"The Sioux" is a novel that calls to mind the familiar image of the rabbit frozen in the glare of headlights. Only in this case it's the hapless reader who's caught, mesmerized by the hard glare given off by the family Benoir, an elegant but ferocious French-Creole "tribe" whose nickname for itself gives the book its title. And Irene Handl, describing her creations, with their great wealth and even greater whimsicality, brings their barbaric rituals to life with something like an anthropologist's eye.
"Outsiders, beware" is what a sign posted on the Sioux reservation should caution, as Vincent Castleton, an English banker from a wholly different aristocratic tradition, quickly learns. Newly married to the beautiful Marguerite Benoir, whose third husband he is, Castleton -- first with good humor, later with the force of his anger -- tries to rearrange some of his in-laws' rituals. His efforts at mild reform, in fact, are all that might be considered plot in "The Sioux"; the rest is really a sort of literary diorama, with the Benoirs on display much as they might be in a museum, behind glass.
Peering in, one can't help but view them, then, as exotic and unreal creatures, maintaining their hothouse existence in residences on two continents. When the Benoirs leave France for Louisiana, or vice versa, along go their Rolls-Royces -- and the impeccable chauffeurs to drive them. Favorite delicacies and special pieces of furniture cross the Atlantic with equal regularity, as does a large feudal retinue: two valets (for one man -- Armand, Marguerite's brother and the head of the family), a chef, a maitre d'hotel, various assorted maids, a nanny, a governess and a bodyguard.
Armand Benoir, a small, charismatic peacock of a fellow, sees nothing at all odd in his family's way of doing things; in matters of opulent fastidiousness, he quite sets the pace. At all times, even when in bed with his mistress of the moment, Armand keeps perched on his shoulder his bad-tempered pet monkey, and he's capable of sulking for days if forced to dine before 9. He's also equally capable of ignoring his about-to-be-wed son's casual buggery of his little cousin George or the fact that George's mother, the divine Marguerite, has beaten her son's hands with a tiny whip until they are tattered raw flesh.
Thus, as the diorama slowly turns, the dark side of the Benoirs' Olympian insouciance is revealed. To be honest, they never have been very appealing, yet so far, one feels curiosity, not full-fledged revulsion. This last emotion, however, is what develops, and most people will likely purse their lips as they read on. Armand, it should be said, eventually exhibits the teeniest smattering of moral sense by indicating to his sister his disapproval of her behavior, but Castleton will never, never forget or forgive.
Nonetheless, Castleton, at first determined to put the mistake of Marguerite behind him, changes his mind, deciding to stay on for the sake of George, his invalid stepson, whose sole salvation he may be. "The bizarre Benoirs" is how he has always regarded them, but now his amused tolerance is irrevocably gone. Something akin to it remains, but it is more a grimace than a grin.
For many reasons, and not just the unsavory nature of this particular set of Gallic plutocrats, "The Sioux" isn't an easy book to read. Keeping up with the characters' ever-changing nicknames, for example, is one problem. (The boy George is referred to as Puss, the Dauphin, Moumou among other sobriquets, depending on who's talking when; as in Russian novels, this can be confusing.) A working knowledge of French doesn't hurt, either, although the peculiar, rarefied slang in which Handl writes and the Benoirs talk is a language the reader simply must pick up as he goes along.
"The Sioux" was first published 20 years ago and is, rather amazingly, being brought back as a hardcover "event." Handl, a half-Austrian, half-French actress, is now 83; she has written only one other novel. This one is quirkily seductive enough, despite its streak of unpleasantness, to make us want to know much more about the author and her work.