Belle de Jour, by Joseph Kessel

Belle de Jour by Joseph Kessel. 1928. 176 pages.

 Joseph Kessel (1898–1979) was a French journalist and novelist. Born from a Lithuanian doctor of Jewish origin and a Russian mother, Joseph Kessel lived the first years of his childhood in Russia, before his family moved to France. He studied in Nice and Paris. As a journalist, he worked for several newspapers as an international reporter and war correspondent. His first book, La Steppe rouge, was a collection of short stories about the Russian revolution. He took part in the First World War as an aviator and he will use this experience as literary material for his novel L’Equipage, published in 1923. He became French after WWI. In 1928, he co-founded a weekly magazine, Le Gringoire. As a journalist, Kessel covered the Irish War of Independance, the birth of Israel, travelled in the Sahara, explored the slums of Berlin and flew with the Aéropostale. During WWII, he joined the Général de Gaulle in London. Kessel and his nephew Maurice Druon (author of the famous historical novels Les Rois Maudits) wrote the song Le Chant des Partisans which became one of the anthems of the Free French Forces. After the war, he resumed his work as a journalist and traveled all around the world. He was elected as a member of the Académie Française in 1962.

Kessel is one of those writers I studied in school and truly hated. I had never read anything about him since. As it often happens with books, several hints encouraged me to try him again. First, Romain Gary admired him and they were friends. Their lives have similarities (Russian, Jewish, aviators, novelists, Resistants). I also wanted to read about California and Kessel wrote Les Dames de Californie in 1929, which is on my shelf and Hollywood, Ville mirage (1936), a series of articles about Hollywood at that time, but unfortunately out-of-print. Meanwhile Guy recommended Belle de Jour to me. So here I am, reading this unusual book and now having difficulties to write about it as I’m not familiar with the English vocabulary related to the plot.

When the novel begins, Séverine has been married to Pierre Sérizy for two years. Pierre is a promising young surgeon, working in a Parisian hospital. They have a comfortable income; they can afford to go on holiday and have a servant. Séverine lives the cosy life of a bourgeois housewife. Pierre and Séverine are deeply in love, call each other “ma chérie / mon chéri” at every sentence but have separate bedrooms.

From the first chapter we understand that Séverine has issues with bodily affairs when she refuses to undress in front of her husband. She is thoroughly repulsed by a friend of Pierre’s, Husson, who is known to be a libertine. She’s actually attracted to him but doesn’t know how to name this feeling.

After a serious illness, Séverine’s peace of mind is shattered by her sexual needs that will not be ignored. Indeed, her problem is that she remains cold under her thoughtful and delicate husband’s touch but is aroused by other men. Accidentally hearing from a friend that some women of her social class prostitute in specific houses, she is restless until she comes to Mme Anaïs, who runs such a house Rue Virène in Paris. She’s attracted there by a sort of magnetic pull that she doesn’t clearly understand. She is even so disgusted by herself that she almost throws herself in the Seine that day. Soon, loveless and raw sex becomes an addiction: she is now Belle de Jour, available every day from two to four at Mme Anaïs’s brothel. Then one day, after a particular visit Rue Virène, everything pieces together:

L’élégance, l’éducation, le souci de lui plaire, allaient à l’encontre de quelque chose en elle qui exigeait d’être rompu, soumis, dompté sans appel, pour que sa chair s’épanouît. Séverine ne fut pas désespérée de reconnaître ce divorce fatal entre elle et celui qui était sa vie même. Au contraire, un soulagement infini la berça. Après des semaines de torture et presque de démence, elle se comprenait et le double affreux qui l’avait régie dans l’épouvante et les ténèbres se résorbait en elle. Forte et sereine, elle retrouvait son unité. Puisque le destin ne permettait pas qu’elle reçût de Pierre le don que des inconnus grossiers lui apportaient, qu’y pouvait-elle ? Fallait-il renoncer à une joie qui chez d’autres femmes se confondait avec leur amour ? Si elle avait été servie de cette chance, eût-elle parcouru cet effroyable chemin ? Qui donc pouvait lui reprocher des actes que, seules, avaient exigé d’elle des cellules dont elle n’était pas comptable ? Elle avait le droit que chaque animal possède de connaître le spasme sacré qui, au printemps, fait tressaillir la terre d’un humide tremblement. Elegance, education, the desire to please her went against something in her that demanded to be overcome, surrendered, and absolutely mastered for her flesh to blossom. Séverine was not desperate to admit this fatal divorce between her and the one who was her whole life. Quite the opposite, a boundless relief soothed her. After weeks of torture and almost madness, she understood herself and the awful double who governed her with terror and darkness was disappearing in her. Strong and peaceful, she felt reunited. Since fate did not allow her to receive from Pierre the gift that rough men could give her, what could she do about it? Did she have to give up a joy which other women had mixed up with their love? If she had had that chance, would she have followed this frightful path? Who could blame her for actions that were demanded by cells she could not be accounted for? She had the same right as any animal to experience the sacred spasm that makes the earth quiver with a wet trembling every spring.

This quote is a turning point of the novel, as Séverine eventually understands why she is compelled to spend her afternoon hours in a sleazy hotel. Accepting the two sides of her nature as being part of herself, she spends her afternoons at Madame Anaïs’ and makes sure to be at home by the time Pierre comes back from work.

Everything runs smoothly until Belle de Jour meets Marcel. He’s a flashy gangster with golden teeth and a dangerous look. He looks like characters in Edith Piaf’s songs. Marcel falls for Belle de Jour and sex stops being anonymous for both of them. She is fascinated by him and Marcel permeates in Séverine’s life. His deep love – and sexual addiction – for her will make of him her slave. Her pure and absolute love for Pierre will make her go to any length to protect it/him.

This will seal their destinies.

What did I think about this book? I had difficulties to really enter into this world. During the 60 first pages, I thought Séverine annoying, a little spoiled. I imagined her, self-creating her little dramas, the kind of problems that could vanish if she were working instead of having too much time to think about herself. Then I got caught by her intimate tragedy. She needs rough embraces and indelicate sex to reach orgasm. Pierre is too gentle and there is no way she can tell him not to. She loves someone who can’t pleasure her. Pierre feels diminished in his manhood and suffers too.

When it was published, Belle de Jour was a scandal although nothing is precisely described. Strangely, it was published the same year as Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The context and the story are different, but the theme is identical. Was that a fashionable issue?

The prologue of the book is a scene in which Séverine, at the age of eight, is suddenly held tightly by a plumber. That will be her first and striking experience of male sexual desire. This episode explains her strange addiction. Kessel does not linger on psychological theories but the reader knows the origin of her anguish. Nowadays, she would go to a psychoanalyst. At that time, she cannot even name her emotions and desire.  

Born in the 1970s, after the sexual revolution and after the fights for women’s rights, it is hard for me to see things through Séverine’s eyes. I have difficulties to really sympathise with her and I need to recall Simone de Beauvoir’s Deuxième Sexe to remember how women of that time were ignorant of their body. Kessel is very modern here, claiming for Séverine the right to sexual pleasure, just as for men.  

In the foreword, Kessel explains what he attempted to describe with this novel. His point was not to describe a sexual or mental disease but to show through an extreme situation how someone can love their spouse and still desire other persons. 

With Belle de Jour I tried to show the terrible divorce between the heart and the flesh, between a true, deep and tender love and the implacable want of carnal senses. Apart from a few exceptions, each man, each woman who has loved someone for a long time bears this conflict with them. It is admitted or not, it tears apart or it is asleep but it exists.

I’ll leave everyone who is in a long-term relationship make up their minds about his statement.

As far as the style is concerned, Belle de Jour is undoubtedly well-written. For example, here is a description of Marcel on his first meeting with Belle de Jour:  

Ses cheveux luisant d’une pommade lourde, sa cravate chère mais trop vive, ses vêtements excessivement ajustés, le gros diamant qu’il portait à l’annulaire – tout était suspect ainsi que la peau dure et serrée du visage, que les yeux à la fois inquiets et inflexibles. His hair shining from heavy brilliantine, his pricey but too bright tie, his close-fitting clothes, the big diamond on his ring-finger – everything was suspect. So were the tough and tight skin of the face and the nervous and rigid eyes.

Vivid, isn’t it? I can picture Marcel very well. Kessel is also a good painter of feelings with little words. Romain Gary admired Joseph Kessel and he obviously scrutinized his style. I can recognize the same pattern in Gary’s early works. Now I’m going to read L’Orage and Une Petite Femme, the short-stories by Gary published in Le Gringoire in 1935. I’m curious to compare their styles.

I haven’t seen the famous film version by Luis Buñuel. However choosing Catherine Deneuve to be Séverine is perfect. She had exactly the kind of blond, innocent and icy beauty needed to bring Séverine to life.

PS : I did the translations and it wasn’t easy, so I’m not sure the English version of the quotes does justice to Kessel’s style.

  1. March 29, 2011 at 7:46 pm

    I read this a few years ago and liked the way it was written a lot but found it a bit dated as well. It’s hard to identify with her when you’re from another generation. I first wanted to add Kessel’s L’armée des ombres to my readalong. I heard The Lion should be very good too, have you read it?


    • March 29, 2011 at 8:16 pm

      I found Séverine cold and I responded coldly too. More than a question of generation, after all, I have nothing in common with Elisabeth Bennet or Madame Bovary either, I felt nothing for her. I was curious to read the book to know the ending though.

      Maybe all the “imparfait du subjonctif” used there gave you the impression it was dated.

      The Lion is the one I read in school. (En 4ème) I was truly bored. I can’t tell you how I’d respond to it now but I’m not particularly interested in books with animals. Not sure my opinion is worth listening on that one.


    • leroyhunter
      March 29, 2011 at 8:51 pm

      Wow, Kessle wrote L’armée des ombres as well? That’s 2 top, top movies derived from his work – can’t be a coincidence.


  2. leroyhunter
    March 29, 2011 at 8:58 pm

    A very interesting post as always bookaround. Again, a remarkable life from which the work has sprung.

    I’ve seen the film a few times and it sounds like it’s very faithful to the book – the description of Marcel could be derived from the screen as opposed to the other way around. It’s funny, I don’t think the film is dated in a way that I think eg Fellini is dated. Maybe there’s something in the contrast of visual vs written there; the intensity of Bunuel’s version is still strong but seems based on character; whereas maybe the sexual-political elements are more forced? evident? on the page.


    • March 29, 2011 at 9:24 pm

      I’d better watch the film, I guess. Perhaps the film has a more convincing way to convey Séverine’s struggles.

      I really think that what may sound dated on paper is the use of the “imparfait du subjonctif” which is a past tense no one uses anymore (except for irony in certain circumstances) I’m not even sure I could conjugate it properly for any verb. It is used in the long quote I typed. (“s’épanouît”, “reçût”)


    • March 29, 2011 at 9:28 pm

      I’m also fascinated by these people who seem to have several lives in one.


      • leroyhunter
        March 30, 2011 at 10:07 pm

        A real example of that “several (or split) lives” quality is of course L’adversaire…


  3. March 30, 2011 at 2:04 am

    I’ve been waiting for this one. Belle de Jour and Claire’s Knee were the first two foreiegn films I saw, so as you can imagine, Belle de Jour holds a special place for me (well so does the Rohmer film but I’m talking about the other one).

    I don’t think it was a coincidence that the main character is called Severine. back to von Sacher-Masoch.

    I think the quote you point out about ‘the conflict’ is true for many people, and I can think of many examples from real life. I think our Severine is a little too neat an example, but at the same time, I don’t think Kessel was wrong at all.


    • March 30, 2011 at 8:12 am

      I can imagine it and I understand why I didn’t find a review of Belle de Jour on your blog. Pardon me, but you really need to be British or American to remember the first foreign films you saw. For me it’s blurred childhood memories. (Mary Poppins?)

      I haven’t read Sacher-Masoch but I trust you on that one. And you’re probably right as Séverine isn’t a usual first name for the 1900s. I hadn’t noticed that, Séverine is a very common name in my generation. Now I wonder if there are so many “Séverine” born in the 1970s because of the film version of Belle de Jour, since it was released in 1967.

      “Neat” is exactly the right term for Séverine. But the character needed to be a neat woman for Kessel’s point. If even this neat, innocent and pure woman experiences the conflict between love and attraction, it can only mean it is universal. If the character had been a man, it would only have been one more story about a man driven by his pants (like Le Baron Hulot)


  4. March 30, 2011 at 6:30 pm

    I am in awe of the film Belle de Jour for many reasons. I haven’t seen Belle Toujours yet and I’ve been delaying as I expect that it will disappoint.

    Are you familiar with the Adam Ant song Goody Two Shoes? It’s on Youtube, I think.


    • leroyhunter
      March 30, 2011 at 10:02 pm

      Didn’t expect to see a reference to the mighty Adam & the Ants…!

      I’d completely forgotten there was a follow-up made, looking it up it sounds like it could be interesting. That said, I’ve refused to watch Godfather 3 over the years for the exazct same reason.


      • March 30, 2011 at 10:32 pm

        Adam & the Ants : never heard of them but God, these 1980s outfits were ridiculous. Has anyone seen Hugh Grant in the fake Pop! clip ? It’s on youtube too. So funny.

        I’ve never read any sequel of Pride and Prejudice for the same reasons.


    • March 30, 2011 at 10:21 pm

      OK, I’ve watched the film. The setting in the 1960s bothered me a little bit, probably because the book is so fresh in my mind and I had other mental pictures. The actors are really really well chosen. Thoughtful to have chosen Piccoli for Husson only two years after he played the part of Dom Juan. Pierre is exactly like that and Catherine Deneuve is perfect. I wonder how Jean Seberg would have been in Séverine.
      I prefer the ending of the book, though, much darker.
      I won’t go further in the comparison, I don’t want to spoil anybody’s pleasure.

      I understand why you don’t want to watch Belle Toujours. This sequel couldn’t be possible with the ending of the book.

      I’ve listened to Goody Two Shoes (and read the lyrics), I didn’t know it. But I see the connection.
      PS : tell me if you want to listen to French music, I can help you.


  5. April 1, 2011 at 4:57 pm

    I’d forgotten the film was Buñuel, I saw it too young and found it silly. The simplicities of pre-adolescence made it all seem needlessly overcomplicated. I should watch it again now I’m an adult.

    The book sounds interesting, but I can’t help thinking that I have nothing in common with Madame Bovary and yet I found her story utterly gripping. There may be something lacking here if it can’t overcome a gap of personal experience.

    Most French music I listen to is Marseilles’ rap. Oxmo Puccini, Shurik’n, IAM, Fony Family and so on. French hip-hop is in my view a fair way ahead of the US stuff that originally inspired it.

    Shame I don’t understand any of the words…


    • April 1, 2011 at 6:08 pm

      You’re probably right, something is missing in this book. Maybe the style. It was missing in the film too, at least for me.

      I’m more Kooks and PJ Harvey than hip hop, so I know none of them except IAM. You might like Sinsemillia, Abd El Malik and Zebda. Can’t your wife help you with the lyrics ? If you have a favourite song, just ask, I’ll translate it for you.


  6. April 1, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    I listen to a hodge-podge of music–it just depends on the day. Sometimes I’ll get a prod from a film to go and listen to something I’ve neglected for a few months

    I think Deneuve is perfect for the role as she looks SO CLEAN–like a smooth, clear, untroubled lake you can see right down from the surface to the bottom. And yet as the film progresses that image is proved false. Muddy Waters. And I’m not talking about the musician.


    • April 1, 2011 at 8:42 pm

      hodge-podge? thanks for adding to my vocabulary.

      Yes, you’re right about Deneuve : she was perfect for this role.


  7. April 1, 2011 at 7:56 pm

    Book Around the Corner: I have a fondness for black female singers: Ella Fitzgerald, Eartha Kitt, Dinah Washington, Etta James.

    I also like Luz (spanish) & Zarah Leander (German). Last night it was Lady Ga-Ga.


    • April 1, 2011 at 8:56 pm

      I prefer male voices. I guess my favourite song is still Moonlight Drive. I suppose hodge-podge could apply to me too: on my usb drive, there are the Kooks, the soundtrack of Hair, the soundtrack of Accross the Universe, Stacey Kent, Muse and Pete Doherty.

      I have problems with electronic music, it gets on my nerves. Plus it reminds me of gym class.


  8. juan
    October 3, 2012 at 2:54 pm

    I just saw belle de jour and somehow I identify myself with Severine. I am a male, but same as she I have experienced curiosity for unknown or not permitted sex. Same as her when I am about to do it, I go back and think about it, but then the desire and curiosity make me want it again until i finally do it. To me that curiosity, hesitation, yearning, morals, etc., are universal.


    • October 4, 2012 at 8:31 am

      Hello Juan, thanks for dropping by and commenting.
      You should read the book. The style is beautiful and you’ll probably like it if you enjoyed the film.


  9. Hassan Badran
    March 5, 2016 at 1:29 pm

    I am looking for a specific quote that k believe is in both the 1967 movie and novel. In French it is as so:
    “Je ne sais pas comment t’expliquer. Il y a tant de chose que j’en plein moi même à comprendre mon chéri.
    Des choses qui me concerne ce que je pouvais pour toi ça n’a rien de voir de plaisir. C’est bien au delà. Je ne te démand pas de me croire, mais je ne suis jamais sentie très proche de toi”

    This is my own typing of the quote I heard so some words could be wrong especially since I haven’t practiced my French for 14 years.
    I wanted to know if the quote is also in the original novel.


    • March 6, 2016 at 12:01 am

      I’d like to help you but I need more information about when this passage happens in the story. Otherwise, I’d have to reread the whole book!


  1. April 8, 2011 at 8:50 pm
  2. July 26, 2013 at 11:07 pm
  3. April 28, 2014 at 2:35 pm

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