Roger Martin du Gard: Confidence africaine aka African Secret (1931)
Roger Martin du Gard, one of the less famous French Nobel prize laureates is mostly known for his huge eight-part novel cycle Les Thibault, the story of a family from the turn of the century until the end of WWI. Almost all of his efforts have gone into this immense work. Apparently it was Tolstoi’s War and Peace that triggered his writing. I was always interested in du Gard but I didn’t dare diving into that ocean called Les Thibault. I am sure this is wrong as its most prominent features are the wide range of human relationships and the graphic realism of the sickbed and death scenes which would fascinate me. And I would be especially interested in the seventh volume, L’Eté 1914 (“Summer 1914″), that contains the dramatic description of Europe’s nations being swept into war.
Roger Martin du Gard wrote a few lesser known books one of which is Confidence africaine, a short piece of fiction of barely 80 pages. It is short but wonderfully accomplished. The narrator, called du Gard, visits a friend’s son in a sanatorium. In the sanatorium he meets the Italian Leonardo who visits his nephew Michele. Leonardo and his family live in North Africa. They own a library. Some months later du Gard visits him when travelling in Northern Africa and stays at their house. Leonardo lives with his sister and her husband under the same roof. When du Gard’s stay ends both men take a ship and set over to France. During a long, warm and enchanted night, Leonardo tells du Gard the secret of his incestuous relationship with his sister. This is told as if it was the most natural thing in the world. It is neither analyzed, nor rationalized, just told. It seems though as some of the sad developments that took place in their lives are considered by Leonard to be related to the incest.
I was wondering if du Gard, who was a friend of André Gide and also homosexual, meant to question what we tend to call deviant sexuality. I don’t know that much more about his biography to be sure. The topic of homosexuality and sexuality in general, temptation, religion etc. is recurring in his books. Many of the protagonists in his novels have issues with the Roman Catholic faith. This novella could be seen as a variation on that theme.
The scene on the boat is extremely well written, and the whole novella is masterful but I can’t say I liked it. I found the story too odd. It is one of the novels the protagonists of Katherine Pancol’s novel rave about (see my post) and it is generally much liked in France.
What I know for sure is that I am still extremely tempted to read Les Thibault.