Rabbi David Wolpe writes to recommend a favorite title that’s now long out of print and largely forgotten: Jean Dutourd’s 1963 novel, Les Horreurs de l’amour, released in English in 1967 as The Horrors of Love. This description of the book and its plot comes from Time magazine’s original review:
The Horrors of Love is an often ridiculous, sometimes funny tale of a middle-aged member of the French Chamber of Deputies who becomes tragically involved with his young mistress. At first glance, the story seems to be as obviously and simply French as a pair of lovers sneaking off to a bedsitter in the Square St.-Lambert. Yet it is not only the Gallic spirit that intrigues Dutourd, but the human spirit as well.
The rambling story unfolds in a dialogue between Dutourd and a friend. As they stroll in Paris, they discuss the unhappy case of Edouard Roberti, the 52-year-old Deputy who has been sent to prison for killing his mistress’ brother. It is apparent that Roberti, a respectable, loving father and husband, was all too ordinaryâ€”not so much evil as weak, not so much stupid as pitifully vain. By way of examining how it was that such a commonplace, decent man could become trapped in a senseless and sordid mess, Dutourd’s dialogue ranges through all sorts of philosophical detours. Courage and cowardice, honor and honesty, art, letters, manners, politics and morals become way stations as the two friends chat and argue.
This is not the first mention of The Horrors of Love in these pages. In the Los Angeles Times’ 1999 feature, Forgotten Treasures: A Symposium, John Lukacs called it a “stunning exception” to the overall decline of the novel. Lukacs wrote,
One oddity about it is that it is written in the second-person singular; it is a long dialogue between two super-intelligent Frenchmen (both sides of Dutourd’s own character) walking through Paris, ambling in and out restaurants, reconstructing the pride and fall of a Parisian politician who gradually falls in love with his younger mistress and ends up in jail. It is a delicious and profound work of art, from beginning to end. Andre Maurois likened it to Proust; but in some ways it is better than Proust, sprightlier and more imaginative. The language itself is superb.
And in nosing around the Net, I found a third strong thumbs-up from the fine novelist, Diane Johnson, in an issue of Archipelago from a few years back:
My first choice would be Jean Dutourdâ€™s The Horrors of Love, which is translated into English and was published in the sixties. It is an incredible tour de force — a dialogue running to more than 600 pages, between two men who are walking through Paris, talking about the fate of a politician friend of theirs who was brought down by an erotic entanglement. Urbane, wise, humane, funny, even suspenseful — this is a worthy successor, as someone said, to Proust. Dutourd is the greatest living French novelist, and the only witty one since Proust; and before that? Voltaire? Laclos?
Praise such as this makes me want to hang my head in shame for not having read it yet, even after skipping past used copies in bookstore stacks perhaps a hundred times over the year (I think it was a Literary Guild selection, so there are plenty of cheap used copies out there in the U.S.).
Dutuord, who’s managed to put out nearly a book a year since 1946, is still living and, I assume, writing. His 1950 satirical fantasy, A Dog’s Head, was reissued by the University of Chicago Press as part of its Phoenix Fiction series in 1998 and is still in print. His other novel of that year, Au bon beurre, scenes de la vie sous lâ Occupation, translated as The Best Butter has been called the best French novel to come out of World War Two.