The Politics of Prose
Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumortby Roger Martin du Gard, translated by Luc Brébion and Timothy Crouse
Knopf, 784 pp., $35
Even ardent Francophiles might blink at the name Roger Martin du Gard. Besides the fact that he won a Nobel Prize in Literature in the Thirties (qualifying him, alongside such other luminaries of the decade as Frans Eemil Sillanpää and Erik Axel Karlfeldt, for inclusion in trivia culture), his name doesn't evoke any rich literary connotations. To his natural reticence, as Camus pointed out in an essay after his death in 1958, we must add the supplementary obscurity of his view of art. Martin du Gard followed the modernist party line as articulated by Flaubert, but while Flaubert's notion of the "impersonality of the artist" functioned, self-servingly, to highlight Gustave with his dictionaries and encyclopedia on the sofa, struggling for just the right word to describe Charles Bovary's hat, Martin du Gard simply wrote.
When he died, he was known primarily for two novels. One, Jean Barois, took Zola's naturalism a step further by making a novel out of a collage of sources -- letters, newspaper clippings, and interspersed narrative. The other novel, Spring, 1914, was part of the vast series The Thibaults, written in the Thirties. At the time, there was a fad for immense fresco-novels. That fad has long faded, and it would take a braver man than this reviewer to venture into all eight volumes of The Thibaults.
Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort was unfinished at the time of Martin du Gard's death. The last 200 or so pages of it are merely notes, in fact. It is easy to imagine the work getting the Thibault treatment. Although it is in bad taste to say so, Martin du Gard's death made this a much better novel -- even, as the translator claims, a great one. The magnificent essence of the thing isn't spoiled by infinite addenda.
Maumort is an officer in retirement when, in 1940, France surrenders to the Nazis. He locks himself in his library at his estate, Le Saillant, and as the Germans occupy the grounds and the rest of the house, he proceeds to write down his memoirs. Maumort casts his mind back to the society of Second Republic -- from about 1870 to 1900 -- and writes with that love of the past that goes beyond love and hits at some of the hard truths of history: its material life, its lost busy-ness, its hopelessly wrong prejudices. Martin du Gard was a pacifist, which makes it all the more fascinating that he concedes the novel to Maumort's voice. As an officer, Maumort writes with the assurance of a man who has absorbed the saying of Clausewitz's that the goal of war is to absolutely disarm the other side. His candid balancing of the bad habits and talents of others is, we gradually see, his way of "defeating" them, of making them yield to the limits of his own egotism.
The great story of his childhood is his cousin Guy. As a child, Maumort's life was isolated. His mother died at his birth. His father was distant and preoccupied. His sister, Henriette, is his one true companion. Then Guy comes and brings -- well -- perversity into his life. Guy is a sickly child, the son of his Uncle and Aunt Chambost-Lévadé. He sets about teaching Maumort certain of the childish arts, such as lying and jerking off. Maumort witnesses a semi-affair between Guy and the boys' tutor, Xavier de Balcourt. Xavier, who we see more of when Maumort goes to college in Paris, is a literary man who tamps down as he can his desire for adolescent boys. Guy, knowing by instinct the bent of Xavier's heart, has the habit of parading naked in front of him.
Guy dies. Xavier moves to Paris. The second part of the novel deals with the Paris of Maumort's student years, a time and milieu indissolubly linked to Proust. There are two episodes here that stand out. One is Xavier's diary. This reads like one of Maupassant's ironic short stories. Xavier, serving in the army, finds Yves, a baker's apprentice, in the village in which he is billeted. Xavier's loss of control leads, by a thousand premonitory hints, to catastrophe.
The other outstanding episode is Maumort's affair with Doudou, a Martiniquais woman. The translators, in their introduction, say a lot of nervous things about this. Maumort's writing, here, takes on a blatantly racist tone. Du Gard is slyly exposing something about Maumort, this soldier who fights in a colonial war in Africa and thinks it is noble, who thinks of himself as liberal because he has sex with women of color. His peremptory military mindset can't quite penetrate his own ideological limits.
After the Doudou episode, the story disintegrates into fragments. Maumort's colonial adventures, his anti-Dreyfusism, his marriage, etc., are sketched out, but not filled in.
Martin du Gard's novel is colored, for us, by the sense that he is writing at the end of a psychological tradition. We no longer have this sense of people as "characters," as "types." The center no longer holds in people in quite that Ur-European way. In this novel, as in Musil's Man Without Qualities, a similarly long, carefully crafted, intellectual novel, we get a long farewell to modernity. It's sad, but -- given the racism, the peasant cruelty, the contempt for women -- thank God it's over.