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

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 thic...

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