When a man loves two women

Free Spirits by Ian MacKillop (Bloomsbury, £16.99)
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The Independent Culture

This is a book about the love of women: how women love, and how men love them. It is an essay on the history of the passions, told in the only way it can be told, as a succession of love stories.

This is a book about the love of women: how women love, and how men love them. It is an essay on the history of the passions, told in the only way it can be told, as a succession of love stories.

The love story has taken a bit of a bashing of late. Feminism has taught that too often such a story is just another way for men to subjugate vulnerable women; yet there is every sign - on the page, on the screen and in the street - that the old tales still turn lovers into lunatics and poets. The free spirits of this marvellous book make that journey all right, round and round the eternal triangle.

Henri-Pierre Roché was the author of the novel Jules et Jim, turned into a celebrated film by François Truffaut. Famously, that story circled the triangle of two men and one woman, as did Roché's own life as well.

What is less well known is that this fragment of his biography was preceded by another such triangle, with two women and one man at its corners. The man was Roché, the women Violet and Margaret Court, their story a lived version of the not-so-new bohemianism already canonised by Puccini's heroine.

The young women slip with fated brilliance into the roles awaiting them. They portion out the amorous divisions of labour as neatly as Lawrence's heroines of Sons and Lovers: Violet the sensualist, slipping easily into sex, like a seal into water; Margaret the idealist, psychosomatically blind, transfigured for life by one passionate kiss, her wonderful red-brown hair piled irresistibly above her nuque (Roché's pet name for her).

Ian MacKillop recounts this piercing, commonplace tale from the bewildering medley of diaries, novels and letters that constitute the Roché dossier. His is not only a study in what has been happily called "the curious literariness of real life", but of the interpenetration of the stories that make us up, as we make them up.

Violet and Margaret learn the trials and delights of love and sex from Roché's courteous, unexploitative but deeply exasperating attentions. He is bewitched by their eager, innocent suburban Englishness; they (of course) by his French urbane and urban knowingness. The mothers in this case - haughty Parisian dame, respectable Kentish matron - match their preordained roles as well.

Marriage with Roché recedes for either young woman. Margaret marries someone else, has a child, dies young. She has confessed an addiction to masturbation to her sister and her lover. Violet marries (naturally) a dotty Russian artist. In his seventies, during the 1950s, Roché writes the two novels that make his name, the second of which is MacKillop's story.

Then the 23-year-old François Truffaut finds Jules et Jim, meets Roché, films the mesmerising movie that makes his name, becomes the lover of his actress heroine, the legendary Catherine Deneuve. Roché sends him Two English Girls and the Continent, and Truffaut vows to make the film. In making Anne and Muriel, he has an affair with Kika Markham, playing Anne (Violet). The film comes out in 1971, is a masterpiece and flops.

There will not be many books this year as wholly unclassifiable and original as this one. MacKillop's subject is, no doubt, the incarceration of free spirits. The book is also about the way art uses life, and life art. He is artfully artless in this, drawing from the diaries in the way that Roché turned, nearly 50 years earlier, the fragments, scraps and wisps of life into the narrative threads of his works. Then he watches Truffaut do the same thing.

Memory holds open a door for glimpses of the past. Novelist and film-maker contrive a continuity out of what they can see. The confessions of the two sisters remind us that they, after all, are doing exactly the same. The lesson of this plain, humane book is that you can live a life to be proud of only if you make it sufficiently into a work of art.

The reviewer's new book about the anthropologist Clifford Geertz is published by Polity Press.

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