julie d’Aiglemont, a beautiful young woman who, despite her father’s warnings, marries the first man with whom she falls in love, Colonel Victor d’Aiglemont. Julie and Victor prove to be sexually incompatible – though Victor doesn’t have a clue – and she becomes a semi-invalid, while Victor takes a mistress. Determined to retain her status as his wife, Julie attends salons and parties, dresses exquisitely, sings enchantingly, and exchanges witty repartee with the most brilliant men.

 But then, miraculously, she falls in love with an Englishman,  Lord Grenville, who is her match in every way.  But, as in so many 19th-century novels, adulterous women do not thrive, and Lord Grenville dies a peculiarly ridiculous death, leaving her grieving and guilty.  At thirty, a more sophisticated Julie falls in love again – but this more sophisticated love also ends in tragedy, from which her daughter, Helene, never recovers. Balzac wanders here and there and scrambles a bit in the second half of the book,  but continues to debunk romantic love, as he portrays its stages in flux. Unlike Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, Julie survives:  Balzac does not employ the 19th-century formula, “the-sexually-active-woman must die. No, but Julie is devastated by her cruel losses of lovers and family.

 Who Is Simon Warwick? is one of Patricia Moyes’s best mysteries.  Published in 1978, it has a modern twist that may surprise you (as well as your Congressmen, Senators, state politicians, governors, and the Supreme Court, to whom you may not send the pertinent underlined pages). Inspector Henry  Tibbits of Scotland Yard must investigate the murder of Simon Warwick – one of two Simon Warwick wannabes who have answered an ad claiming to be the heir of a millionaire uncle. But which is the read Simon? And why did one of the Simons die?  This is a breathtaking whodunit, and, naturally, Henry’s wife Emmy, who knows quite a lot about detecting,  gets into the act.  A brilliant, absorbing crime classic, surely one of the best cozies of the 1970s.

By the way, is Patricia Moyes a neglected writer these days? I love her work!

Friendship in Literature: Balzac, Cicero, and Barbara Pym

“You’ve got a friend.” –  Carole King

“You’re lucky if you have one friend.”  – A Relative 

Years ago, when my mother was in the hospital, one of her best friends visited.  Like my mother, she was very old.  Even though it was winter, she wore cropped pants and a short-sleeved shirt.  Both women suffered a certain confusion that may well have been the result of the many, many meds that keep people alive.

It was somebody’s idea before a routine surgery that my mother should have extreme unction.   And so a priest was called in to anoint her with oil, which she fastidiously wiped off with Kleenex as soon as he left the room.  All three of us pretended it had never happened. 

By the end of the visit, her lifetime friend was in tears.  The friend told my mother, “You’re my best friend.”

My mother said nothing.

So the poor friend had to revoke it.  “One of my best friends.”

I wish Mother had at least said, “Thank you,” but later she complained that her friend never came to visit, that nobody ever visited.  I attribute this confusion to the illness, the morphine drip, and the strange surroundings. 

And, like me, she was sometimes too honest. 

Friendship is a complicated contract dependent on a web of love,  fondness, respect, need, and enjoyment.  According to Cicero’s treatise, De Amicitia (On Friendship), you should choose friends who have strong character and are virtuous, not mere networking buddies.  Cicero praises friendship between noble, devoted men who see themselves when they see a real friend. (Not the way I’ve ever seen friends, but…)  He admits it is difficult to form a friendship that lasts till death.  People grow apart; their opinions change; they make other friends.  

Cicero, the great orator, is not a very deep philosopher, but he is occasionally funny and does crack one joke.   A Roman nobleman named Laelius, who is an expert on friendship, makes what passes for a wisecrack as he recalls that his friend Scipio “used to complain that men were more diligent in all other things than in friendship; that they were able to tell the number of goats and sheep  a man had but not how many friends.” 

 Friendship is a complicated business in Balzac’s brilliant novel, Grand Illusions.  When the hero, Lucien Chardon, moves from the provinces to Paris, he gives up poetry for the excitement of bad journalism.  He reviews books he hasn’t read, accepts money for rave reviews of plays, and writes anonymous political articles on demand, adopting different views for different editors. But then he is asked to betray his friend, Daniel d’Arthez, by writing a vicious attack on his great novel.  If he doesn’t, his editor threatens to ruin the career of Lucien’s mistress, an actress. And so Lucien goes to d’Arthez, sobbing, and shows him the article he has written.  The wonderful d’Arthez offers to rewrite the article for him.  

Later, d’Arthez writes a long, kind, but honest letter to Lucien’s sister, who has written a worried letter about gossip she has heard.  Of the vitriolic attack on his book, d’Arthez says, “I made your brother’s crime easier for him by correcting the murderous article myself, and it had my full approval.”

He goes on, 

“You ask me whether Lucien has kept my esteem and friendship.  That question I find it more difficult to answer.  Your brother is well on the way to ruining himself.  At the present moment I am still very sorry, but before long I shall be glad to forget him, not because of what he has done, but what he is bound to do..  Your Lucien is very poetic, but he is not a poet…, Lucien would always sacrifice his best friend for the sake of being witty.”

And now on to something lighter!  The friendships in Barbara Pym’s novel, No Fond Return of Love, are certainly familiar to women and provide light relief.  Two indexers, Dulcie Mainwaring and Viola Dace, meet at an indexers’ conference.  Both have gone to hear Professor Aylwin Forbes, their mutual crush.  (Why else go to an indexers’ conference?)  Though the two women are not exactly friends, Viola ends up moving in with her and they do form a bond.  It is hilarious, one of her best.And, let me add here, we are all grateful for our true friends.

More Balzac, Please: “Colonel Chabert,” A Breathtaking Novella


If you are are always asking for “more Balzac, please,” you comb every bookstore for his books. Is Honoré de Balzac the best French writer of the 19th century? Some might say Flaubert, and they might be right, but few books are more entertaining than Balzac’s series, La Comedie Humaine.

Some months ago when a used bookstore employee asked if she could help me, I whimsically asked, “Do you have any Balzac?” Most stores have a few of his masterpieces, but I hoped to find something I hadn’t read.

“Balzac?” She led me to the shelves filled with sets. “Well,” she said brightly, “looks like we’ve got a set right from the 19th century.”

I didn’t want to squash her kindness, but I am allergic to old books with uncut pages that flake in my hands. The old paper makes my hands raw. One day I’ll find some old books in mint condition!

Perhaps fifteen or twenty of Balzac’s books are in-print, among them such masterpieces as Cousin Pons and Old Goriot,but a few years ago I did come across a new-to-me novella, Colonel Chabert, published in 1997 by New Directions and translated by Carol Cosman. I read this poignant, compelling novella over the holidays. And I loved it.

The gallant Colonel Chabert, a Napoleonic war veteran, is one of Balzac’s most endearing characters. One morning he shows up in despair at a lawyer’s office. He wears a filthy ragged coat, and the clerks mock him and call him “Old Greatcoat.” One clerk even throws pellets of bread at him. The colonel doesn’t care if they mock him: when they claim the lawyer Derville is only in the office after midnight, Chabert is unfazed. He shows up at midnight, and Derville happens to drop in for a minute in his evening clothes.

Derville, a clever lawyer, is fascinated by the case. Colonel Chabert was declared dead after a battle, and his pension and fortune went to his widow, who has remarried and had two children. She is so greedy that she pretends not to recognize him when he tries to recoup his losses, as well as get her back. And the bureaucratic error that has stolen his identity and fortune cannot be reversed.

Fortunately, Derville thinks he can twist the judicial system and win. The biggest problem: Chabert still loves his wife.

Balzac’s descriptions of characters are always sharply-depicted, and his portrait of Chabert is painterly.

Colonel Chabert sat perfectly still, like one of the wax figures Godeschal had wanted to show his fellow clerks. This stillness would not have been so astonishing had it not completed the
otherworldly impression made by the man’s whole person. The old soldier was dry and lean. His forehead, deliberately hidden under the hat of his smooth wig, gave him a mysterious look. His eyes seemed covered with a transparent film or dirty enamel, whose bluish cast gleamed in the moonlight. The pale face, ghostly and knifelike–if I may use such an odd expression–seemed almost dead. His neck was tightly wound with a shabby black silk cravat. Beneath this rag his body was so well hidden in darkness that a man of imagination would have thought the head itself was just a play of shadows, or maybe an unframed Rembrandt….

Illustration of Colonel Chabert

This gorgeous novella is intriguing, breathtaking, and believable. Darling Colonel Chabert! I will certainly reread this.