I’ve been picking away at a Balzac biography by André Maurois, so I curious to read the novel Climates (1928). Maurois, who ”kept a secret cupboard filled with Balzac novels” was clearly a Balzac devotee and expert, and I decided that given the Balzac connection, his novel would be, at the very least, interesting. Climates, also known as The Climates of Love, is the story of a man, Philippe Marcenat and his two marriages, and through the novel, we get a fascinating look at two very different, and yet with the slight shifting of roles, oddly similar relationships. The novel explores some of the unanswerable questions about love: why do we chose to love one person and not another? Why are some relationships satisfying while others are not? Do we tend to fall in love with the same sort of person? Are we more comfortable with some relationship roles than others? What does the selection of who we love say about who we are and what we need? And perhaps the most intriguing question of all: why do we love people who aren’t good for us?
Regular readers of this blog know that I am a film fan, and while I watch a great deal of foreign film, French film seems to excel at exploring the philosophical depths and treacherously difficult nuances of relationships. Certainly the same is also true of French fiction, and after reading Climates, I have to agree with a statement in the wonderful introduction by Sarah Bakewell that French writers are “more than usually observant and often merciless with themselves. They reveal every power game, every change of emotional weather. Every powerful and embarrassing moment is needled out for us on the page.” This is most definitely the case with Climates, a novel in which one man’s relationships are scrutinized and rather painfully analyzed, and we see that even though our protagonist, Philippe perfectly understands himself, his actions, his desires, and his choices, in this case, self-knowledge does not bring happiness or success in personal relationships.
Philippe Marcenat comes from a rather staid, conventional and respectable background in the provinces. His father owns a paper mill, and when the novel begins, Philippe is a child set to run and inherit the paper mill in the distant future. The family is well off and live in a nineteenth century Château, the Château de Gandumas–an idyllic if provincial setting. You could say that his family is rather predictably boring, caring a great deal about appearances, but to say that doesn’t really do justice to the fact that Philippe’s family are very nice, decent people but somewhat repressive and eminently respectable. As a child, Philippe develops an image of the ‘ideal woman’ after reading a book called Little Russian Soldiers, and clearly his imagined role with this fantasy woman is to be a sort of devoted slave who aims to please and is rewarded with a smile. This seemingly small experience appears to set the tone for Philippe’s later adult relationships, for while he has numerous affairs, his first really serious relationship is with a young, beautiful, emotionally elusive girl called Odile he meets against the backdrop of a romantic Italian holiday.
Structurally, according to the author, this is a very simple story: “Part 1 -I love and am not loved. Part 2-I am loved and do not love.” Part 1 which takes the form of a letter to his second wife is narrated by Philippe and is the story of his courtship of Odile and their subsequent marriage. After his first glance at Odile, he is completely entranced:
Why did I feel such a sense of perfection? Were the things Odile said remarkable? I think not, but she had what all the Marcenats lacked: a lust for life. We love people who secrete a mysterious essence, the one missing from our own formula to make us a stable chemical compound. I may not have known women more beautiful than Odile, but I knew plenty who were more brilliant, more perfectly intelligent, yet not one of them managed to bring the physical world within my grasp as she did. Having been distanced from it by too much reading, too much solitary meditation, I now discovered trees and flowers and the smell of the earth, all sorts of things picked by Odile every morning and laid in bunches at my feet.
While Odile Malet brings ”the world of colors and sounds” to Philippe (and we can really feel how entranced he is with her fey qualities), he gives her the stability she lacks. Odile’s home life is less-than-respectable. Her father is a failed architect, and this is Odile’s mother’s third marriage. Odile is inadequately chaperoned, goes into society freely, and her mother takes lovers. Ultimately to Philippe’s mother, the Malets are “not people like us.” Since Philippe and Odile both bring to the marriage the elements the other person lacks, it’s entirely possible to imagine that this couple will enjoy a happy marriage. But almost from the moment this relationship gets off the ground, tiny fault lines form between them (her flirtatiousness, attraction to fake jewelry, “puerile” novels and the fact that Philippe isn’t “much fun,“) and these fault lines widen.
I do not regret those times, although they were fleeting. Their last chords still resonate within me, and if I listen carefully and silence the noise of the present, I can make our their pure but already doomed sound.
We are taken through every stage of this marriage including “the first knock to send a fine crack through the transparent crystal of my love. An insignificant episode but one that prefigured everything to come.” Our narrator, Philippe does not spare himself as he details the disintegration of the marriage, and this is somewhat unusual, as so often the narrator–especially in the matters of love–will tell a slightly slanted story. Not so here. Philippe admits that in the marriage he finds himself in an unusual position, and one that he does not care for. In the past, he’s the one who loved lightly and decided when his relationships with various mistresses were to end. Now the tables are turned, and Philippe acknowledges that Odile has the power in the relationship. Yes, he’s male and has the money, and in theory should be the one in power, but his adulation of Odile dictates his amount of tolerance which is accompanied by overwhelming jealously and a sense of powerlessness. At the same time, he also admits that “as early as the second month of our married life I knew that the real Odile was not the one I had married.” Odile brings a lot of emotional baggage to the relationship, and while it’s emotional difficulty that Philippe craves, it also erodes the foundations of their marriage.
Part 2 is written by Philippe’s second wife in the form of a letter to her husband–along with quotes from his diaries. Here we see Philippe in his second marital relationship. This wife is all the things that Odile was not, and yet the opposite is also true. Philippe’s attraction is partially explained by the similarities he makes between the two women “rather like hanging a garment on a peg.” Outsiders might predict that Philippe’s second marriage would be far more successful than the first, yet is it? He has a wife who worships him and is content just to be in the same room together, but is this the sort of relationship Philippe wants?
In the novel, Maurois argues that each relationship creates a climate, an environment, physical, mental and emotional, and that these climates alter as we move from one relationship to another. One climate may not suit while another may be preferable, and one of the difficulties presented by marriage and examined in the book is the undeniable fact that ”one cannot just transfer one’s personality intact from one environment to the next” (Bakewell). One of the first annoyances Philippe encounters after returning from his honeymoon with Odile is her choice of curtains, and it’s no coincidence that domestic details are given a fair amount of attention in the novel.
It’s impossible to read this novel without contemplating the power of memory. Philippe’s early memories shape his later life, and are his memories of Odile accurate or has she improved in the frequent replays of their life together?
Why do some images remain with as clear to us as when we first saw them, while others that might seem more important grow hazy and fade so quickly?
The introduction discusses some aspects of the author’s personal life and those autobiographical elements that entered the novel. The character of Odile, strangely sad at times in spite of her love for life, seems to be so alive in these pages–almost as if she could step, laughing, from the pages. I take that as a tribute to the author’s love for the woman who was the basis for the character. Authors often write in order to answer unresolved questions in their lives. How gratifying it would be, in theory at least, to be an author who had the talent to write and then solve some of the issues in life. In the case of Climates, this superb novel does not appear to bring any ease to Maurois or chase away the ghosts that haunted him. In fact, if anything, there’s a lingering discontent, an acknowledged hopeless regarding his shortcomings and a strong, overpowering sense of loss.
Review copy. Translated by Adriana Hunter.