Raymond Radiguet: The Devil In The Flesh
It sometimes seems that there’s a precocious streak running through French literature with authors garnering literary respect at young ages. Françoise Sagan springs to mind, publishing Bonjour Tristesse in 1954 at the age of eighteen. As does Florian Zeller who has novels and plays to his name despite still being in his twenties. Now, much to my delight, there’s Raymond Radiguet who, between the ages of sixteen and eighteen wrote The Devil In The Flesh (1923) , having it published when he was twenty, the age at which he would die of typhoid, leaving one other novel, a play, and some poetry to his name.
That The Devil In The Flesh has an air of the autobiographical adds a further layer of tragedy to the life of Radiguet, as this is a novel where, for all the love and happiness the narrator professes within, the wheels are set in motion so that it couldn’t end anywhere else but on a tragic note.
The story opens during the final year of the Great War, with our unnamed narrator, a fifteen year old schoolboy, whose parents “disapproved of relationships between the sexes” and so he finds himself drawn to similary precocious schoolmate, René, due to their “common contempt for the other boys of [their] age” as they “regarded [themselves] as men”. But this friendship soon falls by the wayside when our narrator meets Marthe Lascombe, an eighteen year old woman with a fiancé on the front line:
…since I was sure I would never see Martha again I tried hard not to think about her, with the result that I thought of nothing else.
They do see each other again, however, and a friendship develops, although the narrator openly admits to having designs on Marthe:
I asked her to show me a photograph of her fiancé. I thought he looked handsome enough. But sensing already the importance she attached to my opinions, I was hypocritical enough to say that he was very handsome, but in such a way as to give her the impression that I was not very convinced and was saying so only out of politeness. This, I thought, would plant a seed of doubt in her mind, and at the same time win me her gratitude.
With time, Marthe’s fiancé becomes her husband and the more time he spends away allows the narrator to usurp his home, manipulating Marthe until, the closer they become, and unsavoury thoughts soon pervade:
At any other time to desire the death of her husband would have been little more than a childish piece of wishful thinking; it now became almost as criminal as killing him. I owed my new found happiness to the war; I hoped the war would now complete its task. It must commit the crime for me, like a hired assassin.
But regardless of their love, it makes them miserable, Marthe reproaching the narrator for allowing her to marry so that she could be with him, although their coupling would never have happened without the marriage as he’d never be able to call upon her at her parents’ house where she’d otherwise be living. And as their relationship – a badly kept secret in itself – rolls along, things take a turn for the scandalous when Marthe falls pregnant and all around them support and friendship dwindles, eventually leading the narrative to a final, tragic conclusion.
For one so young, Radiguet displays a mature understanding of love and relationships and the twisted logic that underpins them, the likes of which only first hand experience could bestow. His prose captures his narrators concerns from his position on the verge of maturity, growing up before his time; the inner conflict mirrored in the confusion of a world on the verge of peace. And despite all the morals of the age, Radiguet’s paean to love shines and inspires empathy regardless of what one feels is right or wrong about the situation.
The Devil In The Flesh is an accomplished piece of fiction, its all too believable story enhanced with a remarkable wisdom and punctuated with images that capture the essence of a doomed relationship as it makes the slide from happiness to tragedy. And that its author was so young when it was written makes one wonder how far, with more years and novels under his belt, Radiguet could have taken his legacy.
December 20, 2007