The only problem I have with the reliable Pushkin Press is that all their books seem so appealing that I am foxed by choice and usually end up reading none of them, or else playing safe with another Stefan Zweig. When I say ‘appealing’ I mean not only the subject – 20th-century European fiction, usually novella length – but (predictably) the appearance. Many of their books are produced in what they call ‘Jewel’ format: squarish small paperbacks with thick matt covers, with the tactile ribbed texturing of laid paper, which I’ve attempted to show below.
Beautiful Image (La Belle Image) by Marcel Aymé was published in 1941 and is now translated into English for the first time. It’s what a Hollywood pitcher would call a high concept story, the premise both archetypal and novel: what happens when a man suddenly discovers that his face has changed? The results could be either comical or (for once, genuinely) Kafkaesque. Raoul Cérusier discovers his problem – and opportunity – when his identity photographs are rejected by a bureaucratic office. “I give you my word that these are photographs of me. It’s incomprehensible. You have seen them wrong. You must have seen them wrong.”
Even when he suspects the truth, he doesn’t want to believe it – and who can blame him? He knows that when he tells other people, it will be no more than a curiosity of minor amusement to them.
Anybody, I assured myself, could dig up “something very strange which he cannot explain” from the depths of his memory. There’s nothing more ordinary. At the time of the experience, it was bizarre, even frightening, but retold, it becomes nothing at all. In reality, nothing had actually happened.
This is a hint that Cérusier’s narrative may not be reliable, but his reactions are real. Initial self-disgust at the metamorphosis – “a landslide which swept away all my defences” – gradually becomes a sense of endangered opportunity. We learn that he may not be an entirely trustworthy person, and that he has recently ended an affair with his young assistant at work, Lucienne. We gain a tantalising glimpse of a pleasingly perverse relationship of power, of how Lucienne “likes to take revenge” for her abandonment:
For instance, when we’re working at my desk facing each other, she might calmly lay down her pen or document, take my face in her large, hot hands and gaze ardently into my eyes while, silently, she blushes all over, like a man. Overwhelmed, holding my breath, I await her orders. I even hope for them. She knows it, but if I risk making the least gesture, she drops me with a kind smile and returns to her work. I always feel a terrible disappointment, which fades as soon as I’m alone, and even becomes a point of satisfaction when I have my wife beside me.
With other hints at his level of selfishness, it comes as no surprise that Cérusier quickly begins to adapt to his change of face and to change his fate accordingly. “I shall have to resign myself to adopting a slightly different kind of morality, something more akin to that of a fare-dodger.” That is, he decides to move into the flat above his family and to set about seducing his wife. ‘A slightly different kind of morality’ just about sums that up, though we are quickly reminded that anyone who eavesdrops – whether on a conversation, or an another life – never heard anything good about himself. Nonetheless, seduction is made easier by Cérusier’s new face being rather better-looking than the old one, and he also finds it attracts others, which he reflects
might become a source of trouble. The discipline I used to impose on myself no longer applied. … The poor man may well boast of his virtue in the face of the temptations to which rich people succumb. In truth, he has no idea what it is to be tempted to misuse one’s wealth.
Set against these opportunities is the inevitable sense of loneliness which befalls a man who can no longer be known to anyone, who to all intents has fallen to earth from a clear blue sky. “The universe that used to rotate around me is gone. … There was nothing left of Raoul Cérusier but my belief in his existence.” Cérusier confides in his uncle, which leads to some broad comedy of car engines, pigs, and mistaken names. More significantly, Aymé explores how deeply even our closest relationships depend on appearances, as well as how we “won’t accept certainties that aren’t acknowledged elsewhere.”
Translator Sophie Lewis, whose rendering is all that one could wish for (that is, I never felt I was reading a translation), provides an afterword which gives useful background to Aymé and his work, as well as some insights into the themes. So, having braved a random Pushkin, I’m glad to have benefited from a book every bit as interesting, readable and provocative as, well, as Stefan Zweig. The drawback is that it confirms my original suspicion that everything Pushkin publishes is worth reading, and paralyses me into inactivity once more. Until next time.