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A Wonderful Selfish Love Story,
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This review is from: The Devil in the Flesh (Penguin Modern Classics) (Paperback)
My browsing experience on Amazon led me to this wonderful novel, "The Devil in the Flesh, by Raymond Radiguet. I had not heard of the novel before my browsing experience and I must admit that one of things that attracted me to considering the novel as one that I should read is the erotic and alluring picture on the front cover - at least in the edition that was on display on Amazon at the time. There certainly is much to be said about the cover in which a novel is presented. However, eroticism aside, between the covers of this short novel is a profound analysis of what love means albeit through the selfish and manipulative perspective of our nameless narrator.
Radiguet's novel is set against the backdrop of the First World War. One of the implicit impacts of the war is that the young men of the nameless town where the novel is set is drawn away to the battle fields. The young heroine's, Marthe, fiancé and later husband, Jacques, is one such young man taken up by the war. Into this vacuum steps our young nameless 16 year old narrator who falls for Marthe, aged 19. The narrator's love is reciprocated by Marthe and their love develops into a full blown adult-like relationship with the eventual birth of a son. In the context of a ménage a trios, youthful love and the local people's reaction, Radiguet presents us with a brilliant exploration, from one perspective, of what it means to be in love.
Along with the exploration of love, the novel is about desire. Radiguet used the backdrop of the war to allow his main characters to push against the boundaries of local conventions. In this case and in the particular time period Radiguet seems to test just how far the towns folks would allow the desires of a 16 year old boy and a 19 year old young woman to be realised and flourish. Of course, the key desire here is that of the flesh. The question is would the town folk grant our nameless narrator his wish when he tells us that: "I wished for nothing except this everlasting betrothal our bodies lying barely touching in front of the fire, me not daring to move for fear that a single gesture might be enough to dispel the happiness."
But I must return to the novel's main theme that of love - indeed an illicit love. For such a short novel and given the age of Radiguet when he wrote it (I a told he was in his late teens), it brilliantly explores the deep recesses of forbidden love. It is a deeply touching account of what it means to be in love. There are the secrets kept from family and friends only to be uncovered later; there are the uncertainty and insecurity in respect of decisions and actions, and then there is the coming out with its consequences of reprimand and worse social ostracism.
The novel is also about a coming of age for both young lovers especially the young male participant. He tells us: "It was clear that I still had a long way to go before becoming a man." But the reader must not be sucked in by the romance partly borne of Marthe's sterile marriage. No matter where our sympathy lies what cannot be ignored is that Radiguet has left us with an unpleasant young character - almost and anti-hero. Even though he is younger than Marthe, the main character, narrator, is nonetheless self-centred and manipulative. He controls not only Marthe but also her relationship with Jacques. In one scene this is what the narrator does to assuage his conscience: "It was me who dictated the only affectionate letters that he (Jacques) ever received from his wife she wrote them under protest, in tears, but I threatened never to see her again if she didn't do as I said. That Jacques should owe his only moments of joy to me helped ease my remorse.
The writing, and hence dare I say the translation, is a joy to read. The novel's figures of speech are extravagant and wonderful. Here is the narrator describing his feelings on seeing Marthe, now married, after a good period of time: "I felt happy and sad all at once, like a playwright who sees a performance of his play and realises too late all it flaws." I loved the novel's aphoristic moments as it delivered beautiful short pithy maxims such as on the narrator's first kiss of Marthe he tells the reader: "The flavour of that first kiss disappointed me, like fruit you taste for the first time. It's not in new things that we experience the greatest pleasure, but in habit." I also wallowed in its purple passages, a throw back to the nineteenth century novel: "Marthe, my jealousy followed her to the grave, I wanted there to be nothing after death. In the same way, we can't bear to think that the one we love is with a crowd of people at a party to which we haven't been invited."
I was charmed by this novel and I some places it brought a smile to my face. It is quite simply a wonderful novel about love wit a subtle pointer to the social climate of the time. It has a place among the great early twentieth century novel - do read it.