Guy Walters is the author of four thrillers – including The Traitor and The Leader – two comedies, and four works of history - including Hunting Evil and Berlin Games. A former Times journalist, he writes on historical topics regularly for the Daily Mail, and blogs for the New Statesman. He is also a PhD candidate at Newcastle University. In this post Guy discusses Joseph Kessel's Belle de Jour.
Guy Walters on Belle de Jour by Joseph Kessel
Gabriel García Márquez observed that everybody has three lives - a public life, a private life, and a secret life. Of course, it is the third life that is the most interesting, not least because it is often produced by desires - often sexual – that cannot be openly expressed within the other two lives. A psychiatrist once told me that you can get to know people's real natures in bed, and that our sexual personas were the truest manifestations of our actual natures. But we are often ashamed by our true natures, partly because they can conflict so horribly with the characters we present on the pavement or by the fireside.
As a result, we do our best to keep our secret lives just that. I cannot remember who it was who remarked that you can make any Englishman stop in his tracks by whispering in his ear, 'I know your secret', but he knew a thing. Similarly, in his book Resistance, the historian M.R.D. Foot states that interrogators attempt to unlock the third life in order to gain a hold over their subjects. 'Over the age of thirty,' Foot wrote, 'every man has a shabby little secret.'
I often think that Shabby Little Secrets would make a great title for a novel, and I regularly think about writing that novel. However, I always mournfully reflect that my literary abilities would fall embarrassingly short of those possessed by Joseph Kessel, who wrote on this subject over eight decades ago in his masterpiece, Belle de Jour.
Many readers will have seen Luis Buñuel's film of the novel, which introduced the world to the spectacular beauty of Catherine Deneuve. The film is a faithful adaptation, and accurately captures the essence of Séverine, the Parisian upper-middle class housewife whose private and public lives are threatened by her desire to surrender to the sadomasochistic yearnings of her secret life. I remember first watching the film at school when I was sixteen, and I didn't really understand it, partly because I was distracted by a room full of teenage boys sniggering at Deneuve being pelted with mud, and - more pertinent to my lack of comprehension - because I was too young.
I came back to the film in my twenties - it was shown on an endless loop at the Swiss Centre in central London - and I started to get the hang of it, and was able to look beyond Deneuve's obvious charms and the somewhat forced surrealism of the depictions of fetishism.
However, it was not until I read Kessel's novel that I really began to understand what was going on. I have now read the book at least three times, and on each occasion I marvel at how Kessel presents the internal and ceaseless battle between Séverine's different lives. I know little about Kessel, and will not insult you by merely regurgitating some online biography. In a way, I don't really care who he was. All I know is that he wrote a masterpiece that proves he understood all too well what complex little creatures we are.
What Kessel sympathetically and brilliantly conveys is the mixture of liberty and self-loathing that Severine feels whenever she engages in her fetishistic pleasures when 'daylighting' as a prostitute. During my latest reading, my favourite sentence was, 'In a vile room, she knew unutterable joy', because it distills that mixture so effectively. A lesser novelist - me, most likely - could never have managed such a trick. Kessel fully understood that the pleasures of a secret life lie in its vileness and seediness. It's not for nothing that Kessel mentions Séverine's attainment of a 'sordid paradise' - another great line, and another great title for a book.
What also makes Belle de Jour so successful is not just Kessel's understanding of inner conflict, but his appreciation that people are very good at lying. Again, a lesser writer would have presented too many occasions in which Séverine is nearly rumbled by her husband, but Kessel shows that she is awesomely good at switching between her lives. She can make the transition extremely quickly, and is even smart enough not to reveal any newly acquired sexual techniques. Séverine is also adroit at hiding her inner chaos, to the extent that even she herself hardly realizes that she has a double life.
As the story progresses - and I won't spoil the plot - Séverine oscillates between loving and hating her secret life, which is another superb observation by Kessel. At times, she is jealous of the freedoms enjoyed by those without similarly transgressive desires (although how is she to know they too do not have them?) and yet she is also scornful of the 'simplicity' of her marriage, and almost celebrates a feeling of superiority engendered by her secret shabbiness - in Séverine's eyes, other people's sexuality seems 'bloodless'.
Understandably, many regard Belle de Jour as essentially a novel about sex, which is not unmerited. Séverine's fantasies are not about, say, shoplifting or murder, and Kessel does indeed show her 'relish in submission' as she risks losing everything in a 'corrupt flood'. What's more, Kessel also understands that Séverine's temptations are not about satisfying desire, but about plucking 'the first-fruits with which satisfaction was surrounded', which presents sexual fetishism far more crisply than anything by the Marquis de Sade.
However, Belle de Jour is also a novel that reveals that we can never escape our own natures. We can try to modify them, hide them, or destroy them, but the task is impossible. For Séverine, that true self is an 'unknown enemy crouching in the recesses of her being, but beaten by reason' - though not for long. Nothing can stop Séverine's secret life, neither the love of a good man, nor the comforts of a well-heeled existence. She has much to lose, but the 'dreadful twin' will always win.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]