COUNT D’ORGEL’S BALL <i> by Raymond Radiguet translated by Annapaola Cancogni (Eridanos Press: $20; 174 pp.) </i>
Raymond Radiguet produced two novels and a collection of poems before his death in 1923 at the age of 20, having already established acquaintance with some of the leading artists working in Paris at the time. He writes with the arrogance of a young man who knows himself to be extraordinary, a stance that would be repellent if the result were not so absolutely exquisite. He flippantly titled his collection of verse “Devoirs de vacances"--freely translated, “What I Did on My Summer Vacation.” His first novel, “The Devil in the Flesh,” describes an affair between a young man and an older woman whose husband has gone to war.
His second novel appears here in a new translation that captures the deceptive simplicity of Radiguet’s style. “Count d’Orgel’s Ball” sets up a love triangle in the rarefied atmosphere of post-World War I French high society. A young man, Francois de Seryeuse, becomes attracted to Mahaut, the beautiful Creole wife of the Count d’Orgel. She flirts with him and allows herself to become entangled. The intrigue is carried on over teas, at the theater, in drawing rooms. Radiguet spins the erotic tension of the affair out to an extraordinary degree, never letting it break or subside.
Radiguet’s interest is in the minute schemings and deceptions one practices in the pursuit of a forbidden lover. “The unconscious ploys of a pure soul are often stranger than vice’s wiles,” Radiguet writes at the beginning of his story. Francois’ innocence makes him all the more dangerous: “Aware of having shown himself unworthy of Mahaut, he did his best to appear all the more amiable. No strategy would have advanced him quite as much.” The twists and turns of plot come as Francois, Mahaut and her husband deny, then realize, then suppress again what they know to be happening.
It is an absolutely innocent story in the sense that the affair is never consummated. Although it lacks the cold-blooded calculation of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” the tale yet contains a distinct undercurrent of decadence that comes from the willing self-deception and manipulation in all three characters. All the participants can persuade themselves of the innocence of their actions.
The book includes a foreword by Jean Cocteau (with whom Radiguet had, in the words of the book jacket, “a rather turbulent relationship”) and a Radiguet short story published here for the first time. The author apparently hated the story, but Cocteau gave permission for it to be published, explaining: “Maybe the detestable mannerism of these lines will give greater relief to the purity of the ‘Count d’Orgel’s Ball.’ ” It certainly does that.