Book Learnin’: COUSIN BETTE


A noble family is foredoomed to disintegration. It is not the fatalism of chance or divine misfortune, but the fatalism of money and social circumstance, the ample vicissitudes of which assemble under General Balzac’s prosaic command. Naturally, Baron de Hulot has a fatal character flaw that initiates his family’s downfall (a womanizing cad, this one), but this flaw seeps into the economic circuitry of Paris – detailed via intermittent disquisitions on the nature of the arts trade, the bankruptcy of the city government, gentrification – until he and his family are swallowed whole by its manifold repercussions. There is a relish in studiously observing the gradations of this social decline, but the tragedy sharply stings – for while the Baron surely deserves his fate, his family shares heavily in the suffering. He is guilty and justly sentenced; his wife, Adeline, is martyrdom incarnate.

Cousin Bette is literary realism at its zenith. This is no plodding accumulation of irrelevant details designed to test the reader’s stamina and desperately court his admiration. To paraphrase Gore Vidal, whom I have been reading rather obsessively for the past few months, a meticulously rendered backdrop with no foregrounded action is merely ornamental and to no purpose at all. Balzac’s portraiture reaches for great ideas, and while he is clearly reactionary – nostalgia abounds for Church and monarchy – there is a reason he earned the esteem of Marx and Engels. The author harbors a tremendous respect for material reality, even if his moral takeaways are at times dispiriting (albeit, magnificently written).

Edification and creative sprawl are the names of the game, here. Read Cousin Bette, savor it, and say a prayer of thanksgiving that Balzac was uniquely prolific – there is so much more of the feast to unfurl!


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