I’m not ashamed to admit that I plucked this book from a shelf in a charity shop almost solely because of its distinct Frenchness. It was a lovely little Penguin Modern Classics edition with a Expressionist painting on the cover, so as someone who loves books as artefacts I was compelled to buy it. And I was far from disappointed by its contents. I could feel this book becoming a new favourite as I was reading it, practically pencil-marking every other sentence for the expression being utterly perfect.
Set in the Bordeaux region of France, the novel opens as a court case closes; Thérèse has been acquitted of the crime of poisoning her husband, Bernard. This lays the groundwork for the subsequent events of the novel, exploring both the causes and the repercussions of her seemingly morally devoid act. Her unhappy marriage, unwanted motherhood and the intense social pressures upon her build a picture of a woman driven to unimaginable extremes by those around her.
First published in 1927, it is François Mauriac’s most famous creation. In terms of critical reception, the book and its author have received countless accolades; Mauriac, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1952, has been lauded as one of the finest French novelists ever, and Thérèse Desqueyroux was named by major French newspaper Le Figaro as one of the twelve best novels of the first half of the twentieth century. Having picked this novel up purely by chance, however, I was unaware of all of this. I fell for its charm and nothing else.
What really drew me in was the intricately constructed and achingly tragic life of the eponymous protagonist, Thérèse. You are brought in close to the main character by the stark combination of flashbacks, first-person inner monologue and sudden time shifts. The immediacy of style achieves a unique kind of intimacy with the character of Thérèse despite the largely third-person omniscient narrative stance. In an interview with The Paris Review in 1953, Mauriac commented that in this work, he “used some devices that came from the silent films: lack of preparation, the sudden opening, flashbacks. They were methods that were new and surprising at that time.” Even now, the use of these techniques in conjunction with beautiful expression creates a deeply immersive reading experience quite unlike anything I’ve ever encountered.
I mentioned I had pencil-marked phrases throughout reading this book, and to justify my raving about how sublime the language is, I’ll quote some of the most memorable of extracts here (spoiler free):
Instinctively, Thérèse produced […] that famous smile of hers which led people to say: ‘It never occurs to one to consider whether she’s pretty or ugly. One just surrenders to her charm.’
In a flashback, when in bed with her husband Bernard on a warm night:
She avoided him, seeking the extreme edge of the mattress in an effort to avoid the burning contact. But a few minutes later he lumbered towards her again, as though his flesh sought blindly its accustomed prey even in the insensibility of sleep.
And one of my personal favourites:
He remained imprisoned in his own pleasure like one of those charming little pigs whom it is so amusing to watch through the railings rooting about delighting in their stye. (‘And I was the stye’, thought Thérèse.)
It is this gorgeously rich writing style that I fell in love with. Of course, some of this must be attributed to the skill of the translator of this volume, Gerard Hopkins, though the original French is undoubtedly the backbone of the beauty of the novel. It is clear even from these very short extracts that despite the narrative style being a degree removed from Thérèse’s own mind, the insight into her perception is clear. And it is this proximity which allows Thérèse to be so utterly enchanting. Though her character is endlessly flawed and self-sabotaging, as a reader you are drawn into her tragedy like a moth to flame, unable to prevent yourself from being collateral damage on the course of her path to inevitable disaster.
This brings me to another of the many compelling elements of this novel; Thérèse is brought to fruition in such a disarmingly tangible way that, by the close of the novel, she feels entirely real. Almost as if she were a friend of a friend you had once met in passing and since only heard stories about. The kind of person you find yourself unexpectedly wondering about when you’re alone and looking out at a particularly striking view, most probably a clear day’s sunrise.
Mauriac’s own foreword to the novel is a surprisingly personal one. Thérèse, it seems, is a fully realised form of a human being to the author as well as the reader. He writes:
Many, Thérèse, will say that you do not exist. But I who for so many years have watched you closely, have sometimes stopped you in your walks, and now lay bare your secret […] Many will feel surprise that I should give imagined life to a creature more odious than any character in my other books. […] People who ‘wear their hearts upon their sleeves’ have no story for me to tell, but I know the secrets of the hearts that are deep buried in, and mingled with, the filth of flesh.
Perhaps it is this connection the author has with his creation which makes the contents of the novel so believable, permeating and seeping through the writing to make it feel like a slice of very real biographical life.
The initial novel, Thérèse Desqueyroux, is followed by four short stories accounting subsequent episodes in her life. I don’t wish to spoil any aspect of these stories for those who have not read it, but what I can say is that my heart broke for her over and over again the more I read. Truly, she is an irresistible character, whether this is in spite of, or because of, her imperfections.
In few words, the blurb of my edition manages to articulate a fraction of the sentiment I am trying to convey:
These four stories, set in Bordeaux and Paris, chart the passionate, tortured life of Thérèse Desqueyroux, and, in spite of the devastation she wreaks, finally affirm the beauty and vitality of the human spirit.
And that is her allure. Though everything about this novel permeated with pure tragedy, it has within it an ineffable fervour which proves addictive until the last word and beyond. I cannot recommend it enough.
(P.S. the featured image on this post is from the 1962 film adaptation of the novel, directed by Georges Franju and starring Emmanuel Riva as Thérèse).