Monday, May 22, 2017

The Spell of Love



"How to depict the spell of love -- the conviction that we have found the one whom Nature destined for us; the sudden light shed on the mystery of life; the way that trifles gain a hidden meaning; the rapid hours . . . the certainty that the world can no longer harm us where we live, and a mutual understanding that guesses every thought and responds to every emotion -- ah, that spell; anyone who has felt it could never describe it." (p 91)

This is an unusual short novel. A story of a romance with virtually no context, however it suggests what Europe was like for a son of a wealthy family in the early 19th century. And, in one of the later chapters, Constant describes the physical geography of an area of Poland. But, beyond that, there's only Adolphe's emotions and his perceptions of Eleanor's. In its psychological approach it reminded me a bit of The Sorrows of Young Werther, but perhaps more closely resembles Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time.

The narrator, Adolphe, is an intelligent young man, given to analysis and raised in a household without much affection, who begins a relationship almost as an experiment – and also because he understands that this is what people are supposed to do. The woman is already the mistress of a Duke, and has two children with him but no real rights as acknowledged by society. He is young, 22 years old, and has just completed his studies at the University of Göttingen. He travels to a small town in Germany, where he becomes attached to the court of an enlightened Prince. During his stay he gains a reputation for an unpleasant wit. A friend inspires him to attempt the seduction of an older woman named Ellenore.

Eventually, the woman succumbs, and as far as the reader can tell she is entirely in earnest. She gives up everything for him. Rather quickly, Adolphe’s ardor entirely cools, but he feels unable to detach himself from her. He alternates between trying to be honest about his feelings and then, when he sees her getting more and more distraught, rapidly feigns emotions that he desperately wants to feel but no longer does. Adolphe becomes anxious as he realizes that he is sacrificing any potential future for the sake of Ellénore. She persuades him to extend his stay by six months, but they quarrel, and when she tends him after he is injured in a duel, he finds himself hopelessly indebted to her. He attempts to leave her only to have her follow him. The denouement leads Adolphe to return to a life of alienation more severe than that which he experienced before his affair.

I am not sure that I enjoyed this novel, but I certainly appreciated the approach - when, upon reflection, I realized the novelty of the psychological approach. It likely had a major impact on later "psychological" novels. According to a critic of Russian literature, Victor Terras, French literature of the nineteenth century influenced the major Russian writers, thus Dostoevsky likely was familiar with Constant. The fictional Adolphe is familiar with the things that he is supposed to say and how he is supposed to act, and in doing these things almost convinces himself that he is actually in love – for a short time, in fact, he might feel something similar to the real thing.


Brian Joseph said...

Great commentary James.

I had not heard of this book. The main character and the plot sound very well crafted.

It is interesting that this book was so influential. For that e=reason alone it seems worth reading.

James said...

Benjamin Constant's intellectual collaboration with the famous and wealthy Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein, commonly known as Madame de Staël, may have contributed to his own fame. From the seventeen-nineties until well into the following century she hosted a salon that attracted thinkers and revolutionaries from throughout Europe.