One of the benefits of sorting through my books, rearranging them and pretending I’m going to get rid of some – no, the creating more shelf space aspect isn’t going too well – is that I am excited all over again about the books I have. And squirrelled away in a forgotten corner of the TBR mountain was this 1898 novel by a Belgian novelist, Pierre Louÿs, which I bought when I lived in Crouch End a very long time ago indeed. I have to say I bought it entirely for its cover, which shows Marlene Dietrich in The Devil is a Woman, a film loosely based on this novel. The Woman and the Puppet itself draws on an episode in Casanova’s Memoirs and on Bizet’s Carmen, according to the cover copy.
In the novel, a Frenchman, André Stévenol, is enjoying the carnival in Seville when he glimpses a mysterious and very beautiful woman. On his way to a rendezvous with her he encounters his friend Don Mateo, who knows the woman, Concha Perez, well – very well. In fact, he has had a long and complicated affair with her, and his recounting of this forms rest of the novel (bar the final chapter).
Don Mateo first sees Concha on a train when they’re travelling through snowy, moonlit mountains. He is thirty-seven, she is fifteen. He calls her a child, but emphasises her womanly characteristics – her well-developed bust, her mouth. She sings rude folk songs and fights with a gipsy. Six months later, he meets her again, this time in Seville, at a cigar factory, where hundreds of women work for a pittance. Because the factory is so hot, most of the women (except for those Don Mateo calls ‘the prudes’) work stripped to the waist. Don Mateo visits the factory to ogle the women – and since he’s allowed to walk around alone, without a supervisor, as a ‘special favour’, it is pretty clear that this is not his first visit for this purpose. He is surprised to find Concha there – she is fully dressed – and they flirt a bit and he gives her some money and she takes him home to meet her mother.
Very quickly Don Mateo becomes besotted with Concha despite her youth, and visits her every day, showering her with money so that she no longer has to work in the factory. Concha teases him, and seems to enjoy his company. After three months, he takes her mother aside ‘and spoke to her quite frankly and in the most pressing terms’.
I told her that I loved her daughter, that I intended to join my life to hers, and that although, for obvious reasons, I couldn’t agree to any kind of openly acknowledged relationship, I was nevertheless determined to let her share in a deep and exclusive love to which she couldn’t possibly take exception.
And yet Concha does take exception to this magnanimous offer and she and her mother disappear.
But the following spring, when Don Mateo is returning from the theatre, he hears someone calling his name from a barred window – Concha. She offers to become his mistress. Joy! But... every time he visits her, she’s feeling unwell, or wearing special drawers with reinforced gussets, or... Then she says,
‘My sweet, can’t you just be satisfied with everything I’ve already given you? [...] my entire body is yours to hold and caress [...] Isn’t it enough, all that? In that case, perhaps it’s not me that you love, but only what I refuse to let you have? Any woman can give you that, so why ask it of me, of someone who resists? [...]
Thus every night I held in my arms the naked body of a fifteen-year-old girl who may have been brought up by nuns, but whose social status and moral disposition ruled out any idea of physical purity on her part. [...] There could be no conceivable excuse for putting on such an act, and none was given.
Don Mateo soon sees himself as the puppet of the title, being played by this girl. But he can’t resist her resistance, he is drawn to what he sees as her purity – manifest in her (extreme!) youth, her protests, that convent upbringing – and her sensuality – anyone from that class must be a hussy! she’s a Moor and all Moorish women are like that, and she is getting naked in bed with him. In case you were wondering, Don Mateo has a low opinion of women, perhaps as a result of his encounters with Concha Perez, who behaves more and more outrageously as the novel progresses. He is made profoundly uneasy by the thought of a lot of women spending time together – either in the boarding house in Cadiz where the dancers lodge together, or in the Seville cigar factory where hundreds of women work for a pittance. What do they talk about, these women? (Depravity, obviously.) What do they get up to? (Depravity, again.) ‘I hardly dared imagine what might be going on in such a city of women.’ A woman’s physical allure is her great asset – Don Mateo notes that because Spanish women mature so fast, they are only beautiful for a brief time – and after that, it is understood, they are no longer interesting to him. His attraction to and obsession with Concha is entirely physical, and her interpretation of his attraction to her I quoted above seems entirely accurate. If he is a puppet, it’s only because he allows himself to be.
(Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, The Straw Maniken, 1791–92; Museo del Prado; Don Mateo refers to it while lamenting how Concha treates him)
Concha teases and torments Don Mateo with a glee that is very pleasing. It seems there is nothing she cannot do and then explain away (and I was amazed at how frank this novel was about her activities). She extracts a lot of money from him, even a house; there is always an element of calculation in her and she is a brilliant opportunist. She lies so much and so cheerfully that it is impossible to tell when she’s being honest or quite what her feelings are, yet over the course of the novel she seems to acquire a dependence on Don Mateo which is not only financial. And Concha knows poverty and desperation and what options are available to women to scrape a living – which Don Mateo, with his private income, cannot comprehend, not that he ever bothers to try. I found the final twist a bit disappointing and unworthy of the sort of person I had imagined Concha to be, but in terms of the play of power and humiliation in which the two characters engage over the course of the novel it makes a sort of sense and is an interesting surprise.
The author, Pierre Louÿs, wrote what Wikipedia charmingly calls ‘delicately obscene’ poetry and a volume of prose poems by a friend of Sappho’s, Bilitis, which he pretended to have translated but had in fact made up. He was friends with André Gide, Claude Debussy and Oscar Wilde; he has drawn praise for his depiction of lesbianism and female sexuality; he was honoured as Officier de la Légion d’honneur and The Woman and the Puppet has inspired five film versions, including Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire. It seems odd, therefore, that he’s not better known in English – though perhaps the sauciness of much of his work is offputting to Anglo sensibilities...