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"Sex, Debt, and Revenge: Balzac's Cousin Bette"

B&N Reads, December 2007

Not too long ago, my friend Harold told me that if he didn’t have to earn a living, he would just read Balzac. This is something a literate Francophone in the middle of his life could wish for reasonably, because Honor? de Balzac (1799-1850) wrote over 90 novels and a number of plays to comprise the definitive chronicle of his era — La Com?die Humaine — giving Harold sufficient material to engage his days. Balzac, who enjoyed popular success in his lifetime, influenced a number of significant writers, most notably Gustave Flaubert, Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Emile Zola, Charles Dickens, Friedrich Engels, and Marcel Proust. His complete works are not readily available in translation, so those of us who are not fluent in French have to content ourselves with a comparatively meager handful of Balzac’s treasures in English. The literature professors would most likely suggest that the must-reads are Eug?nie Grandet, P?re Goriot, Lost Illusions, Cousin Bette, and Cousin Pons — all glittering masterpieces wrought by Balzac’s playful hand.

But if you have a day job and feel shy about committing to even a mere 5 volumes out of 92, for my money, the first I’d pick up would be the Modern Library’s Cousin Bette (translated by Kathleen Raine, with an introduction by Francine Prose), a delicious novel of envy, lust, money, revenge, and sexual hunger that began its narrative life, preposterously enough, as a children’s short story written by Balzac’s baby sister, Laure.

At its simplest, Cousin Bette is a tale of the Hulots — one unhinged aristocratic family. Without comparison, Baron Hector Hulot is the memorable sex maniac father character of 19th-century literature. Adeline Hulot, n?e Fischer, serves as the baron’s martyred wife; Victorin is their prim lawyer son; and Hortense is the pretty young daughter in search of a husband. The hidden engine of this broken family machinery is Adeline’s first cousin, the title character Lisbeth Fischer, referred to coarsely as Bette. This country cousin — 43 years old at the beginning of the novel — deserves top billing, because she plots the complex course of the novel through her desire to avenge herself for the numerous slights she has suffered throughout her life as the homely, ridiculed spinster.

The painful back-story is important to bring up here, for Vosges soil nourished the roots of Bette’s murderous envy. Bette and Adeline, daughters of the Fischer brothers, were raised in the same peasant household, but Adeline, the elder by five years, was treated royally for her marked beauty, in contrast to Bette — “ Vosges peasant woman in all senses of the word — thin, dark, her hair black and stringy, with thick eyebrows meeting in a tuft, long, strong arms, flat feet, with several moles on her long simian face…” The younger sister is consigned to labor in the field. When the 16-year old Adeline is chosen by the Adonis-like Hector Hulot, then the ordnance officer-in-chief in Napoleon’s army, to be his wife, Bette is left behind in the mud of Vosges for years, until Adeline sends for her in Paris, where it becomes clear to her family benefactors that “it would be impossible to marry this girl, with her dark eyes and black brows, who could neither read nor write…”

In Paris, Bette, armed with her “peasant shrewdness,” is trained expertly to embroider the uniforms of the Imperial Army to earn her keep, thereby permitting her to live alone in a hovel and maintain the marginally dignified existence of the poor relation. At the age of 43, “The girl gave up all idea of competing with or rivaling her cousin, having experienced the effects of her superior qualities; but envy remained hidden in her secret heart, like the germ of a disease that is liable to break out and ravage a city if the fatal bale of wool in which it is hidden is ever opened.” Balzac takes care to succinctly detail this family history of two girl cousins, and with a rousing start, our story blasts off.

It is July 1838; Baroness Adeline Hulot is 48 years old. Balzac, ever the lover of mature married women, lets Adeline have a significant physical advantage at an age when most writers, then and now, would have made her a wizened matron. Due to his lifelong erotomania, the 62-year-old Baron Hulot has blown through his capital and leveraged his financial prospects on a series of exquisite teenage entertainers. Much to Adeline’s heartbreak, there is no cash left for Hortense’s dowry. Adeline’s otherwise adorable Baron Hulot has also made an enemy for life by stealing Josepha, the young and beloved mistress of the unsightly Celestin Crevel, a wealthy ex-perfumer, who is also the father-in-law to Victorin Hulot.

In the masterfully conceived first chapters, Crevel, the savant businessman and parvenu, gauges accurately the Hulot family’s fragile household economy. To avenge Hulot’s theft of the gorgeous Jewish singer, Josepha, Crevel proposes this bargain to Adeline Hulot: 200,000 francs for Hortense’s dowry in exchange for a decade of Adeline’s sexual favors. Naturally, the good wife spurns the little toad. While this scene is taking place, the maiden Hortense is ferreting out nuggets of intelligence from Bette about her young sweetheart, Wenceslas Steinbock — an impoverished Polish count and sculptor who Bette has kept alive above her garret by eating into her modest savings. With her information at the ready, it takes the beautiful Hortense only one scene to pilfer Wenceslas from Bette’s private store. Hortense then succeeds in her scheme to marry the handsome Polish count with the blessings of her parents. Bette’s cache of injuries, now multiplied irredeemably by this ultimate Hulot family betrayal, provides tremendous horsepower for the novel’s ensuing intrigues. With the evil siren Valerie Marneffe as her instrument of destruction, Bette’s revenge unspools.

Balzac’s biographer Graham Robb writes, “From 1829 on, each of his novels tells the story of debt.” The author lived perennially with a team of creditors chasing him, his bills of exchange evidencing the man’s profligate consumption patterns. Balzac, who remains unchallenged as France’s greatest man of letters, outspent his income throughout his adult life in blazing style and died a debtor despite a number of publishing successes. That his character Bette would employ each character’s lust, vanity, and prejudices to bring about their destruction points to Balzac’s intimate awareness of immutable obsessions and his belief in the inevitable dominance of a person’s essential nature. This novel refuses to serve up redemption, admirable choices, or personal growth, yet the highly pleasurable story is all the better for it.

His gargantuan ambitions matching his voracious appetites, a 34-year-old Balzac declared that he would characterize his epoch and nation through endless volumes of fiction. For the remainder of his life, a scant two decades, he wrote and wrote about human debts and our bottomless hunger for more. Cousin Bette is Balzac’s magnificent story of debt — of debts fatefully incurred, and of debts requiring settlement at the hands of earthy women and men.

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