Friday, 3 June 2016

FRANÇOIS MAURIAC Le Baiser au lépreux [Kiss for the Lepers] (1922)

Le Livre de Poche France, c 1967

Jean Péloueyre, dès le surlendemain, reprit ses habitudes.  Il sortit à pas de loup, pendant la sieste de son père, guettait les pies, et, après une station à l'église, rentrait le plus tard possible au gîte.  Noémi déjà perdait de son éclat.  Jean Péloueyre mesurait ce cerne autour des yeux si tristes et qui ne le regardaient qu'avec une humble douceur.  Il avait espéré que son exil du lit nuptial suffirait pour que Noémi pût s'acclimater auprés de lui.  Mais l'épouse luttait en désespérée contre son dégoût et cette lutte l'exténuait.  Plusieurs fois elle appela Jean Péloueyre la nuit afin qu'il vînt près d'elle, et comme il faisait semblant de dormir, elle se levait, lui donnait des baisers –– ces baisers qu'autrefois des lèvres des saints imposaient aux lépreux.  Nul ne sait s'ils se réjouirent de sentir sur leurs ulcères ce souffle des bienheureux.  Mais Jean Péloueyre, lui, en vint à s'arracher de ces embrassements et c'était lui qui avec horreur criait: <<Laissez-moi.>>

Jean Péloueyre resumed his former habits the following day.  He went out with the step of a wolf, during his father's nap, keeping a look out for magpies, and, after stopping to pray at the church, returned as late as possible to the farmhouse.  Noémi was still lost in the full radiance of her youth.  Jean Péloueyre studied the dark circles under her sad eyes that he could never view without being filled with a humble sweetness.  He had hoped that his self-imposed exile from the nuptial bed would be enough to accustom Noémi to the idea of being with him.  But the bride struggled desperately against her disgust and this struggle exhausted her.  Several times she called to Jean Péloueyre in the night until he finally came to her side, and when he seemed to be asleep, she leaned over and kissed him– the sort of kisses that in earlier times saints bestowed on lepers.  Nobody knew if they rejoiced at feeling the breath of the blesséd on their sores.  But Jean Péloueyre tore himself from these embraces and cried in horror:  'Leave me alone.'

Excerpts translated by BR

The Novel:  Beauty and the Beast is a fairytale most of us are familiar with and, like most fairytales, it was written to instruct as well as entertain.  The moral it attempts to teach is a laudable one:  physical beauty is only 'skin deep' and should not be prized above those qualities –– kindness, honesty, loyalty, the ability to love unstintingly and unselfishly which, in an ideal world, should constitute an individual's 'true' or 'inner' beauty.  But it fails to take into account the unfathomable phenomenon called, for want of a better term, 'human nature.'  In a fairytale each character behaves either abominably or nobly and receives punishments or rewards appropriate to whichever path it is they've chosen.  Real life, on the other hand, is infinitely more complex, as are human emotions and the many social, psychological and physiological forces which drive and determine them – a dilemma explored with extraordinary compassion and perception in François Mauriac's 1922 novel Le Baiser au lépreux [Kiss for the Lepers].

The 'beast' in Mauriac's brief but haunting tale is Jean Péloueyre, a shy bourgeois of twenty-three whose astonishing ugliness repels every girl in the village of Saint-Symphorien where he lives a solitary and largely joyless life in the house of his father, a wealthy and reclusive hypochondriac named Jérôme.  Jean is described as a 'pauvre figure de landais chafouin [...], triste corps en qui l'adolescence n'avait su accomplir son habituel miracle' ['a poor version of the wily Landaisa sad body in which adolescence did not know how to accomplish its habitual miracle'], a stunted creature whose sole pleasure is hunting magpies and woodcocks and whose failure to find himself a sweetheart has not gone unnoticed by his loving but selfish father or by their local curé [parish priest].  

Between them, Jérôme and the curé decide that Jean must marry the town beauty, Noémi d'Artiailh – a girl, unbeknownst to them, who has long been the object of the boy's most ardent if unexpressed desires.  This union, welcomed by the love-struck Jean and the girl's impoverished parents, will not only allow the Péloueyre line to continue –– thereby depriving their greedy relatives the Cazenaves of the chance to get their hands on the family fortune –– it will also provide Jérôme with the extra nurse he's convinced he needs to keep the ever-present specter of death at bay.  

A pious seventeen year old who lacks both finesse and education, Noémi has no say in the matter of choosing herself a husband, understanding, as her parents do, that a family like theirs is in no position to refuse the proposal of a Péloueyre, physically repugnant though he may be.  A meeting is soon arranged and the engagement itself becomes a mere formality, with the wedding scheduled to take place in the autumn.  Jean, his dream of finding a perfect love finally come true, can hardly believe his luck.  'Il secouait la tête, pour ne pas penser à cette nuit de septembre où elle lui serait livrée.  Cette nuit jamais n'arrivera: une guerre éclatera, quelqu'un mourra; la terre tremblera' ['He shook his head, so as not to think of this night in September where she would be delivered to him.  That night would never arrive:  a war would break out, someone would die; the earth would tremble'].

But the day does arrive, with the marriage taking place exactly as planned – a ceremony not attended by the bridegroom's father, who prefers to remain in bed, his face turned to the wall as it was on the day of his wife's funeral, rather than face the hordes of ravenous relatives and neighbors who have descended on his home to congratulate the newlyweds.  Jérôme doesn't even respond when Jean enters his room to ask for his blessing –– the first of many humiliations the fumbling bridgeroom is obliged to endure on his wedding day, with perhaps the most crushing being the overheard comment 'Quel dommage' ['What a shame'] –– made by one of Noémi's disappointed former suitors as he exits the church with his beautiful new bride on his arm.

Unsurprisingly, the honeymoon proves to be a disaster, with Noémi unable to overcome the revulsion that the sight and presence of her husband quickly combine to induce in her.  Although they share a bed, this is literally the only thing they share, with the girl lying perfectly still beside the miserable and deeply guilty Jean, hands crossed over her chest like one of the saints whose statues adorn the walls of her beloved church.  Their wedding trip, which was to have lasted three weeks, is over in ten days, after which, smiling bravely for appearances' sake, they return to Saint-Symphorien to begin their married life together in the house of Jérôme –– an arrangement that delights the invalid who, in his bru [daughter-in-law], finds someone even more devoted to the cause of easing his largely imagined suffering than his son and their sharp-eyed maid Cadette.  

Le Livre de Poche France, c 1965
Nursing her father-in-law becomes an act of atonement for Noémi, her way of dealing with the shame she feels at being unable to love the kindhearted Jean in the way she knows he wants and deserves to be loved.  It also allows her to sublimate at least some of the lust she feels for the handsome new doctor who becomes a regular visitor to the house as he attempts to treat Jérôme for his impressive collection of exaggerated ailments.  Jean's response to his wife's revulsion is to leave the house early each morning and stay away from it until just before suppertime –– a tense, mostly silent meal which precedes the even more awkward ritual of retiring to their room for the night.  'Jean Péloueyre, dans les ténèbres, devinait la rétraction du corps adoré et s'en éloignait le plus possible.  Quelquefois, Noémi, avançant une main vers ce visage moins odiuex puisqu'elle ne le voyait plus, y sentait de chaudes larmes.  Alors, pleine de remords et de pitié, comme dans l'amphithéatre une vierge chrétienne d'un seul élan se jetait vers la bête, les yeux fermés, les lèvres serrées, elle étreignait ce malheureux.'  [Jean Péloueyre, in the shadows, became aware of the retraction of this adored body and thrust himself away from it.  Sometimes, Noémi, moving a hand towards a face made less odious because she could no longer see it, felt hot tears upon it.  Then, filled with remorse and pity, as in a Roman amphitheater when Christian virgins threw themselves in one leap onto wild beasts, eyes closed, lips clenched, she embraced this poor unfortunate.']

Things continue in this unrewarding fashion until the curé, still a frequent visitor to the Péloueyre home, urges Jean to finish writing the local history of the area he'd been working on prior to his marriage.  Jean is reluctant to resume the project, explaining that he'll need to go to Paris to inspect certain otherwise unobtainable documents in order to do so.  Noémi loyally supports her husband's decision to remain at home, complaining that she will miss him too much if he leaves –– the sort of charming sentiment a devoted bride is expected and, indeed, encouraged to express on such occasions.  But the curé is insistent.  Jean is talented and his talent should not be permitted to go to waste simply because he's taken a wife.  The trip to Paris is soon arranged, Jean's heart filling with joy as the prospect of his departure appears to make Noémi apprehensive and, at times, genuinely sad.  But, as always, his joy is cut short when he asks Noémi how she'd feel if he stayed in Saint-Symphorien a question that quickly reduces the conflicted girl to tears.  'Rassure-toi,' he tells her after she, still weeping, once again rolls away from him in bed, 'je m'en irai.'  ['Reassure yourself I'm going.']

The time Jean spends in Paris proves to be a turning point for him both spiritually and emotionally.  Alone and feeling overwhelmed by the grandeur of the capital, he finds himself tortured each night by memories of a wife whose frequently posted letters, filled with dutiful declarations of love, only serve to confuse him and sharpen his already keen sense of anguish.  At one point he seeks to 'rid' himself of his love for Noémi by hiring a prostitute an act of betrayal he finds himself unable to complete, throwing his money on the table and fleeing from the room before the girl can finish undressing.  He spends his days and nights wandering the Paris streets, barely eating or sleeping and never visiting a single bibliothèque [library] to seek out the documents required to finish the project the curé insisted he must finish.  

As the weeks and then the months roll by his health begins to deteriorate but this, like his solitude, almost appears to be a blessing to him, a way to honorably free Noémi of his presence forever should he happen to fall ill and die – a prospect he's quite willing to entertain until a letter from the curé, reminding him of how long he's been absent and how keenly his family miss him, prompts him to return to Saint-Symphorien.  Little does Jean realize, as the train speeds him homeward, that the curé was moved to write his letter because Noémi admitted, while making her weekly confession, that she's begun to have lustful thoughts about the handsome doctor who, in addition to treating Jérôme, now comes each day to treat her husband's friend Pieuchon who lives across the street and has recently been diagnosed with tuberculosis.

Jean and his wife immediately notice the changes in each other.  Jean has become pale and sickly while in his absence Noémi has only grown more radiant and lovelier than ever.  But her husband's return soon sees Noémi lose this newfound radiance and become the same repulsed, often tearful bride she was prior to his departure despite her many, sincerely motivated efforts to show him kindness and affection – efforts inspired, unbeknownst to Jean, by the example of Francis of Asissi and that saint's method of conquering of the horror that the sight of lepers habitually induced in him.  Knowing his situation to be a hopeless one, Jean resumes his former habit of staying out all day, spending much of his time at the bedside of his dying friend and neighbor Pieuchon.  He keeps these visits a secret from everyone but the maid Cadette, who of course is not surprised when he soon contracts the same fatal lung disease.  

Moved by the selflessness Jean has shown in attempting to alleviate the suffering of his friend, Noémi makes one final effort to persuade herself she loves her husband, only to recognize this as the deliberate lie it is each time the handsome doctor arrives to examine him.  The prognosis is not encouraging.  Jean, weakened as much by heartbreak as he was by the time he spent alone in Paris and at the bedside of Pieuchon, soon succumbs to the disease but not without reconciling himself to the God who made himself and Noémi the people they are.  His death, long expected but nevertheless a shock to his relatives, has a transformative effect upon his wife.  Rejecting the doctor after he takes the bold step of openly declaring his love for her, she becomes the perfect image of the penitent widow, wearing black everywhere she goes and tirelessly devoting herself to the task of caring for her father-in-law –– a decision that sees the doctor, overcome by despair, lose interest in treating his other patients and, in time, become a hopeless alcoholic who one day vanishes from the village without a trace.  Still, Noémi keeps her promise to Jérôme to remain in mourning for three years and never to remarry, becoming excessively fat due to lack of exercise and Cadette's lavish cooking.

It's food that proves to Noémi's final temptation and, in another sense, the most powerful test of her faith.  Years after Jean's death, bored with the dull provincial life she's forced to lead and the endless whining of her father-in-law, she orders Cadette to serve her a rich rabbit stew in front of the old man, fully aware that, sick or not, he'll be unable to resist the desire to sample such a delicious meal.  Despite his protests, she insists on eating the stew in front of him, watching with a kind of malicious joy as Jérôme –– who now lives exclusively on a diet of plain boiled peas –– orders the maid to serve him a plate of it.  Late that night, alone in her room, Noémi thinks she hears him dying, forcing her to decide whether to run to his aid or leave God to do His work.  Her conscience gets the better of her in the end and she peeks into Jérôme's room, only to find him snoring, face turned to the wall as it was on the day she married his long-dead son.

Italian edition, c 1970
François Mauriac has been described, along with his British contemporary Graham Greene, as a 'Catholic novelist' obsessed with the idea of sin and how it manifests itself in the lives of believers and non-believers alike.  Like Greene, Mauriac's vision of his fellow Catholics is often a bleakly pessimistic one, revealing them –– as is the case with Noémi and Jérôme – as self-serving hypocrites incapable of reconciling the love they're supposed to feel for their fellow 'creatures of God' with the reality of their everyday behavior and their true (if cunningly concealed) motives and desires.  Nor is Jean spared this treatment by his creator.  He's consistently portrayed as a forsaken and forlorn individual –– a good man who has the great misfortune, then as now, of being born with a face and physique that are deemed to be less than perfect, an appearance which automatically condemns him to live out his emotionally impoverished life in a state of saint-like loneliness.  Yet even his decision to comfort the dying Pieuchon during his final crisis is not as selfless as it appears to be, offering him the means and opportunity to kill himself without him needing to technically commit what, in the Catholic religion, is the mortal sin of suicide. 

Like so much of Mauriac's work, Le Baiser au lépreux disturbed and outraged many Catholic critics when it was published in February 1922, most of whom misread its author's unflinching depictions of vice and cruelty as attempts to justify or even condone such 'ungodly' behavior.  That, however, was never Mauriac's purpose as a writer or as a Christian.  Rather, he sought to show that true happiness is impossible without a true sense of morality, whether it be religiously-inspired or not.  While Le Baiser au lépreux can be read on one level as a Hardyesque rustic tragedy, it can also be viewed as a plea for forgiveness, a work of art that attempts to explain human weaknesses like vanity, greed and lust in humanistic terms that reach beyond religiously-inspired condemnation to a higher plane of understanding and, hopefully, allow us to accept the faults of others even as we learn to acknowledge and accept those same faults in ourselves.

The Writer:  François Mauriac was born on 11 October 1885 in his family's house in the city of Bordeaux in southwestern France.  He was the fifth and final child of Jean-Pierre Mauriac, a landowner and successful manufacturer of wine casks, and his wife Claire (née Coiffard) whose own family fortune had been made in the wine and timber trades.  

Mauriac's father died of a brain abscess when he was less than two years old – an event which no doubt contributed to his becoming his mother's favorite child and to his being doted upon by her and his maternal grandmother Irma Arbribat whose country estate –– 'Chateau Lange,' located near the town of Gradignan in the wine-growing département of the Gironde he would visit regularly throughout his childhood, spending all his Easter and summer vacations there.  This town and those surrounding it –– Langon, Verdelais, Villandraut and Saint-Symphorien – would all be prominently featured in the fiction and the non-fiction he would write as an adult, as would the regional industries of viticulture and forestry he grew up observing at such close range.  Even the death of his grandmother in 1902 –– an event he witnessed with apprehension and shock –– found its echo in his work, with the memory of his relatives arguing over who was entitled to receive the largest share of her estate while she literally lay dying in bed in front of them finding its way into his novels Genitrix (1923) and Thérèse Desqueyroux (1927).

Mauriac was educated at the Lycée Sainte-Marie Grand Lebrun, a Catholic school in Bordeaux he entered in 1892, to which he was obliged to return for a year in 1903 after failing the second philosophy portion of his baccalauréat exam (equivalent to the American SAT exam, the British GSCE A-Level exam or the New South Wales HSC exam, depending on which part of the world you call home).  He was taught at this school by Marcel Drouin, brother-in-law of the controversial French novelist André Gide, who encouraged him to write and introduced him to Gide's work and to that of other 'forbidden' writers (forbidden not only by the priests who ran the school but also by his own, ultra-conservative family) including Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Colette, Marcel Proust and Paul Claudel.  It would be these writers, along with the novelist and political activist Maurice Barré, who would influence his own work as he made the transition from school to university where, understandably, he chose to study literature.  

It was during his university years – a period during which he continued to reside with his family in Bordeaux –– that Mauriac became briefly involved with the Catholic worker's movement known as Le Sillon [The Furrow], widely viewed at the time as being the 'antidote' to the Socialism steadily gaining popularity among disgruntled French workers.  Although he felt a certain sympathy with the aims of the movement and its founder Marc Sagnier, Mauriac permanently broke away from it in 1907, by which time he was living in Paris, newly graduated from university but studying for the exams that would gain him a place at the prestigious L'École des Chartes where he planned to train as an archiviste paléographe (an archivist/historian whose work focuses on the humanities and frequently on the study and preservation of books).  His time at this institution was brief, however, as he realized that his true vocation was a literary rather than an academic one.  In 1909 he published his first volume of poems Les Main jointes [Joined Hands] but it was not until 1911, with the publication of his stories Le Cousin de Paris [The Cousin from Paris] and Tante Zulnie [Aunt Zulnie] in two Paris newspapers that his career as a romancier [novelist] truly began.

Mauriac wrote and published a total of five short novels between 1913 –– the year he married Jeanne Lafon and the year before the birth of their first child Claude –– and February 1922 when the publication of Le Baiser au lépreux established him as one of France's most important young novelists and earned him what would become the first of many damning criticisms leveled at him by right wing Catholic critics who labelled him, among other things, a 'renegade' obsessed with offering readers scandalous portraits of 'degraded characters.'  This criticism, hardly surprising for its time, was wildly inaccurate in at least one respect, with Mauriac admitting to an interviewer in 1950 that Le Baiser au lépreux was the first novel he wrote in which 'aucun des personnages n'est inventée' ['none of the characters is invented'].  Even the tragic figure of Jean Péloueyre was based on a real life inhabitant of Villandraut who, while not quite as ugly as his fictional counterpart, was killed fighting the Germans in World War One.  (Mauriac himself spent part of the war as a Red Cross Ambulance driver in the Greek city of Thessalonika before ill health sent him back to France.)  The accusation that he was a pessimist, a malicious iconoclast whose work should be scorned by all 'true' Catholics, saw him forced to defend himself and his literary principles on several occasions throughout what would become a long and illustrious career.  'Observe that for the novelist who has remained Christian, like myself,' he stated in a 1953 interview published in The Paris Review, 'man is someone creating himself or destroying himself.  He is not an immobile being, fixed, cast in a mold once and for all.  This is what makes the traditional psychological novel so different from what I did or thought I was doing.  The human being as I conceive him in the novel is a being caught up in the drama of salvation, even if he doesn’t know it.'

Vindication of a sort arrived in 1925 when Mauriac's ninth novel Le Désert de l'amour [The Desert of Love] received the Grand Prize from the Académie Française –– an organization he would be elected to in 1933, filling Seat 22 vacated upon the death of playwright Eugéne Brieux.  Nor would this be the only significant cultural honor he would receive from his countrymen despite his undeserved reputation as a purveyor of filth.  In 1952 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and six years later received the Grand Cross of the Légion d'Honneur from French President Charles de Gaulle.

The inter-war years saw Mauriac become much more outspoken on political and social issues.  At first a supporter of the Nationalist cause in the Spanish Civil War, he became a vocal supporter of the Republicans following General Franco's German-aided destruction of the Basque city of Guernica in April 1937, joining a new generation of left wing Catholics in denouncing the regime in reviews like Esprit [Spirit] and the popular French newspaper Le Figaro.  This anti-totalitarian stance was maintained throughout World War Two, with his 1941 novel La Pharisienne [The Pharisee] being seen by many as a subtle attack on the Nazi-backed Vichy government led by Marshal Philippe Pétain.  He also worked with the Resistance, clandestinely publishing Le Cahier Noir [The Black Notebook] under the pseudonym 'Forez.'  This book, a personal account of life in Occupied France, was eventually smuggled into England where it was effectively utilized as Allied propaganda.  

Despite these anti-totalitarian activities, Mauriac was bitterly attacked by many Leftist intellectuals before and after World War Two –– a group which included his fellow novelists Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, with whom he engaged in a bitter public feud over the issue of what should be done with collaborators following the Liberation of France in September 1944.  Mauriac personally intervened on behalf of several writers accused of collaboration, arguing that the task of restoring national unity was more vital to France's future than that of seeking revenge for past transgressions.  His feud with Camus may have triggered his decision to resign from the Comité national des écrivains [National Committee of Writers] and inspired what became, in the pages of Le Figaro and later L'express, his often spirited attacks on Communism.  Heavily criticized for not speaking out against the war in Vietnam, he later became a controversial opponent of France's other colonial wars in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, publicly condemning the use of torture by the French army prior to and throughout these conflicts.  Despite this, he never abandoned his allegiance to President de Gaulle, a fellow Catholic whose biography he wrote in 1964.

Mauriac's career as novelist continued throughout the 1930s, with novels like Le Noeud de vipères [The Knot of Vipers, 1932] and Le Mystère Frontenac [The Frontenac Mystery, 1933] gaining him an international reputation as a writer of remarkable power, depth and insight.  Despite this, the 1941 publication of La Pharisienne marked the beginning of a ten year hiatus from fiction writing during which he focused on journalism and the memoirs that were to comprise an increasingly large part of his output prior to his death, at the age of eighty-four, in Paris on 1 September 1970.  But this was by no means the only form of writing he practiced during the last thirty years of his life.  He also wrote works for the stage and many essays on both religious and secular subjects –– including a study of the work of his literary hero Marcel Proust and a life of Jesus Christ –– and the prefaces to the French editions of Graham Greene's 1948 novel The Power and the Glory and Elie Wiesel's 1958 memoir Night, still one of the most affecting books ever published about the Holocaust.  It was Mauriac's meeting with Wiesel, who came to his Paris apartment to interview him, which inspired the young writer to break what he'd promised himself would be a lifelong vow of silence on this horrifying subject.

Nor did the name Mauriac vanish from the annals of French literature with his passing.  His eldest son Claude Mauriac became a noted novelist and critic (and, for a time, personal secretary to President de Gaulle), while his granddaughter Claire Wiazemsky became a writer and a celebrated film actress, working most notably with her husband, the French Nouvelle Vague [New Wave] director Jean-Luc Godard.

Click HERE to read the full 1953 FRANÇOIS MAURIAC interview (in English) by JEAN LE MARCHAND posted in the online archive of The Paris Review.  The official FRANÇOIS MAURIAC website (in French), maintained by the government of the région of Aquitaine where he was born and where the majority of his novels are set, can be visited by clicking HERE.  (This site is worth visiting for the photographs alone even if you don't speak French.  Click on the titles listed on the left side of the screen to do this.)

You can also click HERE to view a list of books by FRANÇOIS MAURIAC currently available in French, English and several other languages.  

You might also enjoy:
ALBERT CAMUS La chute [The Fall] (1956)
IRÈNE NÉMIROVSKY David Golder (1929)
WRITERS ON WRITING #13: François Mauriac

No comments:

Post a Comment