I am a sucker for those stories where you see the same events from the points of view of multiple characters. They raise such meaty questions about memory and reliability and perspective and the nature of truth—all of which I love to think about. This 1928 novel by French novelist Andre Maurois, just translated into English by Adriana Hunter, isn’t quite one of those stories, but it comes close.
The novel is divided into two parts. The first is a man named Phillipe’s recounting of his first marriage, which he is writing for his second wife, Isabelle. The second is Isabelle’s recounting of her marriage to Phillipe. Jealousy, mistrust, and unfaithfulness plague both marriages, even as husband and wife continue to profess love for one another. Phillipe loves his first wife, Odile, for her passion and vivacity, but it doesn’t take long for him to fear that her liveliness and desire to be sociable is a sign that she prefers to spend time with others. When he’s married to Isabelle, he appears to prefer the company of Solange, a woman who reminds him of his beloved Odile.
In both marriages, jealousy proves to be just as destructive as unfaithfulness. As Phillipe notes, “Suspicions planted in the mind are triggered like a series of mines and destroy love gradually with their successive explosives.” Maurois never reveals precisely when Odile’s affair began, and it’s entirely possible that Phillipe’s fear that Odile would be unfaithful drove her into another man’s arms. We only ever see Odile through Phillipe’s eyes, and he perceives her as a flighty flirt, but her actions are open to interpretation—and there’s reason to imagine that Phillipe misjudged her.
Phillipe can only speculate about Odile’s feelings, but Isabelle has access to Phillipe’s journal and includes excerpts from it in her writing. So we get both spouses’ perspectives on their marriage in this half of the book. This more balanced account doesn’t do much to vindicate Phillipe, however. If anything, it shows what a hypocrite he is—his behavior is not so different from Odile’s, and he knows it. His feelings are understandable, but his behavior is hard to sympathize with. He knows from experience how his actions will hurt Isabelle, but that doesn’t stop him. He is, at heart, a narcissist. His feelings are the only feelings that matter.
One of the things I’ve been thinking about it how much Phillipe’s sense of entitlement comes from his being a man in a society where women are taught to be submissive. Isabelle accepts that she is supposed to shape herself to suit his preferences:
Deep down, a woman in love never has a personality; she says she has one. She tries to make herself believe she has, but it’s not true. No, she tries to understand the woman that the man she loves wants to see in her and to become that woman.
How does the fact that Phillipe is a man and Isabelle is a woman affect their narratives? Would men and women of their time and place perceive mistrust and unfaithfulness differently? They almost certainly would—and perhaps they would today too. When Phillipe is suspicious, he feels bitter and indignant, but when in the same position, Isabelle worries over how she can retain her husband’s love.
As I pick through the dual narratives of Climates, I find more and more potential lies and obfuscations to work through. Each of the two narrators has a bias, and their perceptions are colored by what other, also biased, people have told them. The more I dig into it, the further away the truth seems. All those meaty questions of reliability and perspective abound.