Oscar Thibault, the grand Catholic autocrat who looms over the first six parts of Roger Martin du Gard's Les Thibault, has finally died, after a long and luridly described bout of uremia marked by episodes of horrifying convulsions. His long-estranged younger son, Jacques, has returned to Paris from Lausanne in time to see his father, but Oscar is too far gone to know him. Antoine, his older brother, a physician, finds among their father's papers detailed instructions for his funeral, which takes place, in bone-chilling weather and accompanied by resounding tributes from various worthies with whom the old man had been associated — at a reformatory for boys (Martin du Gard uses the word pénitencier — prison) at Crouy that Oscar had founded and for which he had long felt a special benevolent concern.
Jacques doesn't attend the funeral; years before, after running away as an adolescent, he had been confined, at his father's insistence, in that very institution, and had suffered isolation and abuse there for which he has never forgiven him. He does, however, go on his own to visit the grave, when he is sure that he will be alone. He takes a train from Paris, gets off at the Crouy station, and makes his way on foot through the snowy fields and past the inn where he had once been locked up in a laundry room while his keeper, under the pretext of taking his charge for a constitutional, had pursued amusements of his own. Finally the reformatory looms ahead of him:
He had reached the end of the village. As soon as he passed the last houses, he saw, in the middle of the plain, isolated behind its enclosure of high walls, the great edifice topped with snow and ringed with rows of barred windows. His legs trembled. Nothing had changed. Nothing. The treeless road that led to the entrance was a river of mud. A stranger, lost in that winter dusk, would no doubt have struggled to decipher the gold letters engraved above the first floor. As for Jacques, he had no trouble reading the proud inscription upon which his eyes were riveted.I can't help, reading these lines, which I have re-translated with a few borrowings from Stuart Gilbert's version, but think of the following passage, written no more than five or six years before:
It was late in the evening when K. arrived. The village was deep in snow. The Castle hill was hidden, veiled in mist and darkness, nor was there even a glimmer of light to show that a castle was there. On the wooden bridge leading from the main road to the village, K. stood for a long time gazing into the illusory emptiness above him.That, of course, is the opening of Franz Kafka's The Castle, as translated by Willa and Edwin Muir. It's not a question of influence; Kafka was dead before La mort du père was published, and there's only a slight chance that Martin du Gard had read The Castle at that time. But there seems, nevertheless, to be some very real affinity between these two haunting, snow-covered landscapes and the two towering edifices they reveal — or in Kafka's case, the edifice that is concealed in an emptiness that is not really an emptiness at all but only an illusory emptiness.
What a difference in literary fates between Kafka, the obscure, emotionally tormented insurance bureaucrat who struggled to complete many of his works and died young but who has come to be regarded as a pivotal modernist, and Martin du Gard, the methodical creator of one of the most ambitious novel sequences of the 20th century, a man who was awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature in his lifetime but who is now widely dismissed, at least in the English-language world, as the epitome of a kind of narrative that is now firmly regarded as passé if not downright reactionary.
Melvin Jules Bukiet — who to his credit is among the few recent critics to have defended Martin du Gard's legacy — has said of The Thibaults, "written a third of the way into the 20th century, it may be the last great 19th century novel." He intended that as a compliment, and so it should be taken, but I would argue that Martin du Gard might have been more of a 20th-century writer than he is generally given credit for. Though he chose not to pursue the techniques of formal experimentation pursued by some of his contemporaries, is there not something quintessentially modern in his relentless, unsentimental realism, his avoidance of narrative gimmickry, his meticulous delineation of the interior lives of his characters? Does he represent an arrière-garde or simply an avenue left unexplored?