François Mauriac: Le Mystère Frontenac (UK: The Frontenac Mystery; US: The Frontenacs)
Many of Mauriac’s novels take a very negative view of families, often seeing them as destroying the soul of the individual with their implacable demands. This novel, however, was written when Mauriac was recovering from an operation for throat cancer and he was feeling much more positive towards the idea of the family. The mystery of the title refers not so to some guilty secret that families often have, though there is one, but rather to the close family bonds of the Frontenac family.
At the start of the novel, the main family consists of Blanche Frontenac, whose husband, Michel, has died, and their five children – Jean-Louis, Yves, José, Danielle and Marie. Michel’s unmarried brother, Xavier, is a regular visitor and every two weeks, he goes and checks on his nephews’ and nieces’ timber and agricultural holdings. Michel had run a successful timber business but Xavier has declined to take it over, preferring to stay in Angoulême rather than go to Bordeaux where the family business is, thinking that he can keep his mistress, Josefa, in Angoulême without anyone knowing. In fact, his entire family does know but he does not know that they know. Meanwhile, they have a manager, Dussol, running the business, pending the arrival of one of the younger Frontenacs. Blanche is, of course, devoted to her children. She is well off so she is also devoted to the church and good works. Xavier, too, is devoted to the family. Indeed, he begrudges giving money to Josefa, feeling that he is stealing it from his nephews and nieces. He also regularly visits the family and is considered by the children to be a good and generous uncle.
Much of the story follows the development of the children, particularly the boys (the girls are barely mentioned). Jean-Louis does well at school and is always top of his class. He wants to be a philosopher and is planning on writing, together with a career in teaching. He is very determined about this but, as he gets older, the pressure from his mother and uncle to enter the family business becomes stronger and he knows that he will not be able to resist. To get him to accept, they are even prepared to let him marry the sweet but simple Madeleine, a neighbour he is attracted to. Yves is very different. He is a daydreamer and always bottom of his class. His mother despairs of him. But he knows that he is different and, to his credit, so does Jean-Louis. While Jean-Louis initially teases Yves over his poetry writing, once he sees the poems, he recognises that his brother has talent and encourages him to send his poems to the Mercure de France, a respected literary magazine of the period. However, when Yves gets some praise from Gide, the family do not recognise the name. José is something of a black sheep, spending a lot of money on a dancer but he is soon sent off to the army (we learn about his subsequent fate early on).
The novel starts in the early part of the twentieth century and ends on the eve of World War I. Mauriac cleverly shows the passage of time not just with the children growing older but with the development of the motor car, with new cars and new roads mentioned on several occasions, till finally Dussol brings one to the family home. While perhaps not having the interest of some of his early novels, in that there is no individual bitterly fighting the family and its will, we do see the three boys (the girls will presumably go quietly into marriage) all kick against the traces and try to make their way. Even Yves, who wants to go on to be a poet and literary figure, remains close to his mother and feels guilty when she finally dies but still manages to follow his own path. It is not often that we see Mauriac showing how the family can work out its problems but when he does, he still writes a good novel.
First published in French 1933 by Bernard Grasset
First English translation 1951 by Eyre and Spottiswoode
Translated by Gerard Hopkins