A historical love story that just won't die

August 01, 2004|By Lisa Simeone | Lisa Simeone,Special to the Sun

Farewell, My Only One, by Antoine Audouard. Houghton Mifflin. 336 pages. $24.

The story of the 12th-century lovers Heloise and Abelard has gripped people's imaginations for almost a thousand years. It's been the subject of poems, novels, plays, scholarly treatises, a movie and an opera. It predates the written accounts of Romeo and Juliet, Lancelot and Guinevere, and Tristan and Iseult. It's the star-crossed lovers' story par excellence.

But it has what those tales, based on mere myth, lack: historical fact, and an element of barbarity that can still cause us to cringe.

Peter Abelard lived from 1079 to 1142 and was a celebrated philosopher and theologian, called the Aristotle of his day -- "a man who could clench a stone in his hands and make it ooze with syllogisms," to quote Antoine Audouard, in the latest novel based on the character.

People came from all over Europe to hear his lectures in Paris. This was an age when great emphasis was placed on learning -- not just religious learning, but also rhetoric, grammar, logic. Itinerant students set off from their provincial towns and hamlets in search of "masters," and these masters competed for supremacy as they delivered their interpretations of philosophy and Scripture.

Audouard captures the intellectual ferment: "The entire city had taken up philosophy, and not just courtiers and the gentry, but also money lenders and even prostitutes and butchers." Near riots could ensue over fine points of theology, a state of affairs hard to fathom in the age of Jerry Springer and reality TV.

Abelard is brilliant, charismatic and arrogant. When he is hired by the cleric Fulbert to tutor Fulbert's beautiful, precocious niece, Heloise, passion ensues. The love affair even- tually becomes public, enraging Heloise's uncle and Abelard's colleagues, who are jealous of Abelard's intellectual prominence (and who have plenty of mistresses of their own).

But Abelard is not a priest; he is not bound by a vow of celibacy.

Heloise is a single woman pursuing an affair; she becomes pregnant and has a child. The two marry in secret, then Heloise hides in a convent, while Abelard continues to teach and to see her secretly.

It might be hard for modern readers to understand what all the fuss was about, especially since Abelard and Heloise were married. But one has to take into account the political power-plays of the day -- in which the Church was heavily involved -- as well as the medieval conception of a woman's role, to understand Fulbert's rage. It's a rage that takes a particularly gruesome turn as Fulbert has Abelard castrated. Afterward, both Heloise and Abelard join religious orders and communicate only through a series of letters, which have survived.

Or have they? The authenticity of the famous letters has been called into question for the past hundred years. Audouard handles this uncertainty through his narrator, a fictional student named William of Oxford, who is in love with Heloise and in awe of Abelard.

The novel brims with historical figures and arcane theological arguments.

While these lend authority to the tale, they can at times cause one's eyes to glaze over. Audouard's writing, as translated by Euan Cameron, is moody and poetic, though there is one jarring change of tone in a long passage about the lovers' sex life. But perhaps that's appropriate to a story about the heights -- and depths -- of passion, whether intellectual or carnal.

Lisa Simeone is host of NPR World of Opera and the weekly foreign affairs TV show Superpower. Her career includes reporting for cultural, news and public affairs programs, and acting as host for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered. She lives in Baltimore.

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