Friday, September 9, 2016

Cousin Pons by Honoré de Balzac

From dinner guest to sacrificial lamb
Cousin Pons, originally published in 1847, is one of Honoré de Balzac’s last novels. Within his body of work known as the Comédie Humaine, Cousins Pons is the second half of a two-novel miniseries known as Poor Relations (Les Parents pauvres), the first book being Cousin Bette. Although the two books are thematically linked, they feature different characters and are not sequentially related. Cousin Pons is often hailed as one of Balzac’s greatest works. It’s definitely a skillfully crafted novel of great literary quality, but among the author’s prolific output of books I would not count it among my personal favorites.

Sylvain Pons is a musician who makes his living conducting an orchestra in a Paris theatre. He has two great passions in life, the first of which is gluttony. With a gourmand’s appreciation for fine food, he refuses to eat at home, instead making regular weekly rounds as a perpetual dinner guest in the homes of distant relations, however tenuously connected their bloodlines may be. When Pons inadvertently offends one of these relations, he becomes persona non grata among all branches of the family. His wealthier relations will no longer tolerate the freeloading visits of this poor relation.

But how poor is Cousin Pons, really?—a question that brings us to his second love: collecting paintings, knickknacks, and objets d’art. Pons has the ability to recognize masterpieces of great value and acquire them for bargain prices. When rumor of the market value of his collection gets out, everyone sets about trying to rob Pons of his priceless possessions, not by burglary but through legal maneuvering. Pons has only one true friend, Wilhelm Schmucke, a fellow musician. Together the two struggle against the rapacious vultures attempting to abscond with Pons’s fortune.

The novel has a very comical beginning, but it becomes darker and more depressing as a host of despicable characters set about preying upon these two friends. It eventually becomes a catalog of all the various means of fraud, corruption, and legal loopholes by which a dying man can be robbed of his legacy. One has to admire the intricate web of deceit Balzac spins between an ensemble cast of swindlers all angling to serve their personal interests, but at the same time it grows very tedious. Balzac loves to write in legalese. He truly revels in any opportunity to work contract law, estate law, or finance law into a story. He catalogs the exchange of each and every franc as if he were providing blow-by-blow commentary on a round of The Game of Life. While Balzac may be a genius at creating memorable characters, smart dialogue, and vivid scenes of great emotional power, you really need to ask yourself whether you want to wade through a novel that’s primarily about the myriad ways a will can be circumvented.

Amid this dreary subject matter, the one shining light is the unbreakable bond of friendship between Pons and Schmucke, who share a modern Damon and Pythias relationship that rises above all material concerns. The platonic love between these two eccentric bachelors is the saving grace that imbues what could have been a mean-spirited melodrama with an inspirational sense of humanity. As previously stated, this isn’t one of my favorite Balzac books, but it’s still a notable literary achievement with powerful moral lessons to impart.
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