Commentary on works of French literature

Book 1: Les Thibault (1922-1940) by Roger Martin du Gard

This is the first in a new series in which I write commentaries about notable works of French literature. I’ll have a particular focus on works from the late 19th and early 20th century because I’ve spent the past 5 years studying the letters of Camille Pissarro and have developed an understanding of the history, culture and even the vocabulary of that period. I’ll be reading the books in French and commenting in English, but many of the books that I’ll discuss are available in English translation. When I use French quotes from the books, I will give an English translation. Unfortunately, there do not seem to be any modern English translations of Les Thibault, but there are some old editions that can be found on sites such as Abebooks, some are translated by Madeleine Elise Reynier Boyd and others by Stuart Gilbert.

In my Pissarro writings, I presented an essay on the novel Jean Barois (1913) by the author Roger Martin du Gard. (see link) This was his second novel, but the first to earn him wider critical attention. I was drawn to the novel because of the detailed focus on the Dreyfus Affair which corresponded closely with the events described in Camille Pissarro’s letters. Even though I have a doctorate in French literature, I’d never heard of Roger Martin du Gard, and I was intrigued to learn that he’d been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1937 for his novel series, Les Thibault. How could such a celebrated series of novels be so little-known today? Martin du Gard was a friend of André Gide and Stefan Zweig, both of whom continue to be popular. In his book The World of Yesterday: Memoires of a European (1942), Zweig wrote so beautifully of how life in Europe was changed forever by the First World War, and I wanted to see how Martin du Gard dealt with this subject. He began writing his Les Thibault series just three years after the end of the war, and finished it under the cloud of Nazi Europe.

Les Thibault is what the French call a “roman fleuve”—a series of novels that feature a family or large group of characters and which unfolds over several generations. Some well-known examples are Balzac’s La Comédie humaine (1829-1848); Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart (1871-1893) ; and Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927).

I’m reading the modern Gallimard edition of Les Thibault which divides the seven novels among three large volumes under the headings Les Thibault I, II and III. Each novel was originally published separately, about one per year or so, until 1929 when Roger Martin du Gard and his wife were in a serious car accident. He’d written a draft of the next volume, but while recuperating from his injuries he decided to destroy the manuscript, unhappy with the direction he’d taken. He wrote new material which was published in 1936, and he must have been enormously gratified by his decision because he received the Nobel Prize the following year. He published an epilogue in 1940. In this first commentary, I’m going to talk about the first novel in the series: Le Cahier gris [The Grey Notebook], published in 1922.

Plot summary, Le Cahier gris

The setting is Paris and the action begins in 1904. We are presented with the two central characters and their families. Jacques Thibault and Daniel de Fontanin are both 14-year-old school boys. The Thibault family is comprised of Jacques, his brother Antoine, who is 11 years older and their father Oscar, a moralizing politician and the benefactor of a charity for troubled children. He was widowed when his wife died after giving birth to Jacques. The family are wealthy Catholics and Monsieur Thibault hopes to be elected to the prestigious Institut de France. He is a very severe father to his sons, but especially to Jacques who has little self-restraint. Antoine is a dedicated medical student and knows better how to manage his father. The household is looked after meticulously by “Mademoiselle”, a middle-aged housekeeper who has raised Jacques from infancy. Also in the Thibault home is 10-year-old Gisèle, the orphaned daughter of Mademoiselle’s military officer brother and his Malagasy wife who both died of illness in Madagascar. Gisèle, known as ‘Gise’, is raised like a sister to Jacques.

The de Fontanin family are Protestant and not wealthy, though they aren’t working class. Money is tight because Daniel’s father Jérôme is a womanizer who squanders his money on high living. He comes and goes after long absences from the family home. Daniel, who functions as the man of the house, lives with his mother Thérèse and his sister Jenny, age 13. The bond between Therese and her children is strong, she is a warm, loving mother who lives for Daniel and Jenny. Jenny is a sweet girl with delicate health, but she is capable of strong moral conviction. A frequent visitor to the house is James Gregory, a British Christian Scientist minister who is disliked by Daniel. He’s a disturbing character who seems to exert a strong moral hold over Thérèse.

Le Cahier Gris opens dramatically with Monsieur Thibault having been called to Jacques’ school because the boy had not turned up to school that day. Antoine accompanies his father to the meeting, and no one can quite remember when they last saw Jacques. The head of the school, abbé Binot, explains why there are worries for Jacques’ safety. A few days earlier the school had confiscated a notebook from Jacques’s desk and found an exchange of messages between he and another pupil, Daniel. Binot suggests that the messages reveal a ‘suspect’ relationship between the two boys. When Jacques and Daniel find out that their secret notebook has been discovered, they run away from home, heading to Marseille.

These actions bring the Thibault and Fontanin families into contact. Monsieur Thibault and Madame de Fontanin want to find their sons, but Monsieur Thibault is more concerned with avoiding scandal, while Madame de Fontanin refuses to believe Daniel is guilty of anything inappropriate and simply wants him home safely. Thibault is a snob who looks down on Thérèse and treats her offhandedly. The strain of Daniel’s disappearance has caused Jenny to become seriously ill. When Antoine visits Thérèse to discuss the situation, he ends up caring for Jenny and doesn’t think she’ll survive. Pastor Gregory appears and challenges Therese to have greater faith. They pray together intensely for hours and Jenny recovers. Antoine is captivated by Madame de Fontanin’s sincerity and grace, but he, too, dislikes Pastor Gregory.

While in Marseille, the boys have important experiences. Because the sight of two boys without adults is suspicious, they pretend to be brothers who are awaiting the arrival of their father. They spend one night in a hotel, but sleep with their clothes on, back-to-back. They try to obtain passage on a ship to Africa, but the sailors don’t believe their story. They run away in fright and get separated and cannot find one another. Jacques sleeps outdoors all night, hidden among some boxes, while Daniel is taken in by a seemingly sympathetic young woman to whom he loses his virginity. When he’s reunited with Jacques, he does not tell him what happened. The boys are found by the police and brought back to Paris. Antoine collects them and delivers Daniel to his mother. Both Antoine and Jacques are struck by the affectionate reception that they all receive from Madame de Fontanin.

Jacques does not receive a similar reception from his father, who locks the boy in his room after he fails to demonstrate absolute contrition for his actions. The Cahier Gris ends with Jacques learning that he is to be sent away to live at his father’s institution for wayward boys. He writes a farewell letter to Daniel, telling him not to look for him, which he throws out the window to the pavement below, hoping that a passer-by will post it for him. Which they do. We are not given Daniel’s reaction to reading the letter.

Some thoughts on Le Cahier gris

First and foremost, the reader tries to understand the relationship between the two boys. From the opening pages we learn of the apparently inappropriate messages they’ve exchanged in the grey notebook, but it is difficult for the reader to trust the judgement of the priests, who are so reactionary. For example, before they find the notebook, they find two books which they perceive as scandalous: Rousseau’s Confessions and, says Father Binot, “ce qui est plus déshonnete encore, un ignoble roman de Zola: La Faute de l’abbe Mouret” [“what is even more dishonest, an ignoble novel by Zola: The Sin of Father Mouret”].  It is amusing that Rousseau’s Confessions is still a byword for scandal, more than 100 years after it was published. The fact that Jacques’s desk was searched and his notebook confiscated is a terrible invasion of privacy. We the readers don’t see the content of the grey notebook until more than 50 pages in, and it is, frankly, quite surprising. They are passionate messages in which they pour out their hearts and speak of their love for one another. Jacques finishes one message with the following words: “Et souvenons-nous éternellement que nous avons l’un dans l’autre l’objet passionné de NOTRE AMOUR !”[ “And let us forever remember that we have in one another the passionate object of OUR LOVE!”] Perhaps they are attracted to one another and have run away to be together and act on their feelings.

But the grey notebook material is followed immediately by the story of their adventures in Marseille, where their behaviour toward one another doesn’t correspond at all with what they’ve written. Physically, they are chaste and do not so much as touch one another. As I noted, they even sleep with their clothes on. Daniel begins to feel a certain annoyance with Jacques and wishes he’d not run away from home—he thinks of his mother and Jenny and longs to be with them. The novel is written in the present tense from the point of view of an omniscient narrator, and we read Daniel’s thoughts as he remembers how he and Jacques became unlikely friends. Daniel, the model student and Protesant, Jacques, bottom of the class and Catholic. Daniel describes being attracted to Jacques’s magnetic personality and his obvious longing for freedom. Daniel describes himself as “ardent” and with a similar leaning toward freedom and rebellion. When they became friends they were finally able to express their innermost feelings:

“Amour chaste, amour mystique, où leurs deux jeunesses fusionnaient dans le même élan vers l’avenir ; mise en commun de tous les sentiments excessifs et contradictoires qui ravageaient leurs amés de quatorze ans” [“Chaste love, mystic love, where their two youths were fused together in the same enthusiasm for the future ; putting together all the excessive and contradictory sentiments that ravaged the souls of fourteen year olds.”]

The feelings Daniel and Jacques have for one another were born out of the need to express their inner hopes and desires. Being suddenly permitted to disclose them in the grey notebook brought an outpouring of passion. When they are face to face with one another, they are unable to speak so intensely. The way in which Daniel loses his virginity while in Marseille, and the subsequent secrecy, adds another factor for the reader to consider while trying to understand the nature of the boys’ friendship. I’ve read that Les Thibault was an inspiration for Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited with the friendship between stoic Protestant Charles Ryder and troubled Catholic Sebastian Flyte.

The second aspect of Le Cahier gris that I want to discuss is the portrayal of religious figures.  There are a number of Catholic priests who take part in events, both at the school, and in the Thibault family home. In general, they cannot be described as admirable figures since their foremost goal is to placate Monsieur Thibault because of his wealth. The worst example is when Madame de Fontanin arrives unannounced at the Thibault home to see what can be done to find Jacques and Daniel. Monsieur Thibault was discussing the situation with a group of priests when she enters the room; all of them treat her poorly, which she finds inexplicable and hurtful. After she leaves, a priest refers to her disparagingly as ‘La huguenote’ [‘The Hughenot’], a comment accepted by everyone except for Father Vécard, who makes an expression of reproach. We shall see if Father Vécard features in the subsequent novels.

Madame Fontantin’s Father Gregory is a disturbing character with his insidious way of controlling her. His intentions do not seem sexual, but it is too early to determine. The scene in which his fervent prayer seems to cure Jenny is quite remarkable. But it served to give him further dominion over the family. It is interesting that he is British and that he’s a Christian Scientist rather than a more typical Protestant denomination. I am curious to see how Roger Martin du Gard uses these factors as he develops that character. As I carry on reading the novels, I will undertake some research on the appearance of the Christian Science church in France in that period so that I can see how unusual (or not) this practice was in Paris at this time.

The next novel in the series is called Le Pénitencier (1922) [The Penitentiary or The Reformatory]

Published by londonbelletrist

Writer, scholar and artist

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