Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort
by Roger Martin du Gard (1881-1958)
777 pgs. Alfred Knopf, 2000.
Originally published, 1983. Trans. by Luc Brébion and Timothy Crouse, 2000.
A month or two after I’d read Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, which I wrote up last year, I was browsing in the fiction collection and came upon this book by Roger Martin du Gard, and I remembered that Cortázar had dropped his name (though Hopscotch was published twenty years before this particular novel came out). I am often skeptical of book jacket praise, but I was pretty well floored by what this one had to say, and I quickly added the title to my TBR list. Though I still haven’t got to it yet, I thought I’d pull the book forward on the shelf, so to speak, by sharing some of the jacket copy for any interested readers who also may have overlooked Martin du Gard:
Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort is Roger Martin du Gard’s magnum opus, the crowning achievement of a career that included the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1937.
Written over the final eighteen years of his life and intended to be read only posthumously, this tremendous creation sprang from the writer’s unflinching examination of the conundrum of our moral ambivalence: why, knowing what is right, do people do wrong? Martin du Gard’s complex response constitutes one of the most devastating critiques of human behavior ever produced.
The author casts his reflections in the form of a memoir written by Bertrand de Maumort, an aristocrat, a soldier, an intellectual – ostensibly the very flower of European culture at its zenith. Born in 1870, Maumort grows up in a château where a series of enlightened tutors tend to his education. Later, while preparing to enter the French military academy, he lives with his Uncle Éric, a powerful academic whose Sunday at-homes attract such luminaries as Renan, Turgenev, Daudet, and Pasteur. Keenly aware of his advantages, Maumort aspires to self-knowledge and a transcendent objectivity in his relations with the world. But as he describes his progress through life … he unwittingly betrays an underside: his prejudices, self-deceptions, and moral lapses. Through his portrayal of Maumort and a fascinating array of secondary characters, Martin du Gard dissects mankind in general, and calls into question whether true civilization, much less human progress, exists at all. The result is a work of extraordinary honesty, combining the sweep of his acknowledged master Tolstoy, the penetrating analysis of Proust, and the speculative profundity of Montaigne.
In preparing this post, I also applied the page 99 test to the book and found the narrator’s detailed description of his Uncle Éric did indeed strike me as Proustian, with its keen, apparently first-impression remembrance of his uncle’s appearance and character. OK, this one just got kicked a little closer to the top of the list.
[Update: May 23, 2012 – for more on this book, see Heartwood 2:6]