Saturday, June 04, 2005

Radiguet: Le Bal du comte d'Orgel

Orgel, Orgueil. «Sous un soleil delicieux, il semble que fonde peu a peu l'orgueil qui la paralysait.» A stillborn male heir for the family Grimoard: a mute female child Mahaut: the inheritance at risk. Le Bal du comte d'Orgel (1923), published posthumously after Raymond Radiguet's early death from typhoid fever following a jaunt with his lover Cocteau, promises from its first pages to shake the death-rattle of the aristocracy. It has become sterile, paralysed by its own vanity.

Mahaut matures under the tutelage of her black nurse Marie, forgotten and despised by her white mother Mme Grimoard: an old archetype. Papa takes care only to teach her that no one is worthy of the hand of a Grimoard. Nonetheless she marries the thirty-year-old Count Anne d'Orgel at the age of eighteen. Herself unloved she loves him overmuch: he returns only friendship, which she (not knowing anything more intense) mistakes for love. Radiguet's stress on the young girl's liveliness points to a source in Effi Briest.

Paul Robin is the quixotic youth who desires d'«arriver,» as Eugene Rastignac in Pere Goriot chez Balzac. His best friend, Francois de Séryeuse, is also his foil; «Francois avait exactement son age.» In the introductions to the Orgels Radiguet is good on social mannerism: Orgel «mentait comme l'affabilite sait mentir.» I myself have known what it is to be the arriviste or parvenu, in my third year at Harvard. From knowing no one to having one's own society: one's own people. Except that class is now less important. People cut each other as if class strictures still existed, but we have seen the birth of the cool, which is the new coin of social aristocracies, at least at the university. Radiguet's pair, Robin/de Seryeuse, mirrors the double nature of the one arriviste, the ambivalence of his ambition and of his knowledge of the new world.

The intimacy of mockery together: nothing binds us like playing a false hand on an innocent. Something of perhaps Laclos: «Il fut entendu entre Anne d'Orgel et Francois que l'on feindrait de se connaitre de longue date...Ils etait leurs propres dupes, car ayant decide de faire croire a Robin qu'ils se connaissaient de longue date, ils le croyaient eux-memes.» Mahaut plays along «habituee aux maneges de son mari.» Radiguet well presents the polyhedral mood of Paul after this, focussing each of its many sides through the prism of a single trait, his smile:
De temps en temps, Paul se retournait vers les Orgel et Francois, et leur souriait. Ce sourire pouvait s'interpreter de facons diverses. C'etait soit: «Mais non, je vous assure, je suis tres bien, il ne fait pas froid du tout», soit le sourire qui pardonne. Il sentait vaguement qu'on s'etait joue de lui...Peut-etre son sourire ne refletait-il que le plaisir d'un enfant qui fait une promenade.
That is a technique to remember, though archaic here in the much that is not necessary (e.g. omit the second sentence). Henry James does this refraction one better, not as Radiguet does by passing mood through a smile, but by passing his entire narrative through the several minds of his characters. Whatever happens is told in reference to Kate Croy, for instance, as here mood is told in reference to a smile. James uses character where Radiguet uses a smile, but otherwise it is the same technique.

Radiguet's private scripture he expresses through Francois, greening at the dance before him of Anne and Mahaut: «Chez lui la jalousie precedait l'amour.» Jealousy is the demon who created love. Love is the mollycoddled daughter of jealousy, never quite weaned.

Introductory fables like the history here of the famille Grimoard are superfluous, and character would gain by omission of backstory. Mahaut for instance would be a mysterious creature if we did not know just why she was what she was. And this explanation of d'Orgel is rude--the literary equivalent of laughing at your own joke: «C'etait l'esprit le plus delicieux, mais le plus autoritaire, le plus exclusif, que le comte d'Orgel. Il 'adoptait' les gens, plus qu'il ne se liait avec eux. En retour, il exigeait beaucoup. Il entendait un peu diriger. Il exercait un controle.» Bah! Better to have a bemused question from Mahaut, "Why invite Francois?" and a knowing chuckle from d'Orgel. A backdrop like this may be useful to Radiguet in his notebooks, in order that d'Orgel takes a consistent imaginative form: but it need not go into the final text.


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