Jean Dutourd - It is an incredible tour de force: a dialogue running to more than 600 pages, between two men who are walking through Paris, talking about the fate of a politician friend of theirs who was brought down by an erotic entanglement. This is a worthy successor Proust
Jean Dutourd, The Horrors of Love, Trans. by. Robin Chancellor, Doubleday, 1967.
“My first choice would be Jean Dutourd’s THE HORRORS OF LOVE, which is translated into English and was published in the sixties. It is an incredible tour de force – a dialogue running to more than 600 pages, between two men who are walking through Paris, talking about the fate of a politician friend of theirs who was brought down by an erotic entanglement. Urbaine, wise, humane, funny, even suspenseful – this is a worthy successor, as someone said, to Proust. Dutourd is the greatest living French novelist, and the only witty one since Proust; and before that? Voltaire? Laclos? People say of his THE BEST BUTTER that it is the greatest World War Two novel to come out of France.” - Diane Johnson
"(A) brilliant and provocative excursion through the frontier country between the territories of criticism and fiction. (...) What M. Dutourd has done, while wittily and elegantly talking his way all around his touching and absorbing story, is to confront us with the paradox that the thing man knows least about is what goes on in his own mind, where passions may possess him against his will, taking precedence over reason and self-interest determining his action. (...) This impressive and extremely enjoyable book is, in a sense, a manifesto declaring that since the writer's birthright, from the beginning of writing, has been a knowledge of his profound ignorance of essentials, there can be no reason at this late date to make that ignorance a ground for confining him to uncouth and formless modes of expression." - Anthony West
"(A)n often ridiculous, sometimes funny tale (.....) At times, Dutourd himself turns too solemn. But most of the time, the book achieves a kind of cynical grandeur in an ambitious, unconstrained and meticulous dissection of the French character that evokes Montaigne. And oddly enough, with their quivering nerve endings exposed, the French turn out to be very much like everybody else -- only more so." - Time
Dutourd's A Dog's Head was a mordant fantasy about the vagaries of taste, money, and love, a contemporary parable staged like an 18th century farce, while The Best Butter. suggested a Balzacian success story, bouncy, imaginative, suitably ironic. These charming works were followed by more ambitious efforts, the latest being a weighty examination of the libido, The Horrors of Love, in which a melange of classic models can be discerned. The form is deliberately anachronistic: a middle-aged man's extramarital affair with a young girl as relayed through the leisurely conversation of two friends, piquantly reminiscent of Diderot, Laclos, and Flaubert's Bouvard et Pecuchet. The aphoristic trimmings and conversational asides, the real meat of the proceedings, draw on the Gidean conte and, especially, Stendhal, Dutourd's true hero. The book is overblown structurally and rather philosophically self-indulgent: one is really never sure Just how the melodramatic denouement (Edouard in a fit of bewildered passion kills his paramour's moralistic brother) is to be taken, since the underlying tone throughout has a sort of bumbling cat-and-mouse nuance. The insights re marriage, the anguish of age, illusion and reality, as well as subtleties of characterization, are often brilliantly, if ambiguously: turned. - Kirkus Reviews
The Horrors of Love is an often ridiculous, sometimes funny tale of a middle-aged member of the French Chamber of Deputies who becomes tragically involved with his young mistress. At first glance, the story seems to be as obviously and simply French as a pair of lovers sneaking off to a bedsitter in the Square St.-Lambert. Yet it is not only the Gallic spirit that intrigues Dutourd, but the human spirit as well.
The rambling story unfolds in a dialogue between Dutourd and a friend. As they stroll in Paris, they discuss the unhappy case of Edouard Roberti, the 52-year-old Deputy who has been sent to prison for killing his mistress’ brother. It is apparent that Roberti, a respectable, loving father and husband, was all too ordinaryâ€”not so much evil as weak, not so much stupid as pitifully vain. By way of examining how it was that such a commonplace, decent man could become trapped in a senseless and sordid mess, Dutourd’s dialogue ranges through all sorts of philosophical detours. Courage and cowardice, honor and honesty, art, letters, manners, politics and morals become way stations as the two friends chat and argue. - Rabbi David Wolpe
One oddity about it is that it is written in the second-person singular; it is a long dialogue between two super-intelligent Frenchmen (both sides of Dutourd’s own character) walking through Paris, ambling in and out restaurants, reconstructing the pride and fall of a Parisian politician who gradually falls in love with his younger mistress and ends up in jail. It is a delicious and profound work of art, from beginning to end. Andre Maurois likened it to Proust; but in some ways it is better than Proust, sprightlier and more imaginative. The language itself is superb. - John Lukacs
The Horrors of Love is a novel presented almost entirely in dialogue, a conversation between I -- identified also as 'Monsieur J.D.'; the author of The Taxis of the Marne; and eventually explicitly as Dutourd himself (as he indulges in a bit of wishful thinking, that: "In two or three hundred years' time people would refer to the 'divine Dutourd' or the 'great Jean'") -- and a friend of his, referred to only as: He. The I-narrator adds some commentary of his own between the conversation-sections, offering background and transition, but the bulk of the text is simply dialogue, reading like a play-script without stage directions. It is also almost entirely a two-hander, as practically all the conversation is between these two men, though (very) occasionally other voices pop up briefly, such as a waiter taking an order, while a maître d'hôtel does get to share his life-story over a few pages.
The subject of conversation is the fall of a friend of his, Edouard Roberti, a middle-aged, married deputy in the French parliament whose affair with a secretary half his age led to catastrophe. The exact nature of the catastrophe is not immediately clear, but it was ruinous and terrible (and it's not surprising to learn, soon enough, that it involved murder). But the conversation, and The Horrors of Love, is as much about this specific story as it is about recounting a story -- the making of fiction out of experience and anecdote.
He is a born storyteller, a true raconteur, but a man who can't for the life of him set his stories down on the page. They agree he has a certain genius -- but one that has its limits:
I do believe, in fact, that I have a Proustian eye, a Balzacian ear, I see everything without looking, I hear everything without listening but alas, my faculties stop short at that. I have the eyes and the ears but not the hand.
And as even he understands:
I need someone to talk to. Not a passive companion, not an inert ear into which I can direct my flow of words, but a critical mind, quarrelsome, disagreeable, difficult (although well disposed), in short someone like yourself.
Dutourd's alter ego is happy to play the part: seeking to make a novel out of the tragedy, he wants to draw him out and so engages him in conversation, allowing him to spill the whole sordid affair in all its detail -- but not without guiding and questioning his progress all along. Along the way, they frequently get sidetracked about the broader implications, of recounting life and events, of the relationship to literature, and, of course, of such things as the very nature of love (as well as by true incidentals: a fine meal, observations of different Parisian vistas across these many hours, and the like).
Part of the appeal and fascination for narrator J.D. is that Roberti -- whom he also vaguely knew -- is: "Not the sort of hero I'd choose if I were writing a novel". Indeed, neither Roberti nor the mistress he takes, are particularly sympathetic (or heroic, or extraordinary, etc.), yet in his account J.D. is completely won over, not just by the story but by its telling, the presentation (that he then adapts for his own novelized version). For him, this is an exercise in fiction, a different approach to the novel (from the many he has already churned out) and to story-telling, and with the perfect conversation-partner, J.D. finds his inspiration.
Nevertheless, he doesn't let J.D. get too carried away with their exercise in storytelling, reminding him at one point:
Calm yourself. You are not Dante. Nor am I Virgil. We are just two bright lads of the positivist era having a good time while we tell each other stories.
J.D. maintains: "The conception of art as the 'mirror of life' is absurd and utterly false", and yet chooses an almost documentary approach, presenting The Horrors of Love as if it were a simple transcription (though suggesting repeatedly that he has tailored it to his purposes), a double-mirror of reality describing reality. But the point both speakers repeatedly make is that even reality is all a matter of interpretation, everything refracted through the speaker/writer/artist's eye (and re-creating hand), the artist as: "neither camera nor tape-recorder", the representation of events (and of the whole world) a personal one; hence:
Before it resembles nature, a work of art first resembles the artist. If the mirror you hold up over men's paths is not a distorting mirror, then it's a bad one.
Of course, this story has two artists behind it: he, who recounts the story, in his own particular way, and then J.D. who uses that account (which he has helped guide and shape through their conversation) as the basis for his novel. J.D. even complains about -- or at least notes -- some of his: "haphazard way of storytelling, which consists of mixing up periods, giving away the end in the middle, and then working backward" -- but sticks to the same architecture in the final written version. Of course, this 'giving away the end' and similar arguably anti-climactic or at least premature reveals reinforce one of J.D.'s central points, that it's the telling that matters, more than the 'story', and that even giving away the end doesn't necessarily undermine a narrative (while posing yet another review-quandary: what to give away of the plot, as even if some things are revealed out of sequence, he does take his time before doing so ...). Presumably -- since he follows suit -- J.D. admires his admission: "I love ruining my effects. To me it's the quintessence, the height of elegance where art is concerned."
The story itself is simple: at age fifty, Roberti takes a mistress half his age, Solange. He has a wife, the devoted Agnes, and they have three boys. Roberti has strayed on previous occasions, but never seriously or for long, but his relationship with Solange develops into something deeper and more complex. And, as J.D. notes:
Roberti the honest deputy, the good husband and father, with fifty years of respectability and the Legion of Honor, couldn't matter less. He's devoid of interest. He's the stuff for a middle-class American novel. But Roberti the secretive, the wayward, the complex is intriguing. [...] What is so fascinating is the hidden paths which led to his crime.
This is not some great romance. Roberti is no gentleman, and he treats Solange rather poorly, doing his best to keep her at arm's length, more concerned about being seen with her (even when they travel abroad) than her feelings; among the funniest scenes is his reaction to an acquaintance running into him and Solange while they're on a getaway-trip in Italy. When he rents a shabby pied-à-terre for their trysts he doesn't even give her a key (among other reasons: for fear that she'd clean the place up and give it a homey look). Among the most revealing (and pivotal) scenes finds Solange at a Comédie-Française premiere (at which he also happened to be in attendance), having invited a friend of her brother to accompany her when her boss gave her his tickets. As it happens, Roberti took his wife to the same performance; indeed, Roberti wound up sitting next to Solange. Typical of their lack of communication, the lovers were surprised to see each other there; typically, too, they pretended not to know each other -- and:
Her heart may well have been beating as wildly as Edouard's but it was impossible to tell. No trace of a blush; she was the perfect image of indifference. Conversely, the latter was flabbergasted out of his wits; so much so that when he trod on Solange's foot he didn't even think to say "Excuse me !" It was this, I learnt later on, which hurt her most. She imagined that he had stepped on her foot deliberately, out of spite, in revenge for the untoward chance which had set him down beside her in the theater.
That pretty much says it all about the state of their relationship, and the level of their mis- or lack of communication and (lack of) attempts at mutual understanding. Summing up:
HE: [...] Her affair with Roberti was a Parisian affair, enclosed within stones and tarmac, asphyxiated by coal gas, a love singularly lacking in pure air and wide-open space, a love confined, nightmarish, Baudelairian ...
I: A Baudelairian affair, glory ! Does that come from her or you ?
HE: It was she who thought it and I who am putting it into words.
Roberti takes an intellectually superior attitude throughout, too, and tries to act as a cultural mentor -- to the chagrin of our conversationalists, who deem Roberti's own tastes pathetically bourgeois and limited, too. Nevertheless:
HE: [...} Such is the gift Edouard made her. An invaluable gift in her eyes, moreover, thanks to which I suppose she will cherish a tender thought for him all her life. He will have been the man who opened her mind., who introduced her to beauty, who broke down her narrow horizon.
I: In other words, out of an ignoramus he made a fool. What an illustration of modern life and "culture for the masses" ! Faust educates Marguerite. He gives her the education of the Devil insofar as he stuffs her mind with nonsense.
Solange, swept away by the interest of the older, more experienced man at first, enjoys their physical relationship and barely complains about Roberti's caddish behavior; nevertheless, she comes to realize -- subconsciously at first, but then increasingly consciously -- that this really isn't a long-term thing for her to invest too deeply in, especially since Roberti won't commit to (or even consider) giving her the one thing that could tie her happily to him and then the memory of him: a child. Meanwhile, however, what had begun as just another fling for Roberti proves to have an ever stronger hold on him. He can't commit himself to Solange, and she rates a poor third place behind his obligations to family and his political career -- she is left completely by the wayside come election-season, for example -- but he can't break free either, falling well and truly in love with her so that eventually his passion was: "nurtured on all these other sentiments and now turning into a monster".
This is very much a book aware that, as he puts it: "Love takes place much more in the mind than in bed", and it certainly plays some serious mind-games with Roberti. Solange enjoys their rolls in the hay and feels a lingering bond to her lover, but -- with some outside support that she has wisely worked towards building up -- has an easier time of not getting hopelessly caught up in this emotional-intellectual tangle and, with some help, ultimately freeing herself from it.
Solange's brother, Valentin, learnt of the affair early on and is furiously disapproving of it; he tried to win their parents over to oppose Solange's behavior, but they couldn't bring themselves to stand up to their daughter, disapproving, but not very firmly or loudly. Valentin had hoped to set up Solange with his close friend Legay, and while Solange prefers her adventures with the older married man, she finds herself eventually turning to Legay -- at first for friendship, but certainly with a romantic twinkle in both their eyes, as they are clearly a much more appropriate pairing.
The catastrophe at the end of Roberti and Solange's affair leads to murder and a trial -- events rather well known to J.D., since the sensational news apparently filled the press. Yet as he notes;
(A)t his trial Roberti's true soul never appeared. Only the material facts were evoked and by induction a crude portrait was drawn of the accused bearing no relation to the truth, endowing him with coarse and vulgar features which had never been his.
The Horrors of Love is an attempt to get beyond the material facts, and to offer a full portrait and explanation. While recognizing Roberti as deeply flawed and limited ("Prickly, tiresome, hard to fathom, an elusive character, neither black nor white, neither fish nor fowl, complex"), he is nevertheless sympathetic and understanding, while J.D. is, at least, open-minded and curious. The 'facts', and truth, are all well and good; what interests J.D. is the real heart of the matter:
It isn't very hard to portray reality. I don't pretend it is within the reach of the first fool you meet but at least it is not a superhuman task. [...] Copying reality is the first step in art, or the first step in a revival after art has been bogged down a long time in mannerisms. That is the least one can do. What one has to produce is something truer than the truth and believe me, that is tough.
If the build-up -- to the first kiss, the first intimacies -- is (very) gradual, the terrible, inexorable end comes fast, the affair collapsing but in melo- rather than simply dramatic fashion, neither party able to let entirely go. November 9th, 1957 -- the date specified to suggest again documentary precision -- proves a turning point, both overreacting in turn, their rash actions ensuring the complete breakdown of their relationship. And yet even after this, even after Solange has gotten pregnant with the child of the man she expects to make her future with she can't commit to him entirely, Roberti's hold on her something she can't (and won't) readily free herself from. She continues to play her part in Roberti's increasingly awkward and frustrated game, but even the motions become stilted; they both see it, but while Solange has prepared her escape route and future haven, Roberti can't see a way out, his conflicted feelings completely overwhelming what rational decision-making powers he might otherwise have. If not exactly surprising, the showdowns and ending nevertheless offer decent high (melo)drama in their Greek-level tragedy.
He enthuses at one point about the possibility of J.D.'s project:
The complete diary of a great love affair which should at the same time be a mediocre one, as great loves usually are. Everything. You would have to put everything into it. All the greatness and all the mediocrity. And the passing of time, now slow, now racing ahead, with its acres of boredom, the wounds and humiliations it inflicts. Showing love in all its splendor and all its horror [...] Ten thousand pages. Twenty fat volumes. A monument of literature.
But J.D. -- an author, a master of his craft -- knows that getting at the truth, and revealing it, is not merely a matter of -- the in any case impossible -- perfect reproduction of life. And instead of a truly documentary novel, he's willing to defer to him and take over the story second-hand, leaving it at whatever he tells him (and leaves out), with only a bit of nudging and directing when he asks for more detail about a specific turn of events or a character, or wonders aloud about what he has been recounting.
The novel approach is an experiment in story-telling, as J.D. feels constrained by the tried and true. So also he describes one recent failed effort:
I wanted to write a beautiful novel like Balzac or Tolstoy, with all kinds of vicissitudes, war, revolution, disasters, two hundred characters and so on. It was crazy. One should write ugly novels, which are like nothing else.
The Horrors of Love is a glorious, fat indulgence, not entirely "like nothing else" but a fascinating experiment in form and style.
Layered in, too, is a rich social, cultural, and political portrayal of the France of that time, Roberti's fall coinciding with the collapse of the Fourth Republic -- "his private shipwreck was swallowed up in the general one, as if, infinitesimal as he was, he embodied one kind of France which was on the way out". (Hammering home that point, the last specified date mentioned in the book, in its final summing up, is November 10th, 1958, closing the book on Roberti on: "the opening day of the first election campaign of the Fifth Republic.)
Culture, in particular, features in the novel, as J.D.'s protagonists aren't philistines but cling to what he considers a refinedly poor taste. The author makes clear where he stands, belittling the works of Sartre, Gide, and many others, and denouncing Mme. de Lafayette's The Princesse de Clèves at some length. Proust, Balzac -- such are artists, but neither Roberti nor Roberti-coached Solange appreciate that.
The talented Legay's mind is a scientific-technical one -- he even engineers a great invention -- but Solange can't appreciate this kind of genius; she's learnt differently and it's a lesson from Roberti that she clings to. J.D. can't help himself in looking ahead to the inevitable consequences, offering his pessimistic prognosis:
Since Legay loves her more than she loves him, she will gradually persuade him that science is a lot of nonsense, unfit to occupy the faculties of an intelligent man. She will force him to read the complete works of Gide, Giraudoux, Valery Larbaud, Huxley, Hemingway, Sartre and others of that ilk. He, naturally, will obey his idol; he will progressively abandon his researches. It is she who will make him a failure.
So: no happy end in sight, as the affair's legacy lingers on even in this respect.
Those are the revenges of grammar. We have at our disposal a huge vocabulary with only a poor quality cement to bind it.
The Horrors of Love is an attempt at literary renewal, even as much of it leans heavily on tradition. Dutourd employs two protagonists who are distinctly mediocre -- but they must be mediocre, because they are representatives of their age and culture. There is little -- though not nothing -- heroic about them; they are human, and not particularly agreeably human, but their story is a powerful one, both in its telling and itself.
The Horrors of Love is a remarkable, fascinating, odd work. It rises easily beyond its place and era: it is much more than a document of its times, it is a modern classic. - M.A.Orthofer
Jean Dutourd, Pluche or The Love of Art, Doubleday, 1970.
This is the disquisitious diary kept for sixteen days during a period of creative sterility by a painter, Pluche. Even M. Dutourd's well-established talents--his wit, his civilized love of contentious argument, his eye for the specious--does not keep the tirade from declining into monologorrhea as Pluche talks and talks. About himself and his cafard; about his philistine brother-in-law who paints badly but does well; about Marie, his sister, now facing an operation for a growth coincident with the desertion of her husband; about two friends; and about his young mistress--a ""jewel"" he does not value. . . . Dutourd is often a latterday La Rochefoucauld dropping maxims at will: ""truth and logic rarely go hand in hand""; or ""the ultimate goal of science is comfort, and comfort is the antithesis of intelligence."" Certainly past performances would indicate that intelligence is just as alien to the comfort that many people seek when reading for pleasure rather than edification. - Kirkus Reviews
This is a book every person should have on their shelf for those times when nothing seems to matter or all the important things have lost their importance.
Pluche is an artist who realizes he has hit one of those non-creative spells that happen to us all. For him, it means he is not producing his livelihood, paintings. He recognizes the symptoms and knows there's nothing to do but wait it out and see what happens on the other side.
What happens in the meantime is that he emerges from his passion and has a spell of enjoying other parts of life and the people in it. His spirit is such that he throws himself into whatever his fate brings along.
What happens when the dry spell ends and the paint and canvas beckon him again? His hiatus into the world of friends and family and everyday adventure serve him well until next time. - Mary Beth Goodman
This novel is one of my very favorite pieces of writing. It talks of passion for art and it talks of commercialism in art. Pluche is a moderately successful painter that lives in the shadow of his brother-in-law that is an enormously successful, very commercial, painter. Pluche is not jealous, but he has distain for his brother-in-law's work. One of my favorite quotes from the books is when Pluche is referring to his brother-in-law he says: "To him time is money, but for me, money is time." For this artist (Pluche) the passion to paint is what is most important and having money gives the artist freedom and time to paint more without having to compromise his ideals to put food on his table. As another that reviewed this book stated, it is a journey following Pluche through a period that he feels that his art is stagnating and how he occupies his mind with friends, family and his mistress. In the course of this book Mssr. Dutourd gives very insightful views as to what it really is to be an artist.
This novel was written over 50 years ago and I had the pleasure of first reading it about 30 years ago and I have recommended it to many of my artist colleagues and students. It is a beautiful book and story and is as relevant now as it was when it was first written. - Jeffrey Webb
It's just such a great book.
I'd come across it long years ago in a used book store, guarded it closely, as this was in the days before a person could easily find most any book online. I've bought a number of copies of this book in these recent years, given it to friends and family members who I think would appreciate it.
Pluche is just one of my all-time favorite characters; I just love that Dutord pulls him out of the air, sometimes it seems that writers are magicians.
He's given us this remarkably difficult, judgmental, determined painter, as honest to his craft as he can possibly be, to the point where he thinks that it's okay for him to fervently judge others who don't live to his often ridiculous, often near impossible standards. I've known people like this, in fact I too often see one in the mirror -- reading this book was like getting cold water thrown on me sometimes.
Yet it also comforted me, sortof, and made me laugh, and makes me laugh. I mean, yeah, the character is dreamed up, but this writer *has* to have come across someone somewhere to base this upon. So I'm not the only one it seems. Plus the author seems to love his character, he gives him to us honestly but not with judgment, not with near the judgment that Pluche would lay on someone, that's for sure.
My sister couldn't believe how much fun this book is. I gave it to a buddy of mine, together we've howled at what a jerk this character is, yet how much fun to read about. (This buddy and I also laugh at how ridiculous Marcus Aurelius is -- I always have a copy of Meditations in the glove box of my pickup, we'll read from it as we bum around or driver wherever, shake our heads, howl in laughter at how Marc tried to live, and his proscriptions for us -- I'd *want* to be that guy, sure, but who ever could? Jesus.)
And I gave this book to a painter I dated and she absolutely loved loved loved it, it really rocked her, made her think so, gave her so much to consider about so many of her favorite painters, seeing them through the eyes of this madman Pluche. I'm glad she liked it and all, but I swear to you, she loved the book far more than she ever loved me -- when were were splitting up, she made sure to thank me effusively for the book, and it was clear she really meant it; don't you think she could have thanked me for sharing with her my greatness, and my humility? I thought so, but she never did bring any of that up, as she edged away carefully...
I think that she liked the part about being able to close the book and put it down when she wanted rest and stuff.
Any-old-ways, buy this book. Read it. I bet you'll love it. - Austin guy
Jean Dutourd, Dog's Head. Trans. by Robin Chancellor.
University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Jean Dutourd's A Dog's Head is a wonderful piece of magical realism, reminiscent of Voltaire, Borges and Kafka. With biting wit, Dutourd presents the story of Edmund Du Chaillu, a boy born, to his bourgeois parents's horror, with the head of a spaniel. Edmund must endure his school-mate's teasing as well as an urge to carry a newspaper in his mouth. This is the story of his life, trials, and joys as he searches for a normal life of worth and love.
"Dutourd is a fine craftsman, whose work has the classic virtues of brevity, lucidity, and concentration. He has written a sardonic divertissement that concerns itself with fundamental problems of man's existence-a tale that is sad-eyed, witty, and often very funny."—Charles J. Rolo
"A tiny masterpiece in the French classical tradition. . . . Stylish, elegant and witty, and told with an apparent lightheartedness that points to rather than obscures the hero's essential tragedy."—P. L. Travers
"Wit, a good deal of shrewd classical allusion, and a Voltarian satire are the book's assets." —Edmund Fuller
"The work of an expert craftsman and of a careful writer of prose, ending with the rarest gift in modern letters: the comic spirit."—Henri Peyre
"Dutourd might well have dropped his story at this point, had it been his intention simply to excoriate the human race for its treatment of those who are physically afflicted. Instead, he presses on in his terse, deadpan prose to teach a lesson to the afflicted of the world as well."—Time
"A Dog's Head is one of the most curious, most beautifully conceived and written fantasies you've ever come across."—J. H. Jackson
"A Dog's Head is an excellent joke in the worst possible taste, and its author, M. Jean Dutourd, is a satirist of the first rank."—New Yorker
In his Preface author Dutourd explains how he came to write such a story:
I was twenty-eight years old. One morning, looking at myself in the mirror, I realized I had the head of a dog. You understand, of course, that I was alone in perceiving this -- no one commented on it -- but it was undeniable: I no longer looked as I had the night before.
A Dog's Head has a simple and unrealistic premise: when Mme De Chaillu gives birth it is to a boy with the head of a dog. A spaniel, to be exact. It is not an overnight-transformation (like Dutourd's own); rather, Edmond De Chaillu is and remains dog-headed from birth on -- and Dutourd spins out a fantasy of what such a life might be like. It is a dark tale, and given how Dutourd came to write it it's hard not to read considerable self-loathing into it, but there's also undeniable power to it, as well as quite a bit of fun.
There's no way of getting around a dog's head. The De Chaillus can treat their son like any other child, but eventually what sets him so far apart can not be denied. Still, his experiences at school, university, and then in the army wind up not being that much different from those of anyone labeled different and singled out. Edmond can even occasionally use it to his advantage (whining "I'm so unhappy ! Oh, sir, if you had a dog's head like me !" to avoid reprimands and more serious punishment), and though he has to put up with a lot he also finds some companionship.
Though he gets degrees in both law and the arts, finding a job in those fields -- working in a law office or as a teacher -- proves more difficult, the head getting in the way as potential employers point out how people will react to it, making it impossible for him to properly perform his duties. Even lowlier jobs seem out of reach -- except that of night watchman -- but eventually he takes a job as a bank teller.
Personal relationships also aren't easy, with even his parents finding it easier to live without him. He doesn't do too well with the ladies, either, with even prostitutes needing a lot of convincing before putting up with him. And getting a pet dog also doesn't prove to be a solution. A date with a fellow bank employee goes awry, too, leading him to leave his bank job -- but then he begins to play the stock market and suddenly finds himself very wealthy.
In this very shallow society Edmond finds that money really is close to everything, or that it at least trumps most everything:
Wealth brought Edmond great enjoyment. First, it canceled out his head. [...] Oh, the sublime effect of bank notes ! Overnight that hideous or ridiculous object became just anybody's head.
Edmond finds love, too, -- but can't help think that anybody who loves a creature such as him can't be in her right mind, undermining all potential for such happiness. Still, the woman, Anne, remains madly devoted (the emphasis -- for him -- on the mad-part ...), and Edmond eventually gives in to it, despite not feeling equally passionate about her. He can't get beyond his head, thinking of their being together in all the wrong terms:
(H)e understood that he had taken a futile step which, like all his actions, was absurd; that nothing good could ever be born of a union between a lunatic and a monster. What problems for a being who abandons himself to Fate !
Edmond finds a bit of stability, but it doesn't look like it will last, Dutourd's final descriptions of their life all doom and gloom:
They never openly laugh about Edmond. The most moderate demand his internment in an asylum. One day someone will shoot him. Anne also has to face this ostracism. They have nicknamed her "Loopy Anne". Dirty, in rags, with matted hair, she recaptures her old tone when she goes shopping.
Yes, A Dog's Head is bleak in its outlook, repeatedly showing society to be entirely superficial -- and Edmond not having the strength to accept and rely on the few sympathetic figures that he does encounter. His head is more trouble than it's worth even to many who are supportive -- his parents, for example, finally simply abandon him (though only after having done their duty and raised him to adulthood, no less lovingly than most parents).
It may be steeped in self-loathing ("Not only have I a dog's head but, aggravating circumstance, the head of the most ridiculous dog to be found", Edmond complains), but Dutourd's novel is also a compelling misanthropic attack. The tone -- taking the story seriously despite its absurd premise, recounting it as one would any other life-story, even at its most preposterous -- is pitch-perfect, making the dog-tale consistently engaging and, almost despite itself, enjoyable. It is very dark stuff, but Dutourd pulls it off with a sure hand.
Recommended. - www.complete-review.com/reviews/dutourdj/dogshead.htm
Jean Dutourd, The Taxis of the Marne. Secker & Warburg, 1957.
A translation of the author's angry indictment of French politics and leadership in the years since the First World War.
A progression of autobiography and essays follows Dutourd's dissection of his country's decline from power to decay and the strange passion France bred in him after his capture in World War II when, recently a soldier, he was taken prisoner in Brittany. Here, in a dazed period, is the review of the wars, the generals and field marshals, the politicians; the development successively of a society that glorified failure and defeat, of a philosophical Conard En ""What do we care?"", of a loss of patriotism at military and civilian levels. The humiliations of 1940 aroused his spirit of contradiction which questioned the thinking and heritage that led to French loss of dignity; and the great soul of de Gaulle (""French honor followed de Gaulle into retirement"") was the source of his study of the decline of France's courage and virtue. A fifteen year's perspective gives this an acrid anger and a devastating analysis that transatlantic students of history and national progress will find most animating. - Kirkus Reviews
Jean Dutourd, FIVE A.M., Simon & Schuster, 1956.
The author of A Dog's Head and The Best Butter spreads his satire over one Fernand Doucin, an ordinary bank clerk who, in 1950, paints a self portrait in his matutinal sleeplessness which spirals, returns and roller-coasters again as his half-waking thoughts push him around. Doucin's conflict comes when he is 27, when he becomes bald, fat and aware that this early morning personality is something of an alter ego, not related to his normal, everyday self, to whom he gives his second name, Gerard. It is Gerard who spotlights Fernand's hypocrisies, who drives him to the truth, as he can visualize it, about religion, his job, his debts, his relation to the world about him, his childhood memories, the women in his life (at present getting rid of Jaqueline so that he can enjoy Denise). Hoping for sleep, his mind ranges from his addiction to cigarettes, his dedication to boredom and laziness, his dreams of breaking out of his rut, on to his health, his looks, his preoccupation with the sordid aspects of his life and the cancerous feelings he has about himself as opposed to what he would like to think he might have been. At thirty, he is self- defeated and rationalizing his gestures of superiority. To be read with a lifted eyebrow. - Kirkus Reviews
Five A.M. is narrated by Fernand Gérard Doucin, a thirty-year-old bank clerk. For a few years now he's been more troubled than usual, finding himself a sort of Jekyll-and-Hyde: he works and is known as Fernand Doucin, but for a while now Gérard has reared his ugly head every day at 5:00 AM -- and he finds that: "At 5:00 A.M., I am sick of living; life wells up in my throat like vomit" -- and so he acts out:
The Five-to-Sixes of Fernand Doucin, a romantic drama. Every morning, in my darkened room, I act a sort of Ruy Blas or Hernani, full of heroes and clowns, of tragic speeches and comic exclamations, princely deaths and burlesque situations. My play is composed of a mixture of genres, constantly switching from the noble to the vulgar, from the declamatory to the farcical.
It's an existential crisis of sorts he's going through, disappointed with how little he's made of his life and, despite only being thirty, fearful of death.
It was losing his hair (and becoming fat) that unleashed Gérard, and his crisis:
With my hair I lost my courage and my optimism. I became weak, or at least conscious of my weakness. And so, in my own fashion, I have lived the myth of Samson. My Delilah was not a beautiful young woman but a cold and skeletal allegory: Death on the march. The first sweep of his scythe shaved off my hair. What will the second one take with it ? A leg, an arm ? Bit by bit one is reduced, until nothing remains.
Doucin comes to realize there wasn't all that much there to begin with, too. Part of the blame lies with his parents, who thwarted any sort of ambition he might have had -- such as to become a painter, which he thinks would have been a nice way out of the dilemmas he currently confronts:
Painting pictures would have concealed the vanity and nothingness of life from me until I died. As a painter I would have been poor (Yet, who knows ? Why shouldn't my pictures have met with some success ?) but, however poor I was, I would have at least retained the hope of becoming rich, celebrated, happy, and loved for my fame.
As a bank clerk, whose salary barely keeps him afloat (especially after he's spent too much on some fancy suits), there's little to look forward to; he doesn't see much of a future for himself.
Doucin also maintains:
I can foresee the objection -- that I am mentally arrested, a romantic adolescent. I am not. This is not a pose; I am laying bare the depths of my heart. I am not straining after anything. Intelligenti pauca; I have lost all my illusions without ever having had any, probably because I was quick to understand.
So Five A.M. is the not-too-unusual story, mixing an early onset midlife-crisis with youthful existential yammering. With a decent if humble job, the occasional woman -- though he sees them more as conquests than as possible partners --, and reasonable comforts, Doucin doesn't have it that bad -- but he vents his dissatisfaction in this writing exercise, a testament of sorts that is: "a small baroque monument on the sterile and deserted plain of my existence".
If not all the unusual, Dutourd does try to shape the story slightly differently -- notably by beginning the novel with an introduction explaining that the text that follows is a manuscript of Doucin's -- and trying to lead the reader on a bit in how exactly to look at it. It begins with the first sentence, in which Dutourd writes that this is: "the work of one Fernand Doucin, who says he is a bank clerk" (suggesting, of course, that Doucin is, in fact, no such thing).
Dutourd also wants to present Doucin as a true everyman, in contrast to the existential (anti-)heroes of then-contemporary French fiction, as he emphasizes:
The reader may search in vain for the current preoccupations of French literature. My bank clerk seems to have remained untouched by any of those topics with which contemporary authors are obsessed. Living in the age of Oppenheimer, he thinks, and expresses his thoughts, as men did in the time of Copernicus or Archimedes. Reading him, I have found that Fernand Doucin is a fair representative of the average individual of the 1950s, with his fears, his torments, and his enlightenment.
And Dutourd thinks: "he writes prose in 1950 the way people painted in 1895". All this, of course, suggests more what Dutourd hoped to present than necessarily what he managed to; indeed, more than half a century later, Five A.M. reads very much like much of the (literary) fiction of its time, an experiment in voice and existential Angst assumed by one with no first-hand experience of many of those experiences he attributes to his character. Dutourd does the personal worries -- about mortality, ambition, and artistic creation -- well, but Doucin is not very convincing as a bank clerk ..... So, for example, Doucin's claim surely comes straight out of the French Lit 101 (anno 1955+) playbook when Dutourd has him write:
I should like to live in an empty, motionless, everlasting city, like those in the pictures of Giorgio de Chirico, that poet of the end of time, that prophet of the extinction of mankind, walking along rows of uninhabited houses. To meet nothing but statues. To be the only man on earth, like Adam before Eve or, rather, like the last Adam, an Adam after men.
Bleak, and with its protagonist -- a mere thirty ! -- not very convincing in this role and voice, Five A.M. isn't entirely a success; as always, Dutourd has a strong and compelling voice, but his fiction fares better when he allows his characters more interaction and dialogue. - M.A.Orthofer
Jean Dutourd, THE LAST OF THE REDSKINS, Doubleday, 1965.
Satires for adults in the guise of fables for children have never been a flourishing activity among writers- certainly not modern ones. In the past, we think of Oscar Wilde's fanciful tales, some of the early German romantics, and perhaps La Fontaine. Jean Dutourd has clearly been influenced by all these examples; artistically he equals none of them, and intellectually speaking, he's rather vulgar. But his thirty-six little yarns are nevertheless quite attractive, gay in the Gallic boulevard manner, refreshingly, if mildly, cynical. His gimmick is to turn all our childhood bromides on their collective ends; the title of the first story, for instance, is typical: ""Poverty Does Not Make Happiness."" Or take ""Prince Charming."" Here a young man, incredibly handsome, with ""all the virtues: good, obliging, diligent, loyal, and philosophical,"" finds life hell: nothing works, everyone resents him. He goes to a plastic surgeon: ""...turn me into a beast, so that I will be able at last to enjoy the pleasures of this world."" Ugly as sin, he now makes a fortune, possesses castles, yachts, women. ""From time to time, however, he could not help showing his intelligence; but he had become so nasty that he was admired for his shrewdness."" The best of these sketches close with a similarly funny, bleak click. - Kirkus Reviews
Jean Dutourd, THE BEST BUTTER, Simon & Schuster, 1955.
Irony is the key to this novel by the author of 4 Dog's Head (1953) and indicates the appeal for more sophisticated readers. There are many delights in the story of a Parisian dairyman and his family and the events through which they live from 1940 on and the lives which they touch. The Poissonards return to their shop, Au Bon Beurre, where blackmarketing and other underhanded activities prove profitable; they revolve with the fortunes of war, and at the Liberation are as well thought of by the French as they were by the Germans, Just previously. Parallel to this simple tale is that of Leon Lecuyer, a romantic young man, whose adventures take him to a German prison camp, escape and suspicion of trying to assassinate Laval; there's a reception in Vichy; the turning of the tables on the Poissonards and a series of rapid and vivid scenes. Moments of high comedy, and some pathos, dot a novel that takes life and human nature as it is and distorts it enough to keep it a gay pantomime. Sheer. - Kirkus Reviews
Jean Dutourd, THE MAN OF SENSIBILITY, Simon & Schuster, 1961.
This little book is a labor of love. Dutourd's intention (he is best known for his piquant I Dog's Head) is to communicate the spirit of Stendhal- ""this wonderful man, to admire the landscape and sometimes point out some detail"". The framework used is an essay on Stendhal written by Prosper Merimee, who though twenty years younger, was a close friend and admirer. Dutourd heads each chapter with one or two paragraphs quoted from Merimee's essay, and then proceeds to comment on them in a more leisurely way. The whole work is eulogistic. And to a certain extent Dutourd, who served a hard tour of duty in World War II, having been captured and then escaping the Germans, equates his experience as well as his detached point of view with Stendhal's Dutourd is a very good writer and if this is not his best work, it has the greatest warmth of any to date. It offers a testimonial from one man of letters to a greater one. - Kirkus Reviews
Jean Dutourd, THE SPRINGTIME OF LIFE, Doubleday, 1974.
The late-Thirties world of upper-middle-class Paris, its Barresian politics and Lucien Lelong frocks, reproduced with frivolous and entertaining cynicism by way of young men who deliberately move in the tradition of Stendhal and Balzac. De Boissy makes himself a gentleman of letters and then a serious novelist; Pousselet becomes a journalist straight out of Les Illusions Perdues. Anne-Marie wages a classic campaign to marry de Boissy and you care what happens. The narrator pontificates with arch old-fashioned expansiveness; unfortunately the translation is an atrocious miscellany of Anglo-American slang ranging from ""twerp"" to ""Bye-bye, my pet"" -- and people persistently say ""Ooh, la la"" -- so that it is hard to measure Dutourd's stylistic satire. But one can enjoy the literary jokes, like Pousselet's attempt to assassinate de Boissy's novel through Sainte-Beuveian criticism; and, shallow and essentially smug though it remains, the crafted reproduction of moeurs and maneuvers is admirable. - Kirkus Reviews