Déchelette, a vigorous but aging engineer, spends all but two months of the year on construction projects far from Paris. Each summer, however, he returns to the carefree city to compress into two months enough pleasure to make up for his enforced absences. Jean Gaussin, a young student from the south of France, attends one of Déchelette’s masquerade parties and finds himself bewildered at the extravagant affair. Unhappy and lost, he wanders into a gallery, where he encounters a woman dressed as an Egyptian. When he is ready to leave, the woman stops him and asks him to take her to his room. In this way, he becomes her lover. Her name, she tells him, is Fanny Legrand.
Fanny continues to visit Jean in his room frequently. When he finally goes to see her at her apartment, he is astonished at the luxury of the place. In the morning, before he and Fanny arise from bed, the servant announces a visitor. Fanny goes into another room to see the early caller, and Jean is horrified to overhear a violent quarrel. Fanny is shouting insults and curses at the man in the language of the gutter. Finally, the man begins to sob and presses money on Fanny. He begs her not to dismiss him, whatever else she does. Following this incident, Jean goes back to his classes much disturbed.
Unable to end the affair, he rents an apartment and sets up housekeeping with Fanny. She proves to be a capable homemaker as well as a demanding mistress. Jean feels settled and at ease, and he makes good progress in his consular studies. The following summer, he meets Déchelette and Caoudal, a sculptor, at a café and learns the past history of his mistress. Twenty years before, she had lived with Caoudal and had been the model for his well-known sculpture of Sappho. She had also lived with Déchelette at various times, and La Gournerie, the poet, had kept her for some years. Jean feels nauseated when he comes to understand that Fanny owes her imaginative diction to La Gournerie, her graceful gestures to Caoudal, and her ample spending money to Déchelette. One of her latest lovers had been Flamant. The poor man, an engraver, had counterfeited some banknotes and had been sentenced to prison. Jean learns that Fanny is nearly forty years of age, almost twenty years older than he.
When he confronts Fanny with his knowledge, she readily admits her past. When she protests that she loves him alone, Jean asks to see her box of keepsakes. From the letters she has saved, he traces her history of loose love for nearly thirty years. The farewell letter from Flamant asks Fanny to look after his young son. Jean suspects that the child is also Fanny’s. Despite this knowledge, Jean cannot leave his mistress after Fanny meekly submits to his reproaches. They continue to live together.
Césaire, Jean’s uncle, arrives in Paris with news that Jean’s family has been ruined by failure of the grape crop; he has been sent to Paris to collect an old debt of eight thousand francs. With Fanny’s help, Césaire collects the money but soon loses it gambling. Fanny volunteers to get more money from Déchelette. As Jean and Césaire await her return from her meeting with Déchelette, Jean tortures himself by imagining how she will get the money from him. After some hours, Fanny returns with the money and Césaire leaves for home, loudly asserting Fanny’s goodness and promising to keep silent to Jean’s family about his loose life.
With the decline in the Gaussin family fortunes, Jean and Fanny decide to separate. Fanny goes to work managing an apartment for Rosa, the mistress of de Potter, a wealthy composer. She and Jean see each other every Sunday on her day off. After evaluating his economic situation, Jean finds that his decreased allowance will allow them to take a small hut in the country. He is sure that they can exist there for a year while he finishes his course of study. Jean, however, hates their life in the country. The grumbling old servant that Fanny had hired previously, now gone, is revealed to have been her stepmother. Her father, a dissolute cab driver, comes to visit them. Flamant’s child, a savage boy six years of age, lives with them. Jean counts on receiving an appointment to a consular office so that he can break away from Fanny.
On his trips into town, Jean becomes acquainted with Bouchereau, an eminent physiologist. He then meets and falls in love with Bouchereau’s niece, Irène. Jean hopes that he will receive an appointment to a post in South America and that Irène will go with him as his wife. As he is gradually permitted to see Irène more often, Jean becomes troubled. Her innocent enjoyment of simple things is disturbing, for he has become so satiated with his experienced courtesan that other women have little attraction for him. When he tells Fanny of his approaching marriage, a furious quarrel breaks out.
Shortly afterward, Jean meets de Potter, who congratulates him on his approaching marriage. De Potter’s story is a horrible warning to Jean: The composer has never been able to get away from his mistress, Rosa, and the attraction of her flesh has held him fast for many years; de Potter’s wife rarely sees him, and his children are almost strangers. De Potter is bitter about his wasted life, but he cannot leave the aging Rosa, whom he supports in luxury.
Despite de Potter’s example, and despite his engagement to Irène, Jean resolves to keep Fanny as his mistress. On the eve of his departure for his post in South America, he breaks his engagement to Irène and writes to Fanny to join him in Marseilles. Waiting with tense expectancy in a hotel room in the Mediterranean port, Jean receives a letter from Fanny. She has gone back to Flamant, who has been released from prison. She says that she is too old to go traveling about—she cannot leave her beloved Paris.
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