Life becomes very interesting when one feels one is dying

Louise de Vilmorin’s 1951 novella Madame de ___ is a beautifully crafted gem of a work. Deliberately written to evoke the style of French 18th Century literature, it is a small tale of the fate of a woman who loves unwisely (in a society where to love at all is quite unwise) and of how her most treasured possessions prove her undoing.

Madame de ___ (no character in the book is named, of which more shortly) is the wife of M. de ___, a rich and highly rational man with a position in society and with unimpeachable name and credit (and those two things cannot of course be separated). Madame de ___ owns “a pair of earrings made of two superb diamonds, cut in the shape of hearts”, a gift from M. de ___, given the day after their wedding.

Years later, as the book begins, Madame de ___ finds that her lifestyle and habit of misleading her husband through vanity as to how well she handles her accounts has left her in debt. She sells the earrings to the family jeweller, who informs the husband who promptly buys them again and gives them to his former mistress who is leaving the country. Coincidence leads the earrings back to Paris, and back into Madame de ___’s life, and from there they pass from hand to hand accompanied each time by lies so that what starts as a token of love becomes a symbol of its absence.

The novella provides no clues as to when it is set, my mental image was of 19th Century Paris, but the 18th would work just as well. There is a reference at one point to the possibility of a duel, that and the behaviour of the characters place us within those two centuries, but nothing is made explicit. Equally, descriptions are slight to the point sometimes of non-existence, no character has a name – each is identified merely by family or occupation (the jeweller, the nephew, the ambassador). We know the characters through their words and their feelings, not through their world.

And yet, for all that they have a surprising solidity. This is partly, of course, because we can mentally furnish their world ourselves. I’ve read 18th and 19th Century French literature and have a pretty good idea how those worlds functioned, my mental image may not be yours, but then is it for any book? Part of that solidity too though is the skill of the writing, the descriptions may be slender, but they are sufficient and de Vilmorin shows her skill in the way such sparse elements unpack in the mind to become much richer.

Here, on the first page, we first meet Madame de ___:

Elegance rather than beauty was accounted the mark of merit in the circle of society to which Madame de ___ belonged and in that circle Madame de ___ herself was acknowledged to be of all women the most elegant. She set the fashion among those who knew her and, as the men said she was inimitable, sensible women sought to imitate her. They hoped that some glint of her lustre might shine on them, and that their ears might catch some echo of the adulation she received. Wherever her approval fell, distinction was conferred; she was original in all her ways; she made the commonplace seem rare, and she always did what nobody expected.

The de ___’ s marriage is childless, and though once passionate is now loveless and a matter of form. Madame de ___ and her husband do not dislike each other, the book is not that kind, rather they have the feelings it is appropriate to have for one’s spouse, and in this time and place (whatever time this may be) such feelings do not of course include love. Their dealings with each other are proper and polite, as much so in private as in public.

Madame de ___’s small sin has been one of excessive consumption, of spending too much. But she is no Madame Bovary, her sale of the earrings controls her debts and she is already living the life Bovary dreamed of. Madame de ___ ‘s difficulty is that she loves, but her life has not equipped her for the honesty that love requires.

Like the earrings themselves, Madame de ___ has no real function beyond decoration. She is in a sense herself an object, an adornment to her husband’s life with her attainments reflecting upon his. She has no desires of her own, at least none that trouble the status quo. When she falls in love, however, this changes. She comes to question who and why she is, she comes to have wants of her own, ones at odds with her position.

Suddenly she felt that she no longer had any importance; she asked herself what she was doing in the world, and why she was living; she felt that she was lost in infinite space; she sought for the meaning of life and could find no answer in her mind, only the face of one person. Her heart grew heavy with the double weight of that presence and that absence. She felt a violent desire to be given confidence in her own existence and she felt that nobody could give it to her but the man without whom she now knew life would be unendurable.

I won’t speak to how the novella unfolds, Madame de ___ lives in a society where deceit is normal, accepted, where husbands have mistresses and wives’ lovers and none of this matters unless it is admitted or made public. Her ease of deceit is her undoing, even now she has love, her instinct is to lie, and lies and love sit poorly together. As with much of the fiction it is based on, Madame de portrays a world in which women have no meaningful choices and sharply constrained circumstances.

There is a single large coincidence at the heart of the novella, the earrings do after all have to reenter Madame de ___’s life after she sells them. Indeed, M. de ___ notes the issue at one point:

“Coincidence is very extraordinary,” he thought, “but perfectly natural. One can only wonder at it.”

The irony, however, is that what he thinks coincidence generally isn’t, it’s combination of people’s deceits that create the illusion of coincidence. Although the jeweller comes to sell the same earrings to M. de ___ no less than four times, chance plays very little part in any of it.

The earrings are at the centre of this novel, hearts carved from diamond, untouched and unchanging. The symbolism is obvious, but no less effective for that. De Vilmorin’s prose is cool and elegant, effortlessly readable. I read this in one morning, leaving home late because I’d taken a look at the first page and been captured, unfortunately arriving at work a little too early and so having to go out for a coffee so I could finish it.

Madame de ___ is a scant 58 pages long, and that in a Pushkin edition. In a more traditionally sized imprint it would of course be even shorter, making it arguably more of a short story than a novella. Still, however you characterise it, it is beautifully written and cleverly crafted and another example of how good Pushkin Press are at finding these underappreciated works and bringing them back to our attention. It is translated by former British ambassador to France, Duff Cooper (de Vilmorin’s lover), and comes with an interesting endnote by his son, historian John Julius Norwich. Louise de Vilmorin appears now to be more famous, in fact, for her lovers than her own work (Antoine de Saint-Exupery was among their number), which on the strength of this novella is a considerable shame.

On a final note, I found out about Madame de ___ through Guy Savage’s blog, his own writeup is here. Interestingly, he and I chose the same passages to quote, although I didn’t refer back to his review until after I’d already decided which bits I wanted to excerpt. Guy has a tremendous knowledge of Nineteenth Century French literature, much in excess of my own, and his analysis of this work is excellent. He has of course my thanks for bringing this to my attention, I doubt otherwise I’d even have heard of it.

Madame de

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5 Comments

Filed under de Vilmorin, Louise, French Literature, Historical Fiction, Novellas

5 responses to “Life becomes very interesting when one feels one is dying

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed Madame de, Max. Do you agree that the story has a lingering sadness? And just how did the author create the sense that this wasn’t a historical novel.

  2. I did find that, it’s quite an affecting little tale.

    The sense of it being an old contemporary novel rather than a historical novel is interesting, I think the use of spaces in place of names really helps that (as you mention over at yours), and there’s a certain formality of style too. It’s also, frankly, a very period story arc, no modern twists to it at all.

    Which is hard to do, Charles Palliser does it to great effect with Victorian fiction, his The Unburied and The Quincunx feel like Victorian novels rather than historical novels, but it’s a hard trick to pull off.

    Still, if I’d been asked to blind taste this, as it were, I wouldn’t have guessed 1951, and I think that’s in itself an achievement.

  3. I agree re: the blind taste test. In fact if I’d known Madame de was written in 1951, I wouldn’t have been so interested in reading it. There’s still the book-film-connection that I am fascinated by, but I tend to steer clear of historical novels. But as you say, Madame de didn’t slip once into modernity. Quite amazing really.

  4. So much hanging on a pair of ear-rings!

    I am also a devotee of Pushkin Press and occasionally consider joining their club scheme for £99pa (but never take the leap). Oh for a good literary library.

    Your description of leaving work for a coffee so you could read more is very typical of my own “working” life

  5. It’s hard to go wrong with Pushkin Press Tom, I’ve not had a disappointment yet. The £99 deal tempts, but I worry it would become a burden, an implicit pressure as they arrive through the door to read them rather than a lure sitting on the shelf. Perhaps not though.

    I actually don’t do the nipping out for coffee that often, but this is so readable and so short and the combination makes it a bit painful to stop part way. That said, I used to get breakfast in a cafe near work just so I could grab twenty minutes with tea, toast and whatever I was then reading…

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