Raymond Radiguet, a French teenager who hung out with Hemingway and Cocteau, wrote The Devil in the Flesh in 1921, and died of typhoid fever at the age of 20. The story is nothing new: the relationship between a slightly older married woman, Marthe (19) and a younger teenage boy (15). But the language is concise and honest. And the unnamed self-centered narrator is hyper-aware of his cruelty when he reflects on the past. The book itself is packaged quite nicely. Beautiful cover, published by the Neversink Library (which is a direct reference to Herman Melville’s White Jacket), the book synopsis reads:
“Hailed by Jean Cocteau as a “masterpiece,” and by the Guardian as “Bret Easton Ellis‘s Less Than Zero, avant la letter,” this taut tale written by a teenager in the form of a frank “confession” is a gem of early twentieth century romanticism. Long unavailable in the U.S., it is here presented in a sparkling new translation.”
Ok, so here we have the book praised by Jean Cocteau, and compared to Bret Easton Ellis. It’s written by a French teenager, and given my penchant for Rimbaud, I had to read it. And it was out of print for far too long, according to the publishers. The problem with reading something so old is that it can feel dated. And sometimes, when the author is a teenager, the themes are overly romanticized or completely trite. Fortunately, this novella defies both potential flaws because of the candid contemplation.
Since the book is set up as a reflection, the narrator is able to demonstrate self-awareness. Set during World War I, the book begins:
I am going to bring a great deal of criticism on myself. But what can I do about it? Is it my fault if I turned twelve shortly before war was declared? . . . People who reproach me should try and imagine what the War was for so many young boys—a four-year-long holiday. (1)
Our egocentric narrator is being honest to the point of damaging and inciting disgust. But that’s where the devil lies. He enjoys the attention and revulsion that his affair incites from others. He realizes that he will stop loving this woman when he is older and her looks fade. The narrator is titillated to lend Marthe Rimbaud, something her fiancé has denied her. The narrator gives her a bouquet of flowers and admits, “I was thinking less of the pleasure they would give Marthe as of how she would have to tell more lies that evening to explain to her parents where the roses came from.” (29) The narrator gives her a gift not out of love but out of the desire to make her life uncomfortable. He wants to control every situation and make her choose him over everyone else. He cares only for her to pledge her allegiance to him and reject all else. If she lies to her parents and her fiancé , she has chosen the narrator over the others.
The narrator helps Marthe pick out the furniture for the apartment she will share with her fiancé. He purposefully chooses furniture he considers ugly so the fiancé will suffer. However, he spends more time using the ugly bed than the fiancé ever does (as he is off at war). And later, Marthe laments that she is too old for him, the narrator admits, “And whatever passions I may have experienced later, there could never be a sweeter feeling than that of seeing a girl of nineteen in tears because she thinks she is too old.” (43) Seeing her sadness as a sweet memory reiterates how cruel the narrator is. He takes pleasure in her pain and destroying her life through his narcissistic love.
His love exists because of the of the nature of their relationship. She is married. He is young. She is older. But when he is older and his youth is not so significant, he will leave her for a younger girl. His love is selfish as it is based on how much he can make Marthe choose him over others. He is a young boy who enjoys provoking society. He plays house with a woman that can never be more than a lover to him. And so he is safe while she is in danger of destroying her life for the love of a teenage boy. While the story is unoriginal, the cruel honesty and self-reflection is. And perhaps you’ll even enjoy the intentional absurdity of this story.