What the Editors Are Reading

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WtEAR-François_Mauriac,_1933_112019jpg François Mauriac via Agence de presse Meurisse [Public domain]

French Catholic novelist François Mauriac (1885-1970) enjoyed a long and professionally successful life, receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1952 and the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour in 1958. He was also intermittently involved in French politics as an outspoken opponent of the German occupation of France during World War II, and later as a critic of the bloody French efforts to hold on to Algeria. Toward the end of his life, Mauriac became a fervent supporter of French president Charles de Gaulle and often spoke out on behalf of the great French leader.

Curiously, this long-lived author may best be remembered for his novel published in 1927, Thérèse Desqueyroux, about an unhappily married daughter of a small landowner in Southwestern France, in the French Pine Barrens (known in France as les landes). His story of Thérèse, an unhappy wife who poisons but fails to kill her irksome husband, has lived on in translations as well as via multiple cinematic adaptations in both English and French.

The movies based on the novel fall short of doing full justice to the book, for an obvious reason. The strength of the work in my view is in the telling, including the masterful descriptions of the arid French land east of Bordeaux, which Mauriac knew well. He shows in graphic detail the poverty of the métayers (tenant farmers) who eke out their very meager sustenance in extremely grim conditions.

The landowners, typified by Thérèse’s husband Bernard and his family, are the big fish in a modest pond; and they spend considerable energy trying to expand their family holdings nestled in the pines. The marriage between Thérèse and Bernard seems designed to achieve this end, although it soon becomes painfully obvious that they are not well matched. Bernard is absorbed in male fellowship, particularly hunting, while his wife remains at home in the Pine Barrens dreaming of a more fulfilling life in Paris.

Clearly, much of this narrative about the bored consort of a dull husband follows the well-tread path of Madame Bovary, but this one varies from the model because Mauriac gives his account a different twist from Flaubert’s. After recovering from being poisoned, Bernard decides to shield Thérèse to avoid family scandal and to protect their infant daughter. He backs her alibi when the case comes to trial in nearby Le Nizan. Not surprisingly, the offended husband treats his would-be killer like a prisoner in their own home. Only at the end does he relent and allow her to move to Paris, where she will presumably pursue the existence she has always sought. Once there, however, she longs again for “the pines of Argelouse” back in Aquitaine.

Having read the novel several times in French, I find the ending less than satisfying. In the closing scene Bernard and his wife are seated in a café in Paris, talking about Thérèse’s attempted killing, in which Bernard “defies” his wife to tell him what she “really wants.” Thérèse insists that she tried to slay her husband almost out of a “sense of duty,” because she found her existence with him to be intolerable. This may indeed have been the ending Mauriac wished to give his best-known novel, but he also might have done more with it. Since Mauriac continued to write about Thérèse’s sojourn in Paris in lesser-known texts, it appears he had the same thought.

—Paul Gottfried

 

A slow-motion coup d’état is how Christopher Booker and Richard North describe the gradual creation of the EU in their 2003 book, The Great Deception: A Secret History of the European Union. This superbly researched, implacably focused history charts the strategy of deliberate deception practiced by the EU’s founding father, French economist Jean Monnet.

The authors demolish many myths. The EU was not born out of the wreck of World War II, but had been planned from the 1920s. And it is not true that Britain’s leaders stayed condescendingly aloof from the early stages of the European project, but were “seeking to assist and co-operate…in every conceivable way.” Another myth was that the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy was invaluable in overcoming food shortages. In fact, subsidies and technological innovation had already led to overproduction.

The great doctrinal dream behind the EU was, and is, supranationalism. Monnet saw British attempts to settle merely for cooperation with the continent as a threat to the supranational dream. He would introduce initiatives, apparently innocuous, that were gradually expanded into full-fledged features of the EU structure. We can now say with certitude from released documents that the EU’s agenda was never cooperation, but subordination.

Margaret Thatcher was the first British leader to see the light. Two years after her 1988 Bruges speech defending a decentralized Europe, the EU succeeded in bringing her down. Then came Tony Blair, of whom the authors say, “power then passed to a leader for whom deception was so much second nature that it would become the defining characteristic of his government.”

The outcome is now plainer than when the book went to press. Britain is finally leaving the EU, driven by the unchallengeable will of its people, who have taken the advice Bernard Shaw offered in Heartbreak House: “And what,” asks Hector, “may my business as an Englishman be?” Captain Shotover answers: “Navigation. Learn it and live; or leave it and be damned.”

—Ralph Berry

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