Saintsbury Introduction, Volume XI – Part II

Pour Relations: Cousin Pons (Les Parents pauvres: Le Cousin Pons)

One of the last and largest of Balzac’s great works – the very last of them, if we except La Cousine Bette, to which is pendant and contrast – Le Cousin Pons has always united suffrages from very different classes of admirers. In the first place, it is not “disagreeable,” as the common euphemism has it, and as La Cousine Bette certainly is. In the second, it cannot be accused of being a berquinade, as those who like Balzac best when he is doing moral rag-picking are apt to describe books like Le Médecin de Campagne and Le Lys dans la Vallée, if not even like Eugénie Grandet. It has a considerable variety of interest; its central figure is curiously pathetic and attractive, even though the curse of something like folly, which so often attends Balzac’s good characters, may a little weigh on him. It would be a book of exceptional charm even if it were anonymous, or if we knew no more about the author than know about Shakespeare.

As it happens, however, Le Cousin Pons has other attractions than this. In the first place, Balzac is always great – perhaps he is at his greatest – in depicting a mania, a passion, whether the subject bepleasure or gold-hunger or parental affection. Pons has two manias, and the one does not interfere with, but rather helps, the other. But this would be nothing if it were not that his chief mania, his ruling passion, is one of Balzac’s own. For, as we have often had occasion to notice, Balzac is not by any means one of the great impersonal artists. He can do many things; but he is never at his best in doing any unless his own personal interests, his likings and hatreds, his sufferings and enjoyments, are concerned. He was a kind of actor-manager in his Comédie Humaine; and perhaps, like other actor-managers, he took rather disproportionate care of the parts which he played himself.

Now, he was even more desperate as a collector and fancier of bibelots than he was as a speculator; and while the one mania was nearly as responsible for his pecuniary troubles and his need to overwork himself as the other, it certainly gave him more constant and more comparatively harmless satisfactions. His connoisseurship has, of course, been questioned – one connoisseur would be nothing if he did not question the competence of another, if not of all others. It seems certain that Balzac frequently bought things for what they were not; and probable that his own acquisitions went, in his own eyes, through that succession of stages which Charles Lamb (a sort of Cousin Pons in his way too) described inimitably. His pictures, like John Lamb’s, were apt to begin as Raphaels, and end as Carlo Marattis. Balzac, too, like Pons, was even more addicted to bric-a-brac than to art proper; and after many vicissitudes, he and Madame Hanska seem to have succeeded in getting together a very considerable, if also a very miscellaneous and unequal collection in the house in the Rue du Paradis, the contents of which were dispersed in part (though, I believe, the Rochschild who bought it, bought most of them too) not many years ago. Pons, indeed, was too poor, and probably too queer, to indulge in one fancy which Balzac had, and which, I think, all collectors of the nobler and more poetic class have, though this number may not be large. Balzac liked to have new beautiful things as well as old – to have beautiful things made for him. He was an unwearied customer, though not an uncomplaining one, of the great jeweler Froment Meurice, whose tardiness in carrying out his behests he pathetically upbraids in more than one extant letter.

Therefore, Balzac “did more than sympathize, he felt” – as it has been well put – with Pons in the bric-a-brac matter; and would appear that he did so likewise in that of music, though we have rather less direct evidence. This other sympathy has resulted in the addition to Pons himself of the figure of Schmucke, a minor and more parochial figure, but good in itself, and very much appreciated, I believe, by fellow mélomanes.

It is with even more than his usual art that Balzac has surrounded these two originals – these “humorists,” as our own ancestors would have called them – with figures much, very much, more of the ordinary world than themselves. The grasping worldliness of the parvenue family of Camusot in one degree and the greed of the portress, Madame Cibot, in the other, are admirably represented; the latter, in particular, must always hold a very high place among Balzac’s greatest successes. She is, indeed a sort of companion sketch to Cousine Bette herself in a still lower rank of life representing the diabolical in woman; and perhaps we should not wrong the author’s intentions if we suspected that Diane de Maufrigneuse has some claims to make up the trio in a sphere even more above Lisbeth’s than Lisbeth’s is above Madame Cibot’s own.

Different opinions have been held of the actual “bric-a-bracery” of this piece – that is to say, not of Balzac’s competence in the matter but of the artistic value of his introduction of it. Perhaps his enthusiasm does a little run away with him; perhaps he gives us a little too much of it, and avails himself too freely of the license, at least of the temptation, to digress which the introduction of such persons as Élie Magus affords. And it is also open to any one to say that the climax, or what is in effect the climax, is introduced somewhat too soon; that the struggle, first over the body and then over the property of Patroclus-Pons, is inordinately spun out, and that, even granting the author’s mania, he might have utilized it better by giving us more of the harmless and ill-treated cousin’s happy hunts, and less of the disputes over his accumulated quarry. This, however, means simply the old, and generally rather impertinent, suggestion to the artist that he shall do with his art something different from that which he has himself chosen to do. It is, or should be, sufficient that Le Cousin Pons is a very agreeable book, more pathetic if less “grimy,” than its companion, full of its author’s idiosyncracy, and characteristic of his genius. It may not be uninteresting to add that Le Cousin Pons was originally called Le Deux Musiciens, or Le Parasite, and that the change, which is a great improvement, was due to the instances of Madame Hanska.

(For bibliography, see the Preface to La Cousine Bette.)

George Saintsbury

From The Works of Honoré de Balzac, Avil Publishing Company, Philadelphia, 1901, University Edition.


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