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So French

louise_de_vilmorinLes Belles Amours by Marie Louse Lévêque de Vilmorin was dedicated to Orson Welles, with whom the author had a long affair. She was also engaged briefly to Antoine de Saint-Exupêry, and had affairs with many eligible and interesting men in Paris during the 1950s, including Duff Cooper, the British ambassador, and the husband of one of her ex-husband’s former wives. The facts available about her life do seem to be focused on her love life rather than her mind, which seems a pity, since Les Belles Amours is a novel about the intellectualisation of lust. She was a friend of Cocteau, was Malraux’s patron, was photographed by Cecil Beaton, and was praised highly for the delicacy of her writing.

This new edition of Les Belles Amours from Capuchin Classics reuses what look like original pen and ink drawings from the 1950s, which add charm and period atmosphere to the story. M. Zaraguirre is nearly sixty, and remains irresistible to women. Everywhere he goes, women flock to him, long to be seduced by him, and clamour for his attentions. This is all very well when the women are in full cognizance of the game, and when nobody else will be hurt, but when M. Zaraguirre is invited to the wedding of the son of his dearest friends, the Duvilles, at Valronce, their country home, you would think that he would restrain himself on seeing the bride. But no: and here lies the difference between a French novel of the 1950s and an English one. In an English novel, when the ageing roué falls in love, a coup de foudre, with a girl less than half his age who is also to be married to a friend, he will stiffen his lip, attend the wedding, and feel tragic and mournful for the rest of his life. Not a happy novel there, unless you want to read about repression, suffering and gloom. In this French novel, M. Zaraguirre is invited, nay urged, by M. Duville, to take the girl into the garden the night before the wedding and to entertain her. The couple agonise briefly, fall into each other’s arms, were not parted that night, and have left for Menton together by ten o’clock on the morning of the wedding, travelling later to M. Zaraguirre’s home in South America. You have to admit, the French do elopements with efficiency and style.

After five years in congenial South American luxury they return to France, and Mme Zaraguirre (whom, we hardly notice, is not given a name in the novel until she is married and becomes her husband’s appendage) makes an unsuitable friend, who persuades her that it is her right to visit Paris, where she has never been. To Paris she goes, rather against the wishes of her husband, and meets Louis Duville again, from whom she ran away on their wedding-day. He wants to take a little revenge but cannot help being fascinated by her all over again. She slithers down a slippery slope of unsupervised conduct and her own assumptions about how she may behave, into a slightly tarnished reputation, and a firm belief that all her troubles are everybody else’s fault. She also seems to think it perfectly possible that she and her husband may be received again at Valronce, if only the Duvilles will allow bygones to be bygones. At this point my hackles began to rise against the social horrors of abused hospitality and serial infidelity: I hope we were expected to feel this as an ironic commentary from the author. The insouciance of Mme Zaraguirre is otherwise so idiotic as to be certifiable.

His relationship with the Duvilles is more important to M. Zaraguirre than his relationship with his wife, and, as a masterful man he can organise the world as he wants it. By the end of the novel, he and M. Duville are friends again, Mme Duville has forgiven him, and he has his eye on a new and even younger young girl in their circle, who is in love, as only an adolescent can be, with Louis Duville. Louis Duville, meanwhile, is trapped in a relationship with Mme Zaraguirre, the most beautiful and irreproachable mistress in Paris, whom he does not love, and from whom he can see no means of escape, particularly when she starts to talk of getting a divorce so they can marry.

Louise de Vilmorin by Cecil Beaton

Louise de Vilmorin by Cecil Beaton

Reading this novel is rather like watching beautifully mannered yachts sailing to and fro on a shiny sunlit sea: positions are exchanged in a rather formal manner, and relationships are gauged by proximity. The combinations of people and relationships, and who may know and not know what about whom, are explained in elegant prose (in a 1956 translation by novelist Francis Wyndham) that is a little like listening to a French philosopher. There is none of the breathless, witty dialogue here that characterises, for example, Nancy Mitford’s 1950s Paris novels The Blessing and Don’t Tell Alfred. Instead, de Vilmorin’s style is stately, formal, efficient, biting and utterly dégagée. Sophistication is expected, and the reader is required to share the author’s own views on how the world should work. If we loathe the way Mme Zaraguirre expects the world to be arranged to suit her requirements, we are also quite pleased at the way that it is not.

Louise de Vilmorin, Les Belles Amours (1954, 2012 Capuchin Classics), ISBN 978-1-907429-54-5, £9.99

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About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher (in no particular order) in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

4 comments on “So French

  1. Hilary
    January 15, 2013

    Ooh, this sounds delicious, if deliciously wicked. What a splendid review, so perceptive of what will make this novel distinctive. How right you are, that this book could not have been written as an English novel. I loved your image of the stately dance of adultery being like a yacht race, with beautiful objects changing position in a rather formalised way. It seems that Louise de Vilmorin specialised in these carefully choreographed and convoluted plots, as I have a happy recollection of her novel ‘Madame de …’ as a graceful ‘La Ronde’-like dance of changing partners, all so frightfully civilised until it all comes full circle. A bit of a guilty, exotic pleasure.

  2. Kate
    January 15, 2013

    La Ronde, yes, I must read that again, and I do want to try Madame de … It;’s the one de Vilmorin title all the articles about her mention.

  3. Jackie
    January 15, 2013

    Well, this is certainly different from what an American novel about the same subject would be! It sounds quite exotic for that reason & I’d be curious about my own reaction upon reading ti would be. I do like how you’ve woven biographical details and metaphors(the yachts) into the review. And that photo by Beaton is intriguing, what an unusual angle to take it from.
    Thanks for introducing me to someone new.

  4. Hilary
    January 18, 2013

    Kate, I expect that is because the Max Ophuls film of Madame de … is regarded as a rare classic. I’ve seen it only once in my life. I must look out for it again.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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