Divided Selves

Maltaverne

by François Mauriac, translated by Jean Stewart
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 195 pp., $5.95

The Manuscripts of Pauline Archange

by Marie-Claire Blais, translated by Derek Coltman
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 217 pp., $5.95

The Stunt Man

by Paul Brodeur
Atheneum, 278 pp., $5.95

Play It As It Lays

by Joan Didion
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 214 pp., $5.95

Youth from the past. Un adolescent d’autrefois was the original title of Maltaverne which Mauriac published in 1969, when he was eighty-three, a year before his death. For the last thirty years of his life he had written very little fiction, preferring to concentrate on essays and perhaps ephemeral political commentaries. Finally, in Maltaverne, he recapitulated with authority the themes of his prewar novels, marrying the skill and experience of his great age with a fresh, youthful expectancy to produce a fitting conclusion to his life as a writer. If nothing else, it is a polished and powerful piece of storytelling. The energy and cunning of this old craftsman, so near to death, is an encouragement to the living.

Sartre once complained of Mauriac’s tendency to shift his viewpoint, to describe a character sometimes from the outside, as a third person to be observed, sometimes from within, as if identified with the author. “Fictional beings,” wrote Sartre, “have their laws, the most rigorous of which is the following: the novelist may be either their witness or their accomplice, but never both at the same time.” This law, as Conor Cruise O’Brien has suggested, is surely too rigorous; it is evaded, rather than broken, in Maltaverne.

The principal character and narrator, young Alain, is clearly a reflection of the author himself, in the years 1904-1907: the boy’s vivid presence may possibly owe something to the author’s consideration of his own youthful letters and journals, but Mauriac is selecting from the boy’s opinions and feelings those of most interest to himself, sixty years later. Alain says: “Old men are horrible, when they can’t keep away from young people, it makes you sick, aging writers who dare talk about it in their books, who’ve no shame.” By “it” here, Alain means youth and physical love. Sometimes he stares at a very old man, in 1904, and tells a story about him—which becomes more and more improbable, until he admits to the reader: “I made it up.” Then Alain imagines himself at the same age—“still the same person that I am now, while some child-poet in 1970 will watch me from a distance, as I sit motionless, in my doorway, turned to stone.”

His friend, Donzac, supposes that Alain may become a great writer but will never achieve what is most desirable, the religious understanding of “that secret point where the truth of life as we experience it joins revealed truth.” Donzac—for whom, Alain suggests, the story is written—makes no appearance, though he is often referred to as an austere guardian of standards so high that there is no great shame in failing to meet them. More deflating than Donzac is another of Alain’s young friends, a peasant-boy seminarist called Simon, who tells Alain: “You’ll still win the first prize for composition in 1970.”

Max Beerbohm drew some quite witty cartoons of writers like Browning and Wordsworth, with the older …

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Letters

Exorcising Demons December 3, 1970