This is the third time I have read this late masterpiece of Balzac s and it got better with each reading There have been other novels mostly European about men who have ruined themselves for illicit love of other women, but Balzac s Baron Hector Hulot goes further than any of them At the beginning of Cousin Bette, he is at his apogee married to a loving woman, with two loving adult children and an incredible itch for what willing young women have to offer I will not say what happens to him in the end, but his fall is precipitous and involves the ruin of his brother, his uncle who commits suicide , and numerous others who are tangentially affected by his ways.Rather than summarize the story, which the author handles masterfully, I thought I would discuss what makes for a great Balzac novel 1 The best Balzac stories show temptations or character weaknesses to which the hero or heroine yields, and for which he or she suffers grievously This ranges from the lecherousness of Hulot to the improvidence of C sar Birotteau the perfumer to the excessive indulgence of Old Goriot to his daughters to the blind ambition of Balthazar Claes in The Quest for the Absolute to find the alchemist s stone Perhaps the classical plot in this respect is The Wild Ass s Skin.2 Behind the best Balzac plots are demoniacal moneylenders who are never, ever bested in their transactions with mere mortals In Cousin Bette, there is Vauvinet, but the best moneylender in his work is the eponymous hero of Gobseck.3 Balzac s Paris is full of young dandies on the make who act as a kind of Greek chorus to the story Perhaps the best depiction of them is in Lost Illusions.4 Envy plays an outsize role in the world of Balzac Whenever someone looks to be doing well, often one finds a sort of cabal forming to do him or her in And this cabal is every bit as relentless as the moneylenders, with whom they are frequently in cahoots Again, Lost Illusions is a prime example This is related to the extreme vengeance that plays such a large part in Cousin Bette and Cousin Pons.5 Not only evil, but good, sometimes acts under the cover of a seemingly all powerful secret society The classical case are the three stories collected under the title The Thirteen For good, there is Mme de la Chanterie, who appears in the current novel and also, at greater length, in The Wrong Side of Paris In Cousin Bette, we see the archvillain Vautrin, now become chief of police, working with dubious villains like Mme Nourrisson, to help Victorine Hulot wreak revenge on Mme de Marneffe.6 There is something Mephistophelian in Balzac s best villains, especially Vautrin in the three or four novels in which he figures as a major character I would have to include Mme de Marneffe, whose avarice is matched only by the unbridled lust of her lovers.7 Although Balzac keeps returning to the balm of the Catholic Church, he likes to let his victims twist in the wind before they get any of the Church s benefits.8 There are frequently large sums of money involved in highly complex financial transactions that defy anyone whose knowledge of French economics of the July monarchy is less than professorial In this edition, in fact, there is an appendix entitled Money Plot of Cousin Bette Having read it, I m still in the dark.9 Balzac virtually invented the idea of the same characters appearing in two or or even a dozen stories Doctor Bianchon is, I believe, in over thirty of them The Balzac you read including the minor works and the shorter stories the you will appreciate novels like this one, in which dozens of characters reappear elsewhere.In short, looking back at the many Balzac novels I have read and I have read most of them I find myself looking at what its author called The Human Comedy men and women who fall far short of the ideal and are grievously punished for it The five novels I will list here are among the greatest works from the mind of man and well deserving of close study by anyone who is interested in how human beings fall short of their hopes and aspirations a P re Goriot b Lost Illusions c A Harlot High and Low d Cousin Bette and e Cousin Pons I could easily have expanded the number to ten, or fifteen, or even. Despite some narrative leaps and a reversal of fortune for several of the characters, I truly loved this novel It was a perfect, snowy weekend for such The pacing, except for the end, was sublime and supported with equal measures of vitriol and detail.There is much to say about a family in decline, if not peril I rank Cousin Bette with Buddenbrooks and The Sound and the Fury. Poor, Plain Spinster Bette Is Compelled To Survive On The Condescending Patronage Of Her Socially Superior Relatives In Paris Her Beautiful, Saintly Cousin Adeline, The Philandering Baron Hulot And Their Daughter Hortense Already Deeply Resentful Of Their Wealth, When Bette Learns That The Man She Is In Love With Plans To Marry Hortense, She Becomes Consumed By The Desire To Exact Her Revenge And Dedicates Herself To The Destruction Of The Hulot Family, Plotting Their Ruin With Patient, Silent Malice Cousin Bette Is A Gripping Tale Of Violent Jealousy, Sexual Passion And Treachery, And A Brilliant Portrayal Of The Grasping, Bourgeois Society Of S Paris The Culmination Of The Comedie Humaine, Balzac S Epic Chronicle Of His Times, It Is One Of His Greatest Triumphs As A Novelist SWEET LAND OF LIBERTINES If you fancy yourself a moralist, you may wanna skip this one As the undoubted precursor to playbook for modern day soap operas, Cousin Bette involves marital cruelty, sexual blackmail, spite filled revenge, prostitution, unconscionable adultery, women with irresistible sexual allure to men, men and women having a number of different sexual partners in a day , theft, poisons, passion filled murder, and just about every other sin and demoralizing character defect one can imagine It seemed realistic and true to the human condition an exploration of a society uninhibited Balzac wrote Cousin Bette in 1847 in France at the height of the libertine philosophy holding that one need not be restrained by the morals of society, including monogamy and marriage, but should instead seek out and enjoy all of life s pleasures particularly a variety of sexual partners with no regard to harm done to others Note my uneducated synopsis of Libertinism, which also fits my idea of biblical Sodom and Gomorrah.Here, money and sex are bartering and blackmail chips virtues like honor and loyalty take second seat to instant gratification and debauchery Guilt and regret are non existent.The name is somewhat misleading Cousin Bette is the old maid jilted by her infatuation for Wenceslas in favor of her angelic cousin Hortense Hurlot As a result, she schemes to ruin the Hurlot family through a temptress named Madame Marneffe, who is as easy as an old shoe Daddy Hurlot and the Mayor are also sleeping with the Mdme I cannot start describing the rest of the story without going down a path littered with raunch and degradation.I wanted to read at least one Balzac novel so I picked this one and read it a few summers back review updated from then I give it 4 stars because there is something to be said for keeping all this straight and being the primary trailblazer of realism in fiction Plus this is just a part of a larger, loosely tied sequence of novels and short stories, La Comedie humaine, in which Balzac presented his panoramic view of life in France after Napoleon s downfall in 1815 So many great authors followed his lead in the 20th century in Europe and America and set the world afire down so many different paths toward truth and humanity that are each so unique. This tale involves a byzantine plan of revenge by old maid Bette over the theft of a young sculptor she had designs for It was a great device for all the greedy aristocratic people to achieve their just deserts There is also a satisfying comic touch in the way her courtesan confidante is able to juggle four lovers and play them off against each other But the narrative bogs down for me a lot over the repetitive competition for each others mistresses and arcane schemes for money Still, as an audiobook experience with a free Librivox recording on my commutes to work, it was a diverting sociological experience with Paris society circa 1830 and a nice window on the French tradition of blending realism with romanticism. 19 ,. I am no literary critic I will merely try and express what I experienced while reading this book I am glad I read it, but I admire the author s opus than I enjoyed it Honestly, it was often a struggle It has a very slow start The book s narrator, after a third of the way through, states that only now will the story begin All that before had just been an introduction to the characters That introduction doesn t read as a normal introduction you are thrown into events that you scarcely comprehend Often I was confused, and so also upset, but always I did eventually come to understand what was happening There are lots of characters Actually, the number is not the main problem The confusion is caused by the immense amount of details thrown at you When I begin a book, I have no idea where the book is leading so I try and remember e v e r y t h i n g I was swamped From all these details the author does periodically summarize and clarify so you do understand These details do serve a purpose they very accurately depict life in Paris in the early 1840s The book was first published in serial format in Le Constitutionanel Balzac wrote it to compete against another popular feuilleton author, Eug ne Sue, of a socialist bent Balzac supported the House of Bourbon and venerated Napol on Bonaparte as a champion of absolutist power Balzac s aim was to realistically describe life after Napol on s fall Given that it was published as a feuilleton, he was writing for people of his day References are made to individuals and events that were the talk of the town So they understood what he was referring to much better than we do Much is left unexplained In addition, the popularity and success of the writing depended upon keeping readers engaged Melodrama, excitement, titillating scenes and moralistic elements pepper the writing This very much affects the writing style I think he magnificently depicts the different social classes vying against each other in Paris, but as with other books written in serial format something quick and exciting must happen in each episode Do you see why I admire the writing, but don t really love it Then there are the characters Some critics say his figures are complex I didn t see them that way The reader easily spots different character types Bette think of one seeking revenge She is the cousin of Adeline Val rie Marneffe the beautiful, seductive, greedy mistress of four And she is married Baron Hector Hulot consumed by sex Let s just call him the dirty old man Baroness Adeline Hulot Hector s saintly wife.C lestin Crevel the wealthy, retired tradesman and rival of Hulot Here and elsewhere Balzac shows the importance of wealth.Wenceslas Steinbock the artist Here Balzac has a chance to spell out what it takes to succeed in art hard work You can reflect on Balzac s own efforts He wrote this novel in two months His health suffered There are several figures in the families Hortense Hulot daughter of the Hulots married to WenceslasVictorin Hulot the Hulots son married to Celestine.Celestine Crevel s daughter married to VictorinMar chal Hulot Hector Hulot s honorable brotherJohann Fischer an uncle of the Hulot family, someone handy to send to Algiers to embezzle fundsAnd mistresses and lovers Jos pha Mirah singer, Jewish, abandoned childBaron Henri Mont s de Mont janos another Baron, another lover, but Brazilian this timeAgathe kitchenmaid, mistress and..I am listing the characters for two reasons To help those planning on reading the book and to illustrate the caricature each represents I prefer complicated, complex characters I don t see them that way There is a strong moral message conveyed Yet, Balzac did have a great idea in writing his Com die humaine, a multi volume collection of interlinked novels sharing many of the same characters He completed over 90 novels and had begun over 40 You hit upon characters that have turned up in other novels You remember other things they have done and said This added depth for me In P re Goriot I met the criminal in hiding, Vautrin Here he is in the police force, and we meet of his family Doctor Bianchon was one of the diners at the lodging house Mason Vauque We meet him here too I liked this very much You don t have to read the books in a particular order, but the you read and the you know, the fuller the story becomes As in real life, as with real people, the you learn about each, the interesting they become You become curious for The audiobook I listened to was narrated by Johanna Ward Kate Reading She knows how to pronounce French correctly That is important For me she spoke too quickly She dramatizes, but she does this well Me, I would give the narration four stars.So the book IS worth reading, but it is difficult You have to pay close attention It is by no means an easy read For me it was a bit too didactic, a bit to melodramatic, its characters a bit too simplified The next I will read from the Com die humaine will be Eug nie Grandet My curiosity has been piqued and I do want , but I need a breather first. My first Balzac I had the impression, somewhere, that I would have to sit through some dreary pompous horrorshow, perhaps pulpy purple prose with a plethora of prodigious penuries.But to be sure, I did get a horrorshow, but not the kind I expected Indeed, I had a great time once I fell into a certain kind of groove You know what I mean The kind that you get into when reading a good Stephen King novel, revving up with a huge cast of dispicable human beings whom you have a great time rooting for their ultimate demises Hopefully with some supernatural beastie tormenting them to their dooms Or devils dragging them to suddenly opening graves Something like that.To think that this was considered one of the great REALIST novels By a realist novelist In all honesty, it reads like the plot of some 1980 s daytime soap opera but placed in post Napoleonic France Enter the mass philandering Baron and his wife who doesn t care Enter the disgruntled spinster who, just after finding a taste of love, has her younger cousin come in like a bitch to scoop him up, sending the spinster into a whirlwind of Italian rage and vengeance that will last the rest of their lives Is this total preoccupation with Sex and Death funny Yep As I said, I m a fan of Stephen King I rooted for EVERYONE S ultimate tragedy If this is realism, then what does that say about me Hmmmm oh my. This is a soap opera masquerading as a classic It has all the right ingredients A husband, a baron, who has spent all the family money on other women A wife who justifies acting like a doormat by saying it is religious feminine submission An in law who threatens to put the kybosh on any potential good match marriage for their dowry less but pretty and rather boring daughter Hortense if religious doormat doesn t sleep with him Cousin Bette, the protagonist of the story, who is the plain, poor relation given shelter by the Baron, but must earn her own living and who is a jealous, vengeful and cunning woman A talented sculptor who leads on and exploits Cousin Bette for what she can do for him, but falls in love with Hortense and marries her after he has become rich through using her connections A beautiful mistress whore, Valerie Lots of French classics have a woman who exploits her looks but is eventually brought low Camille in La Dame aux Cam lias, Nana, Madame Bovary to name a few I ve read The poor but handsome lover of the mistress who is used for sex and spurned because he hasn t got enough money He s going to have his revenge too More than a hint of lesbianism between the vengeful Bette and the greedy Valerie.Everyone gets their just desserts in the end, except, mystifingly, the Baron who on his saintly wife s demise marries a servant girl and is happy as a hare in clover satisfied with his comfortable life and lots of sex.Balzac did write this as a series and it is both light fiction and great literature It explores the themes of wealth, beauty, cruelty, passion and religion in an elegant fashion This is what makes it such a good read, a good plot, great characters and plenty of depth to flesh out the story into a real experience But 4 stars rather than 5 because it does take a bit of wading through. Compelling and unsavory characters drew me into Honore de Balzac s Cousin Bette 1846 The main plot centers on Cousin Bette s revenge on her family however, all the stories which make up the novel are imbued by obsessions which drive the narrative to its dark end Much of how I described Balzac s earlier novel, Pere Goriot, holds true for Cousin Bette Balzac s impressively exhaustively detailed style is at work here The layers of detail allow readers to immerse themselves in early 19th century French society in general and specifically in the depiction of the drawn out spiteful vengeance Bette exacts on her family Once immersed, it can be overwhelming to stand in Balzac s world, but it s probably as close as any of us will get to hanging out with scheming relatives in 19th century France.