Thursday 15 July 2010

'a strange kind of happiness'

The Devil In The Flesh 
by Raymond Radiguet

Raymond Radiguet was only 23-years-old when he died of typhoid fever, leaving behind two novels, a volume of poetry and a reputation enhanced by that tragic early death and his association with Jean Cocteau. The Devil In The Flesh was written between the ages of 16 and 18, making it by definition a juvenile work, but one inspired by his own affair with a married woman so let's not be too quick to dismiss it as the work of a boy. The book caused a scandal when it was first published in the year of his death, not because of any overtly sexual content but because it looked at the phenomenon, common during the years of the Great War, of those married women who had been left at home by their husbands fighting at the front taking young lovers. Our adolescent narrator speaks shamelessly from the start.

I am going to bring a great deal of criticism on myself. But what can I do about it?...People who reproach me should try and imagine what the War was for so many young boys - a four-year-long holiday.

Just twelve when war breaks out and shielded by his protective parents from friendship with the opposite sex he has a sensuality that has 'gained rather than lost ground' as a result. When the family go to spend time with the 'agreeable people', the Grangiers, he meets their 18-year-old daughter, Marthe. She is engaged to Jaques who is fighting on the front line but immediately our narrator shows his intentions and his first act of revenge when he is enlisted by Marthe to help choose the furniture for her marital bedroom. This is just the first example of his ability to exert power and influence over her and his first victory against her fiance as he thinks of the wedding night they will spend in 'my bedroom!'

Under the veil of friendship the two of them spend more and more time together (whilst her now-husband spends more and more time away) their intimacy growing until the moment where 'like the needle that strays a mere fraction into the forbidden zone and is drawn to the magnet' their lips meet in the kiss that changes everything. Just before this moment our narrator has given just one example of his adolescence: the bold contradictions - 'It was only now when I was certain that I no longer loved her that I began to love her.' The book is filled with them and with the equally strident statements of fact that tend to run through adolescent poetry. I remember it well! That period of sexual maturation, when passion is perhaps at its highest, causes one to speak like one has just learned a great truth about the world, about human relationships and you cannot help but say it out loud as if it is your duty to let the rest of the world know - 'love is like poetry...all lovers, even the most unremarkable, think they are breaking new ground'.

There is a darting roughness to the thoughts and narrative in this novel. It is difficult to know whether this is a result of author's youth or a brilliant depiction of it. If the book had been written by someone older then I'm sure we might think how clever they had been to communicate so clearly the fractured thoughts and callous behaviour of the adolescent narrator. Given the fact of his age and the autobiographical nature of the storyline its difficult not to think that the book is that way through necessity rather than choice. Does that diminish the artistic merit? I don't know, but what it does mean is that there is a searing honesty about the way in which Radiguet opens himself up for criticism (as he promised he would). He has no interest in making himself a sympathetic character, he behaves appallingly towards Marthe at times, she 'subjected to the whims of a callous boy'. But this is absolutely right it seems to me, the inexperience of a boy living in an extraordinary time, and exposed to the kind of experience that he is ill-equipped emotionally to deal with - 'I was using up all my nervous energy on cowardice and effrontery, exhausted by the thousand and one paradoxes faced by a person of my age wrestling with an experience that belonged to the world of men.'

One of the novel's other significant achievements is the way in which this extraordinary time is depicted. Near the opening of the book there is an incident where a demented maid seeks sanctuary on a rooftop providing entertainment for our narrator and others in the street and embarrassment for her employers.

If I dwell on this episode like this, it is because it helps to understand, more than anything else, what a peculiar time the War was, and how I was struck less by what was picturesque than by the poetry of things.

Our couple's secret affair always threatens to be pulled into the public arena. Danger lies not only with their respective families but with landlords and neighbours too. In another memorable set-piece Marthe's neighbours, the Marins, throw a society soiree to aid Monsieur Marin's political comeback. The Mayor is guest of honour and our couple are scheduled to provide the entertainment with their scandalous lovemaking. When our narrator gets wind of the plan he and Marthe frustrate them by keeping silent until the party disperses, the Marins safely disgraced, at which point they go at it with 'belated passion'.

It's impossible to know what Radiguet may have gone on to produce, but with this early work you can already see a remarkably mature understanding of love and relationships, a complete lack of vanity and a good eye for capturing the prescient details of the time. Before the notion of 'teenagers' even existed Radiguet captures something of their essence. I'd be interested to see whether his other novel, Count d'Orgel, backs up the promise shown by his first. Luckily that's published by Pushkin Press too so I have no excuse not to find out. And neither do you!


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