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Modern Classics: The Frontenac Mystery - Francois Mauriac

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Genre: Classic Literature / Author: Francois Mauriac / Edition: New edition / Paperback / 192 Pages / Book is published 1986-02-27 by Penguin Books Ltd

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      24.01.2012 18:03
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      A beautifully written, haunting novel

      Francois Mauriac (1885-1970) was a French novelist and poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1952. The Frontenac Mystery, like much of his work, reflects his devout Roman Catholic upbringing and is set in the Bordeaux region of south western France, where he grew up. This novel was first published in French as Le Mystere Frontenac in 1933. It was translated and published in Britain in 1951. It is believed to be partly autobiographical.

      The Frontenac Mystery follows the lives of a bourgeois family, the Frontenacs, from the beginning of the 20th century. The book is divided into two parts. Part 1 covers the childhood years when the family live together. Part 2 tells us what happens when the children grow up and try to make their way in the world. Although the word 'mystery' in the title might make you think this is some kind of whodunit, that is not the case. In this context 'mystery' refers to the powerful, mysterious family bond that the Frontenacs experience, something that is impenetrable to outsiders. Duty and loyalty is essential to the Frontenacs, as is the need to preserve the family estate for the next generation. Sometimes, however, the characters experience conflict and tensions and the same family bond that sustains them also stifles them in their different endeavors. How will the Frontenac children cope in the big wide world, away from the protective boundaries of their family home and the Bourideys' pine trees? Where will they find refuge? All is revealed in this evocative novel.

      I first read this book over 20 years ago when I was doing French 'A' level. I was surprised to discover the book could still be obtained from Amazon sellers, so I ordered a copy and recently read it again. I'm pleased to say that after all this time it still moved me.

      The Main Characters

      The story introduces us first to Xavier Frontenac, a lawyer and businessman. Xavier has no children of his own, but dotes on those of his dead brother, Michel. He keeps a watchful eye on the family timber business to protect the children's inheritance. However, for all his outward respectability and sense of duty, Xavier harbours a shameful secret and lives in fear of it coming to light. Blanche Frontenac is the children's mother, "condemned for ever to sacrifice herself for her children." Blanche is deeply religious and loves her children very much but there is an emptiness to her life, although she cannot admit this to anyone, not even to herself. Jean-Louis is the eldest son, an intelligent boy who wants to go to university to study philosophy but feels pressured into the family timber business. Yves is a moody, sensitive individual with a great talent for poetry. It is ironic that his poetry is inspired by spiritual elements but his quest to become a writer takes him to Paris, where he finds only moral corruption. Jose is somewhat withdrawn, happier to escape into a world of his own and go off hunting than focus on his studies. He becomes something of a 'prodigal son.' Blanche also has two daughters, Daniele and Marie, but they don't feature in the story to any great extent.

      Prominent Themes

      What I enjoyed particularly about this novel is how beautifully Mauriac evokes the experience of childhood. He reminds us of the paradox that childhood, whilst transient, stays with us forever. There is nothing sentimental in his writing about childhood. In Yves we see how children experience insecurities, even when their family life is warm and supportive, and how the stronger the love is, the more terrifying it is to feel that you may lose it. There is a charming section of the book where Uncle Xavier, described as "a fixed star in the sky of childhood" comes to look after the children while their mother is away looking after their sick grandmother. Although the children are growing up and aren't exactly little anymore, they still want to enjoy the same games and activities that they have always enjoyed. They get their uncle to make ships out of pine bark, put a lighted match in the hull and watch the ship float down the river, imagining it going all the way to the ocean. He also makes whistles for them from alder twigs. Mauriac tells us that "in the very process of growing up, they could stand in the shallows of childhood, could dawdle while childhood slipped away forever." I found that very poignant the first time I read the book, when I was about 17 and conscious of my own childhood days being behind me, and now when I read it I think of my own teenage daughters and how they still hang on to the old childhood rituals and aren't ready to give certain things up just yet. This really struck a chord with me.

      I love Mauriac's use of poetic language to describe the landscape. The Frontenac family's holidays in Bourideys are evoked delightfully with reference to the characters walking through grass drenched with moisture, following the river that flows through an oak coppice on its way to a mill, the primroses growing on the bank, the smells of warm bread, wood fires and sawn timber in the villages, the cottages with their smoking chimneys, the ancient, majestic pine trees, the honey-scented heather and the sounds of cuckoos and crickets. You can tell that this landscape was very close to the author's heart and he evokes it in a way that makes you feel that you are there with Yves and Jean-Louis, as they take an evening stroll along the path, sharing confidences. Francois Mauriac once said, "a great novelist is first of all a great poet" and his work certainly reflects this.

      Mauriac has a way of conveying the suffocating nature of family life as well as its warmth. In one chapter Jean-Louis is feeling trapped by family duty after a meeting in which he has failed to make his uncle and mother understand why he would rather go to university than go into the timber business. "The rain was closing in on them - a great spider's web, a net imprisoning him in this small and smoke-filled room. He would never escape from it - never." The sacrifice of individual notions of happiness for the common good is a key theme of the novel, as is the conflict between materialism and spirituality.

      My Thoughts

      Although I still love the descriptive writing-style and am moved by the psychological drama that plays out between the different characters, the book does come across as quite dated in that the focus is on the males of the family. The Frontenac daughters, Daniele and Marie, are not deemed as being so important because they don't continue the great Frontenac name. Although this was not unusual for the time the book is set, reading it now leaves me a little frustrated as I would have liked to have found out something more about how their lives progressed. Even Blanche, who is a strong character, is portrayed as having no life outside her children and her faith. Nobody seems interested in her feelings. She is admired, pitied and loved but never understood. I feel that Blanche's story would have made a whole novel in itself and I wished more time had been taken to get beyond her public image. Other female characters in the novel come across as mere cameos. It doesn't stop the book being enjoyable, just a little unbalanced.

      The book provides an interesting insight into the hypocrisy of bourgeois life and also how the people and things we love the most can cause us the most torment. I cared very much about the fate of the brothers and I felt that their characters were convincing. They were all flawed and this made them more sympathetic.

      I would recommend this book if you are someone who likes family dramas and appreciates poetic language. If, like me, you have a passion for all things French, you will appreciate the depictions of the Landes region. You can almost taste the local wine! At times the narrative becomes quite sombre in tone when characters muse on religion and the meaning of life, but this did not put me off. The Frontenac Mystery isn't that easy to get hold of but used copies can be obtained from Amazon from £0.01.

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