Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort: A Novel

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9780679433972: Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort: A Novel

A literary event: the long-awaited translation of one of the great masterpieces of twentieth-century fiction.

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 ch&3226;teau where a series of enlightened tutors tend to his education. Later, while preparing to enter the French military academy, he lives with his Uncle Eric, 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 -- his early childhood, his experiences in the sexual hothouse of a Catholic boarding school, his affair with the beautiful Creole Doudou, his failed marriage to a sweet but adamantly conventional bourgeoise, his service in Morocco under the legendary colonialist General Lyautey, his participation in the First World War, and the occupation of his beloved ch&3226;teau by German troops in the Second -- 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.

Left unfinished at the time of the author's death, Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort did not appear in print until 1983, when a definitive edition was established in French.  Now, after seven years of preparation, Martin du Gard's splendid accomplishment, destined to be recognized as one of the summits of modern literature, is available to readers in this superb English translation.

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Review:

Roger Martin du Gard is a member of a small, fairly exclusive club: obscurities who have won the Nobel Prize. The French author, who switched from paleography to fiction in his early 20s, was awarded literature's ultimate gold star in 1937, largely on the strength of a multivolume family saga called The Thibaults. But du Gard's magnum opus, which he was still working on when he died in 1958, is Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort. This unfinished epic presents itself as the fictional memoir of the eponymous colonel, who is born into privilege in 1870 and dies some 80 years later, having only intermittently achieved the sort of honor he craves. Weighing in at nearly 800 pages, Maumort's story is an exhaustively detailed portrait of the class that shielded him, the women who tempted him, the teachers who influenced him, and--last but not least--the desires that overcame him.

For readers familiar with the period and place, this is an invaluable document. For others, Maumort's "memoir" offers more formidable challenges: charged up with Proustian ambitions, du Gard has none of Proust's poetry or hypnotic grace. To put it another way, Proust wrote as if he were holding back a flood, while Maumort's creator seems rigidly in control at all times:

It was quite foolish of me, when I began, to want to get away from chronological order. I imagined that this constraint might spoil my pleasure. This showed a poor knowledge of myself. I have too much rigor in my brain to escape from logical order, and it is in their historical sequence that past events quite naturally come back into my mind. Which, besides, does not in any way imply that I henceforth deny myself unchronological digressions. No set positions, no preconceived discipline: I let my pen run on according to the wishes of my fancy. But the fancy of an old rationalist is less capricious than I had imagined...
To be sure, the old rationalist does have his charms. But by part 4, the book begins to fall apart, hovering between form and formlessness in a manner that's (unintentionally) quite interesting. Clearly du Gard intended for the narrative to shift as Maumort grew older--but he was growing older too, and running out of time. In the end both the author and his creation fade out into an assemblage of notes, shorthand episodes, and supplementary meditations. As du Gard himself wrote of Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort, "It is a work that can grow and be perfected indefinitely: a work that will never be finished for me, and that, however, may at any moment be interrupted by my death." Here, perhaps, lies the novel's ultimate pathos: both the hero and the text strive after eternity, but are always utterly dependent on the transitory world. --Emily White

About the Author:

Roger Martin du Gard was born on March 23, 1881, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. Trained as a paleographer, he turned to fiction in his early twenties, and in 1913 produced his first major work, Jean Barois. In 1920 he embarked on an eight-part family saga, The Thibaults, receiving the Nobel Prize in 1937 for its seventh volume, Summer 1914, a narrative of the tribulations of the Thibault brothers as they face the approach of the First World War. A prolific author who lived in the country and devoted himself almost solely to his vocation, he also wrote several plays, a brilliant novella about incest ( Confidence Africaine), a book memorializing his long friendship with André  Gide, and one of the century's great diaries. It was between the German occupation of France in 1940 and his last days in 1958 that Martin du Gard composed Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort. The novel's inclusion in the prestigious Plé iade series when it first appeared in 1983 confirmed its status as a classic.

About the translators:

Luc Brébion, Ph.D., is a writer, translator, and lecturer on aesthetics.

Timothy Crouse is the author of The Boys on the Bus and of numerous articles for Rolling Stone, Esquire, The Village Voice, and The New Yorker.

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Roger Martin du Gard
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Roger Martin du Gard, Timothy Crouse (Translator), Luc Brebion (Translator)
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Roger Martin du Gard
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Gard, Roger Martin du
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