Three generations of women untangle a complex family history that spans both world wars and reveals unexpected insights about marriage and fidelity.
Christiane, eighty-six years old with a vibrant sense of humor, lives alone in a large apartment in the heart of Paris. Her daughter, Catherine, could not be more different; sullen and uptight, she resents her unfaithful Milanese husband. After discovering yet another affair, Catherine takes refuge in Paris at her mother’s home, accompanied by her own daughter, Luna. Christiane, who in spite of occasional dalliances lived a beautiful love story with her late husband, uses all of her freethinking charm to try to wean Catherine of her rigid self-pity.
While listening to her mother and grandmother, Luna becomes increasingly curious about Christiane’s aristocratic Catholic background, prompting Christiane to tell the story of her father’s war experiences and the devastating love affair that brought chaos to the whole family. As memories resurface, the present takes on a different dimension.
With a keen, lighthearted wit, The Devil’s Reward shows that life may be complicated and often painful, but if conventional morals prevail, it becomes unbearable.
|Publisher:||Other Press, LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Emmanuelle de Villepin was born in France in 1959. As a child, she moved to Geneva (where she later attended law school) and then to New York. She has lived in Milan with her husband and three daughters since 1988. She is the vice-president of Fondazione Dynamo and has been president of the association Amici di TOG (Together to Go), a center for rehabilitation programs for children suffering from complex neurological diseases, since 2011. De Villepin has written several novels, inlcuding Tempo di fuga (2006); La ragazza che non voleva morire (2008), which received the Fenice Europa Prize for spreading Italian novels in Europe; La notte di Mattia (2010), a tale illustrated by her daughter Neige De Benedetti; and La vita che scorre (2013), which received the Rapallo Carige Prize for women writers in 2014. Her most recent novel, La parte del diavolo (2016), was shortlisted for the Stresa Prize. De Villepin is fluent in French, Italian, and English.
Read an Excerpt
When I got back from running errands that morning, I went to lie down on my bed because I was feeling a little short of breath. I wasn't hungry. My fish seller had let me eat a lot of shrimp, which I love, and I also couldn't resist munching nearly half of my warm baguette as I walked along rue Madame on the way back to my home on Place Saint-Sulpice. I picked up the TV remote and switched it on as I always do, because although I like to be alone, I hate silence. The television — always on — is like a spirit or ceiling fan in my big apartment. It was already big when my husband was alive. Today it seems enormous — a continent with threatening areas, forests of memories, and a bay of solitude. I haven't changed a thing. The wallpaper and everything else is the same. His clothes are still hanging in the armoire, and I still have the silent expectation of hearing his key in the door. I've done everything I can to get used to it, but with no success. That's what comes with old age — the loss of resilience. When something breaks, one is pulled down into a bottomless pit with no chance of one day recovering from losses. A really good film, The Lady from Shanghai, was on. In the climax, Rita Hayworth is caught in a shootout in a hall of mirrors at a fair. She is stunningly beautiful, her image is multiplied to infinity by the mirrors, and shots shatter her reflection several times. Dozens of Rita Hayworths make the same gestures and have the same frightened look, while all the faces of the killer are saying as the noise of glass and guns rings out, "Damn, which one is her?"
The telephone rang. It was my daughter. She lives in Italy with her Milanese husband. She was sobbing because she had discovered that her husband was cheating on her ... again. She gets worked up about it every time, and every time I'm tempted to say things to her that I think I would regret later. I suggested she come and spend a few days with me in Paris, the city of her childhood. She accepted. I'm a little ashamed, however, because even though my daughter's pain should be uppermost in my mind, I'm mostly pleased at the prospect of her coming. A mother's narcissism is complicated, tangled, opaque, and difficult to understand because always intermixed with love, ideas of sacrifice, and feelings of guilt. But perhaps I'm exaggerating and, mother or not, a portion of egocentrism is simply a part of us all. So to hell with my reservations — I would have Catherine all to myself and enjoy it! Besides, I would finally feel useful. One can't deny that old ladies like myself have tons of experience. When things are going to hell, we at least have this advantage: we know the truth — everything always ends badly.
I started thinking of everything I would prepare for her — her favorite meals, outings, and so on. Madame Joseph, my cleaning lady who also does some ironing for me, stuck her head around the door of my bedroom and I recited a list of things to do in preparation for my daughter's visit. The telephone rang again and it was again Catherine. She told me she would be arriving the next morning and with my granddaughter Luna too. Now this is awful to say, but I couldn't care less anymore about the hanky-panky that my son-in-law was indulging in with some birdbrain, because I was over the moon. I tried not to let on too much, but my smart daughter noticed my joy and was irritated. Too bad. They were coming the next day and I was delighted.
I got up to see if their bedrooms were all ready. Passing by my husband's study, I closed my eyes. I do that every time I go by so as not to see he's missing — it helps a little. I've told Madame Joseph not to open the doors to the library so that it retains the odor of his cigars. Unfortunately, as time goes by the smell evaporates. I fear the day when I won't smell anything anymore.
The beds needed to be made, but Madame Joseph would get that done while I went out to buy pink tulips for Luna and white roses for Catherine. They would match the wallpaper, plus they're my favorite colors.
When I got back I decided to take a short nap. I fell asleep and had a dream, which is very unusual for me these days. I found myself in a forest of mirrors that reflected my image. They were all me but at different ages. Someone was shooting at me — I don't know who or why — and my image broke into thousands of shards that the other versions of me contemplated, looking bewildered and absorbed.
I was watching Luna as she devoured a chocolate éclair while reading a book by Rudolf Steiner. Now and then she would push her blond curls away from her face with her wrist while her two hands were busy holding her fork and the book. She was really lovely. She got her big dark eyes and blond hair from her mother, from her father she inherited a beautiful full mouth and big sparkly teeth.
"You're interested in Steiner?"
"Why, do you know him?"
"My father met him but my aunt Bette knew him well. She even spent quite a bit of time at his home in Dornach, near Basel. You know, at that place — what was it called?"
"You mean the Goetheanum?"
"Yes, exactly, at the Goetheanum."
"That's incredible! I'm writing a thesis about Steiner and my great-grandfather actually knew him — that's amazing!"
"Yes, truly amazing. So what's your thesis about?"
"It's entitled 'Mediating Challenges' — I'm trying to explain why and how certain features of Steiner's pedagogical system ought to be applied in non-Steiner schools."
"And you really believe that?"
"Absolutely." Proud to show off her knowledge, Luna continued, "Our whole school system is totally a product of Piaget's thinking, with all the steps to be mastered, grading, and competitiveness. Steiner introduced a mediating instance between the curriculum to be followed and the capacities of the child. For him, the teacher must exercise intuition and draw out the student without creating a continuous state of frustration if he does not understand something as quickly as others of his age. Not to mention children with learning disabilities! With Steiner there's really attention to other aspects of human development — creativity, feelings, and individual will. It's super important, don't you think?"
"You obviously know a lot about these questions — I'm very impressed! I always considered Steiner to be a sympathetic light keeper. But really all that I know came down to me from stories told by Aunt Bette and Papyrus. She was a total convert, whereas he was very opposed."
"They told you things about him?"
"Of course, thousands of times!"
Catherine suddenly appeared in the dining room, her eyes red, and slumped down into one of the chairs. "Watch out, honey — your grandmother has always been quite the storyteller! You need to take everything she says with a grain of salt. We just finished lunch and you're already snacking? Really, you never stop eating!"
She really has a knack for ruining everything. It would be no exaggeration to say she's a real sourpuss. I make up stories, I make too much for lunch, and — horrors! — I light a cigarette at the end of the meal. For over fifty years I've been smoking two cigarettes a day under the wrathful gaze of my busybody daughter.
"When you act like that, you put me in the mood for a double scotch! Oh, five o'clock already! Would you also like a double scotch, Luna dear?"
My granddaughter flashes me her big smile while Catherine tosses me a sad look.
"I'm just kidding," I say to her, a bit irritated.
"I know, but how do you do it?" says Catherine. "I'd give anything to have your lightness of being for even a minute."
"It's not simply a gift, my girl. It's daily training and iron discipline, you know."
"Me, I have no sense of humor."
"Yes you do, Mom," says Luna kindly. "You make me laugh sometimes."
"Okay, and so who is this Steiner?"
"A philosopher. An Austrian intellectual who studied pedagogy. Did you know there are more than eight hundred Steiner schools around the world? But he also got involved in architecture, medicine, art, esotericism, and agriculture. For example, he invented biodynamic agriculture, such as with the Weleda products. And he's noted for being the founder of anthroposophy."
"Never heard of him."
"But Catherine, don't you remember my aunt Bette?"
"Of course I do."
"Well, she talked about him nonstop."
"I have no recollection of that. What did he found?"
"Weleda. You remember all those products you used when Luna was a baby?"
"Oh yes, true. I remember now. My pediatrician was always recommending that stuff. But what was that other thing you mentioned?"
"Right! Mom, do you know what that is?" asked Catherine.
"Vaguely. It is a less orientalist version of theosophy, isn't that right, Luna?"
"But what is theosophy? I don't understand a thing you're saying!"
"Ah, you remind me of my brother Gabriel and me when we were little. All those words were so obscure for us that we'd throw them at each other's faces like fistfuls of sand!"
"Okay, and so what is theosophy?"
"Briefly put," Luna explained, "it's an esoteric school founded by Helena Blavatsky that focuses on a comparative analysis of religions, sciences, and philosophies, and tries to rediscover man's latent capacities."
"And Steiner was a theosophist?"
"At the beginning, yes, but then he distanced himself from it to found his anthroposophy."
"And what's the difference?"
"Fundamentally I would say it turns on the role of Christ."
"But all this attention to the spiritual world, isn't it a bit in contradiction with Catholicism?" I asked.
"Steiner totally refuted the dogmas of the church, but he considered Jesus as the only incarnation of spirit capable of getting beyond the scientific materialism of the West. This was the total opposite of Madame Blavatsky, and after her death Annie Besant. They were only interested in Eastern philosophies."
"My daughter certainly knows a lot! But you, Mom, did you really know all that or are you bluffing? It's all totally beyond me, I can tell you that."
Catherine is beautiful, there's no doubt about that. It's perhaps because I made her, but everyone always used to tell me how stunning she looked. She just thickened up a bit these past years, probably eating too much. Her problem — and I say this out of immense love for her — is that she's very tiresome. She got that from my mother. Everything is a big deal to her. She is constantly on the lookout, nostrils dilated sniffing every danger, ears cocked to detect the slightest threat. Her husband grants himself a few too many liberties, but they've been married for thirty-odd years and she spends her life spying on him. It's as though all these tragedies that she's staging were giving her a reason to live. If she knew that I cheated on her father and how much he cheated on me she'd hit the ceiling. And yet we loved each other. None of our lovers were ever of any real importance, but that was another time. People tended to marry only once and they easily got used to the idea of having later on a sort of fraternal friend with whom to finish out one's days. In between, people occupied themselves as best they could, but we had enough sense not to confuse everything. At least in our families it was like that.
For my daughter, on the other hand, it's a tragedy. She always had a tendency to dramatize things, but in this my little girl is powerless, it's just the way she is. And obviously it's not for me, her mother, to tell her to take a lover of her own. It always pains me to hear her go on like this. Really, why does she obsess about snooping into her husband's business? No couple can withstand such up-close inspection. Despite having passed the fifty-year milestone, my daughter is totally lacking in wisdom and discernment. I told her to come to my home immediately, without going into explanations, so that she'd build a little mystery around herself too. After all, one has the right to defend one's dignity! Being serially betrayed is not doing anything for her self-esteem or "wellness," as people say now. Even I was a bit shaken by it. I placed my hand on her cheek.
"You've been crying again, my dear, perhaps we should have a talk."
"I have nothing to say. You know very well what's going on but you don't understand it completely."
She was not wrong about that, though I do remember having been quite jealous myself. The difference is my life was very full and I never liked to suffer. It also must be said from the summit of my eighty-six years, and so I'll say it, my relationship was a marvelous love story that no assortment of petty interferences ever stained. If Catherine knew what I would give to be in her place — having only to dial a number to speak with him, even if it's just to hear a pack of lies. When they lie to us, it means they still love us. That's another feature of these modern times — this obsession with clarity and truth. I find that presumptuous and unaesthetic. The presumption comes from the arrogance of these sincere types who insist on saying everything that's on their mind even if it's not required. They might as well burp in people's faces, it would have about the same effect. It is unaesthetic because the tumult of our feelings and contradictions is like the growling of our stomachs, which it is rather indelicate to inflict on others. Just as the water closet was invented, so was the secret, and that worked just fine. Today, however, everyone knows everything about everybody, and the rule has become to always tell the truth. The result is a world of voyeurs and masochists, for whom love must produce the same effect as the two fangs of Dracula planted in the jugular.
Coming back to my daughter, she breaks my heart. It's like watching a kitten parachuted into a war zone. She lacks the necessary sense of humor and solid regard for herself, and for facing up to life that's like going to war with no ammunition and no bulletproof vest.
She threw me a quick glance and rested her head on my shoulder sobbing. Luna was chewing slowly, watching her and feeling uncomfortable about how much pleasure she was having while her mother was suffering.
"Does it really hurt that much, my dear?"
"Oh Mother, you can't imagine how it burns into me. You have no idea. Papa always adored you."
"But Lorenzo too would never want to lose you."
"Well, then why have we had all these conflicts?"
"Don't you think you're exaggerating a bit? Your 'conflicts' never really threatened you."
"Oh really? How do you know?"
"You always ended up making peace."
"Not this time."
"Why? What's so different this time?"
"I hate myself."
"But you've done nothing wrong, my darling."
"If only she'd done something wrong!" interjected Luna. I love that child!
"Your daughter is right. Your problem is that you overvalue the marriage pact. You give it supreme authority. You don't take nature into account. Desire has a way of not always harmonizing with constancy and good habits. Desire is the son of the goddess Penia, who wanders about famished. Do you remember your Plato? Desire needs a lack, love is something else again. Love is just the opposite."
"But Mother, what are you talking about? Love and desire are inseparable!"
"Desire can very well run on its own steam, I guarantee you. Have you never desired another man?"
"Mom, be honest," said Luna, wide-eyed.
"Well, not too much."
"Tell us if you ever wanted to be with another man. Just like that, out of pure curiosity."
"Wanted, wanted ... no. At any rate, not enough to cheat."
"So you've never cheated on Lorenzo? Not even in your thoughts?"
"Well, my dear, this is terrible news you're sharing with me."
"Discovering at my age that my only daughter is a victim — I assure you this is a terrible shock!" I always have to lay it on thick to get others to look beyond the ugliness of old age. I choose to be resolutely nonconformist and scandalous. I hate those qualities in young people, but I find them charming among us oldsters, and I would sell my soul to be viewed sympathetically by these two women.
"But Mom, sex is not the only thing in life! You really amaze me. I lived for my family, my home, our trips, our relations — for all the things that make decent people tranquil and happy, is that so awful?"
"Okay, but amidst all that order and perfection, you were missing something fundamental."
"Oh really, what?"
Excerpted from "The Devil's Reward"
Copyright © 2016 Milano.
Excerpted by permission of Other Press LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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