Limits to devotion

“We are, all of us, molded and remolded by those who have loved us, and though that love may pass, we remain none the less their work – a work that very likely they do not recognize, and which is never exactly what they intended."

I came across this epigraph in a memoir and wanted to read the source. François Mauriac’s The Desert of Love, English translation by Gerard Hopkins, is a brilliant novel revolving around the shared experience of a father and son coincidentally infatuated with the same woman and the impact this passion has on the rest of their lives. I thoroughly enjoyed this story because it is not what it seems. This is a story about the awakening of desire, not of sexual love, but of the desire to come alive.

The story takes place in the early 1900s in a small town in France. Paul Courrèges lives in a lively multi-generational household. He is a respectable doctor and is quick to defend Maria Cross, who is one of his patients, whenever someone speaks ill of her. Maria Cross leads an unconventional life as a mistress to a Monsier Larousselle, left alone under the pretense of being a caretaker of one of his residences. She spends her days stretched on the sofa in the drawing-room, occupying herself with books and daydreams. She has the doctor tied around her finger, entertaining herself with sending him secret invitations to long visits in her room. After a while, she grows bored of him and shatters his heart before any semblance of the romance he imagines comes to fruition.

Paul’s son, Raymond, is an unruly and sensitive young man in the formative years of his youth. He just so happens to lock eyes with Maria on a six o’clock trolley on his way to school. The two are attracted to one another instantly, and this daily non-verbal rendezvous on the tram rekindles some excitement in her life and slowly transforms him into a man – at least in the outward sense. Paul, preoccupied with suffering from his heartbreak despair, barely recognizes the handsome man sitting across him at the dining table.

The story opens with Raymond, seventeen years later, seeing Maria Cross enter a bar.

“He recognized her as he would a road familiar to him in childhood, even though the oaks once shading it had been cut down.” (p. 10)
Struck down by the experience of his first love, he remembers her and the story takes us back to his upbringing and shifts perspectives from Paul, Raymond, and Maria Cross. Neither Paul nor Raymond could ever have her, because having her would shatter the “mysterious enchantment” in their eyes. Infatuation drives us to use another as “prop” for our idealized self, as John Armstrong puts it in his exploration of the variety of loves in Conditions of Love. Raymond needed Maria Cross to see himself as the desirable man he longed to be, and gave Paul a spring to his step in his otherwise lonely life. In Maria Cross, Paul fancies an “intellectual” partner to have deep conversations with and fantasizes about re-living his youth.

Paul’s wife, Lucie, is another suffering character.
“Tangled in her clumsy efforts at tenderness, she was, as it were, always groping her way forward with outstretched hands. But whenever she touched him it was to bruise.” (p. 27)

She constantly talks to him about trifles, town gossip and conflicts with their servants, drawing him away. When the doctor is bed-ridden and suddenly musters the strength to go see Maria Cross after being called, his wife is struck by jealousy and horror, still attends to him. She runs after him, “breathless,” bringing him a piece of bread and a chocolate bar for his trip. The choice of food, a chocolate bar, made me picture the two of them as children playing house. Children, who at first loved each other, and now cohabitate.

The most moving scene, to me, is where Paul finds himself alone in the garden outside their home in the evening after another failed attempt at conversing with his son. Lost in thought and feeling weak, he places his hand over the bark of a chestnut tree and remembers his children had carved their initials on it when they were younger. He embraces the tree and lays his cheek against the bark, a tender and vulnerable gesture of affection and unconditional love that is so difficult for him to express to his family members. 

“No love, no friendship can ever cross the path of our destiny without leaving some mark upon it forever.” (p. 62)
Infatuation, love, fear of aging, and a hunger to live, all of these concepts and desires are timeless. I enjoyed this book because the portrayed experiences of each character are relatable even today, and each profound in their own way. While there are romantic undertones, it is truly a story about the unbreakable bond between a father and son. Maria Cross is merely a catalyst for their shared desire to live.

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