Saving a Forgotten Masterpiece
By Judith Gurewich
Climates by André Maurois is a novel that I loved as a girl, and that I love now even more. Romantic literature has been my home since I was about twelve years old, and it still is. I didn’t consider Balzac, Stendhal, James, Dumas, Austen, and Wharton to be challenging reads for a girl my age, even if I missed in these masterpieces almost everything meaningful, except for the love stories, which fascinated me. Stumbling upon Climates after this intense training was a curious experience. On the one hand, it was a much easier read—riveting even—and a true learning experience for the totally clueless girl I was then. On the other hand, while Climates was closer in time than the other books I had read, it wasn’t more “advanced” when it came to women’s rights, or for that matter the rights of anyone who wasn’t a privileged white male. I remember, as a girl, trying to glaze over the disturbing prejudices that would pop up on the page and thwart my ability to identify with my favorite characters, but now I am no longer at liberty to ignore certain statements—especially since I am otherwise thrilled and proud to re-publish Climates (in a translation by Adriana Hunter that gives the novel the contemporary tone that was missing in the previous translation). So here is one such passage. Am I right to be ashamed, or could it be rather that uncomfortable truths, packaged in the typical French bourgeois lingo of the 1930s, are lurking here?
In this scene, Isabelle (my favorite character) asks her friend Helene what she thinks of Solange, who she fears interests her husband a little too much:
“Do you think her intelligent?”
“Very intelligent for a woman…Yes…Well, there’s nothing she doesn’t know about. Of course, she depends on the man she loves for her topics of interest. In the days when she adored her husband, she was brilliant on colonial and economic issues; when it was Raymond Berger, she was interested in things to do with art. She has a great deal of taste. Her house in Morocco is a marvel, and the one in Fontainebleau very unusual…She’s driven more by love than intellect. But, all the same, she has tremendous judgment when she has a clear head.”
“What would you say it is that’s so attractive about her, Helene?”
“It’s mostly that she is so feminine.”
“What do you call ‘feminine’?”
“Well, a combination of qualities and faults: tenderness, prodigious devotion to the man she loves…for a time, but also a lack of scruples…When Solange wants a new conquest, she’ll overlook everyone else, even her best friend. It’s not nastiness, it’s instinctive.”
“Well, I would call it nastiness. You could just as easily say a tiger isn’t nasty when it eats a man, because it’s instinctive.”
“Exactly,” said Helene. “A tiger isn’t nasty, or at least not consciously so…What you’ve just said is actually very accurate: Solange is a tigress.”
“But she seems so gentle.”
“Do you think? Oh, no! There are flashes of steel; that’s one element of her beauty.”
Is this passage a marvelous outlet for feminist outrage, a convenient channel to malign the French, or an unexpected opportunity to recall someone just like Solange? Is she truly obsolete, or merely a typical femme fatale, irresistible because she can’t really be trusted? She is there one day and gone the next, and to make things worse, she is the last person on earth to understand her own behavior. We would think that nowadays there are men who fit that profile as well…but then we can also argue that for Isabelle, who seems uncannily like us, her husband, Philippe, becomes inscrutable as well when she ponders what the hell he sees in Solange, he so principled and square! So could it be that this passage is a bit too close to home for comfort, and that the more things change, the more they stay the same?*
This is only one of the reasons why Climates is worth not only a close reading, but also a serious discussion in reading groups, dinner parties, or even in the metro. Climates lives within the confines of our lives and speaks more directly to us and our woes than other canonical love stories such as Persuasion, Anna Karenina, The Age of Innocence, The Red and the Black, The Golden Bowl, Romeo and Juliet, or Othello. The obstacles that transform a reasonable attraction between two people into passion or jealousy rarely stem from the vicissitudes of ordinary life.
Here we see relationships as we know them. Love’s first thrills, the narcissism of small differences, familiar tensions with in-laws, being on the rebound, annoyance at our partner’s choice of hobbies, etc. Much of what Maurois describes of his rigid upper-class milieu can easily be translated to middle-class America. The conditions differ, but the emotions are the same. Moreover, the writing is beautiful and spare, the story is tight, the dialogue is always interesting and often witty, and the scrutiny that Philippe bestows upon himself is as implacable as that of Philip Roth. In addition, the love story in Climates is not merely a pretext for tackling other topics that are ultimately more interesting to the author, such as ambition, social conflicts, clan feuds, or man’s cowardliness (a favorite theme of Edith Wharton).
This book is about love for love’s sake. Some would say that you can read Climates almost like a love cookbook—one that offers recipes for disaster: what are the ingredients for jealousy to build, for exasperation to mount, for denial to lose its resolve? For driving a partner mad by being oblivious to the point of being sadistic? For how certain men actually think themselves in love only when they are in the throes of doubt or anxiety? (Or is this true for women too?)
But Climates is ultimately an ode to unconditional love and, in my view, to the inspiring Isabelle. This is a woman who refuses her fate of being dismissed, of being second fiddle, who at the same time disdains those poisonous methods that bring her man crawling back to her. She wins Philippe over again not by making him jealous (too easy and too pathetic) but through her conviction that unconditional love will win in the end. Maybe Isabelle is made of the stuff that accepts that there are certain constraints in life that can’t be overcome, but this doesn’t mean you must accept defeat. Love is always flawed, and the milieu in which we live is never designed to bring unmitigated bliss—neither in the 1930s nor today. But to accept limitations without compromising our convictions, especially when it comes to a love that has become familiar, for better or for worse, perhaps this is the “French lesson” that Isabelle wants to teach us. This may not be our typical American way, as we are prompt to preach revolution over reform, but this story, which is both simple and complex, sad and uplifting, has spoken to me so many times and in so many different places that I want to believe it will reach you as well—whatever you may think of it at the end.
*I asked some friends of a younger generation what they thought. Alex responded to this passage specifically, and Elena reviewed the whole book! Here’s what they have to say:
When I found out Climates was about love, I worried. I wrote my college application essay about the 1997 film version of Romeo and Juliet, along with other love stories that I believed had formed my seventeen-year-old “worldview,” but I like to tell myself that with continued experience in love I have become less romantic and sentimental. What this really means is that it has become less pleasurable for me to read about exquisite pain and tragically bad timing in the relationships of fictional people, now that I have some baggage of my own. But Climates reminded me that love is an irresistible topic, gripping at any age. As I found myself falling under this novel’s spell, I felt like Pacino in the last Godfather film: ”Just when I thought I was out”… etc.
Our most beloved love stories are famously either comedies or tragedies, adhering strictly to the rule that love end either in marriage or in death. But for Philippe, Isabelle, and Odile, the three corners of Maurois’s triangle, love doesn’t end at all. And in its perpetuity it rarely meets their expectations. Climates is typically French in its obsession with the nature of love between men and women, about which it remains fundamentally cynical. But what its characters lack in hopefulness, they make up for in incisiveness, and the book is a keen reminder that, as Isabelle puts it, “We are always tempted to sentimentalize ourselves and depict ourselves as we would like to be.” It attempts that impossible thing—honesty.
Indeed, what seems striking and brave about Climates is how Maurois tries, with scrutinizing attention to detail and refreshing honesty, to answer questions that many of us (in America, especially) would rather ignore. Why is happiness in love so often overshadowed by doubt? And why does being with someone you love sometimes feel so lonely? Do men and women want none of the same things? For easy answers, you could watch Sex and the City. But Climates is much more satisfying. So satisfying, in fact, that it doesn’t give answers at all—except by way of beautifully rendered moments, those delicate centerpieces of fiction.
Elena Schilder is a writer living in Brooklyn.
I guess my reaction is always somehow related to my life (which is why I was not a good student of literature) and timely. I actually speak regularly on the topic of learning through an emotional connection as opposed to via an academic method. I often joke to people that I don’t read. I just hang out with a lot of well-read people.
I started this habit at a very early age, and most certainly because of boys. I think it began when I pretended to like Pearl Jam to win the heart of a crush (of course now Pearl Jam is a very important band to me and I don’t remember the boy). Over time, my tastes and opinions and politics, and references evolved and I believe I have developed into a well-rounded woman with strong sensibility and opinions. But, in dark times, I think my entire identity and persona is the result of hundreds of flirtations and now my appeal of being versatile and curious and interested and knowledgeable about many things is really just because I am kind of a slut.
But, I have in the past been jealous of other women who are more like this than I—because in the end being ambitious and capable hinges on being able to connect with others. In the past I have also been called opportunistic and had other women jealous of me for carrying such tigress traits.
The feminist tragedy isn’t that this is a distinct quality or a method in contrast to a more pious route. The feminist tragedy (and this is no great revelation if you have ever seen a single episode of Sex in the City) is that women are perceived by one another and men as “tigers” or “witchy” whereas this quality in a man is the basis for their dominance—it’s called being “charismatic” or being a good “networker.”
As far as this book is concerned—the difference between 1930 and 2013 is nothing when it comes to the history of civilization. It doesn’t surprise me that such a passage is still relevant.
Further, I don’t know about this Isabelle chick—but as a Solange (or a Samantha), I find Isabelle’s ability to win by maintaining her conviction towards unconditional love—absolutely pathetic.
Alex Escamillia is a real estate developer working in New York City.
Judith Gurewich is Publisher of Other Press.
A version of this article ran in the December 14, 2012 issue of Publishers Weekly’s Tip Sheet.