Le diable au corps

by Aki Schilz

I have been spending time at the local library writing and re-writing chapters of my novel, This Side of Silence. Sometimes, inspiration deserts me, or doesn’t come at all, and I give myself breaks, taking time to wander between the shelves and pick out titles to flick through, in case my Muse is hiding there somewhere amongst the pages. A few weeks ago, my eye was caught by this cover:

The Devil in the Flesh (Penguin Modern Classics)

I picked up this intriguing little volume and turned to a random page. Within minutes I had glided through several pages. Returning to my seat, I turned to the beginning of the book, the Introduction. There, I learned that the author who had captured me within the space of a paragraph with his easy style, tongue-in-cheek tone and strangely innocent yet deeply thoughtful musings, that he had been noticed by none other than Jean Cocteau, who had seen at once his potential. A surly teenager, Raymond Radiguet was a fascinating creature to all that met him – oddly dressed, aloof; not shy but indifferent. He did not speak often, but when he did he made utterances that were at once strange and beautiful, without any hint of sentiment. This is his voice that captured Jean Cocteau’s interest, and it is the voice of The Devil in the Flesh (indeed the novel is based, by Radiguet’s admission, on his own experiences as a young man very much taken by an older, married woman).

Radiguet preferred to be alone than in the company of the many luminaries attending the same soirées as he, and in the summer of 1922 he was locked away in a house by Cocteau, under orders to stay there until he had written what he was intended to write. It was here he wrote the drafts for The Devil in the Flesh, a tale of love that is oddly loveless, yet aware at every line of love’s importance in our small lives. The backdrop is the Great War that had at the time of writing just ravaged Radiguet’s native France and left the whole of Europe devastated. Everywhere in the book, there is the sense of something filling the doorframe, a shadow as present as the shadow of the soldier husband the young hero’s love interest, Marthe, abandons for her much younger lover (in the book, he is only 15). Cruelly, the lovers burn the letters the devoted husband continues to send from his outposts in this or that war-torn corner of the world. It is not, however, a conventional love story. It is a dissection of love affairs, why we have them, why they are necessary, and arbitrary, and mean everything and nothing all at once. The startlingly wise voice of the young protagonist is itself really the voice of a young writer of only 18. This is not a book of great magnitude, but rather of piercing specificity. Radiguet has peered into the human heart, and has drawn conclusions that are not meant to unsettle in any sensational way, but still do, in subtler ways that tap at the truth behind our own perversities, our simplest, basest desires, striking chords we may not wish to hear, but know to be truer than the resonant melodies we hum around ourselves, keeping ourselves close, hidden, comfortable.

By turning Marthe in whatever direction happened to suit me I was gradually remaking her in my own image. I blamed myself for doing this, and for knowingly destroying our happiness. That she should begin to resemble me, to become my creation, both delighted and angered me. I saw it as a reason for our compatibility. But I also saw it as a cause of disasters to come. In fact, I had gradually communicated to her my uncertainty – an uncertainty which, when the day for decisions came, would prevent her from taking any. I saw how her weakness was like my own; we hoped that the sea would spare our sand-castle, whereas other children hasten to build higher up the shore.

Very often such a spiritual resemblance finds expression on the physical plane, in an expression of the eyes or in the way one walks. On several occasions, strangers took us for brother and sister. They must exist within us seeds of resemblance that are germinated by love. Even the most prudent lovers sooner or later give themselves away by a gesture or an inflexion of the voice.

It must be admitted that if the heart has its reason which reason knows nothing of, it is because the reason is less reasonable than the heart. No doubt we are all like Narcissus, loving and hating our own reflection, but indifferent to all others. It is this instinct for resemblance that leads us through life; it is this that makes us pause to admire a certain landscape, a certain woman, a particular poem. We can admire others without feeling this shock. The instinct for resemblance is the only rule of conduct that is not artificial. But in society only the grosser spirits appear not to contravene the rules of morality, always remaining loyal to the same type. Some men, for example, go blindly for ‘blondes’, unaware that the deepest resemblances are often the most secret.