Thérèse Desqueyroux – François Mauriac (1927, trans. Gerard Hopkins 1972) 115 pages
Today’s choice sees me return to my much-neglected Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century reading challenge with a classic of French literature.
The novella opens with Thérèse Desqueyroux being acquitted of trying to poison her husband.
“The smell of fog and of baking bread was not merely the ordinary evening smell of an insignificant country town, it was the sweet savour of life given back to her at long last. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply of the perfume of the sleeping earth, of wet, green grass. She tried not to listen to the little man with the short legs who never once addressed his daughter.”
As she journeys back to her home among pine forests in Landes in south-west France, she reflects on her marriage to Bernard and life so far.
“All around us was the silence: the silence of Argelouse! People who have never lived in that lost corner of the heath-country can have no idea what silence means. It stands like a wall about the house, and the house itself seems as though it was set solid in the dense mass of the forest, whence comes no sign of life, save occasionally the hooting of an owl. (At night I could almost believe that I heard the sob I was at such pains to stifle.)”
There is never any doubt that she tried to poison him. Her family know it and Bernard knows it. However, there is never an obvious reason given for her drastic action. It was an unhappy marriage, a strategic match between Catholic middle-class families, but Thérèse seems to have gone along with it happily enough, mainly due to her fondness for Bernard’s sister Anne (some commentators have suggested Thérèse is gay). She doesn’t love Bernard and she feels no desire for him, but surely history would be littered with bumped-off spouses if that were a reason for murder.
“When all was said, Bernard wasn’t so bad. There was nothing she detested more in novels than the delineation of extraordinary people who had no resemblance to anyone whom one met in normal life.”
When she returns to her husband, she is surprised to learn that the plan is for her to stay, but on what terms?
Thérèse Desqueyroux is a beautifully written, intriguing novel that raises questions without seeking trite answers, including who pays the price for male power; how to create agency when you have almost no choices; the nature of justice.
‘But if I did give you a reason it would seem untrue the moment I got it into words…’
As the cover of the Penguin Classics edition shows, this novella was adapted to film (for the second time) in 2012. This trailer suggests a wonderfully shot, faithful adaptation: