It’s been a while since I was hardcore about it, but I used to have a thing for nineteenth century French novels. There was a time in my teens when I was gobbling up doorstops by Dumas, Hugo, Stendahl, and Flaubert. I fell of the wagon a bit, but maybe reading Balzac around Christmas got me back on it.
I found this book at the Strand in NYC. He’s a little later than those other writers and at 250 odd pages, I wouldn’t categorize it as a doorstop. But we’re looking for trends, people, so let’s not pry too deeply.
The story is simple – Thérèse, the Countess Martin gets angry at one lover (Robert) and meets another man (Jacques), a sculptor, while visiting a friend in Italy, and takes him as a lover. She tries to hide the fact that she had this other fellow as a lover until very recently, but the new love can’t handle the jealousy eating at him and ends it and she’s now very lonely.
Though done in the third person, it is third person limited from Thérèse’s point of view.
There is an odd invulnerability about her. Her husband is a fast rising politician (he is appointed Minister of Finance towards the book’s end) and she doesn’t dislike him, but it was a match made for practical reasons. So, for her ego/sense of self worth, as well as for physical pleasure, she takes lovers. Never does she seem very worried about being caught, even as her husband becomes more and more prominent in French politics. Yes, there is a line where she becomes marginally more circumspect when he notes that she is coming home late a lot, but not that circumspect. She also cuts short her vacation in Italy (where most of the novel takes place) in order to dodge some of the rumors and suspicions that may or may not be circulating. Thérèse also never asks where her husband goes for sex in the apparent absence of a sex life with his wife. And what if she got pregnant? Is she using some kind of pre-modern prophylactic? Does she have ‘safety sex’ with her husband so that he wouldn’t get suspicious if she suddenly became pregnant, despite presumed marital celibacy?
These are some of the things I think about (prurient mind!) that never cross her mind.
I wouldn’t call this a feminist novel, but France never presumes to judge his protagonist.
At some point, France suddenly became confident in his writing’s sensualism, its eroticisms. Countess Martin, with her new lover, having just told her former lover that she had met another:
She was flushed with pride in the comeliness of the body she offering upon the altar of love. For she had discarded her clothes save for one thin rose-hued garment, and this had slipped scarfwise from her shoulder, laying bare one breast, whilst the warmer tinted tip of the other glowed through the rosy gossamery that veiled it.
So I’m a little romantic, a little cheesy. Whatever, I like it. I think that stuff is sexy (at least within the confines of the printed word; if a woman said this to me, I might throw up).
The scenes, particularly in Italy, but also in general, are described in a wonderfully sensual way. Not over the top, but he could have done a darn fine travel book, had he been so inclined (and maybe he was; I don’t know – this is the first book I’ve ever read by him).