The French novel Cosmopolis, written in 1893 and translated into English the same year, is indicative of the earlier fiction of Paul Bourget (1852–1935), telling the story of a complicated love triangle set against the backdrop of Rome as the quintessential international city. Competing factions of lovers and their faithful or not-so-faithful friends are delineated not only by their allegiances but by their national origin, and often by their race. While Cosmopolis lacks the moralistic overtones of Bourget’s later works, its ending does reinforce the necessity of a morally grounded life, offering a glimpse into the future of Bourget’s oeuvre.
The central plot focuses on Catherine Steno, who leaves her lover, Boleslas Gorka, for the American painter Lincoln Maitland. Gorka is informed of Steno’s actions through anonymous letters, and after returning to Rome to denounce Steno’s new lover, he instead meets and insults Lincoln’s longtime friend, Florent Chapron (brother to Lincoln’s wife Lydia). To address their traded insults, the men agree to a duel.
The duel sequence forms a central component of the novel, demonstrating the futile violence that can ensue from bruised egos. When arrangements to avoid the duel cannot be made, Lydia, who wrote the anonymous letters to Gorka to retaliate against her husband’s infidelity, realizes that she is to blame for the fate her brother faces, a fate she intended for her husband. Despite the attempts of Lydia and others to prevent the duel, it takes place.
Gorka escapes without injury, but Chapron takes a bullet to the leg. Following his exit, Gorka insults Julien Dorsenne—one of Chapron’s seconds—and another duel is demanded on the spot. Ignoring the strict codes of dueling, the men face off, and while Dorsenne emerges unscathed, Gorka’s arm is injured. His wife, insulted and demoralized but interested in protecting her young son from a fate like his father’s, agrees to remain with her husband. Gorka accepts her two conditions: that he cease all communication with Mme. Steno and that they leave Rome.
Novelist Julien Dorsenne serves as a critical element to the novel’s intrigue by serving as a confidante to many of the main characters. He demonstrates interest— perhaps romantic—in Alba Steno, daughter of Catherine Steno and best friend of Gorka’s wife Maud. The injuries experienced by the men in the two duels are reflected in the emotional battles that the women fight. Ever determined to undermine her husband’s affair, Lydia Maitland arranges for Alba to witness her mother and Lincoln Maitland embracing. The sight shatters Alba’s little remaining faith in her mother, sending her into a suicidal depression, a seemingly natural course given that her father took his own life. After her declaration of love to novelist Julien Dorsenne is rebuffed, her determination deepens. Though she is recalled from the brink of a suicide by drowning, her excursion onto a lake exposes her to a fever that eventually kills her.
In addition to the convoluted social sparring in the author’s novel, Bourget carves out space in Cosmopolis for an indictment of false religiosity in one of the text’s subplots. Prince Pippino Ardea finds himself in financial straits and must sell his estate. He plans, with Mme. Steno’s help, to marry the daughter of Justus Hafner, a match that would unite Hafner’s money with Ardea’s lineage. Hafner seeks Catholic legitimacy for his line through his daughter’s marriage to the prince, who is descended from the pope. Young Fannie Hafner, genuinely devoted to her new Catholic faith, is upset by her betrothed’s joking about his religion. Her interest in the marriage is further undermined through the discovery that her father’s wealth was ill-gained. After breaking off the marriage, she too leaves Rome. The epilogue sees the freedom-loving novelist Dorsenne reconsidering his ways and finding solace in the pope’s example.
Cosmopolis is thus a depiction of treacheries, lacking any significant, sustained, and untainted love and happiness. Rome functions as a cosmopolis, taken from the title, an internationally inflected locus of the impulses that undermine healthy and productive relationships; those who wish a life free from such psychical limitations and temptations must escape from the city. Character is determined in a positivist, or scientific, manner, by race and hereditary lines. By today’s standards, Bourget’s novel exhibits racism, especially toward Florent Chapron and his sister Lydia, who share one black grandparent. Bourget suggests that Chapron’s dedication to Maitland is a vestige of the innate slave-master relationship, and his sister’s “hypocrisy and perfidy” are due to her genetic heritage. Seen from today’s perspective, this appears as an unseemly and ridiculous element of the story, one that undermines the otherwise nuanced character depictions throughout.
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