Raymond Radiguet became famous as an infant prodigy who died young—a cross between Chatterton and Rimbaud. He was born in 1903, the eldest of seven children. His father, Maurice Radiguet, was a well-known cartoonist. The family lived in an outer suburb of Paris on the banks of the Marne. One can imagine them against an Impressionist background of river, willows, row boats. Raymond liked to lie in a boat moored to the bank, reading the French classics. He preferred it to the Lycée Charlemagne in Paris, which he rarely bothered to attend. He was as cool as can be. His sensible father decided to educate him at home. He also got him to deliver his cartoons to the editorial offices of the Intransigeant. The poet André Salmon worked there, and Raymond took an opportunity to show him his own poems. Salmon was impressed. He helped the boy to get some of them published in papers and magazines, found him small journalistic assignments, and introduced him to Max Jacob. Max Jacob was impressed too, and introduced him to Jean Cocteau.
Cocteau was not only impressed: he fell in love. He was exactly twice Radiguet’s age, which was fifteen. The year before, Radiguet had had an affair with a young married woman whose husband was at the front. It would not be true to say that he now became inseparable from Cocteau; he was too independent. But they went everywhere together, and Radiguet was soon a regular member of Cocteau’s set which included Jean and Valentine Hugo, Paul Morand, Tristan Tzara, Anna de Noailles, Picasso, Juan Gris, and Modigliani (Radiguet went to bed with his mistress, Beatrice Hastings), as well as the musicians Satie, Poulenc, and Auric. He composed texts for their music, and helped Cocteau put together the four issues of Le Coq, a magazine intended to be an anti-Dada manifesto. He was present at the opening of Cocteau’s ballet Le Boeuf sur le toit, and a habitué of the bar named after it. He and Cocteau sloped off there for a quick drink during Proust’s funeral procession. In his life of Cocteau Francis Steegmuller called the chapter on this period “Inventing the Twenties.” Radiguet was one of the inventors.
In 1920, when Radiguet was seventeen, Bernard Grasset published a collection of his poems, Les Joues en feu. In 1921 he began to write his first novel, Le Diable au corps. He kept rewriting it until January 1923. Grasset launched it in the spring with a volume of publicity such as had never been deployed before. A lot of critics were irritated, though today the hype would seem quite normal. Le Diable won the Prix du Nouveau Monde: Cocteau was one of the judges. Radiguet was already busy on Le Bal du comte d’Orgel which appeared in 1924. He had meanwhile died of typhoid, in December 1923.
In 1947 Claude Autant-Lara made an enormously successful film of Le Diable. A star, Gérard Philipe, played the semi-autobiographical hero, a boy who has an affair with a young married woman while her husband is fighting the war. Radiguet had made his hero sixteen instead of fourteen, as he himself had been at the time of his own liaison. In the film, of course, the boy had to be a bit older still, but not as old as Philipe, who was twenty-five and looked it. Philipe died young, though, adding another arabesque to the Radiguet legend of the doomed young genius. Radiguet would have hated it. When he was fifteen he pretended to be nineteen, and he left a note, quoted by Cocteau in his introduction to Le Bal. It is dated September 1920 and expresses his furious contempt:
These premature prodigies of intelligence who become prodigies of stupidity after just a few years!
Which family doesn’t have its own child prodigy? They have invented the word. Of course, child prodigies exist, just as there are extraordinary men. But they are rarely the same. Age means nothing. What astounds me is Rimbaud’s work, not the age at which he wrote it. All great poets have written by seventeen. The greatest are the ones who manage to make us forget it.
Annapaola Cancogni’s new translation of Le Bal coincides with the republication, by the British publisher Marion Boyars, of an old one made in 1952 by Violet Schiff. Boyars is also republishing a translation of Le Diable.* Radiguet was something of a cult figure. Is there going to be a small revival of the cult? Although he was a romantic figure malgré lui in his role as a young genius, Radiguet was actually a hero of the postwar classical revival. Classicism, even neo-classicism, can mean different things. You can call the Bauhaus architects with their pared down simplicity classical, or you can apply the term to people who stick pediments on high-rise buildings. Radiguet was for tearing things off rather than sticking them on. He was a proponent of le roman démeublé, not a sentimental collector of antique objets d’art.
Still he was steeped in the French classics. Max Jacob wrote to him, apropos of Le Diable, that it was “inconceivable that someone his age should write like Laclos”; and Cocteau said that with Le Bal he “had set up his easel in front of La Princesse de Clèves.” The great critic Frédéric Lemaître praised Le Diable for its “restraint, freshness, and distinction,” and every writer on Radiguet has been struck by the simplicity of his manner. He helped to carry the flag against Dada, not because it was modernist, but because it was, he thought, a self-indulgent development from romanticism. Romanticism was what he hated, especially the cult of the poet as a solitary suffering figure. His early death, together with his surliness, effrontery, and fascination, and the heavy drinking and opium smoking he took up in his last year, immediately got him ranked among the poètes maudits, a category he particularly abominated. Or so he said.
He believed in not making a fuss about writing, not trying too hard, not wallowing, and he counseled Cocteau to write “comme tout le monde“—the opposite of Diaghilev’s injunction: “Etonne-moi, Jean.” It was Cocteau who issued the Le Rappel à l’ordre, but the idea behind it was very much Radiguet’s. Cocteau acknowledged this over and over again as he mourned the friend who had left him, tout Paris said, a veuf sur le toit.
Both Radiguet’s novels are simple, unilinear stories of adulterous love, incorporating chunks of near-autobiography and near-portraits of real people. Le Diable is a tragedy. A nineteen-year-old wife gets pregnant by a schoolboy and dies in childbirth. (Radiguet’s real-life mistress returned to her husband at the end of the war.) The schoolboy is shattered and lies for days in an almost catatonic state. He comes out of his shock when he overhears the young widower in conversation with his own father. Then, rather sententiously, he acknowledges that it is not such an unhappy ending:
When I saw how dignified the widower was, how he controlled his despair, I realized that in the end things order themselves of their own accord. Hadn’t I just heard that Marthe had died calling my name? And that my son would have a decent existence?
Le Diable is all about love’s ruses. Le Bal is all about its scruples. It is not literally a tragedy, but the end is more desolate than the end of Le Diable. Except for the denouement, the story line sticks closely to its model, Madame de La Fayette’s La Princesse de Clèves. In this seventeenth-century novel set in the sixteenth century, the Duc de Nemours, the most glamorous figure at the court of Henri II, falls in love with the very young, newly married Princesse de Clèves. She is too virtuous, and he too respectful of her for either of them to think of consummating their violent passion. Both of them—and the Prince de Clèves as well—are characters of the utmost moral delicacy. The delicacy breeds scruples, and the scruples breed tensions so violent that certain passages are almost unbearable to read, even though the prose remains virginally demure. Finally the Princess can bear it no more and decides to confide in her husband. The knowledge that she loves another makes him ill, and he dies of a broken heart. The Princess retires from the world.
Le Bal is set in the immediate postwar years. It is so full of motor and taxi rides that one senses they were still exciting in themselves. The milieu is the Paris beau monde, and there are many recognizable figures including the count himself. His function in society is the same as that of the real-life Comte Etienne de Beaumont, an indefatigable giver of parties where the aristocracy mingled with the avant-garde. He specialized in fancy dress balls, attended by Cocteau, Radiguet, and their set. The balls and dinner parties in the novel, the evenings at the latest amusing restaurant-nightclub inevitably remind one of A la recherche du temps perdu. But Radiguet insisted “it’s not a picture of society. That’s the difference with Proust. The setting doesn’t count.”
The hero of Le Bal, François de Séryeuse, is a very young, very sensitive, very intelligent man who lives with his mother and does nothing. He has a friend, Paul Robin.
It would be impossible to imagine two beings more different than these two friends. And yet, they thought they had come together because of their similarities. In other words, their friendship made them want to be alike, at least as far as possible.
The psychological dissection that takes place is pre-Freudian, more interested in motives and illusions than in causes: it sounds like a passage from La Rochefoucauld or La Bruyère; certainly not from Proust. “Paul’s obsession was to arrive.” He is thrilled to know the Orgels, and jealous when the count becomes very taken with François and draws him into a close friendship with himself and his wife Mahaut. (The count’s Christian name is Anne; an indication he belongs to the ultimate gratin.) Radiguet keeps a beady eye on Paul:
The Orgels’ car had no jump seat. Only three people could squeeze in the back. Paul, who would rather catch cold than miss a party, climbed in quickly next to the driver. By this move he meant to show François that he was close enough to the Orgels to take the worst place. François sat between husband and wife.
He sits there again a few nights later. By this time he has fallen in love with Mahaut, and she with him, and a tiny incident becomes a turning point:
Trying to get a little arm room, [François] slipped his arm behind Madame d’Orgel’s. Horrified at a gesture that was more his arm’s than his own, he did not dare withdraw the culprit. Madame d’Orgel realized it was a mechanical gesture. For fear of giving it an importance it did not have, she almost dared not withdraw her arm. François understood Mahaut’s delicacy and that it did not imply any encouragement. Thus, both remained motionless and terribly embarrassed.
Anne does not realize that the reason he likes François so much is that François loves his wife—which is a compliment to his own taste. His frivolity is profound: he puts tenue and behavior above everything else, and is heroically determined never to put a foot wrong or appear less than noble in his actions. François and Mahaut, meanwhile, are more and more in love, and as far from intending to consummate it as the Princess de Clèves and her lover. When the strain becomes too great Mahaut confides, not in her husband, but in François’s mother. She writes and begs her to stop her son coming to their house. She herself cannot bring herself to do it.
The scène à faire comes immediately after, and takes the form of a contest, almost a tournament of delicacy. The Orgels are giving another party. François arrives. Mahaut is agonized: Has his mother spoken to him or not? Meanwhile Anne begins to indulge his passion for dressing up. Overexcited, he crowns his impromptu costume with a hideous Tyrolean hat left in the hall by one of the guests. The guest is a Russian prince who has fled from the Bolsheviks and lost everything he possessed. The hat—the only one he has—was a gift from an Austrian relation who fitted him out on his way through Vienna. Anne’s act is one of gross thoughtlessness. Mahaut is appalled. She feels it her duty to save her husband’s face. She steels herself, crosses the room, and readjusts the hat on his head in front of all the guests. Only the Russian understands the nobility of her gesture. He puts it down to conjugal love, whereas it is an expiation for loving someone else, and an act of self-immolation, since she is sure it will lower her in François’s eyes.
When the guests have gone, Mahaut relieves her anguish by telling Anne about her letter to Madame de Séryeuse. He seems less shocked by her love for another man than by the fact that she has made it public. He does not die of grief like the Prince de Clèves, but insists, for face-saving reasons, that they must invite François to their next ball.
Radiguet wanted Le Bal to be “a chaste love novel as scabrous as the least chaste.” Making a momentous issue out of chastity presented a problem in the twentieth century. In Le Diable Radiguet solved it by making the husband a soldier at the front: the wife feels her behavior doubly disloyal because he is defending his country. In Le Bal Radiguet tries to get around the difficulty by presenting Mahaut as an aristocratic Creole, brought up in innocent seclusion in Martinique. Even so the opening sentence shows him already defending his contrivance: “Are feelings such as stirred the heart of Countess d’Orgel obsolete?” he asks; and replies, sounding again like a seventeenth-century moraliste: “The unconscious ploys of a pure soul are often stranger than vice’s wiles. This is how we shall answer those who will find Madame d’Orgel either too honest or too easy.” One can just about accept the countess’s unworldliness. François, on the other hand, seems precious and priggish—and so does the novel as a whole. The fact that it’s thickly scattered with aphorisms about human nature and behavior adds to the impression.
It isn’t chastity that gets missed out, but scabrousness. The scene in the back of the Orgels’ car mirrors an episode in La Princesse de Clèves where Nemours secretly watches her through a window. She is neither undressed nor undressing, but the episode palpitates with an erotic current that runs right through the novel and throws the characters’ fastidious virtue into precarious and heroic relief. The loyalty of François and Mahaut to Anne is perhaps unusual in their circumstances, and attractive: but not heroic because it never seems threatened: they both seem quite sexless.
In both novels the lovers behave as impeccably as they know how in order to be lovable in each other’s fastidious eyes. But unless one feels an overwhelming passion tearing at them, such maneuvers are only about as exciting as nymphs dancing on a neo-classical frieze. Le Bal lacks not energy—there is plenty of that—but heat. Perhaps this is a built-in hazard with neo-classicism which works better in painting, sculpture, architecture, and music—even in poetry—than in the novel. Picasso’s classical figure paintings and Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress are twice as sexy as Le Bal. Cocteau classed Le Diable—“a masterpiece of promise”—below Le Bal—“the promise fulfilled.” It’s difficult to agree. Le Bal is a careful virtuoso piece. Le Diable is passionate and callous and full of brilliant effrontery, and it comes roaring at you like a train out of a tunnel.
The publisher’s announcement says of Cancogni’s new translation of Le Bal that the novel “was published in the US in 1954 in another translation which was not considered to do justice to the author’s work.” What on earth can it have been like? Last year in these pages Professor Weightman remarked that “pedantry is the soul of translation.” Well, in that case nitpicking is the soul of closely reading a translation, and this one is full of nits. Radiguet wrote himself a note apropos of Le Bal: “Style: genre mal écrit comme l’élégance doit avoir l’air mal habillée“—here “shabbily written as elegance must be shabbily dressed.” “Mal” or “shabby” must surely mean plain, old, worn-out clothes, not cheap new ones: “does her damndest” and “discombobulate” will not do for “voulait à tout prix” and “désemparer.” Sometimes the English is not exactly English either: “the two women resembled beginning skaters,” for instance. But the worst and recurrent mistake is to have Mahaut “scream” whenever she “poussait un cri.” Mahaut is a person who might utter a cry but would never scream.
October 12, 1989