François Mauriac: Le Baiser au lépreux (A Kiss for the Leper)
This was Mauriac’s first successful novel and an interesting one it is. It shows his trademark gloom and doom – all the major characters end up in a far worse situation by the end of the book than they were at the beginning – and his Catholic viewpoint. Jean Péloueyre is small and ugly and antisocial. Though only twenty-three, he behaves like a very much older man. In fact, he does very little. He had been educated by the local priest and each time, he was due to be sent off to school, his father, a rich, bourgeois widower (his wife had died of tuberculosis) had stopped him from going. Father and son were not particularly close. Jérôme, the father, suffered from ill health and could not sleep at night. He had a long afternoon siesta when not only was the entire household enjoined to keep quiet but so were the neighbours and passing traffic. Jean did nothing much – walking, sitting, occasionally talking, occasionally hunting and, allegedly, writing a local history.
Jean has thought about love and is determined not to be in the situation that his father was in – married but not loved. When he sees Noémi d’Artiailh from his window one morning, he is attracted to her but feels that she could not be for him. However, the local priest has determined that Jean should marry and he has selected Noémi as his bride. Jérôme is happy with the choice. He is eager to see Jean married as he does not want his older sister and her successful son inheriting his house. Noémi’s parents are happy as Jean comes from a rich family, so it is a good marriage from their point of view. Noémi, the prettiest girl in the village, is not very happy about the idea but is willing to obey her parents. The priest fears Jean might object but he quietly concurs and the couple are married. However, despite her best intentions – and she does try hard – Noémi finds it hard to hide her repulsion for Jean. It is easier in the dark but he is well aware of her repulsion so he does not force himself on her. The families eagerly look out for the tell-tale bump on Noémi’s belly but there is no sign. Meanwhile, Jean spends his days out walking so as not to upset his wife. The priest is aware that things are not right and he asks Jean about his local history. Jean states that he has had to abandon it as the information he needs is only available from the national library in Paris. The priest persuades him to make the journey to Paris and, after initially agreeing, Jean reluctantly accepts. Despite spending several months in Paris, he does not once set foot in a library.
As I said at the beginning, this is a gloomy novel. Mauriac brings in the influence of the church – the interfering priest but also, in an attempt to save their marriage, the couple try praying together – but Jean is beyond the help of religion which, at least in Mauriac’s eyes, is his failing. However, it is a very well told story and shows why Mauriac would go on to become one of the foremost French novelists of the years between the wars. He is still read in France but far less so in the English-speaking world. While his Catholicism might put some people off, it should not, any more than the Catholicism of Graham Greene. This book is out of print in English but is available, though not too cheaply.
First published in French 1922 by Bernard Grasset
First English translation 1923 by Heinemann