Thursday, 20 August 2009

The myriad shifts and disguises of its self-centredness


I'm reminded, for the millionth time I'm sure, that I should never, ever make claims about what book I'm going to read next. I recently stated (and meant, with every fibre of my being!) that the next French work I would read would be Dumas's The Three Musketeers - and I've gone and read something that couldn't be more dissimilar: Benjamin Constant's Adolphe (1816).

Adolphe is a very short novel, but in spite of its diminutive size it's considered to be one of the greatest romances of psychology ever penned. And indeed, psychology is the main topic and event in this book, addressing as it does much more the feelings, impressions, and meditations of the titular character on his affair with the grabby yet intoxicating Ellenore, than it does the events themselves.

Indeed, as the editor and translator of this version of Adolphe argues, "...the most typical of French literature are works which plumb the depths of the human character, its passions, its motives, and expose the myriad shifts and disguises of its self-centredness." Because of this, "the characteristic French masterpiece...is economical in form, avoiding all by-products or dawdling by the wayside, all merely picturesque effects, all 'poetic' flights put in for their own sake. A uniquely French expression of this ideal is...uncompromising analysis of character and motive" (p. 7).

I recall reading some time ago that the classic Japanese authors (Soseki, Mishima, Kawabata, Abe) of the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries were heavily influenced by the 19th century French authors and I've finally been confronted with a novel in which I can really clearly see this literary relationship. Adolphe, the narrator, constantly and mercilessly examines all of his feelings and motivations in a way which is imitated (but in the highest, least derivative of ways) in the Japanese masters' works. None of it is either light or easy reading but it's all very satisfying, often almost breath-taking reading.

Constant's Adolphe is apparently quite autobiographical (Constant had a suitably stormy affair with the famous Madame de Stael) and this may account for its depth of insight. Whatever the cause, I found myself stopping often to re-read passages that surprised me with their clarity of perception and execution. Describing his early attempts to woo Ellenore, Adolphe describes his difficulties thus:
...I was checked by an invincible shyness. All my fine speeches died on my lips or ended up quite differently from what I had intended. Within me a battle was raging and I was furious with myself.

Accordingly I looked around for some rationalization which would enable me to emerge from this struggle with my self-esteem intact. I persuaded myself that nothing should be rushed, that Ellenore was all too unprepared for the declaration I was contemplating making, and that it would be wiser to wait a little longer. Nearly always, so as to live at peace with ourselves, we disguise our own impotence and weakness as calculation and policy; it is our way of placating that half of our being which is in a sense a spectator of the other. (p. 49)
I'm reminded of how Kobo Abe makes this kind of self-observation quite literal in The Face of Another, but with no fewer psychological consequences. In Adolphe, the narrator does not shrink from the contemplation of the shameful, humiliating, and cruel internal workings of himself or those around him. But he's not cruel, or at least not always cruel; often, he manifests a generosity and kindness that one wouldn't expect in such a ruthlessly introspective narrative (for example, when Adolphe is in mourning and he observes the other mourners around him):
Kneeling in a corner of the room I was part of the time lost in my own thoughts, and part, impelled by an involuntary curiosity, watching all these people gathered together, studying the terror of some and the inattention of others, and that strange effect of habit which brings indifference into all prescribed formalities and makes us regard even the most august and awe-inspiring ceremonies as matters of routine and pure form. I heard these people mechanically repeating the words of the prayers for the dying as though they themselves were never to be actors some day in a similar scene, as if they themselves were not some day to die too. And yet I was far from scorning such practices, for is there a single one of them which man in his ignorance can dare to call useless? They were bringing [the deceased] some peace of mind and helping [them] to cross that dreadful threshold towards which we are all moving without being able to foresee what our feelings will then be. What surprised me is not that man needs a religion, but rather that he should ever think himself strong enough or sufficiently secure from trouble to dare reject any one of them. I think he ought, in his weakness, to call upon them all. In the dense night that surrounds us is there any gleam of light we can afford to reject? In the torrent bearing us all away is there a single branch we dare to refuse to cling to? (pp. 118-19)
What I love about this passage is how instead of condemning humanity for its weaknesses at such a solemn, critical moment as the death of a fellow, Adolphe/Constant represents what a world of consolation is open to us.

Yes, I enjoyed this novel, very much. And I have absolutely no idea what my next French book will be, so don't ask, not even in the silence of your brain, in a locked room, in your city which may be thousands of miles away from mine - because I'm just that easily spooked off books that I might want to read.

5 comments:

heidenkind said...

I've run across mentions of Adolphe from time to time, but I have to admit I never even considered reading it. Now I think I might have to; I love that first passage you quoted.

Tony said...

No willpower ;)

Amateur Reader said...

Intense little book, isn't it? I'm not sure it all makes sense, but that's French literature for you - Chateaubriand, Stendhal, etc, etc. Plunges into the murkiest parts of our emotional life.

Colleen said...

heidenkind: Yes, it's a great passage. The book is just filled with others just as good. Also, the book is very short, so not a big loss if you don't like it!

Tony: Unfortunately true. Also, I'm very easily distracted.

Amateur Reader: I'm looking forward to these other hyper-contemplative guys for my French lit. project. I'm quite enjoying it so far!

verbivore said...

Here's another I've never read which you make sound like I'd really enjoy. I'll have to see if I can find a copy the next time I pass the secondhand bookshop.