Thursday, May 9, 2019

The Kiss to the Leper by François Mauriac

A sacrifice for love
French author François Mauriac won the 1952 Nobel Prize in Literature and was a member of the Académie Française, France’s honorary society of literary “immortals.” His novel Le Baiser au lépreux was published in 1922 and the following year was translated into English as The Kiss to the Leper. The story takes place in the region of Les Landes, on the southwestern coast of France, near Mauriac’s hometown of Bordeaux. This area is rich in pine forests from which are harvested both timber and resin for the making of turpentine. In the novel, the wealthiest landowners in the region are the Péloueyre family, or at least what’s left of them. Jean Péloueyre is the only child of his widower father, Monsieur Jêrome Péloueyre, who is plagued by chronic illnesses.

The title of the novel is a biblical metaphor; no actual leper appears in the story. Jean, however, is cursed with a physical ugliness that renders him almost as repulsive as one afflicted with that disfiguring disease. Conscious of his own hideousness, he lives a mostly solitary life on his family estate, but his isolation does not spare him from indulging in romantic thoughts. He envies a young servant’s handsomeness and health, and he nurses a crush for a local girl of exceptional beauty, Noémi d’Artiailh. Though Jean may be viewed as a pitiful freak by his neighbors, his family’s estate nonetheless makes him an attractive catch. One day his father informs him that, with the help of the parish priest, a marriage has been arranged for Jean. This is a surprise to Jean, and his shock is amplified when he finds that his betrothed is none other than Noémi, the woman of his dreams.

Though Noémi’s father may have had financial motives for the match, she herself is no gold-digger. She wants to be a good wife to her new husband, but cannot overcome her physical repulsion to him. Though she masks her aversion as much as possible, Jean clearly senses it. He withdraws from his wife out of self-consciousness of his own ugly and stunted form and self-sacrifice to his beloved’s happiness. Though both parties are well-intentioned, their behavior results in an unhappy and unstable marriage that cannot continue for long in its present state before something must be done to either save or dissolve the union.

With its picturesque setting and archetypal characters, The Kiss to the Leper often has the feeling of a fairy-tale fable or—in keeping with Mauriac’s devout Catholicism—a religious parable. The plot events are clearly calculated to serve the moral lesson of the story, somewhat in the romantic style of a Victor Hugo novel. (One can’t help thinking of Quasimodo and Esmeralda from Notre-Dame de Paris.) The characters, however, are depicted with a touch of naturalism and a psychological authenticity that grounds the story in a bleak realism. The overall tone of the book is rather depressing, and Mauriac does not shy away from the unseemlier aspects of disease or lust, but ultimately the novel’s depictions of sacrifice and redemptive love are quite moving.

The inherent sadness of the story is also countered by its brevity. At 132 rather sparse pages, it makes for a brisk read. Despite the small package, Mauriac delivers a Nobel-quality work that quickly and deeply involves the reader in the characters’ lives in a profound and compelling way. This is the first work I’ve read by Mauriac, but it certainly won’t be the last.
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