THE French seem to be thinking in cycles of family novels, set in the years during which the present generation of novelists had their childhood. René Béhaine shows us family life among the aristocracy and upper bourgeoisie, Roger Martin du Gard among the professional class; Robert Francis shows us the peasant family, though in a slightly earlier time. And Jules Romains himself, who prefaces Men of Good Will by saying that ‘confining oneself to depicting the family is not painting the present-day scene, nor is it interpreting its spirit,’ is at his most moving when he writes about little Louis Bastide and his family.
It would be easy to conclude that the French, increasingly aware of loss of strength, are seeking moral as well as political security; that they are casting back in their minds to the days of parental shelter, and trying to recapture in the lost provinces of childhood a momentary respite from adult worries. But it is precisely on the insecurities and terrors of the child that their minds seem to dwell. The eyes of their small heroes are anxious as they watch their world.
In this new work of M. Duhamel the people are of the lower middle class, striving to climb into the professional class; and the chief drama of the chronicle is furnished by the child Laurent’s account of his reprehensible, illogical, and charming father, Raymond Pasquier. The whole mental evolution of the child is almost to be measured in terms of his increasing awareness of his father’s enormities. Yet his unwilling admiration increases concomitantly; for, no matter how often Pasquier is cornered, it is always his critic who finds himself in the wrong, whatever the facts may demonstrate. Beside this gay impenitent the other Pasquiers seem colorless.
The Pasquier family itself, and particularly the father, are the entral interest through the first three books; but in the fourth, a satire on brother Joseph’s rise to a country house, and the fifth, a moderately funny account of a sort of Brook Farm in which Laurent participated, the life seems to have gone out of Duhamel’s writing. There are left for admiration only the superb documentation and the ease of narration.
It is to be hoped that if the cycle is continued M. Duhamel will somehow be able to recapture the original impulse with which he gave life to the Pasquiers. For though he has not the energy and variety of Remains, the delicate distinction of Béhaine, the poetic insight of Martin du Gard, the lovable fantasy of Francis, or the rough vigor of Céline, he is nonetheless a good writer, whose contribution to the panorama of French nineteenthand twentieth-century life is extremely valuable. Duhamel makes his readers feel that they share in the growth of Laurent’s consciousness, in his perceptions of the physical and spiritual worlds, and above all in his preoccupation with the barometers that promise fair weather or storm in his father. He takes us inside the successive Pasquier houses, and there, where the wallpaper is aflame with fabulous red roses and the air smells dead, he shows us how the members of this family torment, destroy, and sustain one another. And his readers understand that these small daily dramas are more shattering and more warping than any outside experience the Pasquiers will ever know.