Precocity is, it seems, both attractive and repellent in equal measure. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I find it both attractive and repellent, although I am sure I am not alone in that. Indeed, it took me a long time to admit to enjoying the work of Arthur Rimbaud, the child emperor of French poetry; and yet I was, despite my public and sincere criticisms, privately very much drawn to it. How do you explain these contradictory feelings? Jealousy? Well, I think it is more than that, more complex. I would argue that to be so young and so talented just does not seem right, as though nature had made a mistake, had created a freak, like a pretty little kitten with five legs. All of which is to say that I anticipated that I would be, at best, ambivalent towards Raymond Radiguet, whose first novel – Le Diable au corps [The Devil in the Flesh] – was published in 1923 when he was just twenty years old.
The short novel begins with the narrator admitting that his story is likely to result in ‘a good deal of reproach.’ It is a fantastic opening line, because not only does it inspire you to want to read on, in order to find out why, but it also hints at the personality of the young man, for he does not give the impression that these reproaches would be unwarranted. Indeed, the schoolboy, who is never named, very quickly confirms one’s initial suspicions as to the quality of his character. He states that his sensuality was ‘aroused rather than quelled’ by his parents’ disapproval [for example, he uses his father’s boat even though it is forbidden] and admits to feeling contempt for his peers. Of course this may strike you as ordinary small-scale teenage rebellion, and one could also, with justification, point out that most teenagers are self-absorbed and arrogant, but that does not make the behaviour any more admirable or the person more likeable.
“I could touch her face, kiss her eyes, her arms, dress her, damage her in whatever way I liked. In my frenzy I bit her where her skin was uncovered, so her mother would suspect her of having a lover. I would have liked to carve my initials there.”
Moreover, as he continues to recount his story one gets the sense that there is something slightly more sinister, or concerning at least, about the boy’s attitude. In what is the novel’s finest scene, he watches as a woman, a maid, totters about on the roof of a house, a woman who has clearly had a kind of mental breakdown and is potentially suicidal. While some children, including his brothers, are more interested in the fair that is simultaneously in action, he is absorbed in the spectacle on the roof, which makes his heart quicken ‘to a new, irregular beat.’ Furthermore, when he meets Madame Grangier he takes an instant dislike to her because of her ‘short figure and inelegant appearance.’ These examples, for me, suggested a callousness that one cannot explain away entirely in relation to someone’s youth, as he views one person as a sort of entertainment, and judges the other harshly by virtue of her lack of beauty.
At this point all the signs were that The Devil in the Flesh was going to be another in a long line of French novels focussing on young men so caddish as to approach the level of psychopath, men who harbour particularly unpleasant ideas about women. And, at least on the most superficial level, much of the content bears that out, particularly the central relationship with Marthe, an older married woman with whom he starts an affair. While he professes to love her, this relationship is characterised by a relentless pursuit of power, with the boy wanting to gain control over Marthe and get her to do as he pleases. For example, the first date, if you want to call it that, involves the narrator convincing the girl to put off an appointment with her mother-in-law in order to spend the day with him. He delights in being able to make her lie for him.
When Marthe goes shopping for furniture for what is to be the house she will share with her husband, the boy contradicts her choices; when she suggests she likes a certain piece he ‘immediately suggested its opposite, which I didn’t necessarily like myself’ and by the end of the day the ‘browbeaten’ girl has started to doubt herself and her own tastes. It is a particularly powerful scene, because it shows how easily, and with such subtlety, people can be manipulated, and how a controlling person can employ their art in order to get what they want without resorting to physical violence or threats. The boy, quite consciously, wants to make her live in a house in which he has chosen all the furniture, because he believes it will symbolically make him part of the marriage, and that, by making her complicit in this way, he will have a kind of ownership over her. Furthermore, this need for power and control also extends to the fiancee, who will, unknowingly, look upon and use his furniture every day.
However, while all this does put one in mind of Julien Sorel, Frédéric Moreau, and Georges Duroy et al, Radiguet does a number of interesting things that elevates his work, that makes it something more than a down-sized version of The Red & the Black or A Sentimental Education. First of all, one must remember that the narrator is essentially a child, while his lover is an adult. This fact alone makes one doubt the veracity of some of his claims, makes one wonder if he is playing up to his role as a scoundrel, especially when he recounts episodes such as when the couple are in bed and the boy wants the light to be put out, believing that the ‘darkness would give me courage.’ Moreover, there is an scene where Marthe buys him a dressing gown and suggests that he try it on straight away. She does this in order to get him to have sex with her, which indicates not only that she is prone to playing manipulative games herself, but also accentuates her experience [and his inexperience].
Throughout The Devil in the Flesh there are numerous other instances where the narrator comes across as shy and naive, or when one is reminded of his youth. In one scene, during their first meeting, he considers kissing Marthe, and yet is glad that he cannot because they are not alone; he is relieved that a barrier exists that makes it impossible to do the thing that most scares him at that moment. It is in relation to incidents such as this that one comes to realise that this cad maybe isn’t as bad as you, and even he, believes; he is, quite simply, a child engaged in adult business, or, as he himself acknowledges, a boy ‘attempting to come to grips with a man’s adventure.’ If one bears this in mind his behaviour, his meannesses, his wrong-doing, at least in terms of Marthe, is shown in a new, softer light; indeed, they become forgivable, perhaps even understandable.
What further distinguishes the work is what it has to say about war, and this is, I imagine, what stirred much of the controversy surrounding the novel. Indeed, on the first page the narrator states that war, far from being a tragedy, meant ‘four years of holiday.’ He also talks about how ‘the Austrian assassination,’ which I imagine refers to Archduke Franz Ferdinand, produced an atmosphere ‘conducive to extravagance.’ What he is suggesting, then, is that the war made all kinds of previously unacceptable behaviour permissible, which makes sense of course. The instability, the spectre of death peering over your shoulder at all times, must have had an effect upon people’s minds, must have made them eager to enjoy themselves whilst they could. Moreover, and this is particularly relevant in regards to Marthe, the fact that so many husbands were away from their families provided an opportunity for people to indulge themselves if they were so inclined. Therefore, and the narrator does mention this himself, one could maybe view Marthe’s affair with a schoolboy as not a great love, but as something that was, in essence, simply a consequence of the war.