Why distrust what brings you closer?

Count d’Orgel, by Raymond Radiguet

Raymond Radiguet died in 1923 at the age of 20. He left behind him a poetry collection and two novels. He’s a writers’ writer it seems, with fans including Cocteau and Huxley. I’m glad they liked him, because I didn’t.

Radiguet’s two novels are The Devil and the Flesh (which John Self recently kindly sent me a copy of, so that’ll appear on these pages in due course too) and Le Bal de Comte d’Orgel – Count d’Orgel (I would have thought a better translation The Ball of the Count d’Orgel, but I admit that sounds slightly antiquated. I can see why Count d’Orgel’s Ball was avoided, particularly given the subject of the book). Count d’Orgel was published posthumously by Cocteau in 1924, and comes with an afterword by him.

The afterword is short but good value, not least because of a quote it contains from Radiguet’s notes which sets out the essence of Count d’Orgel:

A romance in which it is the psychology that is romantic. The only effort of the imagination is applied not to outside events but to the analysis of feelings. A chaste love story as shocking as the least chaste. Style badly written as elegance must appear to be badly dressed. The social aspect: a useful atmosphere for the portrayal of certain feelings, but not a picture of society; difference to Proust. The background does not count.

It’s an excellent synopsis. So good in fact I wish I’d read it beforehand rather than after, I might have enjoyed the book more. Count d’Orgel is the story of a love triangle between the count, his wife Mahaut and a young man named François de Séryeuse who comes into their circle. François and Mahaut fall in love, but the fact of their love causes the Count to look at his wife afresh and so the married relationship is perhaps strengthened by the possibility of the extra-marital one.

This is a book largely without incident. The ball of the French title is prepared for but the entire book takes place before it. The characters meet, they talk and go to functions, but the action is all internal. Their emotions are what matters, their reflections (often inaccurate) on their own motives. This is very much a psychological novel. It’s the sort of story Stefan Zweig is so fond of. Undercurrents of passion suppressed beneath convention, but which threaten to burst out and to change everything.

So, why didn’t I like it? Well, there were a number of reasons really. I was indifferent to the characters for one. I don’t ask of a novel that I like the characters or that I sympathise with them. I certainly don’t ask that I empathise with them. The best novel I’ve read was Madame Bovary in which there wasn’t a single character I found remotely likeable.

The problem here was that I neither liked nor disliked these characters. I didn’t find them intriguing and nor did I wish to understand them better. I didn’t care whether Mahaut chose François or stayed with the Count. That’s a problem.

The question of course is why I was indifferent. It’s hard to answer. I think though the answer lies in Radiguet’s tendency to overexplain, which I’ll speak more about shortly.

Another issue that distanced me from the novel was its relentless and suffocating snobbery. This isn’t generally an issue for me with fiction. I’ve enjoyed Huxley after all and while I have a colleague at work who couldn’t complete A Dance to the Music of Time due to its particular snobbery (which is definitely present) I was never too concerned by it. What Huxley and Powell have though to compensate for their faults is compassion, a sense of the failings of those they portray. Here the cast of Count d’Orgel seem so utterly self-absorbed in their own sense of importance that such humanity as they had was swallowed by their surfaces.

Here’s an example. In this passage the Princess d’Austerlitz is introduced. Her car has broken down by the gate to an estate where a party is to be held. A crowd has gathered to “admire smart society” as it enters, and the breakdown leaves the princess stranded among them:

Under a gas lamp, in evening dress, with a coronet on her head, Princess d’Austerlitz was directing the repairs, laughing and talking to the mob. She was accompanied by an American lady, Mrs Wayne, who had a great reputation for beauty. Like all society reputations it was exaggerated. Anyone with the least insight could discover that she did not behave like a woman who possessed an assured advantage.
Princess d’Austerlitz was magnificent under the gas lamp which suited her better than the brilliance of electric light. She showed up well among these roughs, as much at ease as if she had always lived in their company. To avoid mentioning a name as showy as hers, everybody called her Hortense, which could imply that she was the friend of everyone, and in fact she was, oexcept of those who did not wish her to be. She was goodness itself. But moralists would perhaps have deplored it in the name of goodness. Certain houses were hostile towards her on account of the looseness of her morals.

So, uninteresting characters and an irresistible sense that those with most merit are those born with it. Much worse than either of these issues though is the one that for me was fatal. Radiguet explains everything.

This is a psychological novel. The entire point is the characters’ mental state. It’s a narrative which calls for subtlety and nuance. Unfortunately, at each stage Radiguet states quite explicitly what the characters each feel, indicates where they are misled as to their own emotions and generally leaves no space in which the reader can draw their own conclusions. I think this is at the heart of the other issues too. I didn’t care about the characters because I was given no space in which to care, no gap to cross to meet them. They were served to me fully prepared.

Here’s a short example:

François was not fully aware of his mother as an aristocrat. He was therefore inclined to exaggerate his personal merit, not realising that if he was received in exclusive houses it was often because of a family air, which other people did not even observe. For instance, in an Orgel’s fancy for François, there was perhaps the pleasure of finding something new in what is familiar.

It’s perhaps ungenerous, but I would have preferred Radiguet to show me how François mistook his station for his own merit, how Orgel’s liking for him was in part a liking for a previously unfamiliar member of his own class. By telling me all that, Radiguet has left me as a reader with nothing to do. It’s worse when the passages in question relate to the characters’ feelings for each other.

A psychological novel of necessity depends on two things: the portrait of the characters’ emotions and the language used to form that portrait. Radiguet is clever in having the driver of the drama being unexpressed desires, he is right that the result is as shocking (if that’s still the right term nearly 90 years later) in its way as expressed desires would be. Perhaps more so. The language though too did not entirely work for me.

Radiguet is exceptionally fond of similes. Things are always like other things. Sufficiently so that I became tired of it and worse began to notice it. Radiguet is known for the economy and beauty of his style, with this the best expression of it. For me though, on this occasion, it was lacking.

There is humour in the book. Much of it though is somewhat laboured. There is a farcical interlude when François is speaking with Mrs Wayne who is trying to seduce him by speaking of love but who he thinks is hinting at his own illicit feelings for Mahaut. It goes on too long for me. There are also passages such as the following:

Mme Forbach was married in 1850 to the Prussian Squire von Forbach, an alcoholic, collector of commas. This collection consisted of checking the number of commas contained in an edition of Dante. The total was never the same. He began again without remission. He was also one of the first to collect stamps, which at that time seemed quite mad.

All that said, it’s by no means all bad (I’m not sure I’m saying it’s bad at all, simply that I didn’t like it). Radiguet does have a nice eye at times for character, the Comte himself being the most interesting example. He’s a man completely at home when in public and on display. His whole persona is shaped around his position, with the result that when passion enters his marriage he is quite at a loss to understand his own response let alone that of others.

When drinking or eating he moved his free hand to prevent anyone interrupting and to impose silence. This gesture had become a tic and he did it even when there was nothing to fear, as today when his wife who never spoke, and François very little, were not dangerous rivals.

Radiguet also shows at times a wry (and intensely French) wit which works much better than his attempts at comic set-pieces. He remarks on how the “harmony of the Count and Countess d’Orgel’s movements expressed an understanding which love or habit alone can produce” and later notes that on a particular occasion “her husband desired her as though she were not his wife.”

Still, I’m left with the fact that the novel bored me. Radiguet sets out here to examine in painstaking detail the emotions of an affair that isn’t. That’s an interesting ambition and he largely succeeds. The chapters are very brief, often only a page or two. We move from scene to scene, the author’s eye observing vignettes and analysing their importance (sometimes with expressions of surprise or uncertainty). The effect is of an early arthouse movie, where the camera denies the viewer the comfort of narrative so forcing them to engage instead with the medium itself.

As I come to the end of this review, I can see why Cocteau, Huxley and others liked this. There is an audience out there for slow and contemplative works which don’t follow established rules of fiction. Sometimes I’m that audience. This time, however, I wasn’t. I’ll keep it around, I have a slight feeling I perhaps massively missed the point. Perhaps I’ll return to it. Perhaps my error was in reading Radiguet when my mood called more for Zweig. Perhaps Radiguet’s error was thinking he was Laclos. He refers to him at one point in the narrative, but I think he still had much to learn from that particular master.

Count d’Orgel. The Pushkin Press translation is by Violet Schiff.

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24 Comments

Filed under French Literature, Novellas, Radiguet, Raymond

24 responses to “Why distrust what brings you closer?

  1. Hi
    To be honest, when I saw you were reading this, I wondered why you chose to.
    I liked “Le diable au corps” very much (Why is that translated by The Devil and the Flesh ? It doesn’t mean the same thing for me) and I was really disappointed by Le Bal du Comte d’Orgel.
    Why not try Romain Gary for a change ? (kidding)

  2. I chose it because I have a copy, and because it sounded potentially interesting.

    On the surface, it sounds good. It’s called a masterpiece by many, it’s all about the language and the psychology, novels of that sort also appeal to me.

    I want to like it more than I do. I find it hard though to get over the fact it bored me.

  3. Something else : there is probably irony in the choice of the names. Princess d’Austerlitz ? Austerlitz being a Napoleonian victory, this suggests another snobbery towards imperial nobility titles versus those coming from the Ancien Régime period.
    Mrs Forbach ? I know the city named Forbach, it can only be ironic…

  4. Well I’m not the only one. At least you finished it–I didn’t. I had high hopes for this novel and was very disappointed in it. I can’t remember how far I got in it (quite far I think), and then I realised I was picking it up with reluctance; I couldn’t remember what I’d just read.

    I used to take finishing a novel as a point of pride–as though it was some sort of marathon, but that is long gone. Now I give books the old heave-ho as I have so many others I’d prefer to read if the one in hand is boring.

    Radiguet has that tragic thing going for him–a young promising writer cut off in his prime. After I put my copy away (permanently) I wondered if he just lacked the emotional experience to write about the subject he wrestled with. This is not meant to be a patronising attitude to youth or young writers–after all plenty of young writers produce amazingly mature work (Lermontov for example), but I did consider whether the subject matter eluded Radiguet somehow. All the elements are there (the social scenes), but there’s something missing.

    I wonder (futile) how he would have developed as a writer?

  5. bookaround,

    I’m quite sure you’re correct. There will be nuances that by virtue of my own class, background and references I missed. I’m sure there were ironies and doubtless some quite subtle jokes that quite passed me by.

    Guy, at this point it’s looking a bit unanimous. I’m pleased bookaround had read it too, I knew you had but I figured that would be it.

    I ditch when bored too, but it’s so short I didn’t feel the need here. That said, I don’t think finishing would have changed your take on it.

    Boring really is one of the worst faults a book can have. I can forgive poor characterisation, bad plot (which is of course very different to no plot), even clumsy language but I can’t forgive being bored.

    I wonder too how much the glamour of his fate lends lustre to his output.

  6. If being French is not an advantage to read French literature, when would it be one ? I’m sure I’m missing many things in English books too.

    However, you will find in other French books a reference to the difference between the three kinds of nobility titles (Ancien Regime, Premier Empire, Second Empire), especially in 19th century novels. (and maybe in Proust)

    Being called Mrs Forbach would be like being called Mrs Sheffield, if I think of English movies. I’m not saying that condescendingly, this is the region I come from. This city is in Moselle, which was annexed to Germany from 1870 to 1918. Hence the reference to the Prussian husband, I guess.

  7. I am surprised you were able to persevere with it – it sounds rather indigestible to say the least. Much as I admire Pushkin Press, they don’t always get it right – but perhaps they see some of their books as a type of museum exhibit which readers will buy solely for the sake of their commitment to literature.

  8. It’s very short Tom. I describe it as a novel above, but a case could be made for it as a novella too. It’s in that grey area where those forms meet.

    Enough people had hailed it as a masterpiece that I wanted to give it a fair chance. I will bail on a book on occasion, but usually it has to actively annoy me for that. This bored me, which is pretty unforgiveable, but there were sufficiently few pages that I thought it worth the effort anyway.

    A museum exhibit. Possibly so actually. That said, plenty of folk liked his first so we’ll see in a bit what I make of that.

  9. I like the way you elucidate the character issue. I get bothered when people say they don’t like a book because they don’t like the characters. Not all books are written with that aim in mind. BUT you need, I think, to find the characters interesting or intriguing (like say the ghastly Anouilh – sp? – in Perdume). To me that’s fundamental to my reading – being interested in or fascinated by the characters.

  10. Hi WG,

    One needs something. Interesting characters. An interesting situation, time or place. Spectacle. Plot. Something.

    Sometimes language alone is sufficient. The Jean-Euphèle Milcé I read and covered here is almost nothing but language and I thought it tremendous. But it’s a challenge to pull off. I don’t think here Radiguet manages it (though obviously others differ with me on that).

    In most books I think one needs characters worth reading about (not likeable as you say, that’s only one aim among many possible ones); or a plot worth turning the page for (generally then the book’s aiming just to entertain, though not always); or in any event something beyond just words on a page.

    Milcé’s words were reason enough for me regardless of the lack of plot and indeed the lack of credible character. He didn’t need more than words on a page. That’s exceptional though. Only the best writers can pull that off. I’m not yet persuaded Radiguet’s in that class.

  11. Gosh I was repetitive in that last comment. Oh well, I’ll let it stand. Obviously I was struggling with my own point.

  12. Yes, I agree with you on all counts but I understand your struggle to put into words. Every time I try, I want to qualify it, as in: Mostly this is the critical thing but then there can be that. On the other hand, if that is really excellent then this doesn’t matter so much. And yet, a bit of this and that can also work if done well, but …. I think you understand my point!

  13. I think it’s that there are no rules that can’t be broken by the right writer. But that doesn’t mean in the case of any particular rule that a particular writer can break that one.

    So there are writers who can ignore character, ignore story and ignore many other things and still write great books. And there are writers who can ignore story, but ignore character at their peril. And writers whose skill is story and who can get away with errors of language that would kill another author’s books. And so on.

    There are rules. They’re all breakable. But that doesn’t mean they don’t matter. The trick I think for each writer is breaking the right ones for them.

  14. “There are rules. They’re all breakable. But that doesn’t mean they don’t matter. The trick I think for each writer is breaking the right ones for them.”

    I agree with that.
    But I also think that good writers have something “original” in their work, in every sense of the word. Either their characters, or their stories or their style are new or odd, probably by subtely breaking the one rule they have the gift to break.
    That novelty or oddity becomes their DNA as a writer and readers can be captivated by their work.

  15. Very interesting to read this Max after having recently read The Devil In The Flesh. I found it to be a much more enjoyable read than this one seems to have been, perhaps because it is based so closely on the author’s own life. I look forward to hearing your own thoughts when you read your copy from John. My own review will be up on the blog later this month.

  16. Pingback: The chemistry between a book and reader « Pechorin’s Journal

  17. K

    First of all, sorry for my english being bad (it’s not my first language).
    Laclos probably inspired, but what Radiguet tried to do here was to write a modern take on “The Princess of Cleve”.
    It’s pretty much the same story, even though it might be argued that the main characters are more likeable in Mme de la Fayettes book. But I looked on “Count d’Orgels ball” as a sarcastic time piece, where Radiguet looks on post war Paris with ironic distance. And remember that the book wasn’t 100 percent finished when Radiguet died from typhus. The original manuscript is supposed to be much longer, this version was heavily edited by Cocteau before publication which makes it much closer in style to Cocteaus short novels from the same time.

    I really like “Count d’Orgels ball”, and the reason for this are all the humorous aphorisms.
    Those alone make the book really entertaining. And the prose might be overly descriptive but it’s still very, very clear and sharp.
    I know Mishima was a great fan of his authorship and this novel especially (he also wrote the play or novella “The death of Radiguet”). It’s easy to see why. Mishima mimicked his style in books like “The sailor who fell from grave with the sea”. That book is written with a sharpness and aphorism that closely resembles Radiguet’s book.
    If you read the book as a stylistic feat it’s fantastic, the story itself might be very dated, with a look on class that’s clearly elitistic, but the writing itself I found magic.
    I really liked the quote from where Francois rides the train to his home and hears a family discussing a play.
    “They thought being critical was the same thing as being sophisticated. Sadly that’s what everyone thinks, high and low”.

    Best wishes,

    K

  18. K,

    Thanks for your comment. I’m fascinated to learn of the link to The Princess of Cleve, and of the editing by Cocteau, neither of which I was aware of.

    The scene in the train is tremendous, you’re absolutely right. I remember it very clearly. Looking back, I’m rather sorry I didn’t mention it so I’m pleased you did.

    Interestingly, there’s another translation into English published by NYRB. I’m considering buying it to compare them. I often wonder with this sort of French fiction how much of the wit is lost in translation. I’m sure the translators try hard to retain it, but it must be a huge challenge.

    I’ve not read that Mishima, but I have wanted to read more of him. It’ll make an interesting point of comparison.

    Also, if you see this you should check out bookaroundthecorner’s blog and His Futile Preoccupations, both cover some excellent French literature if it’s an interest of yours.

  19. K

    I read the one from NYRB and loved it, but I guess it also depends on the taste. I found it very witty, which is the biggest reason for me loving it. “Count d’Orgels ball” might not be a perfect novel in any sense, but it’s one of the most quoatble.

    The translation in my language is from 1925, and not very fun or readable at all, so I prefer the one in english.

    Thanks for Bookaroundtehcorner, and I really like your blog.

    Best wishes,

    K

  20. I’ll definitely pick it up then. It’ll be interesting to compare two translations too, I’ve never done that before.

    Older translations can be tricky. 19th Century translations into English are often heavily doctored so as to remove passages deemed offensive for example. I’m reading intermittently some classic Chinese short stories, and the 19th Century translator pretty much had to excise or change details of a fair few of them as they contained sexual content thought inappropriate for a then English audience.

    Glad you like the blog. What is your native language out of interest? Your English is very good, certainly nothing to apologise for. I’ve not had the slightest problem understanding your comments (which have been rather illuminating on this one).

  21. About translations. Once I wanted to find a poem from Baudelaire and the translations were all quite different and none of them fully satisfactory. Poetry is an easy way to observe differences in translations.
    About wit in translation. Does the following paragraph sound witty in English?
    “In September 1835, one of the richest heiresses of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, Mademoiselle du Rouvre, the only daughter of the Marquis du Rouvre, married Comte Adam Mitgislas Laginski, a young Polish exile. We ask permission to write these Polish names as they are pronounced, to spare our readers the aspect of the fortifications of consonants by which the Slave language protects its vowels,—probably not to lose them, considering how few there are.” (Balzac)

    In French, it’s really caustic. I thought the translation missed that but maybe I missed the wit because my English is not good enough.

  22. It’s there BATC, but I wouldn’t say it was that witty. It’s a little stilted to my eye. Is it an old translation do you know?

  23. It’s a translation from Katherine Prescott Wormeley, who died in 1908. So yes, it’s an old translation. I needed one for my last post on Balzac, that’s the one I found online. I was disappointed by the translation.

    Please don’t call me BATC too, it looks like “bat”, not an animal I’m fond of.

  24. Apologies bookaround, I shan’t again.

    1908, yes, it could be a good translation for that time but what constitutes good style has of course changed since then.

    Older translations are sometimes of course still excellent and still very fresh, but they can also be problematic.

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