Sunday, April 15, 2007

Adolphe, by Benjamin Constant

There is a great deal of art created about being in love, but very little about not being in love – or not being quite sure what’s going on – despite the fact that the latter states are probably substantially more common and, finally, no less dramatic. They are, however, rather un-heroic and also somewhat unpleasant to read about. When you do come across characters who are not naturally passionate, they are usually depicted from the outside – from the perspective of the ardent lover as, for example, in Great Expectations – and very rarely get to explain their point of view. They only exist to be won over (or not) by the lover, and the assumption is always that there is something a little wrong with them.

Adolphe is one of the few novels told in the voice of a person who cannot easily respond to another person’s love (the only other book that comes immediately to mind is A Hero of Our Time). The narrator, Adolphe, is an intelligent young man, given to analysis and raised in a household without much affection, who begins a relationship almost as an experiment – and also because he understands that this is what people are supposed to do. The woman is already the mistress of a Duke, and has two children with him but no real rights as acknowledged by society. (The novel is two hundred years old, by the way, and in French.) Adolphe is familiar with the things that he is supposed to say and how he is supposed to act, and in doing these things almost convinces himself that he is actually in love – for a short time, in fact, he might feel something similar to the real thing.

Eventually, the woman succumbs, and as far as the reader can tell she is entirely in earnest. She gives up everything for him. Rather quickly, Adolphe’s ardor entirely cools, but he feels unable to detach himself from her. He alternates between trying to be honest about his feelings and then, when he sees her getting more and more distraught, rapidly feigns emotions that he desperately wants to feel but no longer does. She is not really fooled but also cannot live with the truth, so she is continuously either furious or miserable.

It proceeds in this manner for some time. Constant apparently wrote the novel as a form of therapy, and had no intention of publishing it until he had some serious financial trouble and desperately needed the money. He is obviously depicting his own character in the narrator, as well as a combination of past relationships, but he is fair to everyone and honest about himself in a way that I cannot imagine was easy.

Constant is famous, to the extent that people know him at all, as a political philosopher; this is his only novel and he is clearly not a born storyteller. He has only a modicum of narrative skill; the story is mainly used to pick up the central dilemma – an imbalance of love – and turn it so that it shows a different face. What if the woman sacrifices even more, he asks, what if the man thinks he has a brilliant career waiting for him, what role does a lack of money play, or a surfeit of it? And then the narrator analyzes the situation again from this vantage point.

This narrative method means that the novel has aged incredibly well; it only shows the passage of two hundred years in the short intervals in which the plot is relevant. Surprisingly, this penchant for analysis makes the novel no less moving. I read the novel in French (dictionary in hand) and found the end almost made me cry. The same was true, in fact, of Manon Lescaut, the only other book that I have read entirely in French. Part of the reason is that in English I am continually conscious of how the language is being used; in French – where I have no real aesthetic sense for prose – I can read like I did when I was child, purely for story and emotion.

In any case, read it in any language that you can manage. It is only about a hundred pages long – roughly the same length as He’s Just Not That Into You, but with a great deal more wisdom. There was a passage from Sons and Lovers that I remembered only after I finished the book, which could easily serve as its epigraph. It is just a conversation between two adolescents, but it is an unsophisticated restatement of the same problem that animates this novel.

That same evening they were walking along under the trees by Nether Green. He was talking to her fretfully, seemed to be struggling to convince himself.

“You know,” he said, with an effort, “if one person loves, the other does.”

“Ah!” she answered. “Like mother said to me when I was little, ‘Love begets love.’”

“Yes, something like that, I think it must be.”

“I hope so, because, if it were not, love might be a very terrible thing,” she said.

“Yes, but it is – at least with most people,” he answered.


Sherry said...

I must say... I've been reading your blog for over a year now (no I'm not very social to leave comments usually), and I really do enjoy them. They are well written as well as expressed. Also the fact that you do not favour one author or director over another is refreshing. Please keep up with this. I'd like to know if I may request a book. What your views on it would be. Let me know? Thanks!

Akshay said...

Absolutely, I'm always happy to get a recommendation.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if you could comment on why the Count and Ellenore were not married, or, it would seem, why the Count would not marry Ellenore.

I could find no reference to her unacceptability. Why was she not marriageable?

Any thoughts?

Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous, she was disgraced by a family scandal