In 1906, in Mauriac's home town of Bordeaux, a young woman named Blanche Canaby was put on trial for attempting to poison her husband, but found guilty only of a lesser charge. Two decades later, Mauriac used the case as inspiration for his most famous novel, Thérèse Desqueyroux
. Not only that, he would return to the character in four later novels. Why this fascination with an obscure criminal? Why this most unusual crime story, steeped in noir
atmosphere (a night journey to the isolated pine forests on the SW French coast), but beginning where most crime novels leave off: with the release of the accused from jail?
Mauriac was a devout Catholic, and there is evidence that he provisionally entitled this Conscience, the Divine Instinct
, making the entire book a confession to a priest. If so, he would have been pursuing the particular Catholic paradox whereby even the most terrible sinners can be brought in the end to God's grace, much as Graham Greene was to do in such books as Brighton Rock.
But no; Thérèse remains essentially agnostic, and our one glimpse of the local priest shows him virtually useless in his pastoral role. Yet traces of the original design remain. The author, who addresses his protagonist directly in the prologue and on and off throughout the book, talks of his hope that she will one day be brought to God. And Thérèse herself, in her long journey from the jail back into the care of her husband, rehearses the confession she will make to him, in much the same manner and with the same hope of absolution as if she were performing the sacrament in church.
The imagined confession admirably serves the novelist's need for exposition. Beginning as it does with the proclamation of "non-lieu" (insufficient grounds), the withdrawal of the case because of the husband's refusal to pursue it, the reader has a lot of back-story to catch up, and indeed we are two-thirds of the way through the book before Thérèse returns home to Bernard Desqueyroux and the action can move forward. We hear of her growing up motherless in the great pine forest that she will one day inherit, her close friendship with her younger neighbor Anne de la Trave, and the virtual inevitability of her marriage to Anne's half-brother Bernard, owner of the adjacent property, a marriage largely to give her a settled status.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Mauriac's treatment is his refusal to load the dice. Bernard is a man of little imagination, interested only in business and hunting, but no monster. He can be thoughtless in bed and certainly cold, but he is not brutal. Mauriac was conscious of the example of Flaubert before him, but Thérèse is no Emma Bovary. Although she is jealous when Anne de la Trave falls into passionate love with a young man who has recently come into the district, she does not seek other lovers. Indeed, as with several other Mauriac books, I picked up hints of homosexual attraction, and wondered whether she could be satisfied in marriage at all.
Although Thérèse is referred to once or twice as a monster, she is not portrayed as one either. But nor is she entirely sympathetic. She is a chain-smoker, self-centered, and an indifferent mother. But yes, she is trapped in a marriage that takes away her freedom without giving her anything in return, a situation that will become blindingly obvious when she returns to Bernard. There is almost a unique trajectory to this novel. Thérèse's mental confession does indeed have the effect of making her crime seem less heinous, but there is no absolution. Bernard's deposition at the beginning of the book may have released his wife from jail, but it was made for the sake of the family only, it is not forgiveness. This is Crime and… what? Punishment, but of what kind? Redemption? Hardly. Whatever Mauriac's original intention, his characters take their own course into a cold purgatory of their own making. No wonder he felt the need to return to Thérèse again and again.