Judith Gurewich, publisher of Other Press, talks about the immediacy of André Maurois's forgotten masterpiece Climates, which was first published in 1928 but is only now being rescued from obscurity. Climates tells the story of young Philippe Marcenat, who meets and falls in love with Odile Malet. But Philippe falls into a morass of jealousy and disillusionment, hurtling the couple toward tragedy--and that's only the book's first half.
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 12 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 that 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, anybody’s rights 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?
When 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 is 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 men 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 remember 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, him 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 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. Moreover, the love story in Climates is not merely an excuse to tackle other topics that are ultimately more interesting to the author, who uses love as a pretext to speak of ambition, social conflicts, clan feuds or man's cowardliness (a favorite theme of Edith Wharton).
Here the 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 how to drive a partner mad by being oblivious to the point of being sadistic, or how certain men actually only think themselves in love when they are merely 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, and yet at the same time who has disdain for 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, which 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.