The Reinvention of Love, By Helen Humphreys

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The Independent Culture

Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve looks to be an unusual choice for a novel. He was the foremost French literary critic of his day, producing an enormous amount of work. As he said, he was only truly himself alone in his study, pen in hand. But he is probably best remembered for his love affair with Adèle, the wife of Victor Hugo.

As far as is known, this was the only significant relationship Sainte-Beuve had with any woman. The reason for his avoidance of women and perception of his inadequacy as a lover is attributed to a hermaphroditic genital malformation. In the novel, Adèle finds this an attraction. Perhaps she is tired out by the priapic Hugo, with whom she has already had several children.

It is a very odd story. Sainte-Beuve meets Adèle in parks and churches. Sometimes he dresses as a woman and calls himself Charlotte. Adèle has no objection: to her mind, it presents her with two lovers.

The novel covers 30 years and is narrated by Charles and Adèle alternately. The sexual love between the two cools and then, after a long lapse, is reawakened in Guernsey, where Hugo has been exiled. Helen Humphreys is most convincing in her descriptions of the domestic life of Adèle and her children, the cities and landscapes in which the characters move, and the discrepancies between public figures and their private lives. It must be said that the scenes of lovemaking are sometimes unfortunately phrased.

This brings us to a difficulty. Despite being the reminiscences of Charles and Adèle, presumably written some time after the events, it is mostly related in the present tense. This is serviceable enough in detailing immediate actions and sensations, but produces an awkwardly contorted effect when employed in describing the passage of years: "I never see Adèle Hugo again. She dies of heart trouble in Brussels". Confusingly, both narrators occasionally drop into the past tense and then the book eases its corsets and begins to breathe easily. At the end, the novel switches to Dédé, Adèle's daughter, and her growing insanity. This is extraordinary and fascinating, and one is left wishing that Dédé had told the whole story from her time as a child.        

All writers make mistakes; that is why publishers employ copy editors – or used to. Then we wouldn't have had a passage where Sainte-Beuve (died 1869) finds himself disagreeing with Marcel Proust (born 1871).