I've always wondered about the part in The Music Man
, when an imposing woman wanders through spouting "Balzac!" at various points when they're worrying about the degeneration that is likely to happen to young people who don't have proper diversions, like a community band as opposed to things bound to lead to trouble (which starts with 't', that rhymes with 'p' and stands for pool...or something like that—also Balzac starts with 'b' which rhymes with 'p' that....). Anyway, I had the vague feeling that reading Balzac must cause some kind of moral decay. So, a couple of years ago, I hunted up a Balzac book, Father Goriot
, and it didn't seem all that racy to me. It was ok, if not first class.
Now that I'm reading Cousine Bette
, I'm getting a better idea. People are ruining themselves financially so that they can have mistresses. I'm not much into mistresses myself. I guess I was brought up too much of a Puritan, or Calvinist or something, to understand the appeal.
So, I had problems with this book. It's basically a story of moral decay. Cousine Bette (my spouse, a French teacher, would kill me if I used the barbarous Americanization of her name that was used in the translation I read), is a poor relation. Her "better" relations choose to steal from her when it suits them and ignore her otherwise. She becomes eccentric. Eventually, she takes up with a starving artist type, being his mentor and benefactress (but not
his lover). But when her more well-off relations steal the young man for Cousine Bette's niece, she vows retaliation. She begins a covert campaign to ruin the family by having the men all lose their fortunes, and then some, to a young "courtesan", i.e. a high-class 'ho', or mistress, if you will.
I dunno, the book was interestingly enough written, and I suppose one could view it as humorous. For some reason my older sister thought it was hilarious. I would have expected her to have been brought up as much of a Calvinist Puritan as I was.
One other problem I had with the book, which isn't really Balzac's fault, is that there were lots of cultural references—some to Greek and Roman classics, some to historical French culture—that I didn't really understand. So, I'm sure that had I been better educated, I'd have gotten more out of this book. As it is, I think I'm likely done with Balzac.