Once upon a time in the West, marriage was a strategic alliance between families, and it was often between first and second cousins. Polygamy was common until the Church prevailed and monogamy became the status quo, although men enjoyed extramarital affairs. Only in the 19th century did love get a look in; and in the 20th the idea of marriage being a partnership of equals took hold.
Divorce rates around the world have rocketed over the last few decades and in the UK more than a third of people are single, or have never married. Yet the happily married couple is still idealised. It is the domestic holy grail; the stuff of fantasy. ‘Brangelina’, ‘Kimye’, and ‘Billary’ are regular red-top fodder on to which we can transfer our dreams and desires, envy and self-righteous outrage, all depending . . . Image, image, image – but what really lies behind?
A happy marriage is a mirage, a miracle, or, according to Lucien d’Azay, a masterpiece. Two very different perspectives of marriage, desire and fantasy are offered to us, in his beautifully-written narratives, Sonia Stock and Ashley & Gilda. I just hope a canny British publisher picks them up and translates them into English, so that they can be savoured by readers on this side of the Channel.
An attractive, stylish, middle-aged lady boards a train the Gare de Lyon around Easter, as she does every year. Sonia Stock is going to meet her lover in Verona, for a week of erotic escape, away from the world. As the train passes the vineyards of Burgundy, the plains of Brie and the foothills of the Alps she has plenty of time for reverie.
We find out that she had married her professor at La Sorbonne nouvelle, and forty years on is mired in a rut of domestic boredom. Charles Rémiz is balding, short and increasingly bad-tempered. He pees with bathroom door open, and his table manners are becoming odd. He is unhealthily emmeshed with his mother-in-law. His young wife longs to go out and enjoy life, but feels trapped. Why did she marry him and not the love of her life, Manlio, her Italian lover? They had met during a conference and went on to spend the weekend together at the Hotel Gabbio d’Oro when she was not yet married. He encompasses all of Italy, and is her ideal. Sonia’s parents Etienne and Liliane were killed in a car crash when she was seventeen, and she never quite recovered. Her father had spoken of Trieste, his birthplace, when she was a child. Did she marry for security, for stability . . . what was the basis for her decision?
Manlio never got to the hotel before Sonia. As a whole she arrived in the early evening. A porter took her bags and went on ahead. It felt as though they were waiting for her.
The lovers’ ritual never changes. They only ever meet at the hotel. She does not know Manlio’s address, and his life remains a mystery. She packs the same things every year: trousers, a skirt, a dress, a kimono, some blouses, and this time she has brought all the letters she has ever written to him, but never sent. She prepares herself meticulously and waits for her lover. But will he show up . . . or does he ever show up, in fact? Is he real, or is he a fantasy?
From internal reverie we go to the external, and an analysis and dissection of what it is that goes into creating a dream couple. Illusion is the foundation of belief and an ideal can only exist if one believes. Happy couples could not function without their very own mythology, as is the case for religion, miracles, origin stories, shrines, and idols which have their very own liturgy. As such, the mutual belief of lovers is rooted their own mythological tradition.
Samantha Silverthorne – a Nancy Cunard figure – holds a small get together for Halloween in her apartment opposite Ca’ Zenobio on the Grand Canal. The ‘beautiful people’ and artists of Venice are invited, including the notorious dandy and gossip, Toto lo Greco. He and the author are dazzled by glamorous writer-artist couple, Ashley and Gilda, and their dancing.
Ashley Stokes is British and devastatingly charming; Gilda Tani is German and devastatingly beautiful; they had met in Naxos. They’ve got the lot: talent, imagination, originality, genius, beauty and grace. However their peripatetic life as a couple is radiant and brief since Gilda falls ill.
Samantha is particularly interested in disconcerting stories, and rightly so. It is often tricky to distinguish between what is true and what is false in what she says – the truth being fiction and the false, truth.
The author bears witness to the fact that the perfect couple does exist (whereas for most, married life is muddling along somehow, more imperfectly than perfectly). He looks at the image and its construct, and weaves into the narrative philosophical asides, reflections about love and relationships, and myriad cultural references . . . be they about the love padlocks affixed to the bust of Benvenuto Cellini on the Ponte Vecchio, and on the Pont des Arts in Paris, or snippets courtesy of Proust, Ettore Majorana, Newton, Galileo and others. His knowledge is impressive and the narrative is peppered with English phrases.
I was particularly delighted to read an aside about Franco-Russian author, Elisabeth Barillé, since back in the late 1980s, I published her first novel, Body of a Girl (Corps de jeune fille), about a young woman exploring her sexuality and how it relates to herself and the men in her life. Her most recent book The Golden Ear (L’Oreille d’or) published by Grasset is about hearing, but with only one ear, and it is making waves in literary Paris.
For those among you who are literary flâneurs, for some superb armchair travel, you’d do well to get hold of Lucien d’Azay’s A Sentimental Journey (à travers Chaillot et Passy) and Les cendres de la Fenice. As he strolls around the 16th arrondissement of Paris, and the splendours of Venice – where he lives – d’Azay plays with style and voice and observational anecdote. He wears his learning lightly and expresses himself with wit and charm.
A genuine man of letters, d’Azay’s knowledge is profound, eclectic and entertaining. An anglophile, he speaks English fluently, and recently translated Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love for Flammarion. I will leave you with d’Azay as he talks about Trois excentriques anglais, Three English Eccentrics. Read him if you can, alas only in French – for now . . .
Copyright © Georgia de Chamberet for The BookBlast Diary, London.
Ashley & Gilda by Lucien d’Azay | Les Belles Lettres | August 2016 192pp | ISBN: 978-2251446011
Sonia Stock by Lucien d’Azay | Climats | 2002 173pp | ISBN: 978-2841582068
Les cendres de la Fenice by Lucien d’Azay | Climats | 2000 140pp | ISBN: 978-2841581511
A Sentimental Journey (à travers Chaillot et Passy) by Lucien d’Azay | Climats | 1995 118pp | ISBN: 978-2841580088