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'... love, which is selfishness in duplicate, sacrifices everything for itself...'
on 15 January 2012
'The Devil in the Flesh' is the first of two novels written by teenage prodigy Raymond Radiguet before his untimely death from typhoid fever at the age of twenty. Semi-autobiographical, the story charts a tumultuous love affair between a sixteen year old boy and a married woman whose husband is away fighting in the First World War.
The book is inherently nasty, exploring lust and obsession at its most selfish, and yet one cannot help but root for the couple's success. The unnamed narrator's ruminations on love are as profound as they are disturbing and pessimistic. Theirs is an all-consuming romance which is destined to end in ruins. His feelings for Marthe are paradoxical: they are tainted by, or perhaps they inspire, his 'despotic instincts' which drive him to possess and control her both mentally and physically. Whilst she wallows in her contempt for her husband, burning and tearing his unopened letters, he fluctuates between feelings of remorse and a jealous hatred of the cuckolded man. Their affair becomes the scandal of the town - which inspires an amusing scene of black comedy - and all the while, time is steadily marching towards the inevitable: the war can't last forever and the lovers must soon face the consequences of their actions.
Controversial upon its release, this is a book that still retains the power to disturb us today. Set during a time of unimaginable loss and anguish, the protagonists remain selfishly indifferent. The Great War is never depicted first hand and we are barely afforded a glimpse of soldier-husband Jacques - a man who seems to exist in a reality far apart from that of these young and careless people. As the narrator informs us: 'Let those who are already reproaching me try to imagine what the war meant for so many of us very young boys - four years of holiday.'