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The Horrors of Love
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A- : glorious heap of a novel-in-dialogue, anatomizing an affair and storytelling itself
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The complete review's Review:
The Horrors of Love is a novel presented almost entirely in dialogue, a conversation between I -- identified also as 'Monsieur J.D.'; the author of The Taxis of the Marne; and eventually explicitly as Dutourd himself (as he indulges in a bit of wishful thinking, that: "In two or three hundred years' time people would refer to the 'divine Dutourd' or the 'great Jean'") -- and a friend of his, referred to only as: He.
The I-narrator adds some commentary of his own between the conversation-sections, offering background and transition, but the bulk of the text is simply dialogue, reading like a play-script without stage directions.
It is also almost entirely a two-hander, as practically all the conversation is between these two men, though (very) occasionally other voices pop up briefly, such as a waiter taking an order, while a maître d'hôtel does get to share his life-story over a few pages.
I do believe, in fact, that I have a Proustian eye, a Balzacian ear, I see everything without looking, I hear everything without listening but alas, my faculties stop short at that. I have the eyes and the ears but not the hand.And as even he understands:
I need someone to talk to. Not a passive companion, not an inert ear into which I can direct my flow of words, but a critical mind, quarrelsome, disagreeable, difficult (although well disposed), in short someone like yourself.Dutourd's alter ego is happy to play the part: seeking to make a novel out of the tragedy, he wants to draw him out and so engages him in conversation, allowing him to spill the whole sordid affair in all its detail -- but not without guiding and questioning his progress all along. Along the way, they frequently get sidetracked about the broader implications, of recounting life and events, of the relationship to literature, and, of course, of such things as the very nature of love (as well as by true incidentals: a fine meal, observations of different Parisian vistas across these many hours, and the like).
Part of the appeal and fascination for narrator J.D. is that Roberti -- whom he also vaguely knew -- is: "Not the sort of hero I'd choose if I were writing a novel". Indeed, neither Roberti nor the mistress he takes, are particularly sympathetic (or heroic, or extraordinary, etc.), yet in his account J.D. is completely won over, not just by the story but by its telling, the presentation (that he then adapts for his own novelized version). For him, this is an exercise in fiction, a different approach to the novel (from the many he has already churned out) and to story-telling, and with the perfect conversation-partner, J.D. finds his inspiration.
Nevertheless, he doesn't let J.D. get too carried away with their exercise in storytelling, reminding him at one point:
Calm yourself. You are not Dante. Nor am I Virgil. We are just two bright lads of the positivist era having a good time while we tell each other stories.J.D. maintains: "The conception of art as the 'mirror of life' is absurd and utterly false", and yet chooses an almost documentary approach, presenting The Horrors of Love as if it were a simple transcription (though suggesting repeatedly that he has tailored it to his purposes), a double-mirror of reality describing reality. But the point both speakers repeatedly make is that even reality is all a matter of interpretation, everything refracted through the speaker/writer/artist's eye (and re-creating hand), the artist as: "neither camera nor tape-recorder", the representation of events (and of the whole world) a personal one; hence:
Before it resembles nature, a work of art first resembles the artist. If the mirror you hold up over men's paths is not a distorting mirror, then it's a bad one.Of course, this story has two artists behind it: he, who recounts the story, in his own particular way, and then J.D. who uses that account (which he has helped guide and shape through their conversation) as the basis for his novel. J.D. even complains about -- or at least notes -- some of his: "haphazard way of storytelling, which consists of mixing up periods, giving away the end in the middle, and then working backward" -- but sticks to the same architecture in the final written version. Of course, this 'giving away the end' and similar arguably anti-climactic or at least premature reveals reinforce one of J.D.'s central points, that it's the telling that matters, more than the 'story', and that even giving away the end doesn't necessarily undermine a narrative (while posing yet another review-quandary: what to give away of the plot, as even if some things are revealed out of sequence, he does take his time before doing so ...). Presumably -- since he follows suit -- J.D. admires his admission: "I love ruining my effects. To me it's the quintessence, the height of elegance where art is concerned."
The story itself is simple: at age fifty, Roberti takes a mistress half his age, Solange. He has a wife, the devoted Agnes, and they have three boys. Roberti has strayed on previous occasions, but never seriously or for long, but his relationship with Solange develops into something deeper and more complex. And, as J.D. notes:
Roberti the honest deputy, the good husband and father, with fifty years of respectability and the Legion of Honor, couldn't matter less. He's devoid of interest. He's the stuff for a middle-class American novel. But Roberti the secretive, the wayward, the complex is intriguing. [...] What is so fascinating is the hidden paths which led to his crime.This is not some great romance. Roberti is no gentleman, and he treats Solange rather poorly, doing his best to keep her at arm's length, more concerned about being seen with her (even when they travel abroad) than her feelings; among the funniest scenes is his reaction to an acquaintance running into him and Solange while they're on a getaway-trip in Italy. When he rents a shabby pied-à-terre for their trysts he doesn't even give her a key (among other reasons: for fear that she'd clean the place up and give it a homey look). Among the most revealing (and pivotal) scenes finds Solange at a Comédie-Française premiere (at which he also happened to be in attendance), having invited a friend of her brother to accompany her when her boss gave her his tickets. As it happens, Roberti took his wife to the same performance; indeed, Roberti wound up sitting next to Solange. Typical of their lack of communication, the lovers were surprised to see each other there; typically, too, they pretended not to know each other -- and:
Her heart may well have been beating as wildly as Edouard's but it was impossible to tell. No trace of a blush; she was the perfect image of indifference. Conversely, the latter was flabbergasted out of his wits; so much so that when he trod on Solange's foot he didn't even think to say "Excuse me !" It was this, I learnt later on, which hurt her most. She imagined that he had stepped on her foot deliberately, out of spite, in revenge for the untoward chance which had set him down beside her in the theater.That pretty much says it all about the state of their relationship, and the level of their mis- or lack of communication and (lack of) attempts at mutual understanding. Summing up:
HE: [...] Her affair with Roberti was a Parisian affair, enclosed within stones and tarmac, asphyxiated by coal gas, a love singularly lacking in pure air and wide-open space, a love confined, nightmarish, Baudelairian ...Roberti takes an intellectually superior attitude throughout, too, and tries to act as a cultural mentor -- to the chagrin of our conversationalists, who deem Roberti's own tastes pathetically bourgeois and limited, too. Nevertheless:
HE: [...} Such is the gift Edouard made her. An invaluable gift in her eyes, moreover, thanks to which I suppose she will cherish a tender thought for him all her life. He will have been the man who opened her mind., who introduced her to beauty, who broke down her narrow horizon.Solange, swept away by the interest of the older, more experienced man at first, enjoys their physical relationship and barely complains about Roberti's caddish behavior; nevertheless, she comes to realize -- subconsciously at first, but then increasingly consciously -- that this really isn't a long-term thing for her to invest too deeply in, especially since Roberti won't commit to (or even consider) giving her the one thing that could tie her happily to him and then the memory of him: a child. Meanwhile, however, what had begun as just another fling for Roberti proves to have an ever stronger hold on him. He can't commit himself to Solange, and she rates a poor third place behind his obligations to family and his political career -- she is left completely by the wayside come election-season, for example -- but he can't break free either, falling well and truly in love with her so that eventually his passion was: "nurtured on all these other sentiments and now turning into a monster".
This is very much a book aware that, as he puts it: "Love takes place much more in the mind than in bed", and it certainly plays some serious mind-games with Roberti. Solange enjoys their rolls in the hay and feels a lingering bond to her lover, but -- with some outside support that she has wisely worked towards building up -- has an easier time of not getting hopelessly caught up in this emotional-intellectual tangle and, with some help, ultimately freeing herself from it.
Solange's brother, Valentin, learnt of the affair early on and is furiously disapproving of it; he tried to win their parents over to oppose Solange's behavior, but they couldn't bring themselves to stand up to their daughter, disapproving, but not very firmly or loudly. Valentin had hoped to set up Solange with his close friend Legay, and while Solange prefers her adventures with the older married man, she finds herself eventually turning to Legay -- at first for friendship, but certainly with a romantic twinkle in both their eyes, as they are clearly a much more appropriate pairing.
The catastrophe at the end of Roberti and Solange's affair leads to murder and a trial -- events rather well known to J.D., since the sensational news apparently filled the press. Yet as he notes;
(A)t his trial Roberti's true soul never appeared. Only the material facts were evoked and by induction a crude portrait was drawn of the accused bearing no relation to the truth, endowing him with coarse and vulgar features which had never been his.The Horrors of Love is an attempt to get beyond the material facts, and to offer a full portrait and explanation. While recognizing Roberti as deeply flawed and limited ("Prickly, tiresome, hard to fathom, an elusive character, neither black nor white, neither fish nor fowl, complex"), he is nevertheless sympathetic and understanding, while J.D. is, at least, open-minded and curious. The 'facts', and truth, are all well and good; what interests J.D. is the real heart of the matter:
It isn't very hard to portray reality. I don't pretend it is within the reach of the first fool you meet but at least it is not a superhuman task. [...] Copying reality is the first step in art, or the first step in a revival after art has been bogged down a long time in mannerisms. That is the least one can do. What one has to produce is something truer than the truth and believe me, that is tough.If the build-up -- to the first kiss, the first intimacies -- is (very) gradual, the terrible, inexorable end comes fast, the affair collapsing but in melo- rather than simply dramatic fashion, neither party able to let entirely go. November 9th, 1957 -- the date specified to suggest again documentary precision -- proves a turning point, both overreacting in turn, their rash actions ensuring the complete breakdown of their relationship. And yet even after this, even after Solange has gotten pregnant with the child of the man she expects to make her future with she can't commit to him entirely, Roberti's hold on her something she can't (and won't) readily free herself from. She continues to play her part in Roberti's increasingly awkward and frustrated game, but even the motions become stilted; they both see it, but while Solange has prepared her escape route and future haven, Roberti can't see a way out, his conflicted feelings completely overwhelming what rational decision-making powers he might otherwise have. If not exactly surprising, the showdowns and ending nevertheless offer decent high (melo)drama in their Greek-level tragedy.
He enthuses at one point about the possibility of J.D.'s project:
The complete diary of a great love affair which should at the same time be a mediocre one, as great loves usually are. Everything. You would have to put everything into it. All the greatness and all the mediocrity. And the passing of time, now slow, now racing ahead, with its acres of boredom, the wounds and humiliations it inflicts. Showing love in all its splendor and all its horror [...] Ten thousand pages. Twenty fat volumes. A monument of literature.But J.D. -- an author, a master of his craft -- knows that getting at the truth, and revealing it, is not merely a matter of -- the in any case impossible -- perfect reproduction of life. And instead of a truly documentary novel, he's willing to defer to him and take over the story second-hand, leaving it at whatever he tells him (and leaves out), with only a bit of nudging and directing when he asks for more detail about a specific turn of events or a character, or wonders aloud about what he has been recounting.
The novel approach is an experiment in story-telling, as J.D. feels constrained by the tried and true. So also he describes one recent failed effort:
I wanted to write a beautiful novel like Balzac or Tolstoy, with all kinds of vicissitudes, war, revolution, disasters, two hundred characters and so on. It was crazy. One should write ugly novels, which are like nothing else.The Horrors of Love is a glorious, fat indulgence, not entirely "like nothing else" but a fascinating experiment in form and style.
Layered in, too, is a rich social, cultural, and political portrayal of the France of that time, Roberti's fall coinciding with the collapse of the Fourth Republic -- "his private shipwreck was swallowed up in the general one, as if, infinitesimal as he was, he embodied one kind of France which was on the way out". (Hammering home that point, the last specified date mentioned in the book, in its final summing up, is November 10th, 1958, closing the book on Roberti on: "the opening day of the first election campaign of the Fifth Republic.)
Culture, in particular, features in the novel, as J.D.'s protagonists aren't philistines but cling to what he considers a refinedly poor taste. The author makes clear where he stands, belittling the works of Sartre, Gide, and many others, and denouncing Mme. de Lafayette's The Princesse de Clèves at some length. Proust, Balzac -- such are artists, but neither Roberti nor Roberti-coached Solange appreciate that.
The talented Legay's mind is a scientific-technical one -- he even engineers a great invention -- but Solange can't appreciate this kind of genius; she's learnt differently and it's a lesson from Roberti that she clings to. J.D. can't help himself in looking ahead to the inevitable consequences, offering his pessimistic prognosis:
Since Legay loves her more than she loves him, she will gradually persuade him that science is a lot of nonsense, unfit to occupy the faculties of an intelligent man. She will force him to read the complete works of Gide, Giraudoux, Valery Larbaud, Huxley, Hemingway, Sartre and others of that ilk. He, naturally, will obey his idol; he will progressively abandon his researches. It is she who will make him a failure.So: no happy end in sight, as the affair's legacy lingers on even in this respect.
Those are the revenges of grammar. We have at our disposal a huge vocabulary with only a poor quality cement to bind it.The Horrors of Love is an attempt at literary renewal, even as much of it leans heavily on tradition. Dutourd employs two protagonists who are distinctly mediocre -- but they must be mediocre, because they are representatives of their age and culture. There is little -- though not nothing -- heroic about them; they are human, and not particularly agreeably human, but their story is a powerful one, both in its telling and itself.
The Horrors of Love is a remarkable, fascinating, odd work. It rises easily beyond its place and era: it is much more than a document of its times, it is a modern classic.
- M.A.Orthofer, 28 October 2014
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French author Jean Dutourd lived 1920 to 2011. He was a member of the Académie française.
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