As I’ve rambled before, one of the joys of browsing books on the Internet is the constant discovery of something new and interesting, an author you’ve never read or an obscure reference you want to follow up. However, the downside to all this randomness is that you often can’t recall where you came across something; and this is the case with “Therese Desqueroux”, as somewhere I stumbled across Francois Mauriac and was shocked because he’s a Nobel prizewinner and I hadn’t read anything by him – but I don’t know where this was! Nevertheless, this has been rectified, as I soon picked up a copy of one of his novels from an online source which shall not be mentioned!

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“Therese Desqueroux” is one of Mauriac’s most famous novels, and a little research revealed that this particular volume contained that novella plus three more pieces (two short stories plus another novella) featuring the same title character – so this seemed at first glance to be the one to buy. TD opens by introducing us to Therese at the point in her life where she has been acquitted of the charge of attempting to poison her husband, Bernard. She leaves the court with her father and lawyer, but it is obvious from the start that all is not clear-cut – her father seems cold and detached, only interest in his public appearance, and there are hints that it was lucky that Therese got off. As she starts her journey back home, the young woman starts to think back over her life, revisiting her childhood and thinking over the events that led her to this point in time, intending to try to explain to her husband why she has behaved in such a way.

Therese Larroque grew up in a bleak part of Bordeaux – all trees and marshes, rain and wind, and even the summers are too hot and oppressive. Brought up by her father and surrounded by a hierarchy of local families to whom the status quo and traditions are all, she is trapped before she even starts. An intense friendship with Anne lifts her young life a little, but she is stifled intellectually, out of place and in need of an escape that isn’t there. Marriage to Bernard, Anne’s half-brother, seems the only way forward but brings no happiness or satisfaction, as the two are basically incompatible. The combination of loneliness, boredom and the environment, added to her jealousy of Anne’s love of a local intellectual Jean Azevedo, drive her to the dramatic action that we learned about at the start of the book. Jean’s philosophising fires her heart and her imagination:

“All that matters is to hoist one’s sails and make for the open sea, avoiding like the plague all those who persuade themselves that they have found what they sought, who cease to move forward, but build their little shelters and compose themselves to slumber. I have long mistrusted all such people…”

But unfortunately she does not have the experience or the focus to take these longings and translate them into a sensible plan of action, only a drastic one. However, obviously Bernard is still with us, so she did not succeed – but how will she cope with being back in the bosom of the family?

I loved the novella TD very much – the method of telling the story, starting with Therese’s interior monologue recalling the events leading up to that point, was very effective; and once we had reached the present, and watched the unfolding of the results of the trial, I was thoroughly involved in her life. Mauriac painted a compelling picture of a woman brought up in a bleak landscape, with little love and oppressed by the burden of family, social mores and restrictions. Despite the evil of her act, I could not help but sympathise with her, and understand how she came to behave in this way. The emphasis on her location, the claustrophobia evokes by the damp trees surrounding her, on which her livelihood depended, was brilliantly done. And the portrait of a woman allowed no independence or freedom, despite having her own fortune, was striking – although she had the apparent means to be her own woman, this was not possible because of the environment and other people. The writing was striking in places, evoking landscape and emotion brilliantly:

“Such lovely summer days!… Seated in the little train which now at last had started to move, she admitted to herself that she must go back in thought to them, if she was ever to see clearly what had happened. It might be incredible, but it was true, all the same, that the storms of life were already gathering above the innocent beauty of those dawn days. The morning air, too limped and too blue – bad omen for the afternoon and evening, a warning of ravaged garden beds, of branches torn and broken of mud and filth. Never at any moment of her life had she planned her road or looked ahead. Not once had she made a sudden change of direction. The slow descent has been barely noticeable: only gradually had the pace increased. The lost woman that now she was could be seen as no different from the radiant girl who had lived those happy summers in that very Argelouse to which, at the end of all, she was creeping back, glad of the dark, concealing night.”

I wondered, too, whether the choice of the heroine’s first name was deliberate, as TD’s plight did spark off memories of Zola’s “Therese” Racquin and it did occur to me that Mauriac might have meant it as a tribute. I sensed too a possible underlying issue being hinted at, in the intense girlhood friendship between Therese and Anne, which might have been meant as an unrequited affair – but maybe I am reading a little too much into the story here!

“She had a vision of the girl with her face aglow, while all around the cicadas were kindling into little flickers of flame on each successive pine, and the great furnace of the heath was beginning to roar beneath the sky. Millions of flies rose in a cloud above the blazing ling.”  (Yes, I had to look up ling too – it’s another word for heather!)

I found the book’s ending quite satisfying too, with Therese poised at the start of a new life – there was potential there for freedom, plus intellectual and emotional development, and I did hope that Therese would find some kind of happiness.

Image courtesy Flickr

Image courtesy Flickr

However, as I read on through the other works in this volume, I ended up rather wishing that Mauriac had stopped there. The two short stories, “Therese and the Doctor” and “Therese at the Hotel” give glimpses of our heroine after the end of the first story. The “Doctor” story shows us Therese through the prism of another couple’s tale, the eponymous doctor and his wife, and is more about the impact that Therese’s presence has on their relationship. In the “Hotel” story, events referred to previously are moved on a little and we see our heroine in a slightly different light, as something of a man-eater, fascinating a young man staying there with his family, exercising an almost hypnotic power over him. And then there is “To the End of the Night”…..

This latter is actually longer than the initial novella, and rediscovers Therese in her dotage. Yes, the way Mauriac describes her, she is a physical and emotional wreck, constantly referred to as old – so it is something of a shock to find out that her age is only 45! Therese has led something of a rackety, debauched life if we are to believe the hints, which may be why she has a heart condition and is at death’s door. She is living on her own in Paris, is rediscovered by her daughter, enchants her daughter’s beloved (how, if she is such a wreck???) and goes through a lot of moral and emotional angst before coming to a kind of peace.

I’m afraid I have to say that I found this latter story somewhat unconvincing on many levels. For a start, the Therese presented here just doesn’t work. She seems a completely different character to the trapped woman in the first story, now being a predatory man-eater who has simply existed to gain the love and admiration of men because she is incapable of love herself. This seems to me at odds with her character in the initial novella, who was a stifled woman craving mental stimulation, and whose flirtation with her friend’s love was in the form of an intellectual one rather than an emotional one. It stretches credibility to have her constantly having young men falling at her feet, and the trajectory of her behaviour after the first story really didn’t appear to be such a dissipated one. She seemed to crave the intellectual life and stimulation, not just degeneracy, but maybe the author was unable to envisage a women who wanted freedom but not sex!

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Mauriac states in his introduction that he wanted to “save” Therese, and maybe this was a kind of way of coming to terms with an evil heroine. But she becomes less believable in this story – a monster, in effect, which she actually wasn’t in the first book. TD was tightly written and plotted with an excellent portrait of a women driven to extreme behaviour by a combination of circumstances, but in the latter stories she seems to become merely a cipher for Mauriac to present moral agonising. It’s too simplistic to say that things are different for men and women, because in many ways Therese’s husband Bernard is just as much a prisoner of convention as she is. And despite their being quite a lot of food for thought with regard to male and female roles and expectation, most of this is in the first novella.

Additionally, the prose becomes really overblown in the last story, which is a shame because the writing of TD itself is lovely. There are occasional pieces that stand out, but so much of it is overwrought and intense that it actually becomes too much to take.

“During her periods of insomnia she would wander in thought about the battlefield of memories, turning over the corpses, seeking some face that still was recognizable. How many were there now of whom she could think without bitterness? It had needed no long time for most of those who once had loved her to discover the power she wielded for destruction.”

And all of this we are meant to accept blindly, with no real demonstration of what has gone on before and no real understanding of how Therese operates as a women and what destruction she has wrought with these powers!

I found myself comparing Mauriac’s heroine with Colette’s women and wondering why she ended up quite such a state. If this story *had* been written by Colette, Therese’s experiences would have had a very different perspective and she would have made a new life in Paris after the events of the first book. She might well have had the same kind of bohemian, debauched existence but Colette, with her zest for life, would have put a very different spin on it! Maybe women writers are better on women’s lives or maybe Colette’s heroines were made of stronger stuff?

In essence, I *did* enjoy reading this book very much, but in some ways I can understand why the TD novella is often published separately. I thought I was being clever by getting the ‘complete’ Therese but actually I think I might well have got more out of just reading “Therese Desqueroux” on its own!

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