It is springtime in Paris, 1918. The youngest of the Thibaults, Jacques, has been dead since the beginning of the war; his older brother, Antoine, a medical officer in the French army, has inhaled mustard gas while conducting an inspection tour aimed, ironically, at determining why so many members of the medical corps have been gassed. He survives, but with aftereffects that sap his energy, leave him short of breath, and make it difficult for him to speak. He has been recuperating — if that is the accurate word — in a hospital in southern France, but has obtained leave for a few days to return to Paris in order to attend the funeral of an old family retainer. While in the city, he consults with a senior colleague, Dr. Philip. As the two doctors go over the details of Antoine's case, he reads in his old mentor's eyes what at bottom he has already known but refused to admit to himself: that the course of his "recovery" is in fact a downward spiral of remission and relapse that must, inexorably, lead to his death within a matter of months.
For Antoine, who has taken great pride — that stubborn Thibault pride, the family crest — in his own skill and drive, in his scientific knowledge, in the bright future that lay ahead of him, this death sentence produces a paroxysm of horror. Naturally he has known all along — and he is not a religious man — that his life would one day end, but he has always been confident that his death would come only after a long life filled with accomplishments and laurels; there would be a sense of satisfaction, a legacy to leave behind. Abruptly, confronted with his own annihilation, he realizes that it will all come to nought.
The chapter that narrates Antoine's return home that evening is one of the briefest and most extraordinary in the book. Reeling, he first takes the boulevard Malesherbes to the rue Boissy-d'Anglas, "passing so close to the façades that his elbows at times struck the walls."
He found himself under the trees of the Champs-Élysées. Before him, through the trunks, barely illuminated but visible under the nocturnal light of that beautiful spring night, stretched the Place de la Concorde, crisscrossed by silent automobiles which appeared like beasts with phosphorescent eyes and then vanished into the darkness. He saw a bench and approached it. Before sitting down, out of habit, he told himself "Don't catch cold." (And at once he thought, "What does it matter, now?") The blinding verdict that he had read in Philip's face had taken posssession of his spirit, and not only his spirit but his body, like an enormous parasite, a devouring tumor that would crowd out everything else in order to bloom monstrously and occupy his entire being.The lyricism at just this point in the narrative, this nocturnal urban sublime in the face of the abyss, is remarkable, but it is about to become more so. He hears a distant howling noise in the night. At first he is barely aware of it; then:
Two shadows, two female forms, emerged at a run from beneath the trees, and, almost at the same time, all the warning sirens began to scream at once. The sparse points of lights that blinked feebly around the Place de la Concorde were instantly extinguished.It is a night raid by German bombers, and the city is quickly blacked out. He hears distant detonations, the sounds of anti-aircraft guns, and rises from his bench.
Above Paris, an astonishing sky came to life. Emanating from every part of the horizon, luminous beams swept the vault of the night, their milky trails moving off and intersecting, scrutinizing the jumble of stars like a face, brutal, swift, or at times hesitating, stopping suddenly to examine a suspect spot, then recommencing their gliding investigation.He looks for a taxi,
But the square was now deserted, dark, immense and could only be discerned at moments. Its outline would suddenly appear, rising out of the gloom in the intermittent reflection of the searchlights, with its balustrades, its pale statues, its Obelisk, its fountains, and the funereal columns of its tall lampposts, like a vision in a dream, a city petrified by some enchantment, the vestige of a vanished civilization, a dead city, long buried in the sands.As the detonations and the sounds of machine gun fire rage on, he skirts the Tuileries and approaches the Pont Royal, watching halos of red flame rise all over the city.
He had forgotten his misery. Beneath that invisible, imprecise menace that hovered like the blind wrath of a god, an artificial excitation spurred his blood; a kind of furious inebriation gave him strength. He quickened his steps, reached the bridge, crossed the river, and plunged into the rue du Bac.A few moments later he is standing outside the building where he lives, resigned to his fate but dreading the solitude of rooms where he knows that no one awaits him.
These few pages are the last chapter of third-person narration in The Thibaults; the more than one hundred pages that follow are composed of letters and of entries in Antoine's journal, which he continues to the day of his death. It's almost as if Martin du Gard, who generally took a more scientific, matter-of-fact approach to narration, decided to pull out all the stops for a set-piece that would combine existential horror, the nightmare of modern warfare, and the beauty — and unexpected, evocative solitude — of the monuments of Paris into one final dazzling flourish.
[Image above: Yvon, Pont Royal and Quai des Tuileries. The translations are mine rather than Stuart Gilbert's, but in any case they pale beside the original.]