Les Belles Amours by Louise de Vilmorin (tr. Francis Wyndham)

A couple of summers ago I read Louise de Vilmorin’s Madame de ___ (1951), an exquisite novella that follows the fate of a pair of earrings as they pass from one person to another. (You may be familiar with the story via the Max Ophüls film, The Earrings of Madame de…, widely considered to be a masterpiece of French cinema.) In my eagerness to try another by de Vilmorin, I tracked down a copy of Les Belles Amours (1954), a novel that explores the complexities of romantic liaisons, a subject close to the author’s own heart. As outlined by John Julius Norwich in his afterword to Madame de ___, de Vilmorin’s love life was characterised by a series of intricate romantic entanglements. These included an engagement to the French writer and aviator, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, an affair with Orson Welles (to whom Les Belles Amours was dedicated), and an extended liaison with Duff Cooper, the British Ambassador to France at the time. As Francis Wyndham once commented, ‘You couldn’t say she [de Vilmorin] was beautiful, but there was an aura about her. In some mysterious way, she was tremendously attractive’.

So, back to the novel itself, Les Belles Amours is in a similar style to Madame de ___. In short, it is another beautifully constructed story, by turns elegant, artful, astute and poignant. I hope to find a place for it in my 2017 highlights.

The narrative revolves around the respective fortunes of three central characters: the handsome roué, Monsieur Zaraguirre; the young libertine Louis Duville; and the alluring woman who manages to capture both of their hearts. (Interestingly, we never learn the young woman’s name as her identity throughout the novel is characterised by her attachment to each of the two men in turn.)

At nearly sixty, the distinguished Monsieur Zaraguirre remains irresistible to women – the fact that he now resides in South America only adds to his attraction. Wherever he goes, this successful businessman makes a lasting impression; women fall at his feet, longing to capture his attention and maybe his heart too. While M Zaraguirre clearly enjoys the company of women, he remains somewhat detached from his lovers, avoiding emotional involvement at all costs. When he senses that a woman is getting too close to him or tiring of the uncertainty of the situation, he bids her farewell with a diamond ring, a parting gift to remember him by.

To love him was to regret him, his kiss did not diminish his essential remoteness, liberty could be divined beneath his ardour and independence showed through his fidelity. He inspired and disarmed possessiveness, and as he was inaccessible women longed to own him. ‘Ask me for anything you want, except a promise,’ he told them… (p. 18)

During his frequent business trips to Europe, Monsieur Zaraguirre often spends time with his closest friends, the Duvilles, at their home of Valronce in the French countryside. The Duvilles long to see their thirty-year-old son, Louis, settled with a suitable wife and to this end Mme Duville spends her days inviting a succession of attractive young girls to the house in the hope that her son will fall in love with one of them. Louis, for his part, remains somewhat immune to these beauties, preferring instead to spend his leisure time in Paris where he amuses himself with a succession of casual love affairs. Easily bored, he is a lover of late nights, fast pursuits and glamorous mistresses, all to the mild distress of his parents.

Then, one weekend, Mme Duville’s cousin, a distinguished Colonel, brings his niece, a beautiful young widow, to Valronce where she meets and forms a bond with Louis. The pair are instantly attracted to one another, so much so that they announce their engagement before the day is out.

Carried away by love, he made up his mind from one moment to the next, without thinking it over, so certain was he of his love. It is true that the violence of love makes patience impossible; however, it was not only love, it was doubtless a presentiment which made him wish to be married at once, without waiting. (p. 21)

The Duvilles are delighted by the news, and preparations for the wedding immediately swing into action – the couple are to be married within the month. Naturally, the Duvilles invite their good friend, M Zaraguirre, to their son’s wedding, an invitation the latter is only too keen to accept. Nevertheless, when M Zaraguirre arrives at Valronce only days before the marriage is to take place, he too finds himself falling in love with Louis’ fiancée – and what’s more, the feeling is mutual. During this scene, M Zaraguirre and the young woman in question are alone in the garden. In response to an enquiry about her feelings, Louis’ fiancée opens her heart. In the eyes of the experienced roué, it seems she has mistaken an affectionate form of friendship for one of love.

‘He is charming, he charmed me and I wanted the happiness he offered me. It is understandable that I should be delighted by so simple a prospect, and I loved Louis, yes, I loved him and I love him still with all my heart. Tell me, have I confused love with affectionate friendship, or am I really heartless?’

She was touching, sincere and in great distress.

‘Friendship is often as sudden as love,’ answered M. Zaraguirre. ‘Friendship is a wise form of love that reassures the heart and doesn’t disturb the imagination.’

‘Ah! I don’t want to lie to Louis or deceive him, yet that is what I am doing when I realise that in the future I shall do nothing else. My life was blameless before you came but since you are here everything has changed, even myself.’ (pp. 44-45)

M Zaraguirre and the young woman spend the night together and then elope the following morning (the day of the wedding) thereby leaving poor Louis in the lurch. Naturally, the Duvilles are devastated, and M Duville senior breaks off all relations with M Zaraguirre once the true nature of the situation comes to light. Within a matter of weeks, Louis’ former fiancée has become Mme Zaraguirre, and the couple waste no time in departing for South America where they settle into a rhythm of life together, sheltered by the beauty of M Zaraguirre’s colonial country house, Tijo.

Some five years later, Mme Zaraguirre decides to accompany her husband on one of his business trips to Europe. It will give her an opportunity to visit various members of her family whom she has not seen since her elopement. While in France, Mme Zaraguirre makes a new friend, a rather silly, gossipy woman who encourages her to live a little by spending some time in Paris, a city she has never been interested in visiting until now. As M Zaraguirre has business to attend to elsewhere, Mme Zaraguirre accompanies her friend to the capital where she runs into Louis Duville at a gathering. At first, it would appear as though Louis has forgiven his former fiancée for deserting him, but at heart, the underlying situation is more complex than that. When it transpires that Mme Zaraguirre would like nothing more than to bring about a reconciliation between her husband and his old friend M Duville, Louis sees an opportunity for revenge, thereby setting in motion an elaborate dance, one in which each party hopes to play the other to their own advantage.

They could not escape the past for long. Days at Valronce and in Lorraine emerged one by one from their conversation; they remembered the same moments with the same emotion and yet their thoughts were not alike: while Mme Zaraguirre, slightly committing herself, wished only to obtain from Louis Duville a favour that would add to her husband’s happiness, Louis Duville, still moved by the memory of his beautiful love, hoped to avenge himself on a man who had humiliated him. When the comedy they were acting was over, Mme Zaraguirre thought that she had reconquered a heart free from bitterness and Louis thought that he had re-won a woman who loved easily. Besides, she attracted him. (p. 75)

What follows is a complex sequence of manoeuvres, something that doesn’t quite go according to plan for either player. I won’t go into the details here; I’ll leave you to discover them for yourself should you decide to read the book. Nevertheless, by the end of the story, my sympathies were firmly with Louis – and with M Zaraguirre for that matter. Mme Zaraguirre is a complex character, at times rather selfish and indifferent to the feelings of others. While I loved reading about her, I certainly wouldn’t trust her as a friend or a potential ally. Perhaps the signs were there at an early stage with this description, a reflection on her demeanour as a young widow.

It was doubtless to cheat loneliness and boredom that, apparently ignorant of the passions she aroused, she played a game of promising without compromising herself. There was even a suggestion of distance in the way she held out the flower of illusion like a sceptre. She was mistress of a reserve that made men dream, and women resented that. No one could reproach her for anything, and yet no one trusted her. However she had a heart and was capable of love. (p. 34)

There is something timeless about Les Belles Amours. The story is set in the mid-1920s, but it could easily have been any time in the late 19th century. My Capuchin Classics edition comes with a set of beautiful pen and ink drawings which add a lovely touch, enhancing the mood of particular scenes.

I loved this novel of intrigues, infidelity, and the complexities of the heart – highly recommended for lovers of French fiction and classic literature in general.

49 thoughts on “Les Belles Amours by Louise de Vilmorin (tr. Francis Wyndham)

  1. MarinaSofia

    How did I not hear about Louise de Vilmorin’s scandalous life, nor read anything by her? I remember your review of the earrings story quite clearly. This one sounds more convoluted and quite come-hitherish…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! I don’t think she’s terribly well known, although I would be interested in Emma’s views on this (Caroline’s too if she is back in circulation). I only discovered her when Pushkin Press published their edition of Madame de___ a few years ago. Come-hitherish is not a bad description of this. It’s a rather intricate story, very much in the style of those classic French novels from the 18th or 19th century.

      Reply
  2. hastanton

    FmNever heard of this ….. or the writer . Definitely going on my list …. I wonder how easy it will be to track down in France ! Interestingly , La Femme de Gilles only got reissued here after it had been so successfully received in the Eng edition.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s great! I think you’d like her a lot. It’s rather odd that these classic French novelists seem to have fallen out of print in their own country. Mind you, the same is probably true of many British novelists over here. If it wasn’t for the likes of Virago and Persephone, we’d probably find it quite hard to get hold of books by Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor and many others. I hope you manage to track this one down – it’s definitely worth the effort.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, you’re very welcome, Jane. Madame de___ is a delight. And how wonderful to hear you have a vintage copy hidden away somewhere – something to look forward to there.

      Reply
  3. Claire 'Word by Word'

    Loved reading the review, I do admire how you find these obscure gems, bravo for that. I kept thinking of The importance of Being Earnest, it evoked a similar manner of relating although this is much more scandalous, but woe is me, why must the sympathies lie with the men, as if woman are the instigators of their own demise.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Claire. I’m glad you enjoyed the review. I loved the book, so it was a pleasure to write about it. Yes, scandalous is the word here. The disappearance of Louis’ fiancée on the morning of the wedding must have caused quite a stir, especially given the Durvilles’ social standing in the local community. I was reminded a little of Les Liasons dangereuses – well, the film adaptation with John Malkovich as I haven’t read the book. As for my sympathies, I did feel something for Mme Zaraguirre, especially at the beginning when she was seduced by her more experienced suitor — but then again, by the second half of the novel, my allegiances were with Louis (and to some extent with M Zaraguirre too).

      ***********Spoiler alert************

      At a key point in the story, Mme Zaraguirre lies to her husband, an action which effectively bring about the end of their marriage. She also ends up trapping Louis – even though he subsequently falls in love with another woman, he remains with Mme Z for a number of years out of sense of duty. The ending is poignant, especially for Mme Zaraguirre. This seems to be a feature of de Vilmorin’s books, these rather melancholy closing scenes.

      Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    Superb commentary as always Jacqui.

    The plot of this one sounds so interesting. Monsieur Zaraguirre also sounds like an intriguing character. He certainly does not sound like a typical man in his 60s!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome! Even though I’m not usually a huge fan of biographies, I would be quite interested in one on de Vilmorin. It sounds as if she lived quite a life.

      Reply
      1. hopewellslibraryoflife

        I found her! I only having the book Darling Monster… I thought I had his diaries, but once again I’ve (who knows how) confused him with Harold Nicholson. It’s H.N.’s diaries I have and D.C.’s I borrowed from a library. Payday I’ll take care of that. I’m sure you care, lol. Thanks again

        Reply
  5. heavenali

    A fascinating book, with an exciting premise and another very interesting author you have introduced me to. Like the look of that edition with the illustrations too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I really loved the set-up of this one – it a classic premise, full of possibilities for intrigues and deceptions along the way. I’ve only covered about half of the plot in my review for fear of revealing too much about various developments in the story! The Capuchin edition is lovely, definitely worth hunting down.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! I’ve come to the conclusion that however hard I try it’s virtually impossible to control my book buying habits. Fellow book bloggers are largely to blame of course! On an average day, I probably read about at least one book that I feel sure I would enjoy. Not that I can afford to buy or house them all — but even so, the desire is there. Mind you, I guess there are worse things to be addicted to than books… :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is very French – in the ‘classic’ sense as opposed to the ‘new wave’/Francoise Sagan equivalent. de Vilmorin has turned out be a great discovery for me – I can’t recommend her highly enough.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Doesn’t she just! Intriguing is the word for de Vilmorin’s literature – she writes so elegantly about the intricacies of these affairs and manoeuvres.

      Reply
  6. gertloveday

    Sounds a remarkbly complex plot for 192 pages. Loved your review, but personally I find it hard to believe in irresistibly charming sixty year old gentlemen. Perhaps they appeal more to the young and naive.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is quite intricate with lots of manoeuvres and developments along the way. She manages to pack a lot in, but somehow it never really feel rushed or overcrowded. I know what you mean about the appeal (or not) of an aged roué like Monsieur Zaraguirre – I’d like to think I wouldn’t fall for him either! Nevertheless, de Vilmorin does such a good job in conveying his attractiveness to women that it’s easy for the reader to buy into the idea. I’ve seen his type before, especially in classic literature – e.g. there are some loose parallels with the Don Lope Garrido character in Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós. There’s a great description of him here:

      “He dressed as smartly and impeccably as his slender means permitted: a well-buffed top hat, a good-quality winter cape, dark gloves at every season of the year, an elegant cane in summer, and suits more appropriate to youth than to maturity. Don Lope Garrido – just to whet your appetite – was a skilled strategist in the war of love and prided himself on having stormed more bastions of virtue and captured more strongholds of chastity than he had hairs on his head. True, he was somewhat spent now and not fit for very much, but he could never quite give up that saucy hobby of his, and whenever he passed a pretty woman, or even a plain one, he would draw himself up and, albeit with no evil intentions, shoot her a meaningful glance, more paternal than mischievous, as if to say: “You had a very narrow escape! Think yourself lucky you weren’t born twenty years earlier…”

      Reply
  7. gertloveday

    ‘Captured more strongholds of chastity.’ Maybe I’m too literal minded. I see weeping woman, angry fathers and crying babies.
    But it IS a genre, and elegant writing at that, so I’m telling myself to ‘Lighten up.’

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Yes, quite possibly. And to be fair to de Vilmorin, her portrait of M Zaraguirre is more subtle than the Galdós. I think you’d find it more interesting, in a ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ kind of way. :)

      Reply
  8. Max Cairnduff

    I think I somehow had the quite false impression that Madame De was all that de Vilmorin had written. This however sounds very good so I’m glad to be wrong.

    For their class I wonder how different the 1920s were to the late 19th Century. I suspect not that much.

    Anyway, I’ll pick this up, though who knows when I’ll read it…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      As far as I can tell, there isn’t very much. Another novel called Julietta, which was made into a film in the 1950s (I’m not sure if the book has ever been translated), and a biography/book of memories of Coco Chanel. Interestingly, she also wrote the screenplay for the Louis Malle film, Les Amants (The Lovers). I’m actually thinking of revisiting it at some point soon, especially given the recent death of Jeanne Moreau.

      Anyway, Les Belles Amours is wonderful, definitely worth picking up. I think you would enjoy it a great deal. That’s a fair point about the potential similarities between the two eras, especially for the wealthy classes living in the countryside. Maybe the differences would be more apparent in the big cities – in Paris, for example?

      Reply
      1. Max Cairnduff

        I’ve bought a second hand copy which showed up today. I’m not sure I’d describe it as Very Good, more simply Good, but I look forward to reading it.
        Changes might show more in cities, I can see that, but I think class and age are other insulants. The upper middle classes may simply be a little more sheltered from the impacts of change than their less secure peers.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That’s great. I really hope you enjoy it. I am often surprised by the poor condition of second-hand books that are described online as being in ‘very good’ condition. They almost always turn up with noticeable defects – creased or torn covers or discoloured pages. I’ve been trying to source some old green Viragos lately with pretty mixed results. Oh, well…

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Cleo. The real tragedy of this story is that no one really benefits from any of this – everyone ends up getting hurt or damaged in some way.

      Reply
  9. 1streading

    Like Max, for some reason I had though Madame de ____ was her only novel! Julietta seems to have been translated into English the 50s and there are a few others out there as well.

    Reply
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