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Adolphe (Penguin Classics) Paperback – October 30, 1980
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Text: English (translation)
Original Language: French --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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ADOLPHE is a short novel (really a novella), the only literary production of Benjamin Constant but one of the most important novels in French history.
You could consider it Proust in miniature for its startlingly acute analysis of the psychology of love, indifference, and despair, all of which preoccupied Proust at major length. Based on Constant's real-life affairs, it has the ring of authority and grips any receptive reader from start to last.
The mystery is why Constant never wrote another novel (or novella). His political career was illustrious, but so was his literary gift. Why he squelched it is hard to fathom.
It doesn't even have the merit of length: at about 80-odd pages, it's really a novella, not a novel.
It does read like Proust condensed, however, in its unsparing analysis of love and its deceptions. One understands why Martin Turnell, among others, counts it as an important book is the history of the French novel (see his THE NOVEL IN FRANCE).
Harold Nicolson's introduction is very helpful, but even better is his full-length biography of Constant.
The translation by Wildman--and I say this with a very imperfect knowledge of French--captures the tone of the book much better than the modern version by Margaret Mauldron (sp?) in the Oxford classics. I haven't read Tannock's Penguin version, but I'd guess it's good, judging from the care he took over his translations.
The stark sincerity of the novel is psychological store-house of moods and conflicted sentiments as they harrow a man of action into a bonding servility of hysterics and torture. The couple was consumed by love and hatred for each other and Adolphe (Benjamin in literary disguise) seem to be incapable of living with the thought, the passion and the inexorable emotional exhaustion that resulted from it.
The first pages of the novella follow such a anguished sensibility, in all its enthusiasm and repudiation, its forthright disgust and lamentable need. Analytically Adolphe will follow the laws of reason and attempt an escape from such passions but he shall never avail himself of such logic, until ultimately the object and subject of his hysteria, Ellenore (De Stael) dies.
The plot is a ferocious introspective devolution of a conscience that conducts a travesty of his own self attempting to make sense of the self-sacrificing emotional eruption that parallels the instability and paralysis of France amidst the Reign of Terror. Love and glory are inextricably intertwined in his cynical aptitude and his inability to make ends of things demands a force he has not within himself to summon. Vanity at times becomes lucidly displayed and at others is caricatured as the recruit of a mind suffering from the buffets of a tempest that leaves him stranded and exiled from a world he cannot fathom.
Infatuating, exasperating and convulsive, this novel reads like the record a wrestling match with Eros, an epistle to Athena and a descent into the Dionysian realms of our very nature.
In all of literature the only other novels that are able to depict such a theme with the like intensity and sincerity are Mme de Krüdener's novel Valérie, Marcel Proust's The Captive, November by Flaubert, Raymond Radiguet's The Devil in the Flesh, and Marguerite Duras The Lover.
Of note the fact that the gorgeous and astounding literary feat of Mme de Krüdener, Valérie, remains untranslated in English. That is an outrage.