Monday, October 17, 2011

The Reinvention of Love by Helen Humphreys

"He is my neighbour. We live two doors apart on Notre-Dame-des-Champs. He is also my dear friend. I am also in love with his wife."

In Paris in the 1820s, when he was 22, Charles Sainte-Beuve favourably reviewed one of Victor Hugo's early books, a collection of poetry. As a result, Hugo invited Sainte-Beuve to his home and they became good friends.

(Another poet, who did not fare so well under Sainte-Beuve's criticism, came into the newspaper office to challenge the reviewer to a duel, shouting "Choose your weapon." Sainte-Beuve leaned across his desk, staring him down: "I choose spelling. You're dead.")

Sainte-Beuve was a remarkable individual, an intersex person who made public his love for Hugo's wife, Adele, when he published a book of poems about their affair - without changing any names. Canadian author Helen Humphreys writes in her author's note that "with few exceptions, the events in my novel mirror actual events. Where possible, I have used the words of Sainte-Beuve, Adele, and George Sand." The words may come from historical sources, but Humphreys is the one who has gathered them together and shaped the telling, using the distinctive first person voices of Charles, Adele and Adele's youngest daughter.

I really loved this book and think the best way to convey the magic of the prose is through quotes, as in this moment when the friendship between Charles and Adele shifts to romance:

"She was standing in front of the big mirror in the drawing room and her back was to me. The combs weren't staying in place. She was impatiently trying to stab her hair into submission when a comb fell out and her black hair cascaded down her back. It was that movement - that soft tumble, softer than water falling from a fountain - that released something in me. I cried out, just a small noise, as a child might make in her sleep. Adele turned and saw me watching her, and it was as though we had just discovered each other for the first time. I cannot fully explain it. All I know is that I could not roll my feelings back up, twist them into position and secure them into a place of propriety. I was undone. Nothing could be the same."

Charles' use of the pronoun "her" to refer to himself (as a sleeping child) is interesting here. He otherwise seems to consider himself male, although he switches to dresses and a female persona, Charlotte, in order to draw less attention when meeting up with Adele.

Why would the mother of four children and wife of such a publicly-known writer risk having an affair? Humphreys explores this question with a sensitive portrayal of Adele. "Victor loves me. I know this to be true. But Victor loves me for himself, and Charles loves me for myself, and the difference between those two is so astonishing that I don't know how to reconcile them."

The Reinvention of Love is a fascinating and intimate slice of people's lives during several turbulent decades. Highly recommended to fans of literary historical fiction.


avisannschild said...

This sounds so good! I'm undecided as to whether I like Helen Humphreys in general: I find her writing beautiful, but her books are often bleak. Is this one? In any case, my curiosity is piqued!

Lindy said...

I don't think of Humphreys' books as bleak. I find lots of yearning and quietude and sadness... but in a good way. The Reinvention of Love could be summed up with the sentiment: Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all -- presented in beautiful prose that makes me slow down to read passages more than once to savour the language.

avisannschild said...

Hmm, your comment makes me think that I'd find this one bleak too! :) I'm still tempted to read it though.

Lindy said...

Well, you could get it from the library, and if you don't like it after the first couple of chapters, just bring it back. The voice of Charles is quite compelling and he starts the book... so I would be surprised if it doesn't grab you from the beginning.