François Mauriac - The Desert of Love
François Mauriac’s The Desert of Love is a study of jealousy within the stifling confines of an unlikely trio. The apex of this triangle is Maria Cross, a Parisian with a reputation, a woman known by schoolboys for her inviting ways, and known by men for her willingness to say yes. At the base is a father and his son, the first a doctor, respected, and the second still a youth, the vulgarity and complexity of his masculinity only just awakening. Mauriac dissects the love each characters shares for the other with the precision of a surgeon, and he shows great skill in his examination of each participant. There is, unfortunately, a somewhat cold feel to the text, and the intensity of scrutiny impresses upon the reader a claustrophobic feeling. There is no getting away from jealousy, love, and the suffocating affects of both.
Dr Paul Courregès and his son Raymond are close to being, but are not quite yet, estranged. The doctor has made of his life a resounding success, though he understands this from the laudatory remarks of his colleagues, and not from within himself. Internally he is a wreck, lacking in confidence and paralysed in his relations with his son. The love he feels for Maria is what keeps him stabilized, though he increasingly devotes his thoughts to fantasies of escape, daydreaming about running away from his conveniently ignorant wife and seemingly hopeless son with Maria, where in some undetermined way they shall be happy.
Raymond is approaching the end of his schooling and is, frankly, something of a grub. He is worse than unkempt – he is dirty, unwilling to clean or groom himself, and his results have slipped due to laziness. Yet he is also intelligent and, when he applies himself, can be quite capable. He views his father, as so many young men do, as an entity, and not as a man. He has flaws, yes, but they are the flaws of something that is not flesh and blood the way he, Raymond, is. At his worst, Raymond’s father is better than Raymond at his best, simply because he is accomplished, successful, respect and, most importantly – his father.
Early on, a character notes that,
“What matters is not the willingness to confide even when we have a sympathetic listener, even when that listener is a mother. Which of us is skilled enough to compress a whole inner world into a few words? How is it possible to detach from the moving flow of consciousness one particular sensation rather than another? One can tell nothing unless one tells all.”
This quote serves as both the triumph and tragedy of Mauriac’s work. He attempts in The Desert of Love to tell the ‘all’ of his little triangle, with the result that there is, at times, an exhaustive level of examination concerning the feelings of each participant. Unfortunately, the life they have outside this love is less developed, which means that the ‘all’ must fail.
Once the two men have been established as characters, and their relationship cleanly and neatly told, the mechanism of the story proper begins. At the very moment when the doctor’s love for Maria turns obsessive and, to her, distasteful, she begins to notice a boy noticing her. Raymond, in turn, upon first seeing Maria -
As the first strokes of a spade may bring to light the fragments of a perfect statue, so the first glance from Maria Cross had revealed a new being in the grubby schoolboy. Beneath the warmth of her contemplative gaze a body, lovely, though ill cared for, had on a sudden stirred, as, in the rough bark of some forest tree, a spellbound goddess...In the course of a few weeks Raymond had become a young man careful of his appearance, converted to the use of soap and water, secure in the knowledge that he could be pleasing to others, eager to attract.
He knows little about the woman except that he wants to impress. He sheds the trappings of childhood and becomes, with a little too much ease (though masterfully told) a young man, externally capable though inwardly afraid. He pursues this strange woman – he does not know she is Maria Cross for some time, and even after that, her relationship with his father is kept secret – with greater confidence than is perhaps believable, but Mauriac tells the story as though Raymond has become ensorcelled. A woman one is able to love, even an unknown woman – perhaps especially an unknown woman – is capable of transforming a young manner in a manner in which his mother, with her tenderness and sympathy, cannot, and which his father, with his sternness and desire for progress, respectability, and early beginning upon the path of wealth and prosperity, cannot.
And then we have Maria herself. She is more complicated than the doctor understands, for he sees her as an object of desire and escape, and not necessarily a complete person. Maria’s past is littered with a vanished husband and a dead baby, and the reputation that so attracts Raymond weighs upon her like a millstone. A great strength of the novel is that Maria Cross, too, is a developed character. We are privy to her thoughts which, while not always deep, are coherent and consistent with both the ways the son and the father view her, and the way she views herself. She is, in the few sections Mauriac devotes from her perspective, a complete character, her flaws seen as facets, when explained from every side. By devoting significant attention to her as well as the two men, Maria becomes a figure of sympathy and understanding and not merely the woman of desire that both wishes she could be.
That said, there is an awful lot of sexual repression in this book. Sex is never mentioned openly, but the characters drip with it, their thoughts revolve around it and their actions show a constant obsession. Everything is oblique, but it all points toward sexual frustration and expected fulfillment. Consider this section, when one afternoon Raymond forces his way into Maria’s rooms:
He was already in the room, awkward, embarrassed, not knowing what to do with his streaming hat. He did not dare to take a step forward, nor did she call to him, so powerless was she in the tumult of a passion that had burst its banks and was sweeping all before it, vengeful and frantic. In a moment it engulfed her, leaving no inch of her body or soul unfilled, topping the peaks, drowning the roots, of her being.
One would be forgiven for noticing the similarities between this and actual physical release.
Later the doctor, when Raymond’s infatuation is uncovered, takes stock of his life and realises that
What a lot of time he had wasted. Through what thickets of shame he had been wandering! Convinced that the whole human race must be hanging on his every movement as he worked away in his laboratory, he had yet been willing to see day after day go by spoiled and empty. Science must be served with an undivided passion. It brooks no rival.
For science, of course, insert art, literature, music, mathematics, philosophy – any of the passions of the heart or of the mind. There is always more that we could have done, and when love is lost, it seems the labour required to partake of it at all was wasted and miserably spent. But this attraction to application soon passes, and instead the doctor, and then Raymond, find themselves unable to function properly, as their thoughts become consumed with what the other knows about, and shares with, Maria.
Much later, the doctor realizes that, “The great thing is not to cause suffering. It's quite enough that I suffer: I mustn't create suffering in others.” But by then it is too late. The jealousy of the father and the son has outstripped either’s love for Maria, and indeed she becomes less than central to their battle of wills. Mauriac explores and explores and explores these two, plumbing the depths of their emotions as they fall to the depths of despair. The ending, when it comes, is too neat, however, and the epilogue (though it isn’t titled as such) stretches the credibility of the theme. Prior to that, though, this novel is a fascinating journey into the sickening loops and circular logic of jealousy, patrimony and the raising and dashing of hopes that only flawed love can bring.
This is a novel where everyone misunderstands everyone else, and the results are not comic but tragic. The characters act according to their impression of the person in front of them, when in fact they are each completely wrong about the other. Maria is more than Raymond’s sexual plaything, and less of an ideal escape than Paul would like. At the same time, Paul is not dull but torrential, the placidity of his success a mask for the fire he wishes he could express. And Raymond? Why, he is a boy of seventeen, with all the immensity of erection that that implies. Love is never more than it is, and what it is, is different for every participant. Nobody ends up happy in this tale, though a rapprochement of sorts occurs between father and son. Mauriac’s The Desert of Love is the least explicitly devoted to matters of Catholicism out of all his novels, though of course the seduction of sin drips from every page.
List of French authors under review
"for the deep spiritual insight and the artistic intensity with which he has in his novels penetrated the drama of human life"
-Nobel Prize in Literature, 1952
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