By Benjamin J.N. Harrison
Infidelity is a common theme found throughout my favorite stories: Nichols’ The Graduate, Lean’s Brief Encounter, Anderson’s Rushmore, and now Radiguet’s 1923 The Devil in the Flesh, a disgustingly enjoyable wartime novella about the love affair between a fifteen-year-old boy and a married woman four years his senior.
While at times deplorable, the nameless protagonist of The Devil in the Flesh is a character many can relate to; perfectly embodying the lust and ambition of youth, he represents the adventure many of us seek, but never find. He skips school and lies to his parents constantly to visit the irresistible Marthe, an older married woman whose husband is off at war. The relationship begins in a relatively innocent fashion, with the protagonist sneaking around and lying like a typical mischievous teenager, but it grows serious when he discovers his imminent fatherhood. The entire novel reads as if scandal remains possible at any given moment; this creates a sense of urgency and excitement throughout, as if the reader is embarking themselves on some kind of perilous but extremely gratifying escapade.
The novel furthermore deals with themes of morality. The narrator and protagonist can be classified as amoral and obnoxious; with a scrupulous eye, he criticizes the most insignificant of things in other people. But based on his pretentious and cocksure nature, one must consider whether our protagonist is rude from genuine conviction or from mere bravado. Morality is also linked to themes of control and power within the novel; certain passages force one to question how much influence one should exert over another in a relationship, and when such influence becomes immoral. The protagonist clearly wields a considerable amount of power over Marthe, and while the morality of this is not often questioned directly, it sparks thought in the attentive reader’s mind.
Interestingly enough, The Devil in the Flesh is a romance novel written without much feeling; the sober and objective prose can at times read as if no love whatever is present. Although the narrator insists on his love for Marthe, it is sometimes difficult to believe, as the style is almost affectless. In this regard, the novel can read as if Marthe is a mere object of consideration for the protagonist - a philosophic experiment of sorts. While far too many lustful adolescents would perhaps love to be in the protagonist’s position, he seems to lack any emotional attachment, thus putting such desires into question.
Supposedly, Radiguet wrote The Devil in the Flesh as a fictionalized autobiography; one can only hope his affair ended on a lighter note than did that of the novel’s protagonist. The ending of Radiguet’s novel is heartbreaking and moving, despite (or perhaps as a result of) the prose’s apparent apathy.
Raymond Radiguet’s The Devil in the Flesh is a disturbing but clever novella; it deals with common themes, such as romance and morality, but renders them fresh with its objective storytelling and thought-provoking witticisms. It’s a tragedy Radiguet died only in his twentieth year; a prodigy endowed with exceptional literary ability at such a young age, one can only imagine how his style would have developed.
Buy here: https://www.amazon.ca/Devil-Flesh-Raymond-Radiguet/dp/0714534021
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