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Monday, September 10, 2012

Something Old


Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“ADOLPHE” by Benjamin Constant (written 1807; first published 1816)

            The French have a literary tradition which I think no other nation quite replicates. They like to tell analytical love stories in very concise form – really novellas rather than novels. I am not talking here about rambling romances and I am certainly not talking about Mills and Boon. I am talking about novels that are dispassionate – almost cynical – as they analyse what exactly love is, what psychological effect it has, whether it is really separable from sexual passion and whether it is something we can profitably do without.

            In this vein some of the best are the 17th century classic La Princesse de Cleves by Mme de Lafayette (meek heroine knows she should stick with the responsible dull guy, but is passionate about the glamorous destructive guy); the 18th century classic  Manon Lescaut by l’Abbe Prevost (young man is completely besotted with sexy but selfish slut); the 19th  century classic Eugenie Grandet by Honore de Balzac (daughter defies father for love of a man who proves to be a real creep); and – the most cynical of the lot – the early 20th century classic Le Diable au Corps [The Devil in the Flesh] by Roger Radiguet (ironical, opportunistic young man has affair with soldier’s wife while soldier is away on front-line duty).

            None of them leaves the reader comfortable. All of them suggest that, even though erotic love can be a consuming passion, it is rarely something that makes people happy. In all of them, the ironic philosophy looms as large as the passion.

            Of this sort of French novella, the one I think is now most overlooked and underrated is the one that was written right in the midst of what we now call the Romantic era. The French-Swiss Benjamin Constant (1767-1830) was primarily a politician and orator – a reluctant supporter of Napoleon, a ‘liberal’ who opposed the restoration of France’s old monarchy, and for many years a member of the French parliament (Chamber of Deputies). Adolphe was his only novel, and even though it is very short, Benjamin Constant took a long time writing it. This was because – much as Constant indignantly denied it – its central romantic situation was in part based on his own long-standing affair with the eminent intellectual Mme de Stael.

            As I read it, Adolphe is the story of how erotic love can entangle a couple in self-deception and mutual deception.

            It goes like this.

            Adolphe, the first-person narrator, is a young man in his early twenties, the son of an indulgent but coldly intellectual father. Adolphe narrates his stormy relationship over a number of years with Ellenore, a Polish aristocrat, the acknowledged mistress of the Count de P--- and the mother of the count’s children. To Adolphe, Ellenore is the experienced ‘older woman’ as she is about ten years older than he. [In real life, Mme de Stael was only one year older that Constant, but tant pis.] At first, Adolphe is bored with his life among supercilious young men, and is simply fascinated by the challenge of seducing this experienced woman. She gives herself to him. He goes through a period of being ecstatically in love with her. When their liaison is challenged by the Count de P---, Ellenore abandons the count for Adolphe.

            But almost at once, Adolphe has his misgivings. After the thrill of the initial conquest and sexual coupling, he wonders if he really loves her after all. She, however, has abandoned home and children for him, and when he seems about to confess his misgivings to her, she faints dead away.

            He revives her by swearing his undying love to her.

            And this, as the rest of the narrative shows, is the pattern of their ongoing relationship. Adolphe, lacking the courage and will to leave Ellenore, puts on an “enforced ceremony” to maintain his regard for her. He often feels compassion and pity for her, and sometimes feels the vague stirrings of “love” when their relationship is challenged by the intrusion of other men. But this seems to show only how competitive he is, just as he was in his original seduction of her. In response, Ellenore is emotionally dependent on Adolphe, sometimes uses his sense of guilt to seal their bond, and is sometimes near hysterical when he seems about to abandon her. Call it the psycho-pathology of emotional blackmail.

            There are other issues in this uncomfortable story. When the scene switches to Poland, where Ellenore goes to claim an inherited estate, Adolphe reflects on how much worldly advancement he has given up in yoking himself to her. His father suavely counsels him to abandon her, as does the rouĂ© aristocrat the Baron de T---. Perversely, however, the disapprobation of society is one of the things that decides Adolphe to stay with Ellenore. Like his competitive urges, it is a sign of his egotism, and in a way this is as much the study of an egotist as it is the study of a passion become a burden. The novel is called Adolphe, after all, and not Ellenore as it would be if it were a contemplation of the loved one.

            Eventually Ellenore dies of one of those convenient “fevers” that carried away so many heroines of romantic fiction. (In 19th century novels, this was sometimes a euphemism for a sexually-transmitted disease, but that does not appear to be the case here). There is a punch-line in which Ellenore’s surviving letters reveal to Adolphe how much she was aware of his weaknesses and vacillating indecision, and how much this genuinely tortured her. Again as I read it, this seems to show that she had a greater real concern for him than he ever had for her.

            I recommend Adolphe unhesitatingly as a shrewd and merciless psychological study of the conflict between amour and amour-propre. Adolphe is in part a self-portrait, but Benjamin Constant is fully aware of, and openly acknowledges, his narrator’s cold and self-regarding egotism (so like the egotism of Radiguet’s hero in Le Diable au Corps – and for that matter so like the egotism of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin). On the final pages, a fictitious “editor” rebukes Adolphe for imagining that his self-analysis is more important than his long term mistreatment of Ellenore, or even justifies it. At the same time, we are aware of the manipulative-ness of Ellenore – the woman who reins in the erring young man with her tears.

            Having said this, I must warn you that the novel is a product of the Romantic era and has some of the faults of the age, including melodramatic declarative speeches, a certain vagueness about concrete specifics, and a tendency to tell rather than show. Rather than dramatising it, we are sometimes told in so many words that so many months have gone by, and that such-and-such a specific psychological change has taken place in the protagonists.

            But it is still a key – and readable – specimen of a strong French tradition. Only Hollywood-fed Americans think French writers speak the language of love. What French writers really speak is the language of love clinically dissected.

Perverse footnote: Only after writing the above and coming to my own conclusions about the novel, did I read a long and somewhat pompous analysis of Adolphe in the British critic Martin Turnell’s The Novel in France (published 1950). Turnell would have us believe that Adolphe is a great masterpiece and that its defects (such as the failure to clearly characterize anybody except Adolphe and Ellenore) are in fact its strengths. Constant, says Turnell, is deliberately writing a cerebral, schematic novel, so characterization of others than the two leads doesn’t matter. I don’t agree with this, but I did find interesting all the detail Turnell gave on Benjamin Constant’s precocity as a child, French Protestant background, and reaction against a Calvinist morality which nevertheless gave him a coldly intellectual conception of what love is.

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