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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Beautiful Image

Marcel Aymé

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To purchase Beautiful Image

Title: Beautiful Image
Author: Marcel Aymé
Genre: Novel
Written: 1941 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 227 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Beautiful Image - US
Beautiful Image - UK
Beautiful Image - Canada
La belle image - Canada
La belle image - France
  • French title: La belle image
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Sophie Lewis
  • Previously translated by Norman Denny as The Second Face (1951; later republished under the title The Grand Seduction)
  • La belle image was made into a film in 1951, directed by Claude Heymann and starring Franck Villard

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Our Assessment:

B : agreeable little identity-crisis story

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times* . 18/4/1952 Orville Presoctt
The NY Times Book Rev.* . 13/4/1952 Charles J. Rolo
Time* . 14/4/1952 .
TLS* . 26/10/1951 Anthony Powell

*: review refers to a previous translation

  From the Reviews:
  • "Ridiculous, ordinary, but very human, little Cerusier is one of the richest literary creations of the year." - Time

  • "All this is amusing enough, and is easily imaginable as a play in a Paris theatre. There are, however, moments when the author seems to toy with something rather more serious, which never takes quite successful shape. (...) The translation is serviceable rather than subtle." - Anthony Powell, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Beautiful Image has a simple premise, of just the sort that Marcel Aymé specializes in: a man finds that, from one moment to the next, his physical appearance -- in particular his face -- has changed completely. He is unrecognizable -- at least by sight -- as the man he was. Typically, too, Aymé is expert at introducing the premise, as the opening scene of the novel has Raoul Cérusier applying for something that involves submitting various documents -- including some passport-sized photos which no longer bear any resemblance to him. It's a great opening as Cérusier is made to face this absurd situation, forced to think on his feet as he realizes that his protestations -- that of course those photos are of him -- strike everyone else as ridiculous.
       Cérusier is a broker, running his own small business, but he realizes that with this new visage he cannot continue with his old life: no one will believe his absurd story. He manages to get some money from the office, and convince his employees -- and his wife -- that he has to rush off on a business trip to Bucharest for several weeks-- but then he starts life anew, as Roland Colbert.
       The name is just the start, he thinks:

My voice, which had not changed, my handwriting, my habits, my feelings towards people, certain ways of thinking and reacting were now traps to avoid. As much as possible, I had to fashion myself a personality that would suit my new face.
       He's surprised at how easy this is: he returns to his neighborhood and haunts, and walks by familiar faces unrecognized. He takes an apartment a floor above his own, and gets himself more or less employed by his own firm. And he wonders how far he should take this new life -- should he, for example, try to seduce his wife in this new guise ?
       Raoul/Roland reveals himself to his wife's batty uncle, a man so confused that he actually is fairly easy to convince (Raoul also reveals himself to a friend of his, but he doesn't buy the story for a minute). Uncle Antonin is a comic figure whose attempts at helping Raoul keep his secret never go quite right. Meanwhile, Roland goes about courting and seducing his own wife -- while also considering what greater breaks he could make, now that he can completely reinvent himself.
       Eventually, Raoul finds:
in fact there was nothing left of Raoul Cérusier but my belief in his existence.
       And he's not so sure he likes that .....
       Beautiful Image allows a man to face his mid-life crisis in a novel way, and explores identity-issues in a variety of ways, suggesting how much appearance -- and familiarity -- matter in our interaction with even those we think we are closest to. Unfortunately, Aymé doesn't spin the tale out nearly far enough, playing only very gently with Raoul/Roland, and with his premise (and allowing for a very soft landing).
       First published in 1941, during the German Occupation, there's unavoidably a political subtext here: of showing one's true face, of being an infiltrator, spy, seducer, and the like. Here, too, Aymé treads very carefully -- a shame, because much more could have been done with this material in this regard as well.
       In convincing Uncle Antonin not to reveal his true identity to his wife and children Raoul argues:
You can't bring children up thinking that the natural order of things can be reversed and that we have to allow for the absurd.
       But Aymé's stories and premises are built on little else, and one of the pleasures of his writing is that they do suggest the 'natural order of things' is no such thing, and that the absurd must always be allowed and welcome. Here, unfortunately, his conviction seems less strong, his story curiously muted.
       Beautiful Image is still an agreeable, enjoyable tale; it just seems Aymé didn't do nearly all he could have with it.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 March 2010

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Beautiful Image: Reviews: La belle image - the film: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Marcel Aymé lived 1902 to 1967.

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