“Every human being has his peculiar form of suffering, the laws of which take shape in earliest youth.”
The Frontenac Mystery from François Mauriac is the second title I’ve read from this author, and now I’m committed to reading more. Another edition of this book is titled The Frontenacs which after reading the book, IMO is more appropriate. This is the story of the family bonds, the ‘mystery’ of the title,’ between the members of a gentry family who live in the Bordeaux area during the decades leading up to WWI.
The novel opens 8 years after the death of Michel Frontenac who left behind his wife, Blanche and 5 young children: Jean-Louis, José, Danièle, Marie and Yves. Since the death of Michel, his brother, lawyer Xavier has become more involved in the lives of his sister-in- law and her children. He “renounced all his holdings” in the family estate in Bordeaux and subsequently Blanche moved there with her children. Xavier, a bachelor visits every other week, and while he’s devoted to her children and to the memory of his dead brother, there’s an insurmountable barrier between Xavier and Blanche. She finds his lectures “extolling the splendours of sacrifice” “exasperating.” She’s very religious and is all too aware what her life will be moving forward. And, perhaps the most annoying thing of all is that “it was only in terms of the young Frontenacs that she existed for him at all.” This is one of the book’s major themes: the bonds between family, but also how individuals, some just connected to the family in various ways, sacrifice to the Pyre of the Frontenac name and property. While some of the sacrifices are meaningful, others are meaningless and are lost in the passage of time.
This is not a tightly woven novel, and there exists a sort of gentle, ephemeral quality to the tale–languid days of childhood spent on the wonderful family estate as the Frontenacs grow up amidst the worries of a lonely, aging mother. The children are also under the watchful eye of their Uncle Xavier who keeps his mistress, Josefa stashed in another town. He keeps her hidden and imagines that his secret is unknown to anyone while in reality he’s a laughing stock for being so cheap with the poor woman who is part cook/cleaner/nurse/mistress and is devoted, even from a distance, to the Idea of the Frontenacs. But there are hints of something darker ahead–the slaughter of WWI awaits for one of the more adventurous Frontenac sons who longs for adventure, and then Blanche has constant anxiety about her children and a nagging worry about cancer.
But all of them felt obscurely that, as the result of some singular favour shown by the gods, Time had stood still. Power had been given them to leave the train which nothing halts. In the very process of growing up, they could stand in the shallows of childhood, could dawdle while childhood slipped away forever.
The story concentrates on the 3 Frontenac boys–Jean-Louis, José, and Yves; the two girls “brood mares” are barely mentioned. Yves is a sickly child who manages, in early adulthood, to escape the yoke of Frontenac responsibility by hightailing it to Paris where he pursues a literary career, and a lot of his determination is seeded by Jean-Louis’ early entrapment in the family business. Jean-Louis, abandons his dream of an education in Philosophy and assumes the Frontenac harness, joining the family business and marrying a childhood sweetheart–a marriage which will ensure he’s cemented in place. It’s not an exciting life–it’s been chosen for him, but he shoulders the family burdens, consciously turning away from an alternate future, while living variously through Yves. Mauriac explores maturation through the characters’ choices and how childhood may be linked forever to a physical place, such as the Frontenac estate, but childhood is also locked in time and can never be revisited. The novel has a significant ending–the arrival of a motor car and the slaughter of WWI. If you like novels with a philosophical angle, then this may be for you.
Translated by Gerard Hopkins
Thanks to Emma turning me onto Mauriac in the first place.