[Europa Editions; 2020]
Tr. from the French by Alison Anderson
My Devotion, which was translated from French by Alison Anderson, is Julia Kerninon’s third novel, but the first to be published in English. (A Respectable Occupation, Kerninon’s memoir about her life as a reader and writer, was translated by Ruth Diver and published in the UK in 2019.) The novel, which won the 2018 Fénéon Literary Prize, awarded to writers and artists under thirty-five, is about the damaging, even violent charge of erotic connection. Kerninon’s narrator, Helen, is a septuagenarian writer, who has crossed paths with her former lover Frank on the streets of London. What follows is a long, winding monologue about the history of their relationship, as Helen reckons with Frank’s hold over her, as well as her own culpability in the tragic death of Frank’s son and their severed relationship.
When they first meet, Helen and Frank are teenagers in Rome — “the Rome of Pope Pius XII and his god-awful speeches, of censure, of post-war poverty.” The children of British diplomats, they both grow up in the stuffy, pretentious world of embassies, “where the most important thing was to know the codes and respect them.” Where Frank is charming and mysterious — not unlike “some character in an unnerving Brontë novel” — Helen is “small, anxious, misunderstood.” They initially bond over their shared hatred for their neglectful families, including their imperious fathers. When Helen is sexually victimized by her brothers, Frank provides a necessary refuge, and when she moves to Amsterdam to attend university, she convinces him to move with her.
In Amsterdam, they live together in an apartment built in the seventeenth century, and they continue to have lots of sex as she studies literature and he learns to paint. From the beginning, theirs is an unofficial, casual relationship; the uncodified dynamic of their relationship allows for both flexibility and exploitation. Even though she and Frank live together off and on for decades, Helen admits that their relationship is never more than a way station between her own bloodless marriage and Frank’s many, many affairs. Yet, through the years, she remains his hopeless devotee, and he the lodestar to which she returns again and again.
With My Devotion, Kerninon joins a cohort of young writers, like Sally Rooney and Brandon Taylor, who write about desire as a kind of negative charge, attracting around it everything from love and affirmation to violence and cruelty. These are not uniquely modern concerns, and they all continue a tradition of sexual representation that extends back to at least Jane Austen. But Kerninon’s clearest predecessors is perhaps Thomas Hardy. Like Hardy, Kerninon focuses on the disappointments of erotic life — the inherent mismatch between the force of erotic desire and the banality of its consummation — and both seem certain that sex is a recipe for disaster. The question that My Devotion poses is: what happens to a life lived so devotedly, and how does that devotion warp and deform the novelistic project?
One answer is to be found in the story that Helen recounts about the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. One of Helen’s first books as a professional writer is on Andersen’s career and reputation. According to the story Helen tells, when Andersen first met the English novelist Charles Dickens in a London drawing room, he “instantly fell in love.” Unfortunately, Dickens did not share the sentiment, and he responded to the Danish author’s entreaties with a cool, English style of perfunctory detachment. After Andersen invited himself to Dickens’s family home in Kent for an extended stay, Dickens severed all ties and the fallout of this unrequited love was “devastating” for Andersen. But, it was also key to the aesthetic of isolation and loneliness that defines the Danish author’s fairytales. While love can be disproportionate and devastating, it can also be generative for the artistic project, often providing key insights into the human condition.
Whether this cliché is true or not, we never actually learn. We don’t get much insight into the quality of Helen’s writing, both because it’s hard to make writers genuinely interesting as novelistic subjects and because, as Helen herself admits, everything she ever writes is for and about Frank. If, as Virginia Woolf argues, a woman needs money and a room to write, then what does it say about Kerninon’s narrator, who has both, that she can only ever write about Frank? Her relationship with Frank is almost traumatically pathological, not only because it leaves her unable (or unwilling) to conceive a relation to the world outside her dependence to him but also because it confounds her sense and understanding. She is only ever able to acknowledge her dependence after the fact, and the novel’s narration gives her life a sense of retrospective clarity that belies her longstanding disorientation. The traumatic effect of her dependence is the precise way she is unable to make sense of how his influence has devastated her life.
While Helen grapples with this fractured sense of self, Frank is almost narcissistically secure. In the years after they move to Amsterdam together, he becomes a world-renowned artist. Despite lacking any formal training, he seems to absorb talent into him through careful observation and imitation. He is a meticulous study, and it reflects in his outdated, academic style in the vein of the Renaissance masters, like Raphael and Titian. Yet, by accident, his art is transformed when he realizes he cannot fit any of his finished paintings through the door to his studio and must cut them into smaller pieces. The art world is “aroused by the sight of destruction,” and his paintings are received as “the most innovative work of the era . . . a stroke of genius.” In the novel, violence and pleasure are entangled with one another, a connection that is key to Frank’s power over the art world, as well as his power over Helen. Unlike Frank, who offsets Helen like a rogue black hole, she hardly merits a footnote in his career. Despite “the daily upkeep, the organization, the sheer labor it took to look after everything,” he only ever sees her as an accessory to his genius. This imbalance initially drives Helen toward a practical, albeit loveless marriage with an American architect, but she leaves her husband when they are unable to have children and returns to Frank, who has in the interim had a son with a German dancer. The three then settle in Normandy, where Helen cares for Frank’s son Ludwig, while Frank paints trees.
Throughout the novel, Helen intimates tragic outcomes and murderous intent. Her innuendos are another sign of her inability as a narrator to make coherent sense of her life’s story. Early in the novel, she explains what she hopes to achieve with her monologue: “if only I’d known how to use those words which, in their written form, were my consummate skill; if I had known how to tame them so that they would carry my voice, none of this would have happened, would it?” It’s hard to know what would have been avoided had Helen known how to “tame” her words — to lock them down and contain them to her singular intentions. It’s another instance of how difficult it can be to link causes with effects, to create some semblance of order that might make sense of the novel’s tragic outcomes. This difficulty leads to some tonal friction, moments when it’s hard to tell whether the narrator is sincere or wry, as when she muses on “the great decade when we lived together in Normandy, when I eased back somewhat from my literary occupations and learned a few new tangible skills — how to bake my own bread, plant beans, plan a cold-blooded murder.” Is Helen manipulating us as readers — and thereby reversing the psycho-sexual dynamic that she has with Frank? Or, do these moments of dissonance reflect her inability to order her life’s narrative? Either way, the effect is that the novel veers toward melodrama, which is less a criticism than an observation of how strongly Helen’s traumatic experiences distort any fundamental sense of reality in the novel.
When Frank takes a much younger lover — the effetely named Zaza — Helen plots to kill her and restore her own centrality in Frank’s life. “In doing what I did, it was not solely because I hated her, I also did it to set you free and restore you to your art. Because your art was me. It was thanks to me that you painted.” She fails, but the event initiates a chain reaction that eventually culminates in Helen’s confession to a journalist that Ludwig’s mother took her own life after Frank abandoned her when she became pregnant. Ludwig is so hurt by this admission that he hangs himself in the forest behind their Normandy home — another example of the novel’s penchant for melodramatic escalation. If Kerninon is drawing a line between desire and violence, that connection is often too sharply drawn, leaving too little room for subtlety.
The struggle for recognition forms a thematic backbone to the novel, as Helen narrates the ease with which she abandons her own individuality and autonomy for the opportunity to orbit Frank’s vicinity. My Devotion concludes with a deflationary pessimism, a sour note about realizing too late the ultimate path of one’s life. Standing across from Frank, Helen dourly concludes, “I have spent my life writing, I do not know how to speak . . . That was our life, Frank. We will not get another one. That’s it. Kiss me. For everything else, it is too late.” Kerninon’s novel speaks to the anxiety of what it would mean to be disappointed — a notably millennial anxiety — and it is here that she realizes a vision for the novel. Devotion is less a subject matter for the novel and more its formal dynamic of representation. To be so unsustainably devoted to someone who cannot reciprocate? To want nothing more than to draw close to someone else, even if to do so is to risk pain? To realize the disappointment when your devotion is unmatched? Only the novel is up to the task of investigating that border between the world as we desire it and the world as it — so often disappointingly — is.
Matthew John Phillips is a writer and editor from Philadelphia, PA. He tweets at @mjphillips and his newsletter “Open + Worlds” can be found at matthewjohnphillips.substack.com.