Two contradictory impulses prompt us to read about the romances of famous couples. Perhaps scrutinizing the biographies of the brilliant and talented will inspire the extraordinary in our own affairs, we may wistfully hope. Or, on the other hand, their disastrous intimacies might reassure us that genius doesn't guarantee happiness: even he was spurned; even she misplaced her faith; even they got bored with each other.
Dan Hofstadter, an essayist and frequent contributor to the New Yorker, seems to belong to the latter, sour species of voyeur, which makes him an odd candidate to write a book called "The Love Affair as a Work of Art." An opinionated investigation of several affairs (one unconsummated) between French
literary men and women during the 19th century, Hofstadter's book presents itself as a paean to the love letter, that much mooned-over relic of the pre-telephone era. In the end, it hardly recommends the practice of writing them. Hofstadter could have titled this book "Ridiculous Liaisons," and reading it may prompt you to consider burning the contents of that shoe box up in the attic, for fear that another of his breed may some day lay hands on it.
Why should "The Love Affair as a Work of Art," with its woozy concept and Belle Epoque packaging, wind up being such a grim, if gossipy, read? Hofstadter views his subjects with a finicky, lofty distaste that makes one wonder why he ever bothered. "To consider the love affair as a work of art is a game for a day, a sort of charade," he explains in his introduction. But a book takes more than a day to write, and perhaps Hofstadter regretted signing on for the duration.
Or we could blame his anomie on the French. Hofstadter displays all the signs of a disillusioned Francophile who bought a cultural bill of goods during some formative student year abroad and only now begins to smell a rat. His blasé, elastic prose gives the impression of a wrinkled nose, and apparently with good cause. The couples he describes -- among them, the legendary salonniere Madame de Stael and her whiny consort Benjamin Constant; the pompous, plagiarizing memoirist Chateaubriand and hapless, saintly Madame Recamier; the squalling George Sand and Alfred de Musset-- shrivel under his supercilious gaze. He mercilessly teases out their failings, in life and work, and then turns away, queasily, from the results.
He finds that Benjamin Constant wrote an insufferable novel about the "natural" infidelity of men while unable to break with his own magnetic (and far from loyal) mistress for over ten years -- due to the sneaking and accurate suspicion that their love was the only notable thing that would ever happen to him. Chateaubriand portrayed his autumnal romance with Madame Recamier as the great, redeeming passion of his life, concealing the period when he coolly used the connection to gain political advantage. George Sand, that advocate of unrestrained emotional truth, went back and forged her own love letters to Musset in order to make herself look better to posterity. "They wished," Hofstadter tells us of Sand and Musset, "to raise their affection. . . to the level of a work of art, only to be forced to confront their own wretched failure of execution."
"France is a nation devoted to Eros in all his guises," Hofstadter also informs us, delivering an undiluted nugget from the Gallic press kit and unwittingly summing up the core dilemma of his own book. Like his reader, he may have begun this project thinking, "The French are masters of romance; they do it with inimitable style," and midway through found himself wondering if style is all we're talking about. Everywhere he sniffs out the tell-tale aroma of greasepaint. These spoiled, fickle people put on quite a show: here be impassioned declarations, horrible scenes, delirious reconciliations, suicide threats, thunderous insults, despair and ecstasy and a great deal of flouncing in and out of Italian hotel rooms. In the end, they seem less like a nation of lovers than a gaggle of drag queens, each, naturally, hard at work on her own autobiography.
For, as Hofstadter half-discovers, once the love affair becomes primarily a matter of "execution" it invites his own brand of punctilious critique and creeping cynicism. Is "affection" actually "raised" when it becomes a work of art? Not when, in the interest of framing an engaging story, we require, as Hofstadter does, "a drop of vinegar in an otherwise too sugary sauce." The core virtue of human love, sincerity -- with her dowdy handmaidens, loyalty, respect and tranquillity -- doesn't make for high drama, but any love affair that lacks it ultimately seems a sham. Of Chateaubriand's intelligent but unwitty and ultimately discarded wife, Celeste, Hofstadter writes, "She wanted to trust and be trusted, and her craving for sincerity must have seemed irksomely naive to her naturally crafty husband."
Briskly dispensed with, Celeste -- along with a few other individuals whose notions of love lack the "pungency" Hofstadter seeks in his subjects -- haunts the shadowy margins of this book, suggesting a course not taken, while the author concerns himself with the ranting children occupying center stage. If the aftertaste left by "The Love Affair as a Work of Art" seems distinctly bitter, that's the predictable result of an appetite for vinegar. Art often serves us what we'd be wise to refuse in our actual lives. Trying to combine the two can lead, not surprisingly, to a bad case of indigestion.