Are we what we look like?
This is the question put forth by Sophie Lewis in the translator’s afterword of Beautiful Image by Marcel Aymé. First published as La Belle Image in 1941, this novel was translated by Lewis into English and published by Pushkin Press in 2008.
The story starts off in a French administrative office, where Raoul Cérusier’s application for a permit is declined due to the use of invalid passport photographs. Completely bewildered, he discovers shortly that his face has undergone a metamorphosis and does not recognise the stranger staring back at him in the reflection.
Raoul is an ordinary Parisian businessman who is married with two children. Not too long ago, he had a brief affair with his lovely, devoted secretary, cut short by his sense of familial obligation.
“I was that kind of man: vigorous, happily very ordinary, born for hard work, devotion, friendship, patriotic impulses, obedience, marriage; the kind that the double anarchy of idleness and singleness would instantly leave vulnerable to his evil demons.” – Raoul Cérusier
What happens when your face completely changes due to a random stroke of bizarre fortune?
With his original dull visage replaced by a new youthful and handsome face, Raoul observes how people – especially women – reacts to him. The ‘Sarrazine’, a gorgeous woman who never cast a glance his way previously, now courts him.
A new face calls for a new identity and name – presenting, Roland Colbert.
Being able to hide behind a new identity relieves him of previous inhibitions. Raoul/Roland goes through an emotional roller-coaster trying to come to terms with his new identity and the opportunities that come with it while also attempting to reconcile this with what he holds dearest to his heart, his family.
Beautiful Image is both a comedy and drama that prompts the philosophical question of how much are we what we look. How much of your identity is tied to how you look – be it your natural features or how you dress?
After reading Beautiful Image, I’m reminded of The Body by Hanif Kureishi, an intriguing tale about a writer in his 60s who decided to have his brain transplanted into a younger, healthier body.
While La Belle Image was published more than 60 years before The Body came out, and Raoul’s transformation was not of his own volition, the two novels explore a similar premise of dealing with a new identity due to a dramatic change in one’s physical appearance.
What makes up your identity – your memories, work, family, thoughts, friends, creations, material possessions, or what else?