Cousin Bette by Honore de Balzac, translated by Marion Ayton Crawford, abridged by Sally Marmion

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BBC Radio 4, 2-13 January 2012
Henry James acknowledged Balzac as one of his major inspirations. Listening to Marmion's abridgment of Cousin Bette, it was not hard to see why: both writers are concerned to analyse their characters' feelings, emotions and behaviour in great detail, while at the same time commenting on what they perceive as the characters' mistakes. Both writers create small, self-enclosed worlds in which every word and gesture matters: no one can escape judgment.
Balzac's novel creates a socially stratified world in which outward appearance matters; if characters fail to observe certain behavioural conventions, they either ostracized or dismissed as deviant. At the same time, however, the characters perpetually compete with one another for power and influence - whether financial or personal. They engage in a series of intrigues and/or love-affairs, in which personal feelings count for little; what matters more is the advantage that can be obtained from conducting a particular affair. The novel anticipated Schnitzler's La Ronde, in its portrayal of an emotional merry-go-round, where a smal group people fall in and out of love, while perpetually trying to exploit one another. This is a capitalist world in which money talks; if you don't have it, you must try to obtain it from somewhere - either through loans, or through contracting financially advantageous marriages.
Alex Jennings' reading vividly communicated the small, intimate world of Balzac's novel, whose characters behaved in much the same way. The fact that he impersonated all the characters - young, old, male or female - implied that they were in some way similar to one another, especially in behavioural terms. His voice became slightly more reproving as the narrator, who was perpetually concerned to detach himself from the story, so that he could make comments and hence guide the listener's responses.
Sometimes the sheer intricacy of Balzac's plot became rather difficult to follow; but perhaps this was not really important. What mattered more was that we should be able to judge the characters for what they are. Jennings' reading in a series of ten tightly constructed episodes, produced by Di Speirs, proved particularly helpful in this respect.