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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 “self” confronted and criticized by the younger “self”—like a father challenged by his son or patronized by his grandson. (I read, in an obituary, that “Mauriac, although respected as a stylist, was barely tolerated by young French people of the Sixties.”) Mauriac’s vigorous old age and powerful memory lend credit to Alain’s contention that the older and younger selves are “the same person,” despite his fear that “people are divided by differences of age or social class to such an extent that there is no common language.” In English, age is something you are; in French it is something you have, rather as we talk of having class, having character, and, even, having sex—all misleading usages. Age, character, class, race, sex: the boy Alain learns to think of these not as things that we have, property, possessions, but as relationships, things that we do to and with each other—among whom, in Mauriac’s faith, God is included. Having involves being had: he is in danger of belonging to his belongings.

Alain comes from a landed family—in Mauriac’s familiar Landes, around Bordeaux—and this means that he will probably be married to a little heiress, whom he calls the Louse. Age twenty-one, he tells a girl friend that his mother

…has always been convinced that what I call physical love doesn’t exist for creatures of a certain race, to which she and I belong, that it’s a romantic fiction, that sex is a duty required of women by God for the propagation of the species and as a remedy for man’s bestial nature.

The girl friend says: “You’re the property of your property. You’ll marry the Louse.” Alain is frightened of this possibility, remembering Christ’s warning to the young man who had great possessions.

He hates the Louse and indicts his mother for her idolatrous worship of the land—which she thinks “the only legitimate pleasure granted in this world to a woman from one of our families.” He supposes that his own love of the land is quite different and perhaps justifiable, since it refines his appreciation of eternity. His old trees make him “aware of the ephemeral character of man’s condition. One wouldn’t mind being a thinking reed; but a thinking insect who during the few moments it has to live finds time to mate, that’s something dreadful.” While exposing his own pride, he arraigns his mother’s, arranging deadly sins in order.

For Mother, evil consists in those covetous desires from which in fact she is immune, which she calls concupiscence and for which she feels only repulsion. She never thinks of sin in connection with her own pride in possession and domination.

The reader’s sympathy with Alain, for all his casuistry, is cunningly moderated by the author, discreetly urging the mother’s case against the line of Alain’s argument and hinting that, if “sin” is under such close scrutiny, it is particularly sinful to call a little girl a louse.

The pattern of Alain’s thinking and behavior is set out. Then Mauriac shows the results, in a cruelly moving piece of narrative. The Louse is horribly killed, through Alain’s fault, and at twenty-two he thinks he has already “crossed the line beyond which one no longer seeks to be happy, but to gain control over one’s life.” His plan for self-subjection involves writing about his experience, even though “the outcome of all this agony will be a three-franc paperback.” He says: “I alone am capable of seeing that none of it is wasted…. What other young man had a mother like mine, and what other carries in his heart the image of a defiled and strangled child?” Yet the story of this defeated man ends, as it began, in a spirit of expectancy and youthful freshness.

Alain’s bookish girl friend says that certain elements in his character come from Christ but are “inseparably blended with those that come from Cybele.” Mauriac has written elsewhere that “Cybele has in France more worshippers than Christ.” Perhaps he identified the Great Mother with Mother Church—which, “with all its crimes and all its holiness,” says Alain, “is the most beautiful thing in the world.” Alain has learned from Donzac “that the Christians who have brought us up take, unconsciously, the opposite line to the Gospel in everything, turning each of the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount into a curse; that they are not meek, they are not merely unjust but they execrate justice.” The priests and teachers are idiots. “All the same, what they believe is true. There you have the whole history of the Church.”

Although I happened to be rereading War and Peace when I took up Maltaverne, I did not feel, as would be expected of a modern novel, that something immeasurably inferior had interrupted; nor that time had erected a great barrier between Tolstoy’s 1812 and Mauriac in 1970. It is evident that Alain could talk unconstrainedly with Bezuhov and Prince Andrei, as most of us could not. (Tolstoy was still alive in Alain-Mauriac’s adolescence.) Alain is certain of his identity; an undivided self, he thinks he is a “soul,” committing sins. His sex and his class are forces to be reckoned with, to which he will often surrender, prompted by his pride, anger, and sloth. But his faith makes him feel free. Arguing the case for predestination, within “the unconscious, universal swarm-life of mankind,” Tolstoy still confidently asserted that each man has another side to his life—“his individual existence, which is free in proportion as his interests are abstract.” Alain has this kind of confidence, rare in more modern fiction—unless we count Beckett, and choose to find his work optimistic.

The circumstances in which we read a book are bound to influence our appreciation. I had been studying mental illness in Malta, seeing how Roman Catholicism can help to keep people feeling “sane” (if not “adjusted”) and Maltaverne illustrates this: the Beckett-like pessimism of the story acts as propaganda for the Church’s optimism. But that Church can also drive some people to distraction—as is illustrated in another account of a Catholic childhood, The Manuscripts of Pauline Archange, by the French-Canadian novelist, Marie-Claire Blais. Out of sight of land, I kept discussing this contrast with shipmates, as we sailed slowly toward fascist Greece—where respectful interest in organized religion is immediately dispelled by the ubiquitous presence of the colonels’ nauseating placards: “A Greece for Greek Christians.” Returning to agnostic England, I found that Mauriac was dead—and, for all I know, gone where he said Gide would go—and that I had another Catholic novel to review, Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat, a bleak fable about insanity and what they call Evil. I must start writing again, in a cooler, British environment.

Muriel Spark’s novel is about a respectable woman from “the North” (probably Britain) who flies to “the South” (Italy? Greece?) to commit her chosen sin. This is not uncommon: the churchmen of the South are inclined to avert their eyes from tourists’ sins. But Miss Spark’s heroine—an office-worker called Lise—has an unusual craving: she wants to be the victim of a “sex-crime,” a perverse murder. We are given no explanation. We are not told from what cool town she comes, nor in which hot town she dies. She is a thin woman, aged between twenty-nine and thirty-six, who has deliberately made herself conspicuous with clashing, gaudy, holiday clothes, carefully selected for their lack of stain-resistance. She is observed, overheard, by no means understood. She seems ordinary, if eccentric, to other characters—except to a fellow passenger on the aircraft, who moves his seat, horrified by the temptation she presents to his sadistic nature. She comments:

He must be nutty. He wasn’t my type at all and I wasn’t his type. Just as a matter of interest, I mean, because I didn’t take the slightest notice of him and I’m not looking to pick up strangers. But you mentioned that he wasn’t my type and of course, let me tell you, if he thought I was going to make up to him he made a mistake.

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