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Cousin Pons (Poor Relations, Part 2) (Penguin Classics)

Cousin Pons - Honoré de Balzac, Herbert J. Hunt Egads! This started off as a comedy, which then became a dark comedy, and kept descending until the darkness got so dark, there wasn’t any comedy left. Critic W. H. Helm called Honore Balzac the "French Dickens", and I can dig that, because he creates these lush, theatrical characters and immerses them in a very period-feeling Paris of the 1840’s. Sometimes Dickens dwells on morbid subject matter: poverty, mistreatment of children, social injustice- but I've never known him to cross the line to become so grotesque I felt uncomfortable reading him. Cousin Pons got to that point for me.It starts off light enough, with detailed character sketches of Sylvain Pons –confirmed bachelor, middle-aged playhouse orchestra director, and collector extraordinaire of bric-a-brack. His long-time partner, live-in best friend, and German transplant to Paris, Herr Schmucke, is like a comedic doting mother hen.M. Pons is a bit of a bon vivant, and likes to eat well, and so he calls on his high-placed relatives, making the rounds to mooch an occasional dinner off them, but timed in a carefully-planned schedule to avoid wearing out his welcome. There was lots of comedy of manners here, with people dropping not-so-subtle hints that maybe Pons should make his own damn food, and Pons intentionally not picking up on these hints. It wasn't quite laugh-out-loud, but I was chuckling. The drama starts when Pons' cousin (M.Camusot de Marville, a legal official in the high court, and a Peer of France) and his family get sick of him, and devise a plan to discourage him from coming around. ...But it gets complicated, because after they shoo him away once and for all, Pons befriends a wealthy patron of the playhouse, who would be a perfect suitor to Pons’ niece Cecile. Suddenly the Camusot de Marvilles need Pons for a proper introduction, so they find themselves backpedaling, explaining how all the insults they heaped upon him were misunderstandings, and in fact kidding gestures of affection. It feels very Dickens... and maybe even a bit Woody Allen, I can't say why. In the midst of this whole marriage arrangement (which falls through for bizarre reasons) Cecile’s suitor makes small talk of his admiration for Cousin Pons’ bric-a-brack collection, which he casually speculates must be worth about 750,000 to 1,000,000 Francs. BOINNNNNNGGGGGGGGGGG!!!!If Cousin Pons was redone as a cartoon, you would see M. and Mme. M.Camusot de Marville's eyes pop out of their heads at that figure. 1,000,000 Francs?!! Who would have thought his little trinkets would be valued so highly? Apparently he had an eye for great artistry, and picked up the early works of some great masters on the cheap. He's sitting on a goldmine! Now the snooty upper middle class family who once distained Cousin Pons is falling all over themselves to please him. There’s some good humor here too. Honestly, Balzac should’ve kept the tone light… the story is fun here. It almost feels like a Neil Simon play. And that's no surprise- after all, Cousin Pons is part of Balzac's larger body of interrelated books, which share crossover characters and storylines, which he calls "The Human Comedy". Through some quirky circumstances, Pons and Schmucke’s landlady- the conniving Mme. Cibot- catches wind of Pons’ fortune. In a bizarre and funny scene, she consults a gypsy fortuneteller about how to get a share of it, and comes up with a very mean-spirited scheme, which turns the mood of the whole book very ugly and cruel.She gets a crooked art dealer and appraiser involved, and then a down-on-his-luck lawyer, who all want to cheat Pons out of his treasures. These characters are all wonderfully rendered, but the plot is too inhumane, and Pons' suffering too pitiful for this to be a called comedy. It’s hard to explain, without getting too spoilerific, but Pons was too good natured, and was introduced too engagingly to the reader, to be treated this way now. He's too sympathetic; readers don't want to meet lovable characters, only to see them tortured mercilessly.I get that life was very hard in the era Balzac writes from, and some of the injustices that may have been taken in stride in 1840 would horrify us today. I also get that the comedic as well as cruel schemes are all part of the same underlying "Oh! What a tangled web we weave" message... but I've got my limits, you know? This is supposed to be part of "Human Comedy", and this is just not funny any more. You know what I think? I think Balzac has really got us reading "The Human Tragedy", and is just seeing how far he can string us along before we figure that out.Not cool, Balzac. Not cool at all. I find this depressing as hell, and I would rather sleep with the Whore of Babylon than read one word further....Well, to be fair, there is a half-hearted stab at poetic justice at then end, but it's too little, too late. *sigh* The story's really good, so I still recommend this book, but just know what you're getting into; you'll need something lighthearted to revive your spirits after this one. Unfortunately, I've promised to read a book about Hitler and Stalin next, as part of a group read, so... Oh look! Calvin & Hobbes! That will get my mood up!