Truants and Cuckolds

Aaron Matz

In The Devil in the Flesh, Raymond Radiguet’s novel of 1923, there are no machine guns, no trenches, no clumsy helmets or Five-Nines. At one point there’s some fighting several kilometres away, but the sound of artillery fire is audible only briefly. All the totems of First World War literature are absent, and yet the most interesting thing about the book is that it is even so a story about the war. The novel begins around 1914 and ends a few pages after the ringing of the armistice bells in 1918. There are no scenes of warfare because it’s a story about the home front, but even stories about the home front tend to include some ever present reminder of war, or some direct incursion: in French fiction, most prominently, Vercors’s Le Silence de la mer, in which a German officer is stationed in a French house, or in English fiction the epilogue of Brideshead Revisited, in which Charles Ryder is billeted back at Brideshead after it has been requisitioned by the army. Radiguet is less direct, and more perverse, in his representation of war. The Devil in the Flesh isn’t conventionally anti-war, or even very concerned about the parties fighting the war: it is wholly irreverent about what actually happens in wartime.

What happens is this: while the soldiers are off fighting at the front, adolescent boys are having sex with their wives. Radiguet’s novel is narrated by an unnamed 16-year-old boy who has an affair, in the last year of the war, with an 18-year-old married woman called Marthe. It’s the war that makes the affair possible – even encourages it. By rule or convention, boys are made into men in wartime by witnessing the horror of slaughter. In The Devil in the Flesh a boy becomes a man because somebody else is having that wartime experience somewhere in the background, while in the foreground the boy-hero is fucking – and falling in love with – that man’s wife. In Radiguet everything begins in perversity and provocation: on the first page the narrator concedes that his story will make the reader judge him harshly for his wartime behaviour, but ‘people who reproach me should try and imagine what the war was for so many young boys – a four-year-long holiday.’

The novel tells the story of the affair, which almost exactly follows the chronological arc of the war. In the Marne region just east of Paris, around 1913-14, the narrator starts playing truant from school. Through family friends he meets Marthe, who is engaged to the soldier Jacques. Marthe and Jacques marry; Jacques is sent to the front. The narrator gets more and more closely involved with Marthe as he helps her pick out the decorations for her new marital bedroom and dictates her letters to her faraway husband. They fall in love. Soon they start having regular and outstanding sex. Gradually their affair becomes obvious to everybody around them, family and strangers alike. (The ongoing cuckolding of Jacques is known to everyone except Jacques, who’s barely present in the book.)

In the novel’s most memorable scene, Marthe’s downstairs neighbours plan an afternoon party so that their guests can listen in on the noisy sex upstairs; they set the table directly beneath Marthe’s bedroom. But the hero gets advance word of the plot and decides to foil it. For the duration of the party ‘we didn’t make a sound … I could imagine the contorted expression on Madame Marin’s face, her gaze fastened on the hands of the clock, her guests’ impatience. Eventually, at about seven o’clock, the couples went home empty-handed.’ With the guests gone, and only the prurient neighbours still downstairs, the narrator seizes his opportunity:

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[*] Count d’Orgel’s Ball is available from New York Review Books in a translation by Annapaola Cancogni and from Pushkin Press in a translation by Violet Schiff.