Le Diable au Corps

Raymond Radiguet.
Image from Wikipedia.

Raymond Radiguet’s Le Diable au Corps was published in France in 1923. I can’t think of any British fiction of the period that is remotely similar.

The narrator is a boy of sixteen, who during the Great War has an intense affair with the wife of a soldier.  The book focuses on their folie à deux, and the big events of history are dim in the background.  It is remarkable for its frankness about the young man’s intentions and his emotions, which are are powerful and contradictory;  he tells himself that he loves Marthe passionately, but we sense more of a teenager’s curiosity and desire to find and test limits. She has found herself in a marriage that does not involve her (and her husband is absent, of course), so she allows herself to be manipulated by the boy, and to lead him on when his courage fails. The novel shuns pieties about love as much as it avoids sentimentalised attitudes to war.

The book is supposedly part-autobiographical, and based on events in Radiguet’s life when he was only fourteen. Since he was born in 1903, that would be in 1917.  That was the year in which he dropped out of school. Soon he took up with the parisian modernists – Picasso, Max Jacob and especially Jean Cocteau.  It was under Cocteau’s influence that he translated his story into fiction. He died in 1923, of typhoid.

The novel caused a scandal on its first appearance, apparently.  For many, it must have seemed evidence for the charges made by Abel Gance in J’Accuse, about the selfishness and ignorance of civilians while soldiers faced horrors at the front.  In England, I’m pretty sure, such a book would have been totally unpublishable. Maybe even totally unimaginable.

2 Comments

  1. Mike
    Posted October 6, 2010 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    I think you’ve made a mistake with the year of publication for Le Diable. 1913 seems just a bit early, no?

  2. Posted October 6, 2010 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    Whoops! The error has now been corrected in the post.


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