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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
Belle du Seigneur - Albert Cohen This is a great novel about romantic love; alternately, one could say that it's about what it's like to be a sex and love addict, since it doesn't portray romantic love very positively. The three main characters are Ariane, her husband Didi, and Solal, who later becomes Ariane's lover. The first third is mostly about the young married couple. Didi is one of the great idiots of literature, and everything he does sets Ariane's teeth on edge. She wishes every minute of the day that she hadn't married him; she screwed up badly when she was 20, he rescued her, and she accepted him out of gratitude, and because she didn't have any alternatives. It doesn't make her like him any better.

The book is often described in the francophone world as phallocrate (you guessed that right), but in the first part it's almost the opposite; a lot is presented from Ariane's point of view, including a memorable stream-of-consciousness passage when she's in her bath, thinking mostly about how unbelievably disgusting and stupid it is to have sex with her husband. You are a little startled that this was written by a man. Didi is oblivious to the fact that she can't stand him, and it's clear that this state of affairs won't continue indefinitely.

Solal is Didi's exact opposite: smart, powerful, and irresistibly attractive to women. He's a big wheel at the League of Nations, and Didi's boss. He's fallen for Ariane, who is a babe. Solal has a tendency to fall for unsuitable babes; he knows already that there's going to be trouble, and that he's going to wish he hadn't done it. Being a Don Juan type, he's been round the cycle numerous times, and feels disgusted with the predictability of everyone involved, including himself. At the same time, the author conveys well his delight in Ariane's presence; love transforms his world, and makes him come alive.

To me, Didi and Solal are idealized, complementary halves; I'm guessing the author combined aspects of both of them, though from what I can make out he was most like Solal. It's an interesting way to present what he sees as the artificiality of romance, a theme that becomes increasingly important later. Sometimes you find yourself playing the role of the moronic, despised, soon-to-be-cuckolded Didi; sometimes, you're cast as his dashing rival. Both are just roles, and even though Solal gets the better one he often finds it stifling. I perhaps make this sound like depressing stuff. In fact, the first part of the book is very light and funny. There is foreshadowing, but mostly you're just laughing at all the stupid things Didi does and says.

About a third of the way through, Ariane finally meets Solal. (Though in fact, she's already met him, since I didn't mention the book's very first scene; you'll have to read it to find out what that's about). He tells her that she will be his within three hours, and then spends most of it explaining all the tricks he is going to use to seduce her. I am not enough of a Don Juan myself to be able to say whether they are the most effective ones, but, based on my limited experience, they sound correct. At any rate, they work on Ariane, and we now embark on the second phase of the book, where the focus contracts to include only the two lovers; Solal has sent off Didi on a long work-related trip, so that he will have the field to himself.

What's interesting about this part is the extremely cynical view of romantic love which it presents. Everything depends on appearances; Solal and his Belle take endless pains to present themselves to each other in as favorable a light as possible, agonizing over the tiniest details, and alternating between bottomless despair when they feel that they have made a gaffe, and unbounded happiness when the loved one appreciates the latest little strategem. It is constantly made clear that the whole thing is an illusion, which both parties are working nonstop to maintain. It's made equally clear how wonderful this illusion is for both of them, and how necessary all the contrivances are to keep it alive, given the basic rules of the game. Though, of course, the author is also saying that there is something badly wrong with the game itself, if it has to be played in such an absurd way; sometimes he says it very explicitly.

Writing this down, I'm reminded of a favorite scene from the 1983 movie Terms of Endearment. Jack Nicholson is an aging former astronaut, who spends most of his time drinking and trying to lay as many young women as possible. Shirley MacClaine, his next-door neighbor, has been watching his goings-on for years, with evident disapproval. She's finally consented to enter his house. It's covered with medals, photographs taken from space, what have you; every square centimeter screams "Have sex with me, I'm a famous astronaut". She looks around cooly, and says

"Is all of this really necessary?"

Nicholson, completely unembarrassed, replies,

"Necessary?? Sometimes it's not enough!"

I won't describe the last part of the book, but it follows logically from what has gone before, and is unlikely to leave you smiling idiotically about the beauties of love. So handle with care, but it's a great piece of work, and will almost certainly make you think.


I picked this up again a couple of days ago and continued re-reading it... now about two thirds of the way through. He's so good at showing you how stupid and crazy and selfish love can make you. But also how beautiful and generous and godlike. Often at the same time.

And I'd forgotten how incredibly sexy the stream-of-consciousness bits are. Here's Ariane in her bath, waiting impatiently for her lover to arrive after a long absence:
... penché sur mon buste enfin quoi sur un de mes snies s'il faut tout vous dire oui snies parfaitment je dis les mots à l'envers quand ça me gêne de les dire à l'endroit moi donc passive reine recevant l'hommage qui fait tant de bien le suppliant que longtemps longtemps à droite puis à gauche puis à droite et moi reconnaissante râlant ronronnant avec distinction bref remerciements inarticulés et un peu le caressant mon chéri dans ses cheveux sublimes en désordre pour qu'il sache que j'approuve et apprécie fort et pour l'amour du ciel qu'il veuille bien continuer oh comme je suis rudimentaire et puis tout à coup je lui dis que je ne peux plus et qu'il me faut le sacre moi noble victime sur l'autel étendue oui son jardin étroit qu'il y entre qu'il y reste je le retiens je l'aspire oh reste toujours mon bien-aimé reste dans ta religieuse oh quand il en moi oui pas de honte de le dire parce que très beau très noble oui oui quand il en moi c'est l'éternité oh quand il quand il se libère en moi se libère à pulsations que je sens en moi alors je le regarde et c'est l'éternité et j'accepte de mourir un jour un soir d'automne peut-être de cancer j'accepte puisque quand il exulte en moi je vis éternelle oh je jouis plus de la joie que je lui donne que de celle que je lui prends ô mon amour dis que tu es bien en moi oh reste reste assez ne plus continuer défense de continuer parce que ça devient véritablement odieux mon amour mais vous comprenez insupportable surtout dans l'eau qui est complice terrible oh aimé venez être bien en moi s'il vous plaît...


The ending is very painful and very beautiful. I was particularly moved by this passage:
Ô les débuts, leur temps de Genève, les préparatifs, son bonheur d'être belle pour lui, les attentes, les arrivées à neuf heures, et elle était toujours sur le seuil à l'attendre, impatiente et en santé de jeunesse, à l'attendre sur le seuil et sous les roses, dans la robe roumaine qu'il aimait, blanche aux larges manches serrées aux poignets, ô l'enthusiasme de le revoir, les soirées, les heures à se regarder, à se parler, à se raconter à l'autre, tant de baisers reçus et donnés, oui, les seuls vrais de sa vie, et après l'avoir quittée tard dans la nuit, quittée avec tant de baisers, baisers profonds, baisers interminables, il revenait parfois, une heure plus tard ou des minutes plus tard, ô splendeur de le revoir, ô fervent retour, je ne peux pas sans toi, il lui disait, je ne peux pas, et d'amour il pliait genou devant elle qui d'amour pliait genou devant lui, et c'était des baisers, elle et lui religieux, des baisers encore et encore, baisers véritables, baisers d'amour, grands baisers battant l'aile, je ne peux pas sans toi, il lui disait entre des baisers, et il restait, le merveilleux qui ne pouvait pas, ne pouvait pas sans elle, restait des heures jusqu'à l'aurore et aux chants des oiseaux, et c'était l'amour. Et maintenant ils ne se désiraient plus, ils s'ennuyaient ensemble, elle le savait bien.