‘Before beginning a novel I re-create inside myself its places, its milieu, its colours and smells. I revive within myself the atmosphere of my childhood and youth – I am my characters and their world’ (François Mauriac).
This is the moment that you’ve all been waiting for (well I have at any rate) when finally I tackle the last novel in my Landing Eight sequence of books. After that I have another Reading Challenge lined up to tell you about, but more of that in due course. In the meantime I’ll put The Frontenac Mystery to bed and cross it off my TBR Pile with a sense of satisfaction. There have been many distractions along the way but I’ve finally completed reading the eight titles that I picked out last year. Still got lots yet to read though; but for now let’s move on with the book in hand…
I picked this book (one belonging to He Who Put the Shelves Up in fact) as part of my Landing Eight Challenge since I hadn’t read anything by François Mauriac (1885-1970) before and this seemed as good an opportunity as any to start. The edition of The Frontenac Mystery that we have at home is a Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics edition from 1986; the text was translated by Gerard Hopkins for the Eyre & Spottiswoode edition of 1951. Le Mystère Frontenac was originally published in 1933 by Bernard Grasset. For some background information on Mauriac here’s a link to his biography on the Nobel Prize page (he was given the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1952).
At the centre of the novel is the Frontenac family, a landed gentry family from the Bordeaux region (Mauriac’s birthplace); Blanche Frontenac has been widowed with five children to bring up and a family reputation and tradition to uphold. Her brother-in-law Xavier helps her as a fellow guardian and as a custodian of the family’s business and estate. As the novel opens, Blanche has been widowed for eight long years; she was a ‘tragic mother with the black eyes, and the sick, lined face, in whom the traces of a former beauty still warred with wrinkles and approaching age. Her greying, rather untidy hair gave her the neglected look of a woman who has nothing to look forward to’.
Blanche has become subsumed into the family into which she married and carries the pride and ‘mystery’ of the Frontenac name within her. Having said that, she resents Xavier for apparently being unable to see her as a person; he sees Blanche only as the mother of the next generation of Frontenacs and she believes that he doesn’t even really see her as a Frontenac anyway. Similarly, he also sees in the children the glory of the family and therefore ‘what gave them value in his eyes had nothing to do with individual qualities’. But it transpires that Xavier has a secret that would not reflect well upon the august name of Frontenac were it to become widely known.
The novel follows the lives of the family as the children grow up and assume their place within the mystique of the Frontenac name. The boys Jean-Louis (the eldest sibling), Jose and Yves are all very different characters and Mauriac explores their contrasting hopes and ambitions. The two sisters Danièle and Marie don’t receive so much attention, probably because the times and social position they were in would never have allowed them much choice. Tellingly, at one point in their childhood they are described by Mauriac thus, ‘ They were two little brood-mares in the making, and found an outlet for their maternal cravings in ministering to the children of various washerwomen and chars’.
I’m not sure whether I really liked this novel as I didn’t feel much of a connection with or sympathy for many of the characters. They all seemed to be trapped in a web of their complex family history (and their pride in it) that they all at times kicked against, yet ultimately submitted to maintaining. I did however, feel sorry for Xavier’s secret woman Josefa (who is not as much of a secret as he thinks) who lives patiently in the background since she isn’t deemed to be worthy of a life amongst the family Frontenac. Xavier has conflicting emotions towards her, referring to as ‘shop-soiled’ but at the same time, ‘She was a kindly creature with a strong maternal instinct who did not laugh at him’.
Mauriac’s prose is beautiful and elegant but I think that the overall effect is cold and that the novel lacks that certain something that would draw me into the lives of the family. Perhaps it’s just that times have changed so much that it’s hard to imagine anyone devoting themselves so entirely to a collective without any consideration for the individual needs. The social segregation of Josefa from the family and her humble attitude towards them is hard to swallow. I would however, like to read something else by Mauriac (I will probably read this one again at some point) to delve a bit further into his world. It would perhaps help to read more on his life and the influences upon his work I think. Another project for the future.
And don’t forget that I promised an announcement on the next chapter of the Landing Book Shelves TBR Pile Reading Challenge! Tune in next time folks for an update…
If you’re also in Ireland, have a great Bank Holiday weekend.