By Trevor Cribben Merrill

To say that Eric Rohmer is the most literary of directors verges on a commonplace. But that doesn’t make the observation any less true. His romantic comedies tend to feature members of the French upper bourgeoisie having deep conversations about Pascal’s wager or making self-deceiving speeches about their complicated love lives in the drawing room of a summer house. Add to these social and intellectual refinements Rohmer’s use of voiceover narration (which he would admittedly abandon after his early films), not to mention his fondness for Balzac and adaptations of Kleist and Honoré d’Urfé, and it’s easy to understand why the literary label has so often been applied to the man who gave us My Night at Maud’s and Pauline at the Beach.

Unlike his fellow New Wave directors, who tended to be several years his junior, Rohmer was a belated cinephile. And the idea that he can be understood as a sort of novelist for the screen grows in plausibility considering that, at a time when Truffaut and Godard were still teenagers, Rohmer was pursuing a formative career as a fiction writer. Rohmer’s literary beginnings are hardly unknown: the Criterion Collection’s excellent “Six Moral Tales” boxed set contains the English translation of the short story collection that was the basis for the film cycle. Especially in the U.S., however, Rohmer fans are less likely to be aware of his youthful novel, which has yet to be translated into English.

It was in 1946 that France’s leading publishing house, Gallimard, brought out Élisabeth, a first novel by one Gilbert Cordier. Set in 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II, the book studiously ignores European politics. Instead, it follows the occupants of a summer house during a stifling heatwave as they travel, swim, and flirt. The writing style is detached, objective; minute descriptions of flowers, trees, and rain showers alternate with naturalistic conversations. The book was a failure. It sold few copies, and went unreviewed. Gilbert Cordier was never heard from again.

In 2007, however, Élisabeth was republished under the title La Maison d’Élisabeth (Elizabeth’s House). This time the author was listed as Eric Rohmer, who that same year released what was to be his last film, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon. Rohmer still attached enough importance to his early work to give an extended interview included in the reprint. There he asserts that, despite its resolutely descriptive and visual nature, privileging “showing” over “telling,” his novel would be impossible to adapt for the screen. Not because its aesthetic strains unsuccessfully for cinematic realism, but because, to the contrary, “it does it one better and beats film at its own game, giving reality a stronger ‘presence’ than the image would be capable of doing.”

At the time his one and only novel was first published, Rohmer was not yet Rohmer—but nor was he Gilbert Cordier, a pseudonym that may have been inspired by the name of his landlady. He was Maurice Schérer, an erstwhile high school philosophy teacher and aspiring writer living in the Latin Quarter of Paris and frequenting the literary and cultural beau monde of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, into which he had been introduced by Alexandre Astruc, a talented and well-connected journalist and film critic.

Given these frequentations, it’s not surprising that Elizabeth’s House mimics the fashionable literary tendencies of the day. Rohmer-Cordier-Schérer was familiar with Marguerite Duras, who by the end of World War II had already published two novels. By the author’s own admission, Elizabeth’s House also reflects the influence of American writers, especially Dos Passos and Faulkner, both of whom were championed by Jean-Paul Sartre (books by Faulkner were already on the shelves of French bookstores as early as the 1930s).

Rohmer’s novel evokes suffocating human and natural atmospheres, shifting between interiors—a cramped apartment; a dentist’s office; the inside of a car—and sun-scorched backyards and village streets. It then releases the tension in a torrential summer storm, which is made immediate in finely etched details: “She turned slightly; across from the store, halfway to the trees, a puddle had formed where the rain threw up little white whirls that almost blended into each other.” The narrative’s camera-like gaze lends a tense eroticism to encounters between men and women at a swimming hole or taking shelter from the rain beneath a tree. In one shocking scene, an outburst of sexual aggression almost ends in rape, then gives way to this equivocal, sinister exchange:

She offered him her hand.

He laughed.

“Fine then, goodbye.”

He took her head in his hands and turned it toward him.

“Do you want me to kiss you?”

“If you insist!”

“We won’t see each other again … There’s no use in …”

He lifted his hands and let her go. She remained immobile for a second as if she had not understood what he meant, then jumped out and ran toward the street. He put the car in reverse and left the meadow. When he passed her, she made a little gesture with her hand.

“You have all the time in the world!” he shouted.

He laughed.

In a conversation between two lovers, pent-up hatred is rendered through repetition and interiority:

I can’t even say: she loves me; it doesn’t prove anything, she would have loved anyone, just as I did, all the more so because she’s a woman. What is certain is that I would not have imagined her. When I was little I thought about imaginary women, like everyone does, there is certainly a type of woman I like, a pretty banal type, very typical, pretty much like Christiane was, a woman that I wouldn’t have to look at with this hateful air that I have now and that she must see that I have, I’m sure. I hate her because I don’t love her—for I really don’t.

The novel’s evocation of inner thoughts is no less vivid than its renderings of the exterior world, but there is little communication between the two. An indeterminacy of meaning blocks the current of irony so familiar to us from Rohmer’s films. We are left with descriptions that show reality with admirable precision, but that leave us wondering what to make of it all:

Someone opens the window of the living room and closes the wooden blinds. A bird, frightened by the noise, takes off and perches in a high branch of one of the pines. Then it descends, gliding, and lands in the middle of the driveway, in front of the steps. It advances with little jumps, picks at the sand with its beak and looks slowly around with its little yellow eye.

Rohmer put the finishing touches on Élisabeth in June and July 1944, in the Latin Quarter. Bullets flew in the streets—the final skirmishes before the city’s liberation. He was only twenty-four years old, but he had been working on the novel for several years. According to his biographers, Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe, his literary ambitions may have been a way of recovering from failure in the competitive exam granting entrance to the Ecole Normale Supérieure—the country’s top institution of higher education, and the route to jobs in academia. (His younger brother, who would have a successful but scandal-plagued career as a philosopher, made the cut.) After the thrill of acceptance and publication, the indifference that greeted his novel in 1946 must have been a cruel letdown.

Three years later, however, the literary dream was still alive: Rohmer had put together a collection of short stories entitled Moral Tales. If in some respects his novel’s aesthetic anticipated the nouveau roman as practiced by Sarraute and Robbe-Grillet, the collection—as the word “tales” suggests—reactivated more traditional literary modes. The stories, drafts of which dated back to the mid-1940s, achieve an ironic layering of viewpoints characteristic of the best fiction, while also bringing in religious questions absent from Elizabeth’s House. This is most obvious in “My Night at Maud’s,” which would yield what is perhaps Rohmer’s signature film. The story’s first-person narrator often fails to act in accord with his proclaimed principles, using sophisticated arguments to justify tensions between word and deed, and sometimes further contradicting himself in the process. Serious reflection blends with a soupçon of bad faith:

My intellectual restlessness went hand in hand with a return on my part to religion. And it was here that Pascal gave me the most trouble. My limits were his starting point: “Take holy water; go to mass …” Between the extremes of the ungodly and the saintly Pascal left no room for the man of goodwill that I earnestly wanted to be.

“My heroes, somewhat like Don Quixote, think of themselves as characters in a novel, but perhaps there isn’t any novel,” Rohmer would remark in the preface to Six Moral Tales (which were finally published in 1974, and subsequently translated into English in 1980, only after they had been turned into successful films!). The tales make for enjoyable reading, but despite their accomplished literary technique, satisfying plots, and appealing settings (the banks of Lake Annecy; the Côte d’Azur), they often have the feel of outlines; the specific details that gave Elizabeth’s House its concrete texture are mostly lacking. On the other hand, the dialogue in the stories is clearly better than in the novel, although it is mostly unbroken by any descriptions that would help the reader to imagine the scene, or how the lines are being spoken. In other words, the conversations read like exactly what they are, namely lines in a play—full of potential but waiting to come alive on the lips of an actor.

Take the following scene from “Claire’s Knee,” which highlights the male protagonist’s casuistry, but revolves around an image that is never directly described, and thus remains something of an abstraction (in the film, this scene is funny in a way it isn’t in the story):

In Jerome’s living room Laura pauses before a photograph of Lucinda.

“She’s very beautiful,” she says. “But hard. I pictured you with a warmer woman.”

“You’re suggesting we’re ill-matched?”

“An initial impression.”

“Actually, you’re quite right. Lucinda isn’t my type, physically. In fact, I don’t have a type. Assuming a certain basic ‘acceptability’ on the physical side, I don’t really care what a woman looks like or how she’s built. What matters is her self, her character.”

“Yes, but the self is revealed in the way a person looks.”

“And what do you see?”

“That you two are different not only physically but morally as well.”

“There you go again. You’re right! …”

As de Baecque and Herpe relate in their biography of the filmmaker, in June 1950 Rohmer received the bad news about his short stories from Gaston Gallimard himself, after a wait of six months: “But this is no longer at all modern! … You have lost the new, young side that there was in your first novel.” The young author’s hopes of a career as a fiction writer were now definitively crushed. Almost ten years would go by—years spent writing film reviews and editing Les Cahiers du cinéma—before Rohmer would make his first feature, in 1959. He was then thirty-nine years old. Not until 1967’s La Collectionneuse, based on the fourth story in Six Moral Tales, would he manage to make a critically and commercially successful film.

Rohmer’s two works of fiction show different sides of his search for an artistic voice. Paradoxically, his novel is a marvel of cinematic showing, a closely-observed engagement with nature and ordinary life. His short stories, meanwhile, showcase his considerable gifts as a raconteur and inventor of plots, and his interest in the discrepancy between how we perceive and talk about ourselves, and how we actually behave. They are, however, thin on concrete detail, and in this respect do not fully succeed as works of literature.

As an author of fiction, then, Rohmer never managed to combine the concreteness of his post-Flaubertian modernism with the ironic-spiritual cast of his short stories. Balzac defined the novel by its ability to conjoin “fact” and “idea.” Rohmer was able to achieve this incarnation of meaning only through the cinema, which made it possible for him to marry the camera’s capacity for showing beauty to his writer’s gift for plot and dialogue. The films can be understood, then, not merely as the extension of his early literary efforts, least of all as their negation, but as a successful synthesis of their often divergent artistic approaches. In Rohmer’s case, it seems, realizing the ambition to be a novelist meant becoming a filmmaker instead.  

Trevor C. Merrill is the author of The Book of Imitation and Desire: Reading Milan Kundera with René Girard (Bloomsbury). His essays and reviews have appeared in Education & Culture and The American Conservative, among others.

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