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BOOK REVIEW NONFICTION : Little Art or Love in These Affairs : THE LOVE AFFAIR AS A WORK OF ART by Dan Hofstadter; Farrar, Straus & Giroux $24, 397 pages

February 09, 1996|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

"A game for a day, a sort of charade" is Dan Hofstadter's cautionary label for his "The Love Affair as a Work of Art." Which is fortunate because why would you use such a title for French love affairs? It's doubtful that love in France is any more a work of art than it is elsewhere; probably less so. What about Glasgow, a nice dark indoors sort of place? Or Uzbekistan, with fewer distractions from such stereotypical national duties as getting your clothes just right? What about Bulgaria?

In any case, there is a limited amount of love and not much affair at all in Hofstadter's rendition--"performance" might be better, considering the amiable distractions of his method--of five French literary liaisons in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Perhaps "The Love Affair as a Work of Letters" would be more exact, or "The Love Affair as a Literary Shoving Match" or even--given the enormous volume of correspondence, diaries and memoirs produced--"The Love Affair as a Cure for Writer's Block."

The author devotes chapters to Mme de Stael and Benjamin Constant, Mme Recamier and Chateaubriand, George Sand and Alfred de Musset, Leontine Caillavet and Anatole France. All four relationships lasted for years and the recipe seems to have called for a moderate helping of flesh and a vast deal of seasoning: largely pepper, vinegar and tears.

The fifth affair was different: It involved Marcel Proust and Jeanne Pouquet, with whom he claimed to have fallen desperately in love when both were barely out of adolescence. Some scholars and biographers believe it was a transference or disguise for his love for her brother, Gaston. In the most interesting chapter of the book, Hofstadter suggests that Proust's romantic agony was real as well as a masquerade--either a longing for Jeanne or a longing to be able to long for her. In any case, there was no flesh at all but a great many words, mostly his.

It is a rambling, random sort of book, with bits of biography, anecdotes, quotes or paraphrases of diaries, letters and contemporary accounts, a good deal of musing, and a tendency to jump into the lovers' quarrels and take sides. The rambling effect is heightened by Hofstadter's tendency to change his side in mid-quarrel. He gives Sand's lucid account of her trip to Italy with the poet de Musset--a brief honeymoon followed by years of recriminations, attempted reconciliations and a long, slow wearying, as with a deteriorating stock you come to detest but can't bring yourself to get rid of.

We get a sketch of Mme de Stael, immensely wealthy and privileged daughter of the great Bourbon minister Necker and allowed, as a child, to sit on a stool at her mother's salon. One of her lovers, for years and years, was Constant, whose novel "Adolphe," full of romantic skepticism about the possibility of men and women understanding each other, mirrors his relations with Sand and others.

Another years-and-years affair was between Chateaubriand, the politician-artist, and the celebrated hostess and beauty, Juliette de Recamier. Though she was married, and had scores of admirers, she was a virgin until they met when both were approaching middle age.

Perhaps bureaucratic arrangements are closer to the heart of the long French affair than passion; even the tempests have their schedules. More "luxe et calme," in other words, than "volupte."

Hofstadter's epigrams are often apt. It is a bookish book, and he handles his texts with wit. What he is unable to do, though, is make living figures rise up out the texts. The remarks distinguish themselves; the people--Sand, de Stael, Constant, Recamier--blur and lose their interest.

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