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François Mauriac: Le Désert de l’amour (The Desert of Love)
Raymond Courrèges is a man in his mid-thirties who leads a fairly dissolute life. He has a succession of girlfriends and regularly frequents bars and nightclubs. One night, while in one of his favourite clubs, he sees a woman he used to know seventeen years ago. He had been dreaming of meeting her again, in order to gain revenge for what she did to him. But now he sees her, his lust for revenge has diminished. Much of the rest of the book describes what led to his desire for revenge.
Raymond, aged seventeen, is something of an unruly young man. He is not doing well at high school, he is not particularly liked by either his teachers or fellow pupils and does not get on well with his parents. He lives with his parents, Paul and Lucie, his father’s mother and his sister, Madeleine, and brother-in-law, Gaston Basque, an army lieutenant, and their daughters. Apart from his nieces, he does not get on well with any of them. His father is a doctor, who is very busy with his practice, preferring to visit than see patients in his surgery. His mother has brought her fortune to the family but she is unhappy. There is no affection at all from her husband, she never knows what is going on with her daughter (is she pregnant? she asks herself) and she does not particularly like her son-in-law. Paul very much dislikes his son-in-law, not least because he had already selected a prospective husband for his daughter but she had chosen Gaston instead.
Paul himself does not understand his son and does not like his wife. Indeed, in an imaginary conversation he says:
Ils n’ont pas besoin de moi. Un enterré vivant a le droit, s’il le peut, de soulever la pierre qui l’étouffe. Vous ne sauriez mesurer le désert qui me sépare de cette femme, de cette fille, de ce fils. Les mots que je leur adresse n’arrivent même plus jusqu’à eux. [They don’t need me. A man buried alive has the right, if he can, to lift off the stone that is suffocating him. You could not measure the desert that separates me from this wife, this daughter, this son. The words I speak to them do not even get to them.]
One of his patients is Maria Cross. Her husband had been a soldier but was now dead. They had a son and, when he became ill, Paul cared for him but he, too, had died. After her husband’s death, Maria had found a job with a local businessman, Larousselle. Unlike with his other employees, he is very kind to her and there are rumours of an affair. She will later say that nothing happened while his sickly wife was alive but only after the wife died. He gives her a house. Meanwhile, Paul has fallen in love with her and, in the guise of looking after her, goes to see her frequently. He is prepared to abandon his family for her but cannot finally make the proposal he wants to make. Meanwhile, in her daily travels on the tram, she is seen by Raymond on his way back from school. He is fascinated by her and, eventually, approaches her, unaware, of course, of his father’s interest. And, of course, one thing leads to another.
Courrèges, father and son, are key to this novel, particularly as regards their ability to love. They both fail with women, particularly Maria Cross but also with Lucie and the other women in their life. But they also struggle to reach across to one another, both making the attempt on more than one occasion but both feeling embarrassed by it. As Maria comments, father-son relationships can often be difficult. Mauriac describes in some depth their individual feelings on this matter, as well as Maria’s astute observation of the two men. While much of the book does show a desert of love, as the title describes, there is, unusually for Mauriac, a ray of hope, albeit a very small one, left at the end of the book.
First published in French 1925 by Bernard Grasset
First English translation 1925 by Eyre & Spottiswoode
Translated by Gerard Hopkins