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.