24 December 2016

Guy Mazeline: Les Loups | The Wolves (1932)

It hardly seems possible to mention Guy Mazeline's Les Loups without also mentioning the fact that Mazeline triumphed in the 1932 Goncourt at the expense of Louis-Ferdinand Céline's masterpiece Voyage au bout de la nuit, and how this was an outrage, a scandal, a travesty of justice, etc. And of course it was all of this: Les Loups doesn't come anywhere near the category of masterpiece. But does the novel really deserve all the opprobrium that's been thrown at it? Certainly much ink has been used over it, and in 1999 Eugène Saccomano published a novelisation of the dispute (Goncourt 32), with a publisher's band 'Le Duel Céline–Mazeline' across the lower part of the cover. Much more recently Les Loups has been called 'illisible' (unreadable) in Figaro and 'Voyage au bout de l'ennui' in a particularly sarcastic article in Le Parisien. Why all the hatred? Have the people who criticise Les Loups actually read it?

The short answer in almost all cases is certainly 'No': in fact I doubt if more than a few people alive today have read it. I resolved to come to my own conclusions, take a deep breath and dip into it. You have to take a deep breath because it's 622 pages of minutely-packed print, or a roomier 775 in the English translation The Wolves. After all the scorn that's been poured on it I scarcely expected to wade through all of it, and yet – to my immense surprise – I not only read it all but in fact really enjoyed it.

Les Loups is not a quick read, and not only due to its sheer bulk: it's so crammed with characters, shifting allegiances and subtle plotting that it demands to be read carefully – if you want to take full advantage of its subtleties, that is. And there certainly are subtleties: this is what I'd call a psychological novel, in which what is going on in the mind of the characters is all-important.

Most of the main characters, though, aren't particularly likable, or at least not a great deal of the time. Pride comes over as a central theme, as does lust for money, and in the dog-eat-dog world of this book – set in Le Havre (where Mazeline was born) towards the end of the nineteenth century – appearances are vital.

Maximilien Jobourg has inherited his father's business and at the beginning of the story lives (financially) comfortably enough with his wife Marie-Jeanne and his children Didier (a lover of the sea), Vincent (who has a limp due to a childhood accident), Benoît (who's headstrong, given to violence and of the three brothers the one most addicted to prostitutes), Geneviève (who's engaged to the wealthy Gilbert), and Blanche (who's married but still lives at home along with her ferociously ambitious banker husband Georges, whom the younger sons accurately call the 'Hypocrite'.

Maximilien has long grown tired of Marie-Jeanne, who is largely concerned with the way things look, and who is exasperated that her husband has no interest in business. Maximilien's mother Virginie hates the working-class-born Marie-Jeanne, whom she insists on calling by her maiden name 'la Bretot'  when she's speaking to Maximilien, that is, which is not often at all: the two don't get on, which seems par for the course in the Jobourg family.

In fact Virginie (it seems) hates Maximilien too, as she plots with her grandson-in-law Georges to bankrupt him by getting him to move all his money into shares which are in fact worthless: a very bad psychologist as well as a very bad businessman, Maximilien can't see through the many faces of his son-in-law: in any case, why should the banker be working against his own interests, thinks Maximilien?

The appearance of Valérie in Le Havre radically changes Maximilien's life. He believes in self-renewal, which he sees as impossible in a family: how can his own family, for instance, ever see him as anything other than lazy, incapable of holding onto his fortune and his prestige? Valérie, though, is his secret daughter, the child his lover Pauline had after she left Le Havre for Martinique twenty years before, when she married Labrête and Valérie was brought up as their child. But Labrête drowns himself on learning Valérie isn't his daughter, and now a dying Pauline has sent Valérie to her 'uncle' Maximilien in Le Havre. Maximilien hides her with a former servant of his and comes to love her more than his children by Marie-Jeanne.

The end is dramatic, with Valérie – on learning that Maximilien is her real father and being incapable of living with the fact that her previous life has been a lie – killing herself with the 'ornamental' weapon her father has unthinkingly furnished her room with, and Maximilien lining his pockets with stones and jumping into the sea.

This may make the narrative sound a little melodramatic, but it isn't portrayed that way. Guy Mazeline can write and can write well, and although we can criticise him for stretching credibility (a twenty-year-old girl not realizing Maximilien is her father, after all he's done for her?), and for writing maybe a few hundred pages in excess and creating several characters too many, but so what? OK, Céline definitely should have won the Goncourt in 1932, but that's no reason to take it out on Guy Mazeline: clearly, this is not the best ever Goncourt, but nor is it the worst by any means.

Guy Mazeline's grave in the Cimetière du Montparnasse:

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