Delicious descriptions: Pierre Lemaitre on the artist
I recently reviewed Pierre Lemaitre’s The great swindle which is primarily about postwar France – specifically about the way returned soldiers were treated, and more broadly about money and the way it was driving behaviour, values and relationships. I’ll share just one little specific reference to this, a description of the scurrilous (and poverty-stricken aristocrat) Pradelle, because it contains a delightfully subversive allusion to you know who:
Anyone will tell you that a man in possession of such good looks and such a name must be in want of a fortune. This was certainly the lieutenant’s view, and indeed his only concern.
I didn’t manage to squeeze this bit of Austen-citing (as the Jane Austen Society of Australia calls it) into my post, so had to share it here before getting to the main reason for this post, the artist. Édouard, the severely disfigured soldier, had been rejected by his single-minded businessman father long before the war because he was not the right sort of son. He was effeminate and more interested in drawing than in business. For Monsieur Péricourt, this was an anathema – and is why Édouard did not want to return home after the war.
So, imagine Édouard’s disappointment when Albert, his loyal friend and carer, rejects his memorial fraud proposal:
For his pains, Édouard had only a series of worthless sketches. He broke down. This time, there were no tears, no tantrums, no sulks, he felt insulted. He was being thwarted by a pissant little accountant in the name of inviolable pragmatism. The eternal struggle between the artist and the bourgeoisie was being played once more; though the details were slightly different, this was the war he had lost to his father. An artist is a dreamer, hence of no value. This was what Édouard thought he could hear behind Albert’s pronouncements. With Albert, as with his father, he felt relegated to the role of scrounger, a ne’er-do-well interested only in vain pursuits. He had been patient, practical, persuasive, but he had failed. The rift between him and Albert was not a difference of opinion, but a difference of culture; Édouard found his friend petty, mean, with no drive, no ambition, no glint of madness.
Unlike M. Péricourt, Albert is not ruthless and he does not see his friend as having “no value”. Indeed, he liked Édouard’s art. His reasons come from a genuine moral sense combined with a valid fear of the consequences. But the end result is the same from Edouard’s point of view, a rejection of the imagination, a lack of that little “glint of madness”. This idea of the artist is not a major theme in the book – and is not really discussed in any of the reviews I’ve now checked out – but ideas about art and the imagination do underpin much of the novel.