This is my review of Thérèse Desqueyroux (Penguin Modern Classics) [ Language:English ] by Francois Mauriac.
Inspired from his youth by the real-life case of Blanche Canaby, accused of the attempted murder of her husband, Mauriac developed the classic tale of Thérèse Desqueyroux, a character who fascinated him so much that she figures in two subsequent novels.
In the opening chapter, the charge of poisoning her husband Bernard is dropped against Thérèse Desqueyroux, after he has lied to “get her off the hook” for the sake of appearances. The rest of this short novel is an exploration of why she committed the crime, and the aftermath of her acquittal. Set in the pine forests of Les Landes near Bordeaux, this is a study of the stifling convention and hypocrisy of bourgeois landowning families in 1920s France. Intelligent and “charming”, if not exactly “jolie”. Thérèse has passively accepted her lot, which is to marry Bernard, son of the neighbouring family and step-brother of the bosom friend Anne for whom she may harbour more than a schoolgirl crush. Prior to marriage, she is quite attracted to Bernard, with the added appeal of his property to be combined with her inheritance. Too late, she realises the extent of his dullness, growing tendency to over-eating and hypochondria, but perhaps worst of all is the sexual contact for which she has not been prepared – in time, his mere physical presence repels her.
Having recently seen the film version of this novel, starring Audrey Tautou, I was reluctant to read this for a book group: although sympathetic to Thérèse’s sense of being trapped, I was alienated by the irrational and excessive nature of her attempt to murder Bernard. Having read the novel, and gained an insight into her thoughts, I continue to regard Thérèse as psychopathic in her coldness, showing a lack of maternal feeling for her daughter Marie, and jealousy towards Anne, stabbing in the heart the photograph of her unsuitable lover and, with an ulterior motive which does not bear close analysis, joining readily in the family plot to separate the pair. When she is driven to contemplate poisoning herself, she is unable to do so, but at least recognises the “monstrous” aspect of this, since she was quite prepared to poison Bernard without compunction.
On the other hand, although I do not think Mauriac adds much to the theme of female repression which has been covered so often – perhaps in part because he finds it hard to get inside a woman’s mind – it is the quality of Mauriac’s writing in the original French, less so translated into English, which impresses me. I like the way he plays with time, mixing together present situations and fleeting thoughts about the past or future in a kind of stream of consciousness which must have seemed quite radical at the time. His portrayal of the pine forests in changing weather, to which Thérèse can clearly relate better than to people, is striking. He tends to write in emotionally violent terms about overwrought dysfunctional characters tied together by social bonds – the title of his famous “Knot of Vipers” being a good example of this. His bitter, vituperative flow, full of images of walking over the still warm ashes of a landscape one has burnt, being frozen in the immense and uniform ice of an oppressive environment or drowning oneself in the crowds of Paris, holds one’s attention, even when having little liking for the characters or even perhaps the author himself.