~ Therese Desqueyroux by Francois Mauriac ~
The average age of members in my parish book club hovers in the sixties, I’d guess. The oldest may be pushing eighty. At forty-six years old and only partly gray, I’m one of the youngsters. We read books together between September and June, meeting once a month. Step into the parish hall with a paperback in hand and someone will point you the right way. There’s cheese, salami, crackers, and cake on a back table, and enough wine to have a bottle to yourself, if you’re determined.
Our first book this season was Mauriac’s Therese Desqueyroux (1927), a short novel about a young woman in the pine country of southwestern France who tries to kill her husband by arsenic poisoning. I’m not giving anything away by telling you this; it’s all made clear in the first few pages. Therese Desqueyroux is standard high school reading in France, they say, and is enjoying a small revival in “Feminist Lit” courses, though written by a man.
The novel was adapted for film twice, first in 1962 (with Emmanuelle Riva in the title role) and more recently in 2012 (with Audrey Tautou of Amelie fame). I haven’t seen either film but I understand that reviews for the second were poor.
I heartily disliked this book. The men in our group all felt the same. It was bleak, hopeless, the characters uniformly unsympathetic, the actions of the protagonist incomprehensible. Most of the women, however, while they wouldn’t dream (well, they might dream a little) of poisoning their husbands, nevertheless felt a sisterly commiseration with Therese’s predicament, her stifling isolation, her need for a communion of souls that her husband Bernard won’t see and therefore can’t meet.
Were all us men just a bunch of Bernards too? Cads and clods, and heartless dullards?
“But she doesn’t even know what she wants. Isn’t there something adolescent in Therese’s rebellion?” I won no friends among the ladies in the room by my comment. But someone observed that unrelenting loneliness can make us adolescent in our behavior, fractured and self-obsessed, with a clearer image of what ails us than of what might heal us.
There are glimpses, just glimpses, of what Mauriac feels might heal Therese. The Corpus Christi procession promises something to her, though she’s not sure what, despite (or perhaps, in a way, because of) the fact that Bernard himself is a participant, bringing up the rear. Earlier in the story, Therese is at her most sympathetic when she imagines Bernard receiving her home again with open arms, forgiving, anxious to understand.
Bernard, in other words, had the chance (and you might say that from Mauriac’s Catholic perspective it was his calling) to be a means of reconciliation for Therese. He failed her.
Driving home from book club, I contemplated the moments and ways in which I had indeed been a Bernard. They were not a few. And yet for twenty years now my wife has kept me around and nobly refrained from poisoning me, for which I am grateful. In fact, she had hot soup on the stove for me when I came in the door, and I spooned it up without any trepidation. No, really.