Thérèse Desqueroux by François Mauriac

Théresè Desqueroux by François Mauriac is one of two picks made by Emma for the virtual gift exchange. The book had been a topic of conversation before the exchange as there’s a new film version with Audrey Tatou in the role. I’m not sure if I’ll see it as I don’t think anything can be better than the 1962 version. But back to the book….

ThereseThérèse Desqueroux begins with the dismissal of a court case against a young married woman, and on the first page she exits the court house. A chilling reception awaits from Thérèse’s father, and a discussion between Monsieur Larroque and the barrister Duros reveal snippets of an extraordinary conversation; it becomes evident that a local doctor charged Thérèse with attempting to poison her husband, Bernard. Since this is a serious accusation, you might expect a celebratory period following the dismissal, but instead Duros and Larroque discuss the best line of attack; Duros favours aggressive newspaper coverage denying “A Scandalous Rumour,” while Larroque explains that “for the family’s sake we’ve got to hush the whole business up.”  And what of the young woman who’s the object of this horrible accusation? Her emotions don’t fit the moment; she’s cool and detached, and yet here in a conversation between Thérèse’s father and barrister, she reveals an underlying aggression:

“After my son-in-law’s evidence it was a foregone conclusion.”

“Hardly that-one can never be quite certain.”

“Once they’d got him to admit that he never counted his drops….

But in cases of this kind, you know, Larroque, the evidence of the victim…”

Thérèse spoke in a loud voice:

“There was no victim.”

End of conversation.

There’s a little bit of a squabble about what will happen next. Thérèse says she will spend a short time with her husband before returning to her father, but he’ll have none of that and tells her that she’s with her husband “till death do you part.” A grim statement in light of the recently dismissed court case.

On the journey back to Bernard’s and their home in Argelouse, Thérèse goes back into her past–through her childhood, adolescence and her marriage to Bernard, the brother of her best friend, Anne. The marriage is viewed as a “foregone conclusion” and yet Bernard’s mother, remarried and now called Madame Victor de la Trave isn’t 100% sold on the match. Thérèse is rich and attractive, but there’s a scandal involving her grandmother that’s been successfully swept under the rug, and Bernard’s mother is concerned that Thérèse might inherit her grandmother’s genes.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the honeymoon is an unmitigated disaster–undeniably so because Bernard is oblivious to his wife’s distress:

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 around delightedly in their stye. (“And I was the stye,” thought Thérèse.) He always looked so much in a hurry, so busy, so serious. He was a man of method. “Do you think it’s altogether wise?”  Thérèse would sometimes ask, appalled by the extent of his virility. Laughingly he reassured her. Where had he learned to draw such fine shades of discrimination in all matters pertaining to the flesh, to distinguish between what a decent man may or may not permit himself in the matter of sadistic self-indulgence? He was never for a moment in doubt. Once, when they stopped for a night in Paris on their way back, he pointedly left a music-hall where the performance had shocked him. ‘To think the foreigners should see that! It’s a disgrace. that’s the sort of thing they judge us by!…” It amazed Thérèse to think that this Puritan should be one and the same as the man whose sensual ingenuities would be forced upon her in less than an hour.

Thérèse’s memories bring images of her unhappy marriage and the endless days which are coated with a suffocating boredom. Naturally the status quo cannot remain forever, and rather strangely Thérèse discovers the inkling of mental liberation through a platonic relationship with a young man who returns to the neighbourhood.

I saw undertones of lesbianism in the 1962 film version, but I didn’t pick that up in the book. I had a great deal more sympathy for Thérèse as depicted on the big screen, but there’s something repellent about the book’s Thérèse. I think I’m supposed to have sympathy for the fictional Thérèse’s dilemma–marrying a bombastic country bore before she really understands what she wants out of life. And, yes, while I do have sympathy, there are limits. There’s something rather cold and unpleasant about Thérèse. Here she is on the receiving end of one of Bernard’s lectures:

Thérèse was no longer frightened: she wanted to laugh. He was just comic– a figure of fun. It did not matter what he said in that awful accent of his which everywhere but in Saint-Claire made him a laughing stock–she was going away. Why all this fuss? It would not have made the slightest difference to anyone if this fool had disappeared from the face of the earth! The paper trembled in his hand, and she noticed his badly-kept finger-nails. He was wearing no cuffs. He was just a county oaf who looked merely comic anywhere but in his accustomed rut, the kind of man who, from any intellectual, or even personal, point of view, is completely null and void. Only habit makes us attach importance to the life of the individual. Robespierre had been right–and Napoleon and Lenin.

Don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to follow the examples of those three when considering the value of a human life.

Ultimately, are we supposed to have complete sympathy for Thérèse? Clearly her marriage to Bernard is a huge argument for ‘no-fault’ divorce, and while I have sympathy for anyone who married boring old Bernard, he never changed. He was totally himself, a creature of predictable, yawn-inducing habits from the start. Even though the marriage just fell into place, Thérèse wasn’t forced to marry him. After all, she was a wealthy young woman. For this reader, Thérèse has a few vital components missing–not everything can be explained away by the tedium of her daily existence, the suffocation of life with a boring spouse.

Translated by Gerard Hopkins

Anyway, thanks Emma. This was a great pick for me.


Filed under Fiction, Mauriac François

14 responses to “Thérèse Desqueroux by François Mauriac

  1. This sounds like a really great book. It does indeed sound as if Thérèse has shortcomings. Something like that however can enhance a book for me. I prefer deeply flawed characters.

    I will at least check out the 1962 film. I like Audrey Tatou so if I like the original I may give the new one a try. With that said, I generally disapprove of remakes of great movies.

  2. I’ve read a few of his novels and remember I liked the sequel to this even better. She is rather cold and hard to like. The whole book is disturbing but in an interesting way. Not sure I’d like to see Audrey Tautou in this role but then again I don’t like her much.

    • I recently saw her in a film and she is so thin. It’s almost as though as she ages, she’s still trying to keep this waif-like look to fit the roles she gets. I’m not a huge fan either–although I have really liked a couple of her films.

  3. I much like Mauriac’s early work, including Therese, before his religious conversion which must have taken place about 1930. I particularly like ‘Desert of Love’, ‘Flesh and Blood’, and ‘The Kiss of the Leper’.

  4. I’m glad you liked it.

    I read this years ago and it stayed with me. I remember I was horrified by Bernard and by the narrow life she was supposed to live. I thought the parents were cold and had no compassion. Everything to keep up appearances.
    The reader doesn’t like Thérèse because things aren’t black and white. It’s not a Hollywood film with bad people against a poor abused woman. She’s flawed too but I still felt compassion for her and mostly for her lack of freedom.

    I can’t picture Audrey Tautou in that role. She has a childish look that doesn’t agree with the character. Charlotte Gainsbourg would have been better or Chiara Mastroianni.

    • She has my sympathy, but it is limited. I can’t help but feel that she has her problems too. Bernard was always exactly what you expected. He didn’t change–although of course proximity, in this case, did him no favours.

      Bernard’s family is appalling. They’re pedestrian, predictable, judgemental, & exacting.

      But that quote about Lenin, Robespierre and Napoleon really bothers me.

      Gainsbourg would have been a great pick for the role.

      • I read this when I was really young, not sure I’d respond to Bernard the same way now.

        It’s unusual for a French to put Rosbespierre, Napoléon and Lenin in the same sentence. Robespierre & Lenin, yes but Napoléon isn’t as much seen as a dictator with blood on his hands as the two others.

        • I agree with you about Thérèse being a complicated character, The novel would be a lot less interesting if she was just another victim. I mean, yes she is, but there are shades of something else. What about that other relative, eh?

  5. I think these kinds of stories are potentially more interesting when the protagonist is also unsympathetic, as in Madame Bovary in a very different way. Anyone can sympathise with a good person married to a bore or churl; someone morally ambiguous doesn’t deserve that fate either but we struggle to root for them in the same clear way, making for a more complex mix.

    • I think Thérèse has some mental issues. When I read the quote about the lack of value of human life, it seemed to be a chilling justification. All maternal feeling seems to be absent too. She’s an odd one.

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