The setting for this novel is Paris in the early 1960's. Dutourd and an old friend catch up on events during a walk around town during a single lovely day. During the day, the two gentlemen frequent various places for a bite to eat, a glass of Rum or two, and finally an exquisite dinner at an elegant restaurant in the Bois de Boulogne. The entire conversation between the two men consists of a discussion of a mutual friend named Roberti who is a respectable fifty-two year old family man and a member of the French legislature. He has also been recently sent to prison for murder. Throughout the day, the conversation paints a profound picture of not just the self-destruction of Roberti, but of the similar although usually less dramatic decline of many middle aged men. In this fashion, Dutourd accomplishes the most engaging inspection of a "mid-life crisis" that I have read.
The issue that captivates Dutourd is why a man who has been married for years, very successful, and very stable in his path of life would emotionally unspool over a young mistress named Solange. The American reader's immediate conclusion is that Roberti is fifty-two and has a young mistress and that he collapses under the weight of emotional and sexual excess. This is true in part, but we must remember that the author, his three male characters and his immediate audience are French. As a result the conversation between the two flaneurs [who appear to be about the same age as Roberti] poses an engaging mystery to us and to themselves in light of the higher tolerance of mistresses in the marriages of the mid twentieth-century French upper class. Roberti has had many mistresses before Solange so the issue narrows to what was it about this particular affair that caused him to apparently lose his mind? As with any great novel (particularly a French one) the plot presents a Rorschach test in which each reader sees a different picture and each reader sees, essentially, himself.
I first read this book when I had just turned fifty-two. I had found the previous two decades unexpectedly challenging and taxing. This is no doubt true for the majority of men who are lucky enough to enter their fifties. Roberti, however, is one of those apparently charmed men who seem to hit the rails of their lives seamlessly, gliding along without incident or tremendous effort toward a glowing conclusion somewhere in the clouds. Dutourd's notion, however, is that what most exposed Roberti to calamity was not his success, nor his age, nor the (heavily Puritan-American) idea of a middle-aged epiphany of his onrushing mortality but rather the fact that Roberti had never been in love before. At one point, Dutourd's friend says:
Roberti never even saw what would have been obvious to the most shortsighted: that around fifty is a critical age--an age when one runs a severe risk of falling in love, especially if one has never been in love before, and when a pretty girl is a mortal danger.
Epic living requires us to be in love. With our lovers, with our food and drink, with the arts, with our new cashmere socks, with the way the dog runs around the yard or the way the wind blows from the north on a crystal clear Autumn morning. Had Roberti been an Epicurean, he would have been fully used to being in love by the age of fifty. And he would have been able to manage his feelings for a beautiful woman half his age with the maturity that his age, commitments and situation in life required. But alas for Roberti, he was coming into contact with what for him was a unique feeling that he was wholly unequipped to handle in an adult way. So, he reacted like a teenager. The result was sadly predictable and provides the reader (particularly the male reader) with an essential cautionary tale. Cultivate your loves in life from an early age. Age and savor them like a great bottle of wine. And drink them in with the appreciation that they, and you, deserve. Failing to do so makes you defenseless to first love which, if it hits you at the wrong moment in life, can lead to your undoing. In this regard, The Horrors of Love is an Epic tale for the ages. I suppose that is why I love the book so much.
Another passage addressing the wisdom gained through the experience of love throughout life is:
With regard to Roberti, you know, I'm more reminded of La Rouchefoucauld's maxim: "He who lives without folly is not as wise as he thinks". He lacked that grain of folly which is like a grain of pepper, bringing out the savor of wisdom, making plain cooking delicious.
Certainly young love, usually gained in one's teens, is mostly crafted from folly. So, how does one procure the level of wisdom required to inoculate oneself from folly that springs forth in middle age? Through appreciation of the arts. Dutourd notes that the duration of a human life is insufficient to allow one to gain the knowledge and experience necessary to act properly at crisis points in life...
Forty years' experience is wholly inadequate. One needs two thousand. The two thousand years' experience to be had from the works of good authors. As a guide to life one must have some idea of the major novels, epics and tragedies written since Homer.
Only in this fashion can a person accrete to himself the collective experience of humankind, thrashing about blindly over generations trying to deal with the ubiquitous issues that occur in every life. Such as falling in love for the first time at the age of fifty-two.
Also, the name that Dutourd chooses for the woman who forms the catalyst for Roberti's ruin provides us a clue to the cause of his demise. Solange is usually translated as "dignified" but one cannot avoid looking to the alternative meaning which is roughly "sun angel". Perhaps like Icarus, once Roberti crossed paths with his sun angel [behind the receptionist's desk at his attorney's office] he was unable to avoid flying too closely to her light. With results well documented since the time of Ovid.
The relationship between Solange and Roberti also provides a fascinating platform for Dutourd to examine two people at different crossroads in their lives and to describe the different facets of love, marriage, adultery, and insanity from the opposite surfaces of their two sided mirror. Describing Solange, Dutourd states:
In short she was entering that sober period of life when things begin to leave their mark. When one ceases to be marble and becomes flesh...Let us pause for a moment with Solange at the crossroads of youth and maturity. These are the important events of our lives. They mean far more than wars, migrations, the partitioning of provinces. They are the great adventure through which every one of us must pass.
Consequently, the reader realizes that both Solange and Roberti are experiencing crises caused by their transition from one life phase to another. From youth to maturity in Solange's case and from maturity to youth in the case of Roberti. When these two transitions intersect the result is tragic, however instructive.
As a result, although this book may seem inherently "male" in focus, it is a very insightful look at the trials of growing up. No matter what our age or gender may be. I cannot recommend The Horrors of Love highly enough. It is one of the few books that I have underlined extensively as I read it. I think you will be similarly impressed. Hopefully you will find, as I did, instruction and insight as you see the signs of your next crossroad looming in the mist ahead of you.