After The Affair

I knew I wanted to read Helen Humphrey’s most recent novel, The Reinvention of Love, the moment I heard it fictionalised the strange love triangle that existed between Victor Hugo, his wife, Adèle, and the critic Charles Saint-Beuve. I’d read Helen Humphreys before and knew her to be an excellent wordsmith as well as a writer fascinated by extreme and sometimes tragic scenarios.

Victor Hugo and Charles Saint-Beuve began as the best of friends, not least because Saint-Beuve wrote an early review of Hugo’s poetry that praised him as a genius. But it wasn’t long before Adèle, Hugo’s statuesque wife, became the person that Charles most wanted to see. When the novel opens, the affair is in its richest, most tempestuous phase. Saint-Beuve, a man of eccentric and often unstable temperament, a man with low self-esteem who considered himself so ugly as to be unlovable, but with a clever, waspish mind and a burning ambition to star on the literary stage, has thrown away all caution in his passion for Adèle, a miraculous love he thought he would never find, and which he is sure will never come again. For Saint-Beuve has a secret, and one that he believes presents an unusual challenge to love relationships. Adèle Hugo is disillusioned with her marriage to Hugo, which has grown stale and predictable. Hugo’s enormous ego and his complete commitment to his writing have squeezed her out and left her sidelined and mostly ignored. Humphreys presents the love between Charles and Adèle as genuine and extraordinary, a love on which a serious long-term relationship could be founded; only Charles’ friendship with Hugo causes complications, and in a moment of weakness, he confesses to what he has done.

This is a richly plotted book in which a great deal happens, all of it drawn as closely as possible from the true histories of the protagonists, and it spans a long stretch of time, right up to the deaths of Charles and Adèle. Helen Humphreys has certainly picked a wonderful moment in French history and found biographies that read like the most lurid and gripping of mini-series. This was an unexpectedly swift read, beautifully evocative and vivid, bringing 19th century Paris to grimy cholera-infested life, and as an extra thrown in for free, it has a lot of fun with cross-dressing. I thought the love affair was persuasively told, and its repercussions rippling out through the years were intelligently traced. The long stretch of time encompassed by the narrative allows us to return to the main protagonists again and again, each time adding another layer of characterisation to create very rounded portraits. I thought this was particularly successful with Adèle; often women caught in the web of adultery narratives never come off too well, it’s too easy to see them as fickle and thoughtless. But watching Adèle’s rationalisations over the years, her courageous attempts to make the best of bad situations, the tragedies she had to withstand, and the long struggle with her conscience made of her a far more interesting character than if she’d been just another casualty of infidelity.

It’s not a perfect book, however. Real lives lack the shapeliness that fiction is so adept at bestowing on events, and in the author’s ambition to cover a lot of ground, the narrative occasionally trips over or speeds along in awkward ways. It must be very hard indeed for authors to decide which parts of the life story they should illustrate and which can be safely gestured towards, and I’m not always convinced that Humphreys makes the best choices. To an extent this doesn’t matter, because every part of the Hugos’ life is engaging. I thought that Helen Humprhey’s prose was mostly elegant and perceptive, but I have to admit some frustrations with the use of the present tense, which is particularly unwieldy in the first person narrative of Charles Saint-Beuve who insists upon it, even though his perspective seems to be coming from beyond the end of the story. And although Humphrey’s stated intention (at the back of the book) is to bring the story of Charles Saint-Beuve out of the shadows, and ‘to show that perhaps the more interesting story belongs, in fact, to the “lesser” man’, I couldn’t help but feel that it was good old monstrous Hugo who rather stole the show towards the end of it. In fiction, as in life, he simply couldn’t help himself. But if you are interested in 19th century French literature, this is an engrossing and lively account of some very, very odd people.




12 thoughts on “After The Affair

  1. You’ve made me curious who did the cross dressing–Victor, Charles or Adele! 🙂 I’ve read Hugo, but why do I imagine him as a stuffy older man? Very bad of me, since this sounds very interesting–particularly for all the details of 19th century Paris. I’ll have to add this to my wishlist as I’ve enjoyed some of Humphrey’s earlier novels as well.

  2. This sounds like a lot of fun. I know nothing about Hugo and little about his times, so this would be a fun way to learn. It’s nice that you could still enjoy the book even if it wasn’t perfect.

  3. I will put it on the wish list.I must admit that Sainte-Beuve does not strike me as affair material… I wasn’t aware Hugo’s wife was also called Adèle. They seem to have named the daughter after her. I might also read Sainte-Beuve’s Volupté one of these days…

  4. “An engrossing and lively account of some very, very odd people” sounds like entertaining reading. I don’t know anything about Hugo or his milieu. I suppose I am going to have to put this on my TBR list.

  5. What an interesting-sounding book! I know what you mean about books based on lives, and how they don’t easily fit into the structure of fiction. This was the weakness of that recent book about Frank Lloyd Wright and his wife, which didn’t work, because such shockingly out of the blue things happened — the type of things that you can’t do in fiction really.

    I didn’t know Hugo was monstrous — and this makes me curious to know if there are any good biographies of him in English. See? Your reviews have such a ripple effect.

  6. Hello,
    I just happened to chance upon your blog and read this review. I have not read this book but I intend to after reading your review. And I am happy to say I will be a regular reader of your blog.

  7. Dear LL, what a perfect time to come across this book recommendation! on holiday (sort of – is anyone ever REALLY on holiday thanks to the Internet?) but anyway, I am choosing some books for the Nook, and you’ve brought me a “winner” and I’m about to download it. (Hope I don’t miss turning the actual pages – the only “tactile” problem with this Nook business…)

    Hope your summer is humming away over there. Everyone here says it’s too hot; but I do love summer heat. And it’s such an excuse for taking the mid-afternoon “off” to be quiet and …read! rather than experience the intense-heat part of the day.

    Again, chapeaux for this recommendation. I am totally in the mood for something French. (OK, when am I not?) but I’m excited to begin this one.

  8. Helen Humphreys is one of those authors I hear about so occasionally that I never remember to read her. Her books look like really good reads, though, and I’m really going to remember to read her now. I am. I am. I am. I’m going to remember.

  9. Danielle – ah! That would be giving it away! 😉 But I’ll tell you one thing: the novel includes some appearances by George Sand, and I really enjoyed those bits. I think you would like this one. I found it very accessible – had read half of it before even realising I’d done so! And I do love fictionalisations of real people’s lives (particularly when they assure the reader they’ve stayed close to the recorded facts).

    Kathleen – I have such a weakness for stories about writers. They always have interesting/catastrophic lives!

    Dorothy – you know how some books, the imperfections really get in the way? Well, fortunately for me, they didn’t. The writing was good enough to carry a few flaws here and there. I think this is my favourite way to learn a little history. 🙂

    Lilian – she’s a Canadian author, apparently, which always makes me think of you when I find that out!

    Caroline – yes, they do name a daughter after her and the daughter plays quite a large role towards the end of the novel. I didn’t know much about Sainte-Beuve before beginning this, only Proust’s Contre Sainte-Beuve, really. You’re right he is not normal affair material! The novel plays with that quite a lot, in some intriguing ways.

    Stefanie – it feels like a while since I added to your tbr list – don’t want to be getting rusty! 😉

    Lily – I feel sure there must be lots of biographies of Hugo, and that they will be door-stoppers. He had a very long, very busy life! Bless him, he wouldn’t have thought he was monstrous at all, and in many ways he wasn’t, but boy did he have an ego. Alas, so many of the great writers do – probably because life was no easier for writers in previous centuries and they had to believe in themselves to get anywhere! Let me know if you do read up about Hugo – I would so love to hear how he seems through your perceptive eyes.

    Dovereader – hello and welcome! I’m delighted you dropped by and do hope you’ll do so again. I’ll be visiting you very soon, too.

    oh – I love the jauntiness of that ‘chapeaux’! Thank you! And let me know how you get on with the book – I would love to know. I completely agree that holidays involving the internet or the ipad or even too much mobile phone start to look like something other than holidays after a while. Do hope you have lots of lovely lying around and relaxing. You are so right that it is just right for reading, as heavy snow or rain can be, too. I like heat if it gives us permission to do the lovely reviving things that we can’t get to on ordinary days! 🙂

    Jenny – lol! If it’s any comfort I have just the longest list of writers who I keep promising myself I’ll get to (I’m actually engaged with two from that list at the moment – Graham Greene and Salman Rushdie – it feels great but I doubt I can keep up this momentum of discovery….). 🙂

  10. Pingback: Les Misérables – Victor Hugo (1862) « A World Of Mots

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