By André Maurois, translated by Adriana Hunter
Other Press | $25.95
ANDRÉ MAUROIS (1885–1967) was famous in his time but, like many people who were famous in their time, he is now rather forgotten. His mellifluous name – originally adopted as a nom de plume and then, as his reputation and influence grew, confirmed as his legal identity – seems to have slipped into the background, to be confused perhaps with that of his exact contemporary, François Mauriac, or simply with the legions of other writers whose former fame now requires a leap of the imagination to understand exactly how it came about. Biographer, memoirist, historian, novelist, man of letters, Maurois was all of these things. He is also described sometimes as a philosopher, and in a way he was, in the sense that he wrote with a philosophical cast of mind, uncovering and codifying truths about human nature which he would often express in memorable and quotable form. Indeed Maurois was never one to find himself short of an aphorism. “The reading of a fine book is an uninterrupted dialogue in which the book speaks and our soul replies,” he says in The Art of Living (1939), thereby elevating reading to a plane of refinement that makes it seem both ennobling and just a little bit precious.
Maurois’s novel Climates, recently reissued by Other Press in a new translation from the French by Adriana Hunter, has something of the same, contradictory effect. It first appeared in 1928 in France, where it was a huge popular success, and then, in various translations, throughout Europe. The emphasis of Climates is on the interior life and on romantic love, rather than on the daily demands of work (a character is airily described, in one of the novel’s passing references to earning a living, as doing “a bit of everything” – “phosphates, ports, mines”), of friends and family, of social and political action. It is not difficult to see how the novel could be read as a form of escape from these less rarefied concerns. Yet Climates manages to be both escapist and serious, with serious things to say about love and desire and realising your romantic ideals, topics that are almost impossible to write about today without being more explicit, or more ironic, or funnier than Maurois would ever have dreamt of being. In a sympathetic introduction, Sarah Bakewell, best known for her splendidly individual life of Montaigne, How to Live (2010), declares Climates to be one of those “miniature masterpieces” of a genre in which French writers have always excelled. “Ever since Pierre Abelard’s twelfth-century Historia Calamitatum, they have been writing lucid, passionate first-person accounts of their loves.”
The title of Climates refers to the atmosphere that prevails as love takes its course; the atmosphere or climate is what makes the difference, and the climate never seems to be quite right. The novel is structured in two halves. “Part One: Odile” is in the form of a letter written by a young man called Philippe Marcenat, the son and heir of a wealthy businessman, in which he describes his great love for his first wife. It is addressed to Isabelle de Cheverny, the woman who is about to become his second. In part two, written some years later, Isabelle responds. By this time, the marriage roles have reversed; Isabelle is obsessively in love with Philippe but his attentions are elsewhere. In telling her side of the story, Isabelle quotes from time to time from Philippe’s journals so that we continue to hear his voice. Throughout the book we hear Philippe reflecting on himself, as he tries to write himself towards an understanding of his conflicting emotions. But writing, rather than leading him towards this understanding, just seems to get in the way.
Philippe’s emotions, his understanding of the nature of love, are themselves derived from the writings of others, from the ideas he has formed from literature and art. As a boy, he is given a storybook called Little Russian Soldiers, in which “a gang of schoolboys… choose a fellow pupil as their queen.” He spends the rest of his life trying to capture the idealised image of this regally beautiful girl, to find a real rather than an imagined woman who embodies it. It is an uphill task, a continuing conflict between art and life. Philippe is a great one for aesthetic order and for the expression of good taste. He not only reads books, he arranges them. In his room, as a young man, he has a book by Spinoza on his mantelpiece, along with one by Montaigne. “Was that out of a desire to surprise,” he asks himself, “or a genuine love of ideas?” The more we learn of Philippe, the more we see that he is constrained by his own self-consciousness and by his inability, however much he desires it, to see beyond himself. Philippe, says the observant Isabelle, is “one of those readers who look only for themselves in what they read.” He is quite unable, despite his best efforts, to grant the objects of his admiration – a book or a painting or a woman – their own independent existence.
Philippe wrestles with this problem, sometimes in terms that are spectacularly arrogant and self-regarding. “It seems,” he muses, that “women’s minds are made up of the successive sediments laid down by men.” Coming so early in the novel, this idea might well be enough for many readers to condemn Philippe to the reject pile. In fact Philippe inhabits a world in which desire is as much cerebral as physical, in which both men and women maintain their love by pretending that the object of their affections is something that he or she is not, someone who can be moulded into an ideal. Art (or artifice) and love are inextricably tied together, and not necessarily in a good way. “We all like naturalness, especially in love, and we seldom meet it,” Maurois later lamented in his collection of essays Seven Faces of Love (1947). Art influences the way we love, just as love does for art. Philippe’s first wife, Odile, whom he has half-suffocated by insisting on seeing her as someone she is not, falls in her turn for a caddish naval man. Inevitably, she loves him more than he loves her. It changes how she looks at both life and art, clouding her judgement. What infuriates Philippe more than anything is the way Odile, in her infatuation with the dashing mariner, will admire “the most banal engravings if they happened to be of water or boats.”
The younger characters, and in particular Philippe and Isabelle, are contrasted with members of the older generation, who follow strict rules of engagement and do not allow their feelings to interfere unduly. Some of the best passages focus on Philippe’s parents; his father, he records, “abhorred sincerity” and the giving way to emotions. “In our house,” recalls Philippe of his childhood, “it was taken for granted that all conventional feelings held true, that parents always loved their children, children their parents, and husbands their wives.” His parents inhabit a nineteenth-century world in which thinking makes it so. Philippe, on the other hand, is a child of modernity, and a slave to overthinking, an affliction that ensures that nothing ever stays fixed and defined for long, but is always changing according to the climate.
In his memoirs, Maurois expressed some surprise that of all his books, including his many literary and political biographies, Climates should have proved to be the most popular. This must be partly because of the way in which Maurois identifies the fault line between the old and the new while recognising, for an audience that wasn’t sure itself, that new is not necessarily better. Philippe, the modern man, is doomed to find love elusive and to remain forever dissatisfied; whereas, he notes ruefully, his “father’s marriage of convenience… had become a marriage of love.” •
Richard Johnstone is an emeritus professor at the University of Technology Sydney. His paperback reviews appear monthly in Inside Story.