Category Archives: Constant Benjamin

2018: It’s a Wrap

Towards the end of 2018, I started thinking about which books would make my best-of-year-list. Several of the titles I’d read this past year came to mind, and I began to think that I would, perhaps, have a difficult time narrowing down just a few titles to the list.

Helping with Inquiries: Celia Dale

A husband returns home to find his wife battered to death. The investigating detectives tell the husband, Leonard Henderson, to write down his statement, so we get his version of events which is contrasted to his memories of growing up with a cold, critical mother, and his marriage to the murder victim, Enid. Yes this is the story of a murder, but it’s also the story of a marriage (always impenetrable to outsiders). This is the first book I’ve read by Celia Dale, and it was on my shelf far too long before I finally picked it up. The tale is an insightful look at a claustrophobic marriage and I’ll be reading more from this author who now seems to have faded from view.

New World in the Morning: Stephen Benatar

A middle-aged, married antique seller gets a new lease on life when an attractive female customer walks into his shop. Narrated by 39-year-old Sam, this tale of a man who feels hampered by family life, ‘could’ be very 70s in its portrayal of a man who springs free of his commitments. Instead, in the capable hands of author Stephen Benatar, we see a selfish twerp with illusions of an acting career who proceeds to blow up his very comfortable life. While Sam may think his infidelity is paramount to a heroic selfless act: “one thing was sure … both of them would benefit. I’d be doing it for the three of us,” in reality, even though Sam is in control of the narration, we begin to wonder just who puts up with who in Sam’s marriage.

A Little Love, a Little Learning: Nina Bawden

Told in retrospect, this is the story of short, but significant period in the life of 12-year-old Kate who lives with her mother and stepfather, a doctor. It’s 1953, and a friend of Kate’s mother comes to live with the family. The guest is a rather gossipy but supposedly good-hearted woman, and her arrival sparks a series of events. Through these event, Kate learns that life is not black and white. I usually dislike books written from the child’s perspective but this tale, told with an adult’s view, is simply marvellous. This was the second novel I’d read by Bawden. I wasn’t that keen on the first so I’m happy I tried again.

The Good House: Ann Leary

If forced to pick ONE book as the best-of-the-year, then The Good House would be the choice. I read this early in the year so it set a high standard for comparison. This is the story of a high-functioning alcoholic, a divorced real-estate agent who thinks her drinking is no one else’s business. The unreliable narration here is tart, funny, and entertaining. I laughed out loud several times and was sorry to see this one end. Brilliant.

The Fall Guy: James Lasdun

One lazy summer, Matthew stays at the vacation home of his much wealthier cousin, Charlie. Matthew’s grateful for a place to stay while he mulls over the next phase of his life, but does Charlie really want Matthew there?  Matthew has a thing for Charlie’s second wife, Chloe, and when Matthew discovers that Chloe is having an affair, he finds himself in a moral dilemma. Should he tell Charlie? Nothing is quite what it seems in this novel.

A Change in the Lighting: Amy Witting

Amy Witting is a great favourite. and I knew I’d love this novel. A Change in the Lighting is the story of a middle-aged woman who is floored when her professor husband casually announces that he wants a divorce.  Ella whose whole life for the past 30 years has been raising three children and taking care of the household, doesn’t know what to do. She teeters on the edge of madness but sinks into elaborate rug making. Her children take sides in the divorce war, and yet .. in spite of everything that goes wrong, Ella finds that her life expands into new territory. Witty and wise.

A Wreath of Roses: Elizabeth Taylor

Two childhood friends, Liz and Camilla, spend the summer at the home of Liz’s former governess, Frances. The novels examines the choices made by these women and how taking chances opens up the possibilities of hurt and even danger. In life, we make our choices and then wonder if they were the right ones. Elizabeth Taylor takes that central idea and runs with it. This is a very dark novel. When I picked it up, I wondered why the title was A Wreath of Roses and not a vase or a bunch etc. The word wreath reminded me of death…

Mrs Sartoris: Elke Schmitter

A middle-aged woman who married decades earlier on the rebound finds passion, but will this end happily? No of course not. This is narrated by a woman who seems in control of her passions, but is she? She functions well as an employee and a wife, but like an iceberg, what you see on the surface is only a fraction of what’s there. She may seem in control, but once unleashed, there’s no telling what may happen.

Hell Hath No Fury: Ingrid Noll

A middle-aged woman goes off the rails when she becomes infatuated with a self-absorbed, married academic. A deranged narrator who is also unreliable. How can you go wrong? This was close to being my best read of the year….

Accident on the A-35: Graeme Macrae Burnet

A man dies in a car accident and a police detective investigates. In one sense this is a police procedural (my least favourite crime novel),  but has a crime even been committed? As the investigation continues, the detective finds that the inhabitants of this small French town are less than cooperative. But the crime/investigation is not the main story here: surely it’s the view of small town life, frustrated ambitions and a disintegrating marriage.

Adolphe: Benjamin Constant

A wealthy young man persuades an older woman, the mistress of another man, to become his mistress. The young man cannot live without this woman–or so he thinks, and then he gets her… this rather cynical (realistic) look at love and passion peels back the human psyche and it’s not pretty. But that’s why it’s such a great book.

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Filed under Bawden Nina, Benatar Stephen, Burnet Graeme Macrae, Constant Benjamin, Dale Celia, Fiction, Lasdun James, Leary Ann, Noll Ingrid, Schmitter Elke, Taylor, Elizabeth, Witting Amy

Adolphe: Benjamin Constant

“It is a dreadful misfortune not to be loved when we are in love, but it is a very great one to be loved passionately when we have ceased to love.”

My Penguin Classics edition of Adolphe includes a long introduction from translator Leonard Tancock regarding the life of its author, Benjamin Constant and his relationships with three women: Mme de Charrière, Madame de Staël and Anna Lindsay. Tancock notes that Adolphe’s Ellenore is an “amalgam of Benjamin’s experience with women,” and no doubt that explains why this novella is so powerful.

 

Adolphe is not a particularly appealing protagonist, and this is in spite of, or perhaps even because, he has control of the narrative, so that we only see things from his one-sided view.  The story begins when Adolphe is 22 and has just concluded his university studies. He’s bored and in society, he feels that nothing is “worthy of attracting” his attention. Influenced by his father’s attitude towards women, and in a “state of vague emotional torment,” he longs for a love affair. He is invited by a friend of his father’s, Count P, to visit, and it’s here that Adolphe meets Ellenore, a Polish woman “whose family had been ruined.”  In spite of the fact that Ellenore is the Count’s mistress and they live openly together, she is socially accepted by the Count’s circle. Ellenore and the Count have two children together, and it’s mainly due to Ellenore’s persistence that the Count’s fortunes have been restored following a successful lawsuit. So Ellenore is an unusual prospect for Adolphe–a woman of high station who has risked everything for love.  Because of scandal and social stigma, Ellenore would normally have the sort of ignominious position that demands that she be stashed away from society, but no, she’s rather unusually not hidden–accepted yes but with a stain.  This makes Ellenore an intriguing and also a vulnerable prospect for seduction.

Adolphe lays siege to Ellenore. At first his attentions are pleasant:

I did not think I was in love with Ellenore, but already I could not endure the thought of not pleasing her. She was continually in my thoughts: I made countless plans and invented countless ways of winning her, with that callow fatuity which is so confident of success because it has never attempted anything.

When Adolphe is rejected, instead of taking the hint and cooling down, he doubles down on the pressure:

I was stunned. Inflamed by this setback, my imagination took possession of my whole life. Suddenly I found myself racked by the torments of love which but an hour before I had been simulating with such-self-congratulation.

Poor Ellenore, Adolphe is determined to have her and so he resorts to the ultimate threat. Ellenore is moved, gives in, and so the affair begins. It’s a relationship that’s doomed from the start, and the road towards that finality begins with a bump or two but then becomes tortured, troubled and loaded with self deceit. There are times when Adolphe deceives himself (not the reader) and there are times when he’s blisteringly honest. It becomes all too easy to see that one person is the root of all your problems. One person is holding you back from the brilliant career you know awaits you.

Nearly always , so as to live at peace with ourselves, we disguise our own impotence and weakness as calculation and policy; it is our way of placating that half of our being which is in a sense a spectator of the other. 

This wonderful novella explores the crucial issues of any relationship: where exactly the ME and the US begins and ends and how novelty adds glitter to an affair while routine and obligation bury the thrill.

And yet the affairs of ordinary life cannot be forced to fit in with all our desires. It was sometimes awkward to have my every step marked out for me in advance and all my moments counted. I was obliged to hurry through everything I did and break with most of my acquaintances. I did not know what to say to my friends when they invited me to take part in some social activity in normal circumstances I should have had no reason for declining. When I was with Ellenore I did not hanker after these pleasures of social life which had never appealed to me very strongly, but I would have liked her to leave me freer to give them up of my own accord. It would have been pleasanter to go back to her of my own free will, without telling myself that time was up and she was anxiously waiting, and without the thought of my happiness at rejoining her being mingled with that of her displeasure. Ellenore was a great joy in my life, of course, but she was no longer an objective, she had become a tie. 

For its focus on a turbulent dying relationship Adolphe reminded me of  Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly’s Une Vieille Maîtresse.

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Filed under Constant Benjamin, Fiction