‘Lines of Life (Destins)’ by Francois Mauriac (1928) – 153 pages Translated by Gerard Hopkins
I was first tuned in to the awesome fiction of French novelist Francois Mauriac by my trusty literary critic Martin Seymour-Smith whose ‘Who’s Who in Twentieth Century Literature’ was and is my constant guide.
Seymour-Smith shares the view of most critics that Mauriac wrote all of his greatest work before 1933. Up until then Mauriac wrote intense moral dramas about the ongoing battle between Evil and Good in everyday life. In early Mauriac, Evil is so attractive and Good is so smug that a winner is by no means assured. After that Mauriac turned to Christianity and Catholicism with a vengeance, and the critical consensus was that he then stacked the deck in his fiction in favor of Good, and that his work weakened due to his new-found religious fervor. I still follow Seymour-Smith’s advice and have not read any of Mauriac’s work written in 1933 or after. By this point, Mauriac was already 47 years old and had written several masterpieces including ‘A Kiss for the Leper’, ‘Genitrix’, ‘The Desert of Love’, ‘Therese Desqueyroux’, and ‘The Knot of Vipers’, all of which I have read. ‘Lines of Life’ is considered a near masterpiece in Mauriac’s work.
One of the qualities that make Mauriac’s pre-1933 fiction so appealing is how he depicts the life of Evil as quite delightful, just like it is in real life. The ‘hero’ of ‘Lines of Life’ is Bob Lagave, the dissolute son of a landowner in Bordeaux. Bob is “a young man whose only concern is to seduce others, to soil others, to lead them to damnation”. His hardworking father has only contempt for his son:
“But there’s some as takes their fun and does a bit of work too. There’s a time and a place for all things. But this young man’s a no-good, if not worse.”
Bob has taken up the Paris high life which his father despises.
But the real moral center of the novel is the neighbor Elizabeth who closely observes one of Bob’s romantic exploits and develops a passion for him even though she is much older than he. Elizabeth’s son Pierre who is a religious fanatic accidentally spies on Bob and his young woman trysting in Elizabeth’s yard and condemns Bob in no uncertain terms, after which Bob punches him in the face.
Women are not off the hook in this morality drama either. The young woman who was caught trysting with Bob later says,
“After all,” she said: why should one give up a young man on the ground that he is not worthy to be one’s husband? Marriage is one thing, love quite another.”
Now that is a statement that would make any devout Christian cringe.
One of the ways to measure the impact of a writer is to look at his or her followers. Two of Mauriac’s ardent followers are the writers Graham Greene and Flannery O’Connor, two writers I hugely admire. I suppose it is somewhat strange that I, born and raised a Lutheran, am so enamored of the Catholic novelist Mauriac, but one cannot help liking what one likes, and I find Mauriac a simpatico spirit.
I find that these pre-1933 fictions of Francois Mauriac go deeper into analyzing the souls of the characters than other writers. Even though Bob in ‘Lines of Life’ is held in contempt by his father and is condemned by the religious, he is ultimately viewed sympathetically as we all must be. The battle between Good and Evil is not as clear-cut as it is sometimes made out to be.