Monsieur Bébé: The Brief, Strange Life of Raymond Radiguet | Daily News


Monsieur Bébé: The Brief, Strange Life of Raymond Radiguet

In the spring of 1923, the young married artists Jean and Valentine Hugo began inviting people to séances at their Paris apartment. A new mood of occultism, influenced by Freud and the early Surrealists, was in the air. And raising the dead was in Jean’s blood: while his great-grandfather, Victor Hugo, was in exile in the 1850s, he presided over frequent “table-rapping” sessions on the Channel Islands. As Victor Hugo recorded in four red notebooks, his “talking table” conducted conversations with such eager spirits as Jesus, Moses, Dante, and Shakespeare—the last of whom, obligingly, concurred with Hugo’s assessment of himself as the greatest writer of all time. Jean and Valentine’s gatherings, however, elicited messages so chilling that the group, spooked, abandoned the practice after only a few tries. It wasn’t an overreaction; before the year’s end, the omens they’d received in their séances were borne out.

In a pink velvet-lined anteroom, the Hugos and their friends, including the artistic polymath Jean Cocteau and the avant-garde composer Georges Auric, encircled a wooden pedestal with a tripod base and tilting round top, a type of table reputed to encourage spiritual communion. Placing their hands on its surface, which was lacquered black and painted with flowers, they asked questions. The table tapped out answers on the floor (one tap meaning the letter a, and so on), which Jean Hugo wrote down. Over the course of these sittings, the clearest messages were intended for the youngest guest: the nineteen-year-old Raymond Radiguet, Cocteau’s protégé and lover, who had just published his scandalous debut novel, Le Diable au corps (The Devil in the Flesh). “Uneasiness will grow with genius,” claimed the “spirit.” Radiguet, the spirit said, “should love me for he loves nothing.” It warned: “Fame does not replace love even in death and I am death.” The following week came death’s final declaration: “I want his youth.”

Radiguet’s publisher, Bernard Grasset, had also wanted the writer’s youth. Eighteen months earlier, Cocteau had taken his young friend to Grasset’s office in the rue des Saints-Pères. (Éditions Grasset still occupies the same building, number 61.) Radiguet sat silently as Cocteau read aloud from the manuscript of his novel. Grasset, then a forty-year-old seasoned editor, thought Radiguet looked “like a schoolboy at his first interview with the headmaster.” Among other career triumphs, Grasset had published the first volume of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu after a competitor rejected it. He genuinely admired Le Diable au corps, but he prized the boy’s precociousness as much as his talent, at least when it came to publicity. While Radiguet revised his novel and rewrote the ending, Grasset paid him a monthly salary of fifteen hundred francs (the equivalent of over three thousand dollars today) and planned the most aggressive book-marketing campaign France had ever seen.

Posters, flyers, and bookstore displays—even cinema newsreels of Radiguet signing his contract and accepting an advance check for a hundred thousand francs—all emphasized the astounding youth of this new literary sensation. The media responded with exasperation at such blatant and unseemly hype. “I don’t care whether the author is seventeen or a hundred and seven,” wrote one reviewer. “It is the book we have to judge, not the birth certificate.” But the tactics worked. In its first month, Le Diable au corps sold forty-six thousand copies, ushering in a new era where the “no such thing as bad publicity” axiom applied even to the rarefied endeavour of literature. In the words of Cocteau:

Before Radiguet, publicity was a very discreet affair, with the author pretending to be totally unaware of it. Radiguet was the first author courageous enough to take a long chance by launching a campaign that might have alienated immediate buyers, but thanks to which, within two weeks his book was in the hands of buyers who formerly might not have known about it for years.

Judged on merit rather than manufactured hoopla, Radiguet’s daring plot and spare, controlled prose only served to magnify the shock value of his age. He had written, argued an impressed critic, the most immoral novel since Les Liaisons dangereuses. The gay poet and painter Max Jacob, one of Radiguet’s friends, told him he hoped his second novel would be “less cruel and more chaste.” But the novelist François Mauriac, who reviewed Le Diable au corps on the front page of Les Nouvelles littéraires, saw no point in “fulminating” against the tale’s transgressive nature. Instead he praised Radiguet’s restrained and original technique, which seemed to him, remarkably, to betray no literary influences whatsoever.

“I am sure to incur a good deal of reproach,” goes the dynamite first line of the book. “But what I am to do?” The unnamed narrator, looking back on his years as a clever, stealthily rebellious adolescent, recounts an illicit wartime romance with Marthe, a local girl a few years his senior.

With Marthe’s soldier husband off fighting in the trenches, she succumbs to a passionate affair with the boy, who is only sixteen but, in Radiguet’s finely shaded and convincing portrayal, years ahead of her in guile. After their first kiss, Marthe weeps and tries to send him away, saying she is too old for him. For our fledgling sadist hero, this marks a pinnacle of joy. Nothing, he reflects, “could be quite like the delightful feeling at seeing a nineteen-year-old girl cry because she thinks she’s too old.”

When Marthe gets pregnant, the narrator’s childish amazement that his actions might have consequences mingle with pride, horror, and resentment at the prospect of pleasure curtailed. “I wanted to have as much as I could of Marthe before motherhood spoiled her.” Later, he berates himself for sullying a cherished possession. “When I thought how I had spoiled Marthe’s graceful beauty and how her belly was swelling, I regarded myself as nothing better than a vandal.” Worse is yet to come. Caught in the freezing rain one night in Paris, after her nervous lover balked at getting them the hotel he’d promised, Marthe catches a bad cold. She dies soon after giving birth.

The narrator’s reaction epitomizes the novel’s singular style: aphoristic and brazen, at once astute and artless.

- Paris Review

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