Marie Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne, Countess of La Fayette is widely – and almost solely renowned – for her quite complex and modern introspective novel: “La Princesse de Clèves” most likely one of the early examples of historical narrative in European literature and the very first one in its genre in France. Nevertheless this highly refined mid 1600s French authoress’ production seems unforgivably neglected, while it certainly deserves a more distinguished reverence for her innovative approach to storytelling and writing.
Friend (and biographer) of Henrietta of England, diplomatist and chronicler, eclectic artist, beside to novels she also wrote the memoirs of the French Court and a large and worth mentioning epistolary. Born and raised in Paris to a minor noble family, she divorced François Motier, Count de La Fayette and moved to England with her two children soon becoming the mistress of the erudite Duke of La Rochefoucauld, who introduced her to his literally circles. Endowed with a peculiar analytical acumen and a purely feminine touch, her plots, dialogues and descriptions leave room, in a very amazing and anticipatory tone, to feelings and emotions and ultimately to the impact that the inexorable twists of fate have on moral, spirit and heart of heroes and heroines.
Albeit Madame La Fayette’s fame resides in “La Princesse de Clèves”, her writing characteristics are remarkably present even in her first true novel “Zayde, histoire espagnole”, published in Paris by Claude Barbin in two separate volumes in 1670 and 1671 under the name of her Norman friend, famous writer Jean Renaud de Segrais. Even though critics tend to consider this work as the collaborative outcome of her literary circle, Pierre-Daniel Huet author of the “Traité de l’Origine du Roman” firmly declares in his memoirs:
“Qui peut mieux être informé de la vérité que moi, qui ai été dans une étroite liaison avec cette dame, qui lui ai vu composer ce livre, et à qui elle l’a communiqué pièce à pièce à mesure que son travail s’avançait”
In truth at first sight “Zaide” might seem dispersed; adorned with more than a few intricate stories, wrapped in a mysteriously exotic atmosphere and populated by a amazing number of characters. (Don Alfonso, Don Ramiro, Bélasire, Félime, Alamir…) Altogether a framework not too dissimilar from Ariosto’s or Tasso’s works: a ample literary storage place where chivalric episodes develop and escalate enriched by digressions, courteous dialogues, mythical allusions and astonishing scenarios. Yet within this typical baroque paradigm a non-redundant writing style is instead clear and highly enjoyable; furthermore a vivacious and emotionally incisive romance almost involuntarily and effortlessly draws the readers’ attention: the love story of Consalve and Zaïde. And this because the entire morphology and phenomenology of the protagonists’ emotions are plainly and visibly described, displayed and literally exposed. Feelings are vivisected and analysed, shamelessly and sometimes even embarrassingly: in so much as any sensitive reader must admit mirroring his/her heart and soul.
Consalve is the protagonist of an intensifying one week metamorphosis: from a profound distrust and pessimism towards women (caused by the recent and infamous betrayal of his fiancée Nuña Bella), to a submissively devoted love and obsessive jealousy for the mysterious and puzzling Zaide. This new and unstoppable passion leads him from is acquired dark cynicism to the highest sweet abnegation and self-commiseration.
“Je n’avais jamais cru pouvoir être amoureux par la beauté seule, ni pouvoir être touché d’une personne qui aurait en quelque attachement. Cependant J’adore Zaide, dont je ne connais rien”
The portrayal of the birth, rise and climax of this love is most definitely a masterwork. The attainment of this pathos is a great victory for the authoress, especially considering an handicap she voluntarily inserted in the plot: she cannot use actual dialogues between the two protagonists (as they speak two different languages) and yet she demonstrates that when feelings are pure and deeply rooted, verbal communication is not necessarily indispensable.
Consalve’s is therefore the story of a mute love; a sentiment born and grown without any dialogue, but founded only on all those – not too many, indeed – unspoken sighs, sights and acts that the Mediaeval chivalry code allowed. Madame de La Fayette deprives our hero of the possibility to be understood by the object of his love Zaide, but she brilliantly lingers on his feeling as Consalve, in spite of his braveness and gallantry on the battlefield, is after all an honnête homme and gifted (or cursed… ?) with a highly meditative and morose temperament prone to self analysis and contemplation. The narration never hovers on Zaide’s feelings and thoughts, the only demystification of her identity, feelings and mystery is left to Consalve’s and his co-protagonist’s (Don Alfonso) speculations and conjectures.
“Enfin il crut savoir, comme s’il eut appris d’elle-même, que l’amour était la cause de ses pleurs”
Consalve’s previous love for Nuña Bella was the ordinary outcome of a canonical chivalrous courting practice, where proffers of devotion and greatly adorned madrigals streamed and used to take the lead; imagine the frustration of our hero dispossessed of his only traditional seductive instruments… All he can do is to try interpreting each and every single sign and emotion in Zaide’s countenance, eyes and demeanour; this inferring modus operandi often leads him to discomforting and misleading assumptions:
“Il s’imagina qu’il ressemblait à cet amant qu’elle lui paraissant regretter”
Assumptions that cannot be either confirmed or denied by anybody’s enlightenment or explanation, and that consequently in this passionate lover keep mounting…
“Il crut que, quand il serait aimé de Zaide, ce ne serait toujours que son rival qu’elle aimerait en lui”
Madame de La Fayette efforts in building a love story without dialogues, without words, without clarifications, declarations and promises is most definitely rewarded with the utmost achievement. The narration, founded only on one-sided introspections, speculations and assumptions is greatly intriguing, psychologically modern and altogether masterly written.
Ultimately love is the protagonists, even though the only lover’s spoken words are those direct to himself and to his trustworthy friend – but that is more than enough to true love. As Madame de La Fayette wittily affirms:
“Il qui est enamouré, toujours éprouve une douceur a parler de son propre amour”