Pumpjack Book Reviews

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Book Review: The Desert World by Pierre Jean Jouve


“The feeling of being miserable was what gave me back my love…”

A memorable and enjoyable book, but contemporary audiences might have trouble relating to the thick sludge of ennui and existential angst at the heart of this unusual romance.

The dust jacket The Desert World by Pierre Jean Jouve  suggests it’s a "potent exploration of the destructive power of sexuality and he interrelationships between love and death."


Mostly it seemed like a dark, lyrical exploration of two deeply flawed characters and one who was slightly less flawed. The main(ish) character, Jacques, is the son of a priest — ensuring he is always at odds with god. Jacques is a painter, mostly gay, a pedophile and the occasional lover of a beautiful, miserable, Russian woman (is there any other kind in fiction?), Baladine. Balandine has no evident creative or professional skills, other than being enchanting and enigmatic. Ultimately, she works at a bank, which says much about the state of banking in those days.

Jacques and Baladine take great delight in making one another miserable. For example, at her urging, he skied naked to the top of a mountain in Switzerland on a sunny winter day, catching a fever that almost did him in. This shared enthusiasm for misery ultimately drove them to get married and live in Paris.

The third character, Luc, is a poet and writer of some renown, who loved both Jacques and Baladine, mostly sequentially. Jacque was ambivalent, and then cruel. Baladine was receptive and then, because she loved Luc so much she could never forgive herself for not loving Jacques enough, or something like that, was also cruel, and then distant. Luc, as it turns out, was mostly distant, and then miserable and desperate.

Such is love, apparently.

The author, Pierre Jean Jouve (1887-1976), was a French poet, novelist and essayist, and the book is a translation. The effectiveness of translated poetry, or poetic fiction, is always a bit of question mark, but this short little novel seems to meet the charge well. The novel was originally published in 1927, and the characters are adrift in the pre World War I “desert” of the title.

It’s a memorable and enjoyable book, though contemporary audiences might have trouble relating to the thick sludge of ennui and existential angst at the heart of this unusual romance. Read this book when you want to be reminded that love is complicated, messy and often painful, especially when French or Russians are involved. And his writing is, not surprisingly, poetic and lyrical. He shifts back and forth between characters, compressing time and dreams and feverish thoughts with great effect.

“Baladine’s presence was acting like a shock upon Luc’s heart: the effect of light followed by shadow, like a tumble into darkness. Pleasure mingled with distress. Soon Baladine’s mane of hair assumed importance, and when she was far from his sight, he had the melancholy feeling that he had lost something.”

“Noon comes. The road widens. Jacques would like to eliminate himself as the cause of everything he sees, of all the frightful feelings of this bright morning, because he is the source or the reflector of this dreadful sun on the valley colored by despair.”

“Perhaps Balandine Nikolaievna was not indifferent to the color of Jacques’s eyes. But Jacques did not dream about Baladine. He did not put his hand on Baladine’s body, not even by chance. He was calm; he did not have an exclusive feeling for her; he only had a need for her presence, a regular, daily need, and once it was satisfied, it left him joyful. Luc was no less calm with Baladine. Baladine read Luc’s poems.”