By Francois Mauriac
156 pages
New York: The Noonday Press, 1955.

Comments of Bob Corbett
November 2002

I found The Lamb a very puzzling book. The story is rather simple, though hard to take very seriously. Xavier Dartigelongue, 22, very idealistic and naïve, is on a train on his way to Paris to join the seminary. He encounters Jean de Mirbel on the train. Mirbel is estranged from his wife and Xavier can tell from watching their departure from the train window, that there is trouble between them. He raises some question to Mirbel on the train and Mirbel is simply appalled that he is headed to the seminary and lures him back to his home in order to help “save” the marriage. Mirbel boldly announces his plan, however, to convince Xavier that he is about to waste his life in religion and the seminary, and Mirbel will save him.

Xavier, feeling this obligation of love to other (the generalized notion of other) returns with Mirbel and meets his wife Michele. There are other guests, however, and Xavier finds himself deeply attracted physically to the young and beautiful Dominique, traveling companion of Bridget Pain, Michele’s mother. Michel and Jean Mirbel also have a young homeless boy, Roland, living with them. Not only does Xavier fall for Dominique, but decides he simply must “save” Roland.

Xavier’s parents discover his defection from the seminary and their understanding of his new life (which is reported to them by Madame Pian and falsely centers a round Dominique), and threaten Xavier with disinheritance if he doesn’t return home.

Xavier manages to will his own wealth to take care of Roland and arranges for Dominique to oversee his new life and education, then Xavier dies – in an ambiguous death in which he either commits suicide or is killed by Mirbel in a bike/car accident.

Author Mauriac just wasn’t able to create much feeling or sympathy in me for Xavier, and since the entire story centers on him I remained a bit on the outside of the novel. The problem perhaps wasn’t Mauriac’s telling at all, but my own reception or lack of it.

It is clear that Mauriac paints Jean Mirbel as a wicked person for wanting to destroy the faith and religious vocation of the innocent Xavier, and Michele, while less mean about it, is also implicated in this plot. At a more honest level the local parish priest attempts the same thing, but he does it in sincerity given that he has a very different notion of faith and Christianity, understanding it as a guiding myth, not a literal truth, suggesting to Xavier that he is naïve, even silly to believe in the truth of the Catholic myth. Xavier is beset on all sides.

My puzzle was: was Mauriac really serious. Is Xavier his Catholic hero? I hadn’t read Mauriac in more than 45 years, having read his more famous novel Therese when I was myself a young seminary student. However, I can’t remember anything about the novel, only that I once read it. I did know that Mauriac was a member of a Renaissance of Catholic thought in France of the early and mid part of the last century, but wasn’t sure if this was a conservative Catholicism in which Xavier could be a “hero,” or if this was a more progressive Catholicism like that which emerged with Vatican II in the 1960s. In that case Xavier would have been a satirical figure of misguided faith.

In any case I was utterly repelled by Xavier’s faith, which had little serious thought behind it but was a “feeling” religion, the outgrowth of his upbringing, and most offensive were two themes:

  1. That love was not of the individual person, but sort of a generalized love of God in the person.
  2. That holiness was self-hatred and self-deprecation because one was human rather than some ideal saint.

These notions were so repellant to me that I couldn’t for a minute believe in Xavier as a holy and decent person, just a very deluded young man, who certainly didn’t deserve the nastiness of Michele and Jean, but was rather fortunate to have met the wise parish priest who had a more sensible notion of religion.

As I write this, I am more and more suspicious that from Mauriac’s position I was supposed to come away from the novel seeing Xavier as some sort of decent model. I wonder if many modern post-Vatican II Catholics could even see Xavier in that light. If not it would suggest that Mauriac’s Catholic revival was a misguided and time-bound effort.

Lest anyone be confused by the translator’s name – Gerard Hopkins, I do want to clarify that this is not the famous poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins who died in 1889 when Mauriac was only four years old.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett