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François Mauriac: La Fin de la nuit (The End of the Night)
In his introduction to this novel, Mauriac states that he has been unable to let go of Thérèse Desqueyroux and wants to finish her story. This is, as the title tells us, how it ends for her. After having been exiled from the Landes area fifteen years ago, she has moved to Paris, where she lives alone, though with a servant coming regularly. Her husband has been generous and she also has some of her own money, inherited from her father. When the book opens she continues to lead her solitary life. However, finances are now becoming more difficult, as the timber and resin market seem to have collapsed and both her finances and that of her husband and his family are in difficulties. In addition, she has health problems – an unspecified heart condition. The books starts with a knock on her door. When Thérèse ask who it is, a voice replies that it is Marie. Thérèse denies knowing any Marie until she realises that it is her daughter, Marie. The agreement with her husband had been that Marie could visit for one week a year every year but, for various reasons, Thérèse had not seen Marie for three years.
Marie is now seventeen years old. Initially, Thérèse is delighted to see her and very glad that her daughter has decided to visit her. However, Thérèse soon learns that Marie has fled from her father’s home without his knowledge. Thérèse is very worried about this, as she does not want to do anything or be seen to be complicit in anything that would antagonise her husband. She soon learns that Marie has an ulterior motive. She has fallen in love with Georges Filhot, son of a neighbour. Both sets of parents are against any marriage, not just because of their respective ages – Georges is twenty-two – but because the Desqueyroux do not consider the Filhots important or rich enough and the Filhots are worried about the taint of scandal. While Marie is keen on the marriage, Georges seems less enthusiastic. As Marie says, he only seems interested when he is with her but when he is not – he is studying law in Paris – his enthusiasm seems to wane. As Georges has now returned to his studies in Paris, Marie has decided to follow him and wants to stay with her mother in order to do so.
Mother and daughter have a long discussion about the past – Thérèse tries to explain what happened without going into too much detail and Marie tries to understand her mother – but Thérèse tries also to persuade her daughter to return to the ancestral home, which she finally manages to do. However, before returning, Thérèse agrees to come with Marie to meet Georges. They find him in his student lodging and he is very welcoming to both mother and daughter. They agree to dine together that evening, before Georges will take Marie to her train back home. After taking Marie to the station and seeing her off, he returns to Thérèse’s house and they converse. To Thérèse’s horror, Georges states that he is in love with her and not Marie. The rest of this book describes the consequences of this declaration and how Thérèse tries to bring the young couple together and ensure her daughter’s happiness.
These events bring Thérèse out of her normal routine life and make her think much more not just about her daughter but about the crime she committed. She wants to expiate the sins that she committed but she also want to see that, if nothing else happens, her daughter is set for life. She spends much of the book agonising over the situation the two women face, before accepting that, finally, what she has to face is the end of the night, the last words of the book. Mauriac clearly finds it difficult to let go of his Thérèse and it is clear that all of his heroines, she is the one he feels most for, with all her imperfections. Though not quite as good a book as Thérèse Desqueyroux, it is still very much worth reading.
First published in French 1935 by Bernard Grasset
First English translation 1947 by Eyre & Spottiswoode
Translated by The End of the Night