June 15, 2015

The Art of the Novella challenge 29: Adolphe


adolpheTitle: Adolphe

Author: Benjamin Constant

First published: 1816

Page count: 126

First line: I was twenty-two and had just finished my studies at the University of Göttingen.

Well, an opening sentence like that is either going to settle you down in your reader’s seat, or put you off for good. The ‘I’ of the studies and the twenty-two years is clearly a male, even without the title of the book, and the upfront confidence of the statement, which clearly signals troubles ahead, suggests we’re very much in the presence of a callow youth. And you’ve got to ask yourself, punk: are you in the mood for the self-justifying ramblings of a callow youth?

Adolphe turned out to be everything I was fearing, and hoping for, in one neat parcel. And it is a neat parcel, a novella par excellence, a narrative report of a life, insofar as the report limits itself to a single aspect of that life: here, an unhappy love affair. The story is described in the faux ‘publisher’s foreword’ as an “anecdote”, which does seem a bit reductive. An anecdote is the brief report of an action or event; a novella, in my imagining, is the fullest possible telling of that action or event, with no literary ambition beyond that telling. (The novella, unlike the novel and the short story, is an inherently unambitious form – hmm…)

The unhappy love affair is between Adolphe, whose ‘papers’ we are purportedly reading, and Ellénore, a woman ten years older than him, and of a good but ruined Polish family, who has ended up precariously accepted into German society as the mistress of a Baron – they live together, have children, and are approved of by some but not all of their peers. Adolphe, who’s as witty and superficial and unmoored as intelligent young men come, decides that it’s time for him to have a great love affair – for no other reason than one of his mates has done so – and he settles on the unfortunate Ellénore as his victim.

So opens a section of the novella that conforms to all the narrative tropes of the seducer’s diary. Adolphe wheedles and protests and inveigles. He feigns and declares and mopes and dissembles. His older, narrating self is entirely aware of his machinations; it’s clear he lacks the imagination to see beyond the moment of conquest. In fact, if I know young men, he probably fails to imagine the moment of conquest itself. Seduction is a form of desire that supplants its own goal with its approach to it, the quarry with the chase.

Long story short, he succeeds –

At last she gave herself to me without reservation

– and after a brief spell of horrific self-satisfaction –

I walked with pride amongst men; I looked round at them with a proud look. The very air I breathed gave me pleasure

becomes, quite naturally, bored. Unluckily for him, Ellénore has fallen properly in love with him, and cuts her ties with the Baron – and her children, and those friends that would formerly tolerate her – and moves to a house where she and Adolphe can be together.

In his own, ‘real’ author’s preface, Constant suggests that the seed for the story was the challenge inherent in writing a story “in which the characters would be restricted to two, and in which the situation would always remain the same”. And there’s the problem. The rest of the book plays out the whole sorry tragedy of this young man who is arsehole enough to fuck up this woman’s life, but too proud to admit it, too proud to admit he doesn’t love her, and so lets them both settle into a tortured purgatory of passive aggression.

They are like the old couple eating in stony silence in a restaurant, that the young couple at the next table openly snicker about, never for one moment imagining they could end up like that themselves.

We were spending monotonous evenings, alone together in silence or ill-humour; the spring of long conversations had run dry.

(The difference, of course, is that the older couple will wait till they get back to their room to bitch about the younger couple, rather than snicker at them over their undercooked sea bass.)

The situation, as Constant intended, remains the same. The self-analysis, the confession, continues, but really we already know everything we can about Adolphe, we have already seen through him, and what more can his analysis avail us? The novella depends on the dredging out of further insights into an unfolding, endlessly deepening stasis. And the insight does come. In writing a letter to his love, during a time of separation:

I no longer saw in my words the meaning they were meant to convey, but the effect they could not fail to produce.

(For anyone who’s ever written or received a Dear John letter.)

Or, getting ready – for the umpteenth time – to definitively break with her:

The next day I rose haunted by the same ideas which had troubled me the previous day. And in the days that followed my unrest grew. Ellénore was unable to discover the cause. I answered her impetuous questions in constrained monosyllables; I steeled myself against her insistence, knowing as I did that frankness on my part would lead to her suffering, and that her suffering would force me to dissemble afresh.

The character of Ellénore is a bit of a problem. The idea that, having been seduced by protestations of love from this prancing whippersnapper, and seeing him clearly for what he is afterwards, she should go on loving him, is a bit of an insult to womanhood. The book is certainly aware of her lack of social power as a woman, but to require her love so foolishly – so stupidly – without offering the recompense of a fully articulated character status – of really learning why she sticks around – is unfair.

Adolphe, by contrast, is, brilliantly drawn. Constant says, again in his preface:

Almost all my readers whom I have met have told me that they themselves have been in the same position as my hero.

And, not in his charms as seducer, but certainly in the mirroring of his flaws, I’d have to agree. Ah, but he continues, in that preface:

It is true that, while expressing regrets at having caused all that pain, they could not wholly conceal a fatuous self-satisfaction.

And there’s the rub. The novella got me thinking about the seduction narrative, of which there are very many, some indeed in the other novellas I’ve read in this series, and which do, in their repetitiveness, and their fascination with their own self-awareness, become a little boring. (No one is more self-aware than the seducer. If that’s not in Kierkegaard, it should be.) I’ve written elsewhere about the in-depth unpacking of male shallowness that goes on in books by the likes of Ben Lerner and Geoff Dyer, and wonder if the seducer narrative is an earlier version of this. There are few seducer narratives that don’t acknowledge the awfulness of their behaviour, but somehow the narrative structure – the chase and capture, the fact that the narrative will end, and that end will somehow necessarily bestow a sense of justification or absolution – seems to be on their side, the man’s side.

What woman-written, female protagonist seducer narratives are there, I asked Twitter.

@Tiny_Camels Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, Shirley Conran’s Lace—or do you want the seducer & narrator to be the *same* woman?

— Samantha Ellis (@SamanthaEllis27) June 11, 2015


@Tiny_Camels Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates

— Eric Karl Anderson (@lonesomereader) June 11, 2015


@Tiny_Camels Hmm, so autobiography? Helen Walsh’s The Lemon Grove (fiction) is frank about desire, & have you read @KayEngels‘s Unmastered?

— Samantha Ellis (@SamanthaEllis27) June 11, 2015


@Tiny_Camels @KayEngels Helen Walsh then…also Lace is refreshing on orgasm as a noble female quest. Also Fear of Flying & ziplessness…

— Samantha Ellis (@SamanthaEllis27) June 11, 2015


@Tiny_Camels Jilly Cooper – Octavia.

— Laurence Pritchard (@Laurence99) June 11, 2015


@Tiny_Camels Nutting’s Tampa is told from the (female) teacher’s POV I think.

— Chris Power (@chris_power) June 12, 2015


@Tiny_Camels Tampa by Alison Nutting – totally filthy but matches request I think?

— Lisa Goll (@LisasShare) June 12, 2015


My question, obviously, boils down to two things: what is the nature of the coherence or affinity between narrative and seduction? And to what extent is the tendency towards seduction a male trait? Or has it just been easier for men than women, over the centuries, to exercise that tendency?

I do, however, have one sort-of example, which I happen to have just finished reading: Wilful Disregard, by Swedish author Lena Andersson. Ester, her protagonist, isn’t quite a seducer, but she certainly falls for (rather older, quite famous artist) Hugo, and makes all the moves for him, and gets him, but then can’t keep him, and, rather as Ellénor does with Adolphe, ends up trailing round after him quite pathetically. Hugo is rather like the women in Jane Austen, who work to get themselves married in a way that looks like an active form of passivity.

I’ve read none of the books suggested, but will try to look into them, and possibly report back, in some way.

Jonathan Gibbs is the author of Randall, or The Painted Grape, published by Galley Beggar Press, and lectures in Creative and Professional Writing at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. He tweets as @Tiny_Camels and blogs at Tiny Camels.