Alphonse Daudet (1840-97) is chiefly remembered today for his collection of short stories Lettres de Mon Moulin, ‘Letters from My Windmill’, winsome bucolic pieces set in Provence. He occupies a place in French culture with Marcel Pagnol, similar to the place occupied in English Literature by Laurie Lee and Flora Thompson. However a quite different side to Daudet was introduced to English readers by Julian Barnes in his 2002 translation of La Doulou ‘In the Land of Pain’, a non-fiction account of his long drawn out suffering with syphilis, a disease he contracted from a lifetime of louche pursuits. In a series of notes he relates the various drugs he took to combat the pain, the effect his pain had on his friendships and the time he spent in sanatoriums.
Sappho acts as something of a bridge between these two very different seeming figures. At the beginning of the novel we are introduced to Jean Gaussin, a promising but somewhat naive young man from Provence studying for the Consular Service in Paris. Attending a fancy dress party hosted by a wealthy engineer who enjoys supporting the arts, he meets a mysterious and alluring woman. He takes her back to his student lodgings and with foolhardy bravado insists on carrying her up four flights of stairs to his rooms. So begins his relationship with Fanny Legrand, an older, more experienced woman, who has had numerous affairs with many of the most fashionable Parisian artists and writers.
What begins as a fling Jean has no intention of allowing to develop, quickly becomes a relationship he has little control over. Fanny’s artfulness, coquetry, charm, attractiveness and devotion insinuate her into his life. Even when he witnesses the malicious and foul-mouthed way she humiliates a former lover, who begs for her to listen to him in his desperation, he cannot manage to break off with her. During a bout of illness following an exam, Fanny ministers to him in such a way as to remind him of his beloved Aunt Divonne in Provence. Unbeknownst to Jean until his recovery, Fanny has given up her home and maid to look after him; partly due to her devotion, partly due to an unwillingness to see her on the street, Jean agrees to them living together.
One of the central contrasts of the novel is between the old fashioned chivalric world that Jean comes from and frequently thinks back to in Provence, and the modish world of Parisian libertines that has been the backdrop to Fanny’s many previous amours. Jean is clearly out of his depth, not simply with Fanny, but when he encounters her previous lovers and artist-friends. Jean has some familiarity with the world of decadents, as one of his own uncles has frequently disgraced the family with his gambling and visits to the Paris brothels. But the chivalry of the south affords some latitude to the waywardness of a spoiled man of the gentry, women however, especially of more lowly social standing, are not viewed with any such indulgence.
And Jean is particularly obsessive about her past relationships. His lust, his infatuation, his jealousy, but also something of his pride about how desired she has been are most perfectly summed up in the sculpture of Fanny by the sculptor Caoudal, exotically dubbed Sappho by her old lovers. She has been adored by these famous writers he has read and admired, but she has also been possessed by them, and even the false catharsis of burning her old love letters from them, expecting them as a sacrifice from her, does little to diminish his rapacious jealousy.
One does not doubt the sincerity of Fanny’s affection for Jean, but one is tempted to think that she views their relationship as a performance. Her role as caring and obliging domestic goddess is dispensed with or renewed, depending on whether she feels Jean is tiring of her or is freshly infatuated. Moving from one lover to the next is like starring in one play before taking up the lead role in another, her commitment and passion is not to be doubted, but neither is it to be doubted that the show must cease at some point. But as cynical as one is inclined to be about her, Daudet very poignantly reveals at the end a woman who tires of giving more than she is given, of being the one lover and not the loved.