23 July 2009

Jules & Jim

La vie était vraiment des vacances.
Life was truly a vacation.

It’s been many years since I saw François Truffaut’s screen adaptation of Henri-Pierre Roché’s Jules et Jim, and the only lingering impressions I bear are of a ménage-à-trois that seemed not so different from that of Noël Coward’s Design for Living — and of the sublime radiance of Jeanne Moreau. Now that I have read Roché’s novel, I really ought to see the movie again. For the “design for living” it depicts extends to many more than three people, and far beyond witty banter; and Kathe (Catherine), the character portrayed by Moreau, is one of the most disturbing heroines I’ve encountered. I need Moreau’s beauty — so fascinating that, at other times, I’ve been known to forget entirely what picture I was watching. In Jules et Jim, that fascination must have been hard at work, smoothing out Kathe/Catherine’s rough edges.

The novel, published in 1952, is written in a lean prose that, along with its depiction of aimless young people in Europe, before and after World War I, recalls Hemingway. We begin with the friendship that begins at first sight between Jules, a German, and Jim, a Frenchman, and is by far the most stable relationship in the book. Jules is eager to find a girlfriend and yet unlucky in love, especially because the women he fancies most often prefer the taller, athletic Jim. Jules seems to derive a great satisfaction from Jim’s successes, as if the women are his gift to his friend — almost as if they were offerings to his idol. This is never more true than of the woman who is for both friend the love of a lifetime — Kathe.

And she is, as a modern reader can hardly help but notice, manic depressive. Naturally, no one, including Roché, diagnoses her, much less treats her: fiction was simpler then. It’s surprising to learn that her real-life model, the critic Hélène Hessel, was a functioning, productive member of society, because her fictional self is quite exasperating. Somehow, Roché manages to hold the reader’s sympathy for Kathe across a twenty-year narrative of erratic behavior. When she commits, as she intends, “irreparable” acts, we don’t condemn her; instead, we try harder to understand her. (Jules and Jim, for their part, mostly accept her outrages as par for the course.) Shortly after she makes her first appearance, Roché begins to ratchet up the suspense: we see that she is dangerous, capable of anything, and we remain on edge, waiting for the next outburst. And there are a lot of them. She is a ticking time-bomb who goes off repeatedly before the ultimate blast.

C’est beau de n'avoir ni contrats, ni promesses, et de ne s’appuyer au jour le jour que sur son bel amour. Mais si le doute souffle, on tombe dans le vide.
It’s beautiful to have neither contracts nor promises, and to rely from day to day only upon one’s beautiful love. But if there is a whisper of doubt, one falls into the void.

If this suggests a high level of repetitiveness, so be it. Jules et Jim is a short book, and just as well: we might lose patience if the narrative were extended by a single page of Kathe’s shifting affections and betrayals. (She marries first Jules, then Jim, then Jules again, sleeps with each while involved with the other, and cheats on them both — a lot.)

And yet for the two friends she is an ideal of womanhood, a sort of goddess with “an archaic smile.” This is something they see first in a statue they admire in Greece; when they see it in Kathe, they are hooked.

Roché’s description of the “archaic smile” is pretty much limited to those two words, an adjective and noun that don’t guide the reader much, really. To know what Roché is talking about, we must imagine women we have known, women who have enthralled us.

Or else we can look at a picture of Jeanne Moreau. Is her smile “archaic”? Maybe. But it is one for which I’d willingly endure anything.

Jim aimait la pleine lune, Kathe pas. “C’est trop facile, disait elle, l’amour et la lune.” Elle devait lui rappeler de mauvais souvenirs.
Jim loved the full moon, but Kathe didn’t. “It’s too easy,” she said, “love and the moon.” It must have reminded her of bad memories.


Girl From Texas said...

To understand what the author meant by the phrase "archaic smile", one needs only to turn to the study of archaic Greek statuary, which the author references. Any art or classical historian can guide one through analysis of the various meanings, thoughts, and ideals associated with this period and genre of art. Archaic art comes from the earliest Greek art period,(not counting that of Crete, which is generally considered in a separate category) before the classical era. It was created before more familiar Greek statuary, such as the Venus de Milo, which is classical in style, or the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon frieze which are late classical almost Hellinistic in style, or the Laocoon which is purely Hellinistic.

Archaic statuary is in one way characterized by a particular expression on the faces of the figures, a sort of frozen "blank" stare, with the lips held firm and sort of tucked, ever so slightly, in the corners. Many art historians have argued this expression represents the duality of both mystery,(is the figure holding something back, does it hint at an inner world or emotions held in reserve?) - vs the surface level interpretation of emotional coldness (is the figure as emotionless as it seems ? Or is the secret inner world merely internalized, kept from our, the audience's, view?)

One could easily argue that Ms Moreau's face and persona really do emulate similar qualities.

William V. Madison said...

Umm, yes, and I've looked at a fair amount of such statuary myself. But if you read the book, Roché's meaning doesn't seem quite so clear-cut as you make it out to be. The descriptions of Kathe only complicate matters. "Anarchic" seems closer to the mark than "archaic."