Le Cousin Pons  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Le Cousin Pons is one of the last of the 94 works of Honoré de Balzac’s Comédie humaine, which are in both novel and short story form. Begun in 1846 as a novella, or long-short story, it was envisaged as one part of a diptych, Les Parents pauvres (The Poor Relations), the other part of which was La Cousine Bette (Cousin Bette). The book was originally published as a serial in Le Constitutionnel.

The novella grew in 1847 into a full-length novel with a male poor relation, Pons, as its subject, whereas La Cousine Bette describes the female aspect of that subordinate relationship. The two novels were thus similar yet diametrically different. They were complementary, forming two parts of a whole.

Le Cousin Pons has been classified by Balzac as the second Episode of Les Parents pauvres, the first Episode being La Cousine Bette. Especially admired by Paul Bourget, it is one of the very greatest of his novels.

Plot summary

The novella was based on a short story by an acquaintance of Balzac, Albéric Second, as Tim Farrant has demonstrated. Its original title was to have been “Le Parasite”. Sylvain Pons, a musician in a Parisian boulevard orchestra, has a close friend in another musician from that same orchestra, the German pianist Wilhelm Schmucke. They lodge with Mme Cibot, but Pons – unlike Schmucke – has two failings: his passion (which is almost a mania) for collecting works of art, and his passion for good food. Schmucke, on the other hand, has only one passion, and that is his affection for Pons. Pons, being a gourmet, much enjoys dining regularly with his wealthy lawyer cousins M. and Mme Camusot de Marville, for their food is more interesting than Mme Cibot’s and full of gastronomic surprises. In an endeavour to remain on good terms with the Camusots, and to repay their favour, he tries to find a bridegroom for their unappealing only child Cécile. However, when this ill-considered marriage project falls through, Pons is banished from the house.

The novella becomes a novel as Mme Camusot learns of the value of Pons’s art collection and strives to obtain possession of it as the basis of a dowry for her daughter. In this new development of the plot line a bitter struggle ensues between various vulture-like figures all of whom are keen to lay their hands on the collection: Rémonencq, Élie Magus, Mme Camusot – and Mme Cibot herself. Betraying his client Mme Cibot’s interests, the unsavoury barrister Fraisier acts for the Camusots. Mme Cibot sells Rémonencq eight of Pons’s choicest paintings, untruthfully stating in the receipt that they are works of lesser value. She also steals one for herself.

Horrified to discover his betrayal by Mme Cibot, and the plots that are raging around him, Pons dies, bequeathing all his worldly possessions to Schmucke. The latter is browbeaten out of them by Fraisier. He in turn dies a broken-hearted man, for in Pons he has lost all that he valued in the world. The art collection comes to the Camusot de Marville family, and the vultures profit from their ill-gotten gains.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Le Cousin Pons" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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