Friday, 3 October 2014

Alfred de Musset - Confession of a Child of the Century

This novel was a gift, and not in the sense of unexpected pleasure or revelation. It was a birthday present from someone very close to me, and someone quite French. As such, I read it - at first with some interest - and then out of a sort of mix of duty and despair at ending up with another unfinished novel on my bookshelf.

The opening is interesting - the context of wars and revolutionary ideals betrayed, an Emperor come and gone, and the sense of modernity and change (published in 1836) and an awareness of the Romantic movement in the arts gives it a contemporaneous feel. But soon it becomes what is its central theme - a story of the search for love of one betrayed by his mistress. It is like Confessions of an Opium Eater (1821) only less visionary, in every sense.

Perhaps it is a French thing to enjoy stories of aristocratic debauchery, where hints of sexual feats must serve over detailed descriptions in the sense of good taste, but I found it all rather self-aggrandising, none the less. In some ways, it helped me to understand a more contemporary French novel I read earlier in the year - Frederic Beigbeder's A French Novel (2013), set around a temporary arrest for snorting cocaine of the bonnet of a sports car - and reflecting on one's childhood, love and other regrets.

I stuck at both novels and ended up glad that I am not French, after all. Musset's piece has at least the extremities of emotions of the time in its defence - there are direct allusions to The Sorrows of Young Werther, for example, by then a classic of suicidal contemplation in the service of passionate, artistic, self-indulgent and unrequited love. In Musset's case, he does an excellent job of building tensions towards the end of the novel as Octave's relationship with Brigette deteriorates into jealousy, paranoia and self-destruction on the part of the young man.

Evidently it was made into a not-so-good film, and perhaps a few (more recent) copies of the novel were sold on the back of that. I am not sure how you would make a good film of this tale, unless you found a way of slowing down the plot even further into a series of melancholic, slow-pans across the faces of a beautiful actress while a fraught Romantic struts his stuff outside of the frame and groans, as he must, in time with some beautiful music.

Or, perhaps I am simply jealous that if I had a secret affair to confess, I wouldn't write a lengthy novel on the strength of it - I am simply not French enough, or aristocratic enough, to pull it off. One for the deluded Romantics (of which I usually consider myself to be one).