Saturday, May 04, 2013

Reading Martin du Gard (VIII): Flight

As the seventh and longest of the eight parts of The Thibaults draws to a close, armies have been mobilized, fighting has broken out across Europe, and Jacques Thibault and Jenny de Fontanin have become lovers. Jean Jaurès, the one Socialist leader who seemed most likely to resist the march to war, has been assassinated before their very eyes; to Jacques's disgust, Jaurès's former comrades quickly fall in step with the patriotic march to war. Because Jacques holds forged Swiss papers, he plans to take Jenny to Switzerland and escape service in the army. In no case is he willing to fight or to kill his fellow man; the divergence between his views and those of his older brother Antoine, in regard to the civic obligation to obey the country's call to arms, is absolute. (Though Martin du Gard was a pacifist, he characteristically gives Antoine the most persuasive lines.) At the last moment, Jenny has a terrible row with her mother and decides to remain behind in Paris, temporarily, to patch things up. Jacques leaves for Switzerland; the couple will never see each other again. Despite his genuine love for Jenny, the truth is that he is relieved. He has set himself a mission, to which Jenny would only be an obstacle.

The mission, such as it is, is utterly insane: with a comrade, a pilot named Meynestrel, he concocts a plan to drop hundreds of thousands of leaflets along the battlefront, leaflets calling on soldiers on both sides to lay down their arms and rise up against the politicians and capitalists who have sent them to war. Does he really believe that the soldiers will heed the call, or does he simply welcome the chance to sacrifice his own life in a doomed effort that he knows is likely to prove fatal? The chapters describing the preparations for the flight have an adventurous, even lyrical tone, but it all ends too soon, and the final pages of L'éte 1914 are grueling to read. The plane malfunctions and crashes, Meynestrel is killed, the leaflets are consumed in flames, and Jacques, horribly injured, is pulled from the wrecked plane by French soldiers. Unable to speak, fitfully conscious, he is mistaken for a spy and bound to a stretcher. (In what may be an echo of the Passion, he is taunted and pelted with gravel.) As the French army retreats in the face of a German offensive he is carried along with them; when the retreat degenerates into a disordered rout one of the stretcher-bearers, terrified of his own act, administers a hurried coup de grâce with his pistol.

The novel will resume with a book-length Epilogue set four years later. But after some 1,750 pages, Martin du Gard has dispensed with one of the two Thibault brothers by giving him a death that accomplishes nothing, that has no meaning. Jacques was never a good fit for his world; he seemed to know this, and for that reason willed his own death. But the redemption he sought to achieve in dying is completely denied him. Like the war itself, it is ghastly and without purpose.

(The cover shown above reproduces an image from the 2003 French television adaptation of the novel, featuring Malik Zidi as Jacques.)

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