Cousin Pons is the companion novel to Cousin Bette, which I read a couple of months ago. It’s the story of another poor relation but Pons is nothing like the vengeful Bette. Sylvain Pons is a hanger-on, a toady who lives for his free dinners at the houses of his rich relations. His other passion is for art. He has been a collector for the last 40 years & his collection of paintings, sculpture & porcelain, which he guards jealously, is full of masterpieces that he acquired cheaply in the junk shops & dealer’s rooms he frequents. Pons makes a precarious living as a musician & lives in a few rooms shared with Wilhelm Schmucke, a German musician who is his only friend.
Pons’s rich relations are philistines who laugh at his obsequiousness & groan whenever he appears for dinner. When Pons gives his cousin’s wife, Madame de Marville, a magnificent fan that had once belonged to Madame de Pompadour, she has never heard of the artist, Watteau, whose paintings decorate the fan & tosses it aside as though it was of little value. The Marvilles blame Pons for ruining their daughter’s marriage prospects & break off relations with him. Pons’s health begins to suffer & he retreats to his apartment & gloats over his collection while he complains about his ungrateful relations.
The Cibots are the porter & concierge of the apartment building where Pons & Schmucke live. Madame Cibot is a former oyster-girl, once renowned for her beauty but now gone to seed, although she still attracts the admiration of Rémonencq, a shady dealer in antiques. Madame Cibot is typical of the Parisian concierge of her day – manipulative, greedy & determined to screw as much value out of the people she looks after as she can. She gradually insinuates herself into the lives of Pons & Schmucke, offering to provide their meals for a small consideration, pocketing the money & giving them scraps from her own table in return. Pons & Schmucke are innocents, devoted to each other & oblivious to Madame Cibot’s tricks. When Pons falls ill, Madame is determined to feature in the old man’s will, especially after Rémonencq & another dealer, Elias Magus, enlighten her to the true worth of the bric-a-brac in Pons’s apartment. In league with Doctor Poulain & a dodgy solicitor, Fraisier, La Cibot puts her plan into action.
And here begins the drama, or if you prefer, the terrible comedy of the death of a bachelor delivered over by the force of circumstances to the rapacity of covetous people assembled around his bed: people who, in this case, were aided and abetted by the all-consuming passion of a maniacal lover of pictures, the avidity of the egregious Fraisier, who will make you shudder when you see him at work in his den, and the greed of an Auvergnat (Rémonencq) capable of anything, even crime, in order to launch out in business.
However, Pons is not entirely unaware of the plots swirling around him & he is not a complete innocent, unlike poor Schmucke, who believes anything he’s told. Pons puts his own plans into action as he lies on his deathbed & tries to thwart both his greedy family (who have discovered the true worth of his collection) & the wicked Madame Cibot.
Cousin Pons is a wonderful story of Parisian life. Balzac paints a picture of life in both the expensive & the squalid parts of town. The minute calculations of the value of everything, the multiple plots, double crossings & treacheries of nearly all the characters are very entertaining. There’s no honour among this group of thieves. As the plots become more involved & loyalties are strained, honour among thieves is never in question. It’s every man & woman for themselves. And, as this is Balzac rather than Dickens, not all the bad characters get their comeuppance & not all the good characters live happily ever after.