Analysis of François Mauriac’s The Desert of Love

One of François Mauriac’s first novels, establishing his literary fame, The Desert of Love exhibits a recurring concern in his works, that of the tortures of the flesh and its world of loneliness and separation, as suggested by the title. This work by Mauriac (1885–1970) deals explicitly with themes of religion, salvation, and sin, as often seen in his works, but unlike many of his other novels, it also deals with themes of alienation, desperation, love, and desire, with a strange coincidental interweaving of time and people in the life of the individual. Mauriac, who won the 1952 Nobel Prize in literature, examines these themes boldly.

Similar to other Mauriac novels, such as Thérèse Desqueyroux, the novel begins at a moment of judgment or crisis and then moves back in time to trace what events led up to this plight. The story begins with Raymond Courrèges, an aging womanizer who, we are immediately told, has been secretly wishing to run into Maria Cross, years after their time together. Raymond’s previous encounter with Maria had marked his transition into manhood, not in any sexual sense but certainly in the sense of losing innocence and choosing a path for one’s life. Now 35, Raymond sits in a bar waiting for a younger friend, one of many to whom Raymond feels no sense of attachment or intimacy. Having devoted his life to “immediate satisfaction,” he discards sentiment whenever it springs up between him and others, finding the greatest comfort in being able to dismiss any companion, whether mistress or friend, whenever he sees fit. He seems to have put his family through this same sort of emotional weeding, cringing in these first few paragraphs at the simple note from his father suggesting that they meet while he is in town.

Then, “she” comes into the bar. Maria does not take notice of Raymond, but he is abruptly transported: “She’s forty-four, he thought; I was eighteen and she was twenty-seven.” With that the reader goes back in time along with Raymond to his younger years, right before he first meets Maria. A bit of a bully, and certainly bearing no ambition, Raymond is a source of frustration to his father, Paul Courrèges, who finds his son a complete stranger; both are unable to communicate with their own flesh and blood. The author’s background of Raymond details how utterly miserable he found himself within his own flesh, “ashamed of his body” at this most awkward stage of adolescence: “It never occurred to either his parents or his teachers that all his glorying in wildness and dirt was but the miserable bravado of the young which he assumed because he wanted to make them believe that he reveled in his own uncomeliness.” The first person to look at him with desire or affection outside of condescension is Maria Cross, who gets caught looking at him while she shares the trolley ride back to their small town.

Paul Courrèges, a doctor, briefl y mentions to Raymond in a conversation that the son of Maria Cross has died of meningitis, and that he is now tending to the mother. The small town in the Bordeaux region where the novel takes place sees Maria as a scandal, a kept woman belonging to Victor Larouselle, a rich, dissolute man who “leases” Maria her house and forces her to entertain his guests as a way of showing his power over the most beautiful pet in town. Rumors abound that orgies go on at Maria’s, but we soon learn that she is actually quite frigid, in a sense kept “inert” by her son François’s death. Maria seduces, but she never fully pleases, as we find out from Paul Courrèges, who has a terrible infatuation for her; he plunges himself into his medical practice and research so he can free himself from thoughts of her. We find out, however, that Maria admires the doctor for the fact that someone as honest and caring as he is could ever admire her. As Maria is but a parallel to Raymond’s disgust with himself and his weakness, perhaps absorbing society’s conceptions of herself as much as Raymond absorbs those same opinions of himself, Maria comes to be as much an extension for Paul Courrèges’s desires as he is for hers. Much of the relationship in the doctor’s mind, therefore, comes from his sanguine daydreams, as he imagines himself saying to her, “You can have no idea of the desert that lies between me and my wife, between me and my son and daughter.”

Raymond, however, sees Maria as the way out of this desert, the chance to overcome the gulf between individuals that marks the world of the flesh. As Raymond and Maria take notice of each other, Raymond’s awkwardness and frustration give way to a confidence and self-awareness. Raymond asks his father about her, finding Maria’s reputation actually compelling, seeing her as audacious and rebellious, though in his passion there is his own desire to further revel in his own wretchedness by cavorting with the town’s Jezebel. As they go from mere flirtation to secret rendezvous, Maria’s role appears at first to be seductress, fulfilling the role that society has given her, becoming the debauched spoiler of innocence, but their first private meeting reveals a whole new tone for her in this relationship. Once Raymond arrives, she begins to talk about her recently deceased son, showing pictures and telling Raymond stories of how her son was when he was alive. Slowly, she becomes aware of the unconscious drive behind her actions, for she realizes that Raymond is but a surrogate for her lost son, a chance to again be beside that one oasis she once had in the desert. As she looks at Raymond, “the last traces of childhood in his face reminded her of her own lost boy.”

Raymond, though, sees Maria as simply teasing and needing a shove to go that last step. In their second meeting, he seizes her, forcing her onto the sofa. Struggling, calling him a “nasty little creature,” she finally frees herself and laughs at Raymond, mocking him by saying, “So you really think, my child, that you can take a woman by force?” Raymond feels humiliated, for in his mind he has been made into a fool, and he becomes “infuriated by defeat.” The moment, however, turns into much more than just an awkward memory for him. To Raymond, it was the universe once again telling him that he was not worthy of love, again reminding him of his own inadequacy and loneliness. Raymond has at once been set on the path that will determine the rest of his life: “From now on, in all the amorous intrigues of his future, there would always be an element of unexpressed antagonism, a longing to wound, to extract a cry of pain from the female lying helpless at his mercy. He was to cause many tears to fl ow on many nameless faces, and always they would be her tears.”

Paul Courrèges comes to quite another conclusion, however, as he comes to realize that he and Maria will never be anything more than participants in polite conversations. He is likewise disillusioned, but accepts a “predestined solitude” as his fate, understanding perhaps that his desire for Maria was projected and always would be, therefore never to be found outside of his own desert. Maria attempts to kill herself by jumping from a balcony, because she, like the doctor, realizes the futility of trying to change the situation in life that she has been given. When he arrives and examines the flesh that he once felt sure to be meant for him, he feels only pity and duty.

The story returns to the present, with Raymond still unnoticed by Maria in the bar. The man with the 44- year-old Maria is the even older, and now more pathetic, Victor Larouselle, who recognizes Raymond and invites him over to their table. Awkward silence passes between Raymond and Maria after Larouselle goes off to flirt with two women at the bar, until she finally blurts out, “My husband is really very indiscreet.” Amazed that she is married, Raymond reaches for the opportunity to jab at her naïveté concerning Larouselle’s rather infamous behavior. Their conversation reveals his anger and desire and her shame and contempt both of herself and of Raymond. Maria tries to recover her pride by bragging about Larouselle’s son, who is on his way to being a success. She asks Raymond, after he mocks her stepson, “What do you do?” His reply, that he just “potters around,” suddenly reveals to him “what a wretched mess he had made of his life.” Catching himself in the mirror, he sees a pathetic man caught in the humiliation of a single, detestable moment, and he feels like one who “goes into battle with a broken sword.”

Larouselle falls over from drinking too much, embarrassing Maria and pleasing Raymond. Raymond remembers that his father is in town for a conference and calls for him to meet them at Larouselle’s hotel room. Once there, Paul Courrèges accidentally reveals Maria’s “fall” from a balcony, which heartens Raymond even further. Maria makes a halfhearted attempt to ask Paul to write to her, which he dismisses rather abruptly but not coldly. Afterward, as father and son share a ride to their own rooms from Larouselle’s hotel, Paul asks and Raymond reveals how he and Maria first met those years ago. Though he has ignored his father’s advice to settle down, marry, and not squander things in life chasing ghosts, Raymond, true to his stubborn nature, forgoes the opportunity to change his life, despite having literally faced himself in the mirror.

At the book’s conclusion, while his father and Maria seem to have taken stock of themselves after gaining insight into their own drives and passions, Raymond sees his frustration and disappointments as challenges, as more mockery from the impersonal desert of his life. The story ends with Raymond, recalling the words of a former mistress, telling himself that “it won’t last, and until it’s over, find some drug with which to stupefy yourself—fl oat with the current.” Ironically, he feels that despite his life amidst the flesh of one-night stands, he has become enthralled by a despair that makes him “condemned to a life of virginity.”

Flower, John E. Intention and Achievement: An Essay on the Novels of François Mauriac. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.
Flower, John E., and Bernard C. Swift, eds. François Mauriac: Visions and Reappraisals. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.
O’Connell, David. François Mauriac Revisited. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.
Speaight, Robert. François Mauriac: A Study of the Writer and the Man. London: Chatto and Windus, 1976.
Wansink, Susan. Female Victims and Oppressors in Novels by Theodor Fontane and François Mauriac. New York: Peter Lang, 1998.

Categories: French Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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