Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Benjamin Constant

In The Last Attachment, Iris Origo tells of Lord Byron sending his mistress Teresa Guiccioli a copy of Benjamin Constant's novel Adolphe. The novel purports to be the history of a young man who seduces a woman from idle vanity, then finds her on his hands; he will not, from a sense of obligation, renounce her, but he cannot be wholeheartedly committed to her, and both live unhappily. To Guiccioli this sounded uncomfortably like the relation existing between Byron and her, and the neutral reader will agree.

A Folio paperback including Adolphe turned up at Carpe Librum a while ago, and I bought it. I can understand Teresa Guiccioli's distress. Byron spoke of it, in the letter accompanying the volume, as "well written and only too true." I am no judge of French prose; I did find it terribly plausible.

The volume included also Le Cahier Rouge, a memoir of Constant's youthand Cécile, a roman-à-clef concerning Constant's efforts to break away from Madame de Stäel and take up with Charlotte von Hardenberg. The memoir was mildly interesting, most of the interest lying in the demonstration of what unreliable and distractable oafs many young men are. About halfway through Cécile, though, I found myself wondering why I kept on reading it. Mme. de Stäel is of interest through her writings, and Constant through his. But as protagonists, they don't really sustain a roman-à-clef. Maybe I had to get the full $1.06 worth from my purchase.

Shortly before reading Cécile, I had seen a quotation from Metternich, "The French are the people of intelligence. Intelligence runs the streets; but behind it is no character, no principle, and no will; they run after everything, can be managed through vanity, and like children must always have a toy." One might think that Metternich had Cécile in mind, but the manuscript was not found and published until the middle of the twentieth century. Is it fair to think of think of Benjamin Constant, born Swiss, as French?

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