I bought it in a recent translation by Adriana Hunter (who also translated Amélie Nothombe's Fear and Trembling, among many others) and read it in less than a week, which is unusual for me these days. It is 350 pages long, but does not feel it. The story is not especially compelling, but it is written (and translated) in such a fluid, breezy, conversational style that the pages just kept turning themselves.
It is a book about love and marriage, strongly based on the author's own life and experiences - though with several important differences, as Sarah Bakewell's excellent introduction makes clear. It consists of two 'letters', the first written by Philippe Marcenat to his friend and future second wife Isabelle de Cheverny, about the obsessive love he felt (even then) for his first wife, Odile Malet, and the second written by Isabelle de Cheverny to Philippe Marcenat (who had died three months earlier), about her love for him.
According to the introduction, Maurois summarized his book as:
Part 1. I love, and am not loved.
Part 2. I am loved, and do not love.
This is very neat, but not entirely true. A more accurate précis might be:
Part 1. I am in love with her, but she is not in love with me.
Part 2. She is in love with me, but I am not in love with her.
Really, it is a book about all those flawed romantic relationships (the majority, perhaps?) where there is no balance between the two lovers, where there is always one dominant partner and one meek follower. In many ways, the world of 1920s haute-bourgeois Paris is remote enough from our own (or from my own, at least - maybe you, dear reader, are independently wealthy and spend all your time at parties, discussing science and history and pursuing passionate and barely concealed love affairs with your friends' spouses - who can tell?) that it would seem to have no universality. In most respects, despite being 20th century, the world of Climates is closer to that of Dangerous Liaisons or Anna Karenina than any work of fiction from the past 70 years or so. And yet, love is love. So, while I couldn't honestly see myself, now, in any of those people or situations, there were still feelings and moments that I could recognize from past experience.
And, let's be honest: a happy, balanced, perfectly fulfilling romantic relationship does not make for a good story. I'm incredibly grateful that I've found one, but I wouldn't want to read - or write - about it.
So Philippe's deeply imperfect character - always in search of a 'queen' whom he worships and who tortures him into jealousy by being endlessly coquettish with other men - is kind of engrossing, even if it makes you want slap him around a bit. The book is a pleasure to read for two main reasons:
1. It is full of quotable little epigrams about love and marriage (the one quoted in the book of short stories was not one of the best). For example:
"Should we always hide what we feel in order to keep what we love? Do we have to be cunning, must we devise and disguise just when we want to let ourselves go?"
"We love people because they secrete a mysterious essence, the one missing from our own formula to make us a stable chemical compound."
"To her, he had all the prestige of those we do not know well, and, their charms not yet exhausted, they seem rich with previously unimagined possibilities."
2. There is a constant fascination in comparing this novel to the author's actual marriages, and in thinking about the fact that his second wife typed it up and helped him edit it. The lines between fiction and autobiography are pleasingly blurred here, stirring up a haze of ambiguity where facts are lost but deeper truths are glimpsed.