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Any time a noble and generous idea inflates until excessiveness, it becomes narrow-mindedness.

March 29, 2014 20 comments

Lady L. by Romain Gary. 1963

Gary_LadyL2Back in February, when I prepared the fourth Wednesday with Romain Gary post, I felt the urge to reread Lady L and I wasn’t disappointed You’ll find additional information about the book in that post so now, let’s dive into the review.

When the book opens, Lady L. is celebrating her 80th birthday. She lives in England, is the matriarch of an affluent aristocratic family and is of French origin. A great party with her children, grand-children and friends is taking place at her house. Right from the start, we gather that Lady L. is rather, um, unconventional. She looks at the spectacle around her, inwardly cringes about all the attention she gets due to her rank and her age. She sees them all as stiff shirts, solidified in their good manners and respectable ways of thinking. She’s making a tour of the place, in company of Sir Percy official poet. Percy is her knight in shining armour and although she likes him, he irritates her. She’d like him to be less honourable and less good-hearted:

Il y avait longtemps que ses espoirs s’étaient évanouis devant l’évidence d’une intégrité morale à vous soulever le cœur, qui émanait de Percy comme une sorte de funeste radiation. C’était vraiment un homme honorable et comment la poésie était allée se fourrer là-dedans, Dieu seul le savait. C’était d’ailleurs le seul homme qu’elle eût connu qui ait un regard de bon chien tout en ayant les yeux bleus.

Her hopes had vanished a long time ago, confronted to the moral integrity solid enough to make you sick that oozed out of Percy like a dreadful radiation. He really was an honourable man and how poetry had ended up there, only God knew. By the way, he was the only man she’d ever known who had the look of a good dog while being blue-eyed.

See what I mean about unconventional? During the party, she learns that her pavilion where she hides all her favourite things will be destroyed because the land is needed to build a motorway. This prompts her to bring Percy over there and tell him the truth about her origin and her life. Poor Percy is in for a hell of a journey.

Lady L was born Annette Boudin, a poor girl living in the slums of Paris. Her father was an activist and an anarchist. She was raised with bottles of revolutionary theories while her mother struggled to make ends meet.

Sa mère peinait dans la cour, son père parlait de justice, de la dignité naturelle de l’homme, de la réforme du monde : peut-être eût-elle gardé un souvenir moins pénible de ses leçons s’il était descendu dans la cour pour donner un coup de main à sa femme.

Her mother was working hard in the courtyard and her father was speaking of justice, of the natural dignity of humanity, of the reform of the world. She might have remembered these lessons more fondly if he had went down to the courtyard and given a hand to his wife.

This behabiour rooted in her a solid weariness towards grand theories to improve the welfare of humanity. Humanity is demanding, appeals to high ideals and makes a man forget about the needs of everyday life. Annette grows into  beautiful and starts working as a prostitute. This is how she meets Alphonse Lecoeur, prince of the Parisian crime scene and financer of Armand Denis’s fight against the establishment. Armand Denis is a charismatic anarchist. He believes in his cause; he wants to save humanity and is ready to do anything for that. At the present, anything means training Annette to behave like an aristocrat, introduce her in high society and use her as an informer. The objective: bombings, killing of key people and burglaries to finance The Cause. Despite her previous knowledge of the inner workings of an activist’s mind, she falls head-over-heels in love with Armand. They become lovers but where Annette would be happy with a normal life, Armand cannot give up The Cause:

Mais il y a une chose que je ne comprends pas. Tu dis que tu m’aimes. Comment peux-tu aimer quelqu’un sans l’aimer tel qu’il est ? Comment peux-tu m’aimer et me demander en même temps de changer complètement, de devenir quelqu’un d’autre ? Si je renonçais à ma vocation de révolutionnaire, il ne resterait plus rien de moi : tu ne peux pas me demander à la fois de renoncer à ce que je suis et de demeurer celui que tu aimes. Ce n’est pas facile, tu sais, d’être dans ma peau. Ce n’est pas facile d’être Armand Denis. C’est très précaire. On se réveille parfois le matin tout surpris de se trouver encore là. Tu devrais être ma force, ne pas essayer de miner ma volonté, mes convictions.

But there’s something I don’t understand. You say you love me. How can you love someone and not love him the way he is? How can you love me and at the same time ask me to change completely, to become someone else? If I abandoned my calling as a revolutionary, there wouldn’t be anything left of me. You can’t ask me to renounce to who I am and still be the man you love. It’s not easy to be in my skin. It’s not easy, you know, to be Armand Denis. It’s very instable. Sometimes you wake up in the morning, all surprised to be there, still. You ought to be my strength, not to try to undermine my willpower, my beliefs.

Humanity is like a mistress in their couple. In French, « humanité » is a feminine word, which explains the metaphor Gary uses. Annette fights with limited weapons against a powerful opponent. Armand won’t give up his cause. He’s ready to die for humanity. And as he points out, would she still love him if he changed that much? Who will win the fight? The flesh and blood lover or the demanding and idealistic mistress?
Along with Annette’s story –how did she go from slumming to Lady?—Gary explores the theme of passionate devotion to a cause. He shows that activists become slaves of their idea and end up being as narrow-minded as the people they’re fighting against. He sees humanity as a bloodthirsty mistress that takes men into her nets and makes them her slaves. Their passionate love for her might change them into monsters, without their realising it until it’s too late.

La soif d’absolu, un phénomène très intéressant, d’ailleurs, et assez dangereux : cela donne presque toujours de beaux massacres. C’est un de ces grands passionnés de l’humanité qui finiront bien par faire disparaître un jour leur bien-aimée dans un crime passionnel, par dépit amoureux.

The thirst for the Absolute, a very interesting phenomenon, by the way, and rather dangerous. Most of the times, it ends up in big massacres. One of these great devotees to humanity will eventually kill their beloved in a crime of passion, out of unrequited love.

Armand Denis fights for more freedom and yet, he’s a prisoner of his ideas. He turns into a fanatic; he loses perspective. Gary advocates that it is difficult to have enough inner fire to keep on fighting and believing and at the same time keep things in perspective. On the one hand, you need passion to go on and on the other hand, you need to cool that passion to prevent yourself from committing injustices in the name of your fight for justice. That’s a catch 22 situation.
Needless to say I highly recommend Lady L. Gary’s style is excellent, witty, lively and full of wonderful images. The ending is quite surprising and the passages about activism are thought-provoking. A potent combination of great style, gripping plot and deeper thoughts.

PS : I translated the quotes myself, so please, be indulgent. Something else, I used to copy-paste tables from Word with the biligual quotes, but something has changed in the WP features and I can’t do it anymore. That leaves me with the blog quotes. If anyone knows how to fix this, I’ll be glad to hear it.

 

 

 

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