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François Mauriac: Génitrix (Genitrix)
Mathilde Coustous is the daughter of a teacher. His wife had left him for another man and since died. He had had a couple of minor strokes, which meant that Mathilde and her younger brother, Jean, were brought up by relatives. Jean behaved badly. He would sneak out at night to meet women – Mathilde would unlock the door for him when he returned – and he even took to stealing from his relatives. Eventually, there was a major scandal, in which the police were involved and about which Mathilde knew nothing, and Jean was shipped off to Africa. Mathilde became a teacher like her father, who died shortly after the scandal involving Jean.
Her relatives lived near the Cazenave family. The Cazenave family was an elderly widow, Félicité, and her son, Fernand. Though he was over fifty, Fernand was treated like a child. Mathilde saw him sneak out of the house for a cigarette but also to eat a melon, which was considered bad for him by his mother. His mother did tolerate or, at least, turn a blind eye to his regular trips to Bordeaux for his habit, i.e. visiting prostitutes but, in all else, he was under her sway. So when he decided to marry Mathilde, his mother was not pleased. You will never have my son, she told Mathilde and in the battle of wills for the love of Fernand, there was only going to be one winner. Initially, he slept with Mathilde in the far wing of the house but he soon moved back to his former bedroom, next to his mother. However, in the meantime, Mathilde became pregnant. Fernand was kept away and when she had a miscarriage she was left. Daughter and mother-in-law hated each other so much that when Félicité made a token visit to her daughter-in-law, who had a very high temperature and was clearly not in good condition, Mathilde sent her away and Félicité went. When Félicité visited her the next morning, she was dead.
Félicité is happy, as she thinks she has got her son back but she is about to find out that Mathilde dead is far more of a rival than Mathilde alive. Fernand blames his mother. Why didn’t she go and look after her that last night, even though he thought he heard Mathilde call and did not react. He takes to his room and refuses to eat and, even when he is persuaded to join his mother for meals, still refuses to eat She makes an effort to eat, even though she is unwell and not hungry, to set an example. Every day he takes flowers to Mathilde’s grave – Félicité checks with the cemetery guardian. All she wants is her son back but a dead rival is more difficult than a living one.
As always with Mauriac, this is a grim tale and no-one ends up happy, not even the servant. The gloom of the Landes region hangs over the novel, even when it is full summer and very hot, as the shades are drawn and darkness prevails. However, as always, though it is full of Catholic guilt and French misery, Mauriac does tell an excellent tale of a mother-son relationship. Interestingly enough, he dedicates it to his brother.
First published in French 1923 by Bernard Grasset
First English translation 1930 by Covici, Friede
Translated by Gerard Hopkins