Raymond Radiguet died at age 20, having completed two novels and some poetry, encouraged by his mentor Jean Cocteau. Count D’Orgel (actually Le Bal de Comte d’Orgel in French) is the second, written when he was 18 and 19 and published in 1924, a year after he died. Since the main impact of Stig Dagerman’s A Burnt Child is in its clear immaturity, I kept that in mind when reading what Cocteau called a book “that cannot be written at that age.” And in its appearance and its demeanor, that very nearly seems true: there is a calm maturity to the basic devices of the book. But underneath it, in the emotional and psychological content, the plot is very ingenuous, almost adolescent. Yet even beneath that…well, read on.
The name d’Orgel sounded grotesque to me, and on first hearing it I expected a chamber of horrors close to Cocteau’s more intense work (Les Enfants Terribles). Maybe it was only because it reminded me of Daniel Pinkwater‘s Borgel and Yobgorgle. But stylistically and developmentally, there’s nothing grotesque here. Radiguet’s writing, particularly when describing the aristocratic background of Anne d’Orgel and his sedate romance with his wife Mahaut, is so proper and so enmeshed in the mores of upper-class society that it takes over the novel for a while. Radiguet’s style is terse, but he is so careful in laying the social and decorative groundwork for the plot that the book seems slower and longer than it actually is.
When young Francois de Seryeuse, with a middle-class background and more impetuousness than everyone else in the book combined, meets up with the Orgels and falls for Mahaut, Radiguet keeps his distance. Francois is clearly closer to Radiguet’s demographic than anyone else, but Radiguet is careful not to shift the focus entirely on to him. Radiguet gives a fair amount of time to his skeptical mother, who Radiguet gives motivations that would seem too sophisticated if given to Francois. It’s a keen device.
There is also nearly a worshipful attitude towards the focus on class and place, and almost total ignorance of the Great War, which puts the area of the novel’s exploration closer to later Flaubert and Balzac than Proust, since Radiguet doesn’t seem to have a lot to say about class or place; he only wishes to describe them. Jean Renoir would describe the destruction of this world less than a decade later, but here it seems immortal. The fixed world and the comfort with which Radiguet describes do make the book like a much older writer. His vision is much more grounded and fixed than Cocteau’s, which makes their relationship something of the opposite of Verlaine and Rimbaud’s.
All the background and scenic parties drop away for a large part of the book, however, as Francois falls for Mahaut and Orgel does his best to ignore what is happening. The love triangle that Radiguet constructs is simple but nicely etched, yet it’s something that is based more in the vague constructs of gentility than it is in French society of any particular time. Orgel’s balls could be parties anywhere, any time, that only require some kind of upper class. The details in the early part of the book fade away as Radiguet brings Francois’s barely consummated affections for Mahaut (he grasps her arm at one point) and her torn reactions to the fore.
It’s not that the book skews towards Francois, but by the halfway point, the main chracters are in such stark relief from the faded background that the focus shifts to archetypal psychology rather than the particulars of the characters:
The Count liked to find his own prodigality in others. To him it was a true sign of nobility. He always accepted the smallest invitation or the most insignificant present with outward signs of pleasure. It was not the right thing for a noble nature to think that everything was his due, or at least to show that he thought so. Francois’ behaviour won the Count’s heart more than any calculated act could have done.
As such, the book comes to read as more modern as it goes on, but also more dated. The sophistication of the early sections seems less close to Radiguet’s heart and more like the immaculate dressing done up in imitation of his forebears.
III. Some Kind of Advance
Radiguet was aware that, as he said, “The background does not count” in Count d’Orgel. The advance in the book is not noticeable until close to the end, but it’s derivable from the title. Orgel himself is the least important of the three main characters; even Francois’s mother makes a stronger impression in her greater wisdom. Orgel mainly sits around enjoying Francois’s company and ignoring what’s going on until he can’t any longer. This is not just carelessness on Radiguet’s part; at the end, it’s finally revealed that Orgel’s actions stem not from coarseness or stupidity, but an internal paralysis arising from the role he is playing. When Orgel does lose it and acts mad at his ball, it’s through his inability to process matters internally:
It was, as we know, in Orgel’s character to perceive reality only through what takes place in public. Orgel now admitted that he might perhaps suffer. He was less afraid of the suffering than of the behaviour it would impose on him.
Radiguet, in spite of everything, manages to tie the background and the foreground together. The setting doesn’t count, but it functions as the web in which Orgel has been working quietly for the entire book, and what has fallen apart from him. The refraction of his breakdown such that he doesn’t take his problems out on Francois or Mahaut but on himself, in the public display of his society, marks him as someone with considerably less ego than characters in this sort of book ought to have.
So while Mahaut and Francois are fairly ordinary types of a past era, Orgel is something else entirely, a public self wondering about its private self, which has been disemboweled. It’s the sort of figure for for whom sincerity is ambiguous, whom Lionel Trilling said was the invention of modernity. Radiguet’s emphasis on the absence of (Orgel’s) self in the context of high society is a theme similar to Cocteau’s and, more loosely, to the surrealists, but Radiguet’s excavation of it is both freer and far more careful than his contemporaries. He is impudent enough to paint a history of the upper class in detail only to throw it away, but he maintains a tight grip on his materials and works them into his new shape. The message has adolescence in it–he is dealing with questions of sincerity and phoniness–but the technique is, at the end of it, subtly mature.