The Crack-up

Melvin Jules Bukiet is the author, most recently, of "Signs and Wonders."

Journalists have certain articles that they can recycle once a year, every year, practically untouched from the year before. There's one of these fried-eggs-on-the-sidewalk kind of stories that appears each autumn, preceding the announcement of the Nobel Prize winners for that year. It mentions three groups of writers. The first group includes the season's possibles according to international literary scuttlebutt: Salman Rushdie or David Grossman or R.K. Narayan. The second category lists those giants who should have but never did receive a call from Sweden: Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, Italo Calvino. Then there's the last and perhaps most interesting category; it consists of those who did receive this ultimate honor yet have somehow fallen by the wayside and are unknown to the contemporary consciousness. They have funny names like Henrik Pontoppidan, Odysseus Elytis and Roger Martin du Gard.

The juxtaposition of the last two categories slyly implies that the graybeards of Stockholm don't know what they're doing, but in at least one case they knew very well, and it's our fault that we've allowed a great writer to slip under the cultural radar. Roger Martin du Gard is such a writer, and he is so forgotten that the New York Public Library Desk Reference has his name wrong when it lists the winner for 1937 as "Martin de Gard."

Martin du Gard's last, vast epic, "Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort," only now appearing in English more than four decades after his death in 1958, is a publishing event of the first order, albeit an ambivalent one, because the book itself was never finished. In fact, Martin du Gard never came close to finishing, because the nearly 800 pages before us are essentially the prologue to an unwritten opus.

Born in 1881, Martin du Gard lived a life of inspirational tedium. Instead of engaging in dramatic love affairs or public scandals, he seems to have spent his time in the countryside outside of Paris, reserving his energies for writing novels of an emotional, intellectual and physical magnitude of which we can hardly conceive today. His masterpiece, "The Thibaults," is a willfully Tolstoyan family saga set on the eve of World War I. Originally extending over eight books, it was, post-Nobel, translated by Stuart Gilbert and published in two volumes called "The Thibaults" and "Summer 1914." To our shame, this work is out of print; written a third of the way into the 20th century, it may be the last great 19th century novel.

Jacques Thibault, a rebellious youth, generates the story's momentum when he runs away from school with his best friend, Daniel de Fontanin, but it's Jacques' stiff older brother Antoine who is central to the narrative. The good son of a conservative Catholic aristocrat, he becomes a pediatric surgeon but is--quietly as his sibling is wildly--tormented. Antoine observes that "some of his decisions . . . often the most important . . . clashed with his reasoned scheme of life; so much so, indeed, that he had sometimes wondered: 'Can I be really the man I think I am?' "

The split between rationality and irrationality, especially religious irrationality, animates much of Martin du Gard's work. But is Antoine's an eternal human condition or is his era responsible for his confusion? While Martin du Gard sits in his garden, pouring forth manuscripts, space and time are changing around him and his characters. Cars are new; phones are new. So, too, is the concept of global warfare.

Striving toward rationality in the face of oncoming derangement, Antoine cannot help but get swept up in his own passions, and "The Thibaults"--and, later, "Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort"--confronts sexuality with candid explicitness. After saving a child's life in a grueling operation in a shabby apartment, he meets the eye of Rachel, a neighboring woman who has helped him through the ordeal. She says, "A night like that works you up." Then, "[t]hrough an open door at the far end of the passage he had a glimpse of a bed and, all about it, the glimmer of pink silk."

The urge to life after a confrontation with death rings true, and just as true is Rachel's ultimate abandonment of Antoine with the heartfelt words, "How I love you, my darling!" Devastated, Antoine goes into the cafe where he and Rachel last dined and sees "[c]hairs . . . stacked upon the tables and, with its prostrate music-stands, a cello cribbed in its black coffin, the piano draped in oilcloth . . . the bandsmen's platform might have been a raft piled high with corpses, adrift on a sea of dust."

This metaphorically desolate vision not only embodies the end of Antoine's affair but anticipates further, wider ruin. Soon, the Thibault paterfamilias expires in a gruesomely protracted scene just in time to miss the catastrophe about to destroy the world he thought he understood. But this is only halfway into the full novel, and at this point Antoine still believes that science (and Jacques, socialism) offers coherence.

*

By the commencement of "Summer 1914," several years have passed, and history has moved to the forefront as "the storm breaking over Europe . . . was already shaking from the boughs the tainted fruit." Jacques, now involved with Daniel's sister, Jenny, is active in political circles in Switzerland. The revolutionaries plot a mass strike, but after their leader, the actual Jean Jaures, is murdered by the perfectly named and historically true assassin, Villain, war is inevitable. Jacques engages in one final, futile, fatal act of honor and Antoine goes off to the front. The book ends with a lethally mustard-gassed Antoine chronicling his own slow demise. Writing in a last-days diary as the Armistice is signed, he inhabits "a region of what might be called transcendent chaos . . . and in it I felt gloriously alone, masterful, sure of myself." The infant son Jacques had with Jenny may provide a hint of future solace, but the Thibaults and their world are dead.

It's not merely its length or background or philosophical discursiveness that make Martin du Gard's work grand but rather its conviction that things like love and war and death are self-evidently important. The author's faith in the significance of human life also imparts an unstated faith in art to render it. Throughout "The Thibaults," his technique is as simple to describe as it is difficult to produce: He watches and listens and analyzes at whatever length necessary until he has finally created a purely realistic panorama of his characters and their world in all their sometimes contradictory complexity. Martin du Gard makes most contemporary novelists seem like miniaturists inscribing their laundry lists on the head of a pin because it's all they can do.

Feeling depressed about the meagerness of contemporary literature in the shadow of "The Thibaults," I mentioned this to another critic who had heard of but not read the saga. He asked me one question: "What's the irony quotient?" The answer, of course, was "Zero," and that's ultimately where its grandeur lies. Martin du Gard does not need to be clever or self-referential; for him stolidity is a sign of solidity.

Enter now "Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort," the novel Martin du Gard spent the last 17 years of his life writing. Told in the first person, it is ostensibly the memoir of the elderly, eponymous Maumort. It starts as a bildungsroman that describes his upbringing and educations, literal and sentimental. Multiple chapters are devoted to his first sex at boarding school and encounters with France's intellectual elite at his famous Uncle Eric's Paris salon. These episodes are related in the same slow and elegant pace as in "The Thibaults." Indeed, the shape of Bernard de Maumort's family life resembles that of the Thibaults in the previous novel; it has a strong, solitary father and a dead mother, and the split between Antoine and Jacques Thibault is echoed within Maumort, who is divided between contemplative and military pursuits.

Stylistic fractures appear almost immediately. Martin du Gard wavers between the memoir and epistolary chapters. There is also a 50-page interpolated tale about a secondary character's homosexual liaison gone tragically wrong, and then there are several hundred pages of notes the author left behind.

The book is supposedly Maumort's life story, recollected without tranquillity in 1940, as the German army commandeers the estate to which he has retired. Yet its thick spine cracks, and one can't help but feel a strange imbalance as fewer and fewer pages remain until the realization hits that we're never going to get beyond the narrator's formative adolescent years and arrive at his memoir's moment of composition. Various asides tell us that Maumort suffered a crisis of conscience during the Dreyfus Affair and that he spent time in North Africa before going through World War I, but this wealth of experience is barely mentioned. This can't but leave a reader somewhat disappointed--not in any of the beautifully written, rigorously thoughtful, historically evocative scenes we have read but in those we haven't been able to read simply because they don't exist.

Why couldn't this most diligent of writers proceed further? Three possibilities. First, the finished book would have been several thousand pages long, and he died at the beginning of the massive endeavor. But this can't be true because even the slowest writer would have written more in nearly two decades.

Or maybe the book is an exercise in modernism, or anticipatory postmodernism. Maybe it really is complete, and the "notes" at the end are not merely notes but rigorously constructed text, like the footnotes in David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest." But this too is wrong. Martin du Gard is just not that kind of writer. The notes are indeed notes found in an enormous trunk after he died and appended to this volume as a revelatory aperture into a writer's soul. Mind, his musings are remarkable for their Pascalian epigrams and their Montaignian measuredness, but what's genuinely strange is that they fail to contain a hint of plot. Instead of an architectural blueprint, we've entered an attic filled with fascinating ideas about everything from pedagogy to colonialism that seldom connect with character or event.

The last possible reason for Martin du Gard's ultimate inability to realize his vision is the saddest and, to this reviewer's mind, the likeliest: He couldn't. He was paralyzed. History beat him. Every Cassandra must have some element of optimism in order to bother to sound a warning. But once one finally believes in doom, one succumbs. All of the evil looming in Martin du Gard's earlier work had arrived and expanded exponentially as the mustard gas of World War I was transformed into the Zyklon B of World War II.

And with the end of a way of life comes the end of a way of perception. By mid-century, an old style cannot convey a new reality, so Martin du Gard wrestles with forms that do not come naturally. Fascism has eroded the foundations of his house of fiction, and futurism has buckled the walls. To read "Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort" is to watch helplessly as the author's powerful morality is in the slow-motion process of being undone by rapid-fire modernity. Unfortunately, all that is solid now melts into air, and all that's left is this vitally important artifact, painstakingly translated by Timothy Crouse and Luc Brebion. Despite their noble efforts, we can do nothing but behold the unfolding Death of the Novel and weep.

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