Saturday, March 16, 2013

Reading Martin du Gard (VII): Residue

One of Roger Martin du Gard's first published works was a dissertation on the ruins of the abbey of Jumièges in Normandy, and it's often been observed (sometimes disparagingly) that his scholarly training as an archiviste paléographe carried over into his literary works. Perhaps it was simply that he had an underlying disposition towards the methodical. In any case, I can't help thinking that he must have taken particular pleasure in writing the tenth chapter of La mort du père (the sixth part of Les Thibault), in which Antoine Thibault goes through the abundant personal papers of his father after the latter's death. The papers include not only Oscar Thibault's will and the instructions regarding his funeral arrangements, but also bundles of letters between him and his wife (who had died giving birth to Antoine's younger brother Jacques many years before), an aborted "History of Paternal Authority" that he had embarked on before either of his sons had even been born, various testimonial letters from former inmates of the reformatory for boys that he had founded, and a kind of commonplace book in which he had recorded quotations from various worthies as well as some more personal reflections that hinted obscurely at temptations, possibly but not necessarily of the flesh. And then there is this:
In the bottom of the drawer, a little box without a label: three amateur photographs with curling corners. The largest showed a woman of some thirty years of age, in a mountain landscape, at the edge of a group of fir trees. Antoine leaned over under the lamp; the woman's features were completely unknown to him. In any case, the ribboned bonnet, the muslin collaret, the puffed sleeves bespoke a very old-fashioned style. The second, smaller photo showed the same person, seated this time, hatless, in a square, perhaps in the garden of a hotel; and, under the bench, at her feet, a white poodle, crouched like a Sphinx. In the third image the dog was alone, standing on a table in the garden, its muzzle upright and a ribbon on its head. An envelope in the box contained the negative of the large photograph, the mountain landscape. No name, no date. Looked at more closely, and even though her figure was still slender, the woman appeared to have reached or even passed forty. A warm regard, serious in spite of the smile on her lips. An attractive physiognomy which Antoine examined, intrigued, without deciding to close the box again. Was it his imagination? He was no longer certain that he had never seen the woman before.
The photographs are not the only surprise Antoine comes across in his father's papers. He finds several pages of a letter from a woman who identifies herself only by initials. A longtime widow, the woman had taken out an advertisement in a newspaper in hopes of finding a second husband; Oscar had apparently written to her once before. The letter ends in mid-sentence at the bottom of the fourth page; its conclusion is missing. From the date, Antoine is virtually certain that the writer of the letter could not have been the woman in the photographs.

A lesser novelist would weave whole Gothic tales out of the hints offered by these discoveries, but that's not what Martin du Gard is up to. He isn't quite done with these mysterious women — one of them, if it is indeed her, will privately leave flowers on Oscar's grave — but what interests Martin du Gard is not uncovering some profound secret but the very fact that people are, ultimately, to a large extent unknowable to each other, even to those who supposedly know them best. The seemingly meaningless details — the picture of the dog standing by itself, the lost final pages of the letter — are just the kind of evidence a trained archivist or archaeologist would be used to dealing with on a daily basis. That is the pattern of how human lives leave traces behind them: a bit here, a bit there, sometimes planned, sometimes by chance, and more often than not with all of their associations and connections stripped away forever.

In the end, Antoine is left reflecting on how little he knew the father who had dominated his life for thirty years, and whom he will now never have the chance to know better.
"The residue of an existence," he thought. "And, in spite of everything, the breadth of such a life! A human life always has infinitely more breadth than one knows!"
(I have reworked Stuart Gilbert's translation but have taken his word for it about the "muslin collaret.")

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