Rediscovering a Gay Classic: Roger Martin du Gard’s Lieutenant Colonel de Maumort
By Dale Boyer
(Note: a slightly different version of this essay appears in The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide)
Recently, in a wonderful little bookstore in Savannah (The Book Lady) while on vacation, I came across a very thick volume by Roger Martin du Gard entitled Lieutenant - Colonel de Maumort. I had never heard of either it or the writer, despite learning that du Gard won the Nobel Prize in 1937, and that this translation (compared in the liner notes to both Proust and Tolstoy) was published with great fanfare by Knopf in 1999. Intrigued, I purchased it, and subsequently the surprises began.
Maumort is not so much a novel as a fictionalized memoir – at least in its present state: du Gard changed his mind several times during the writing regarding how exactly to tell the story; more on that later. What startles most about the work is a) that it’s seemingly so little known, and b), how incredibly, freshly frank and non-judgmental it is, not only about all sexual matters, but homosexuality specifically. Indeed, du Gard, who was a close friend of Andre Gide (in fact, the entire work is dedicated to him), spends a considerable amount of time contemplating why the Lieutenant-Colonel did not turn out to be homosexual, despite the fact that many of his early sexual forays (one could even argue, his most significant encounters) were with men.
The recollections begin traditionally enough, with the 77-year-old Maumort remembering how, at age 10, he saw a group of naked girls bathing in a pond. He experiences a feeling of “absurd guilt” as he suddenly grows conscious of the physical differences between himself and the girls. He also experiences strange pangs of shame as he ponders the existence of what his old servant, Zelie, upon washing him, had once referred to as his “li’l gentleman.” The young Maumort becomes obsessed by the girls, but just as quickly, this obsession is supplanted by the arrival of a cousin named Guy who comes to live with him and his family at their estate.
In Maumort’s words: “my first impulse towards Guy was not one of camaraderie but of love. How to call by any other name that obsessive attraction, that fascination, to which in those first days I surrendered myself with delight?” The young Maumort follows Guy from room to room “like a dog… I did not tire of touching his clothes, his toiletries; everything that belonged to him was endowed with magical virtues. I watched him come, go, get up, sit down, with inexhaustible rapture.” Even granting the fact that the prose here may be overwrought, du Gard makes it clear that what fascinates the young Maumort so much about Guy is that he is completely unashamed about his body, even to the point of often performing naked handstands in front of him. What’s more, it soon becomes apparent that Guy is having an affair with their childhood tutor, Xavier (more on this later as well).
Almost as if anticipating the reader’s reaction to this, du Gard writes:
“I feel no embarrassment at elaborating on all these psycho-sexual details; I even mean to linger over them at leisure, with a total candor and an assiduous accuracy. When one approaches the domain of sexuality, one must not be stingy with personal confidences…Tell me what your puberty was like, and I will tell you who you are.”
And make no mistake: these early encounters are fully and vividly depicted. Upon entering boarding school, Maumort meets a fellow student named Luzac, and they begin the frequent habit of masturbating each other in secret in German class, protected from view by a shielding desk:
“One day I felt his hand hunting for the opening of my pocket and sliding between my thigh and the cloth of my trousers…I felt his fingers come near and take hold of me. From then on, this more direct fondling became a new habit, and I let it happen without attempting to defend myself…I had his bare and moist hand on my belly…He ran his caressing hand over me softly, tenderly, taking a slow, passionate and meticulous inventory of my most intimate treasures, and the expert gentleness with which he handled me produced a sudden spasm…”
Before long, Maumort begins to reciprocate, and “From then on, I got used to turning my eyes stealthily towards him at the moment I was watching for his spasm, and I would revel in the sight of his ravished, somber, almost pained face.”
Given the attention du Gard pays to these experiences, it is something of a shock to the reader when, sometime later, Maumort states: “As far as I am concerned, I think I can state that my erotic obsessions were, at the time, directed exclusively towards women.” Conclusive evidence as to whether du Gard himself was gay seems to be mixed; but, given his close friendship with Gide, one could guess that he was, if not so inclined, at least nonjudgmental. Intriguingly, as embodied in the character of Maumort, we get the sense of an author trying to answer the question of how, when one has sex with other men, one does not turn out to be gay. To wit, what to make of the following:
“…at that time – the time when I was beginning my studies at the Sorbonne – I had no notion of the role that homosexuality plays in society. The games of two boys seemed to me a stop-gap due to the absence of the female sex…I did not imagine that those games could continue among adults, or that a grown man…would, out of personal taste, go looking for other men…And, in any case – of this I am certain – I had no idea what homosexual love was. I mean I was not aware that relations between men could be anything other than a joint exercise in onanism”…
Which gives rise to the question: if, later in life, Maumort/ du Gard has somehow come to understand what homosexual love is, how has he arrived at that understanding? As the translators remark in their introduction: “To what extent does Maumort’s memoir constitute a disguised confession by Martin du Gard? We can only speculate.”
I have not even begun to address the most remarkable gay-positive aspect of the work, a chapter called The Drowning, which purports to be an entry in Maumort’s childhood tutor, Xavier’s, diary. It tells the thinly-veiled story of a young military recruit posted in rural France, who becomes enamored of a local youth. Through a series of coy meetings, the two realize their mutual attraction. There is an eventual confirmation of attraction on both sides, which leads to tragic consequences. So nuanced and sensitive is the description of this attraction, so painstakingly detailed are the perils of the romance, that one is again left wondering why a straight man would feel compelled to create a more than 50-page gay love story and how he could do so so successfully without a huge amount of sympathy or fellow-feeling himself.
Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort is beautifully written, psychologically astute, and contains an almost romantic depiction of a vanished world. Indeed, in an earlier conception of the work, Maumort locks himself in the bedroom of his chateau as the Nazis invade, intent upon chronicling the era rapidly vanishing all around him. Though the comparisons to Tolstoy seem to me a stretch, (perhaps if du Gard had had time to write the episodes of Maumort’s military career this may have been true), the parallels to Proust are entirely appropriate. Indeed, the depictions of the salons of his parents, in which characters such as Pasteur and Turgenev wander through, are very reminiscent of Madame Verdurin’s soirees in Remembrance.
Alas, the novel/memoir breaks down after 500 or so pages, and is ultimately incomplete. There are also some painfully racist scenes (again, one is not sure whether this is Maumort or du Gard). Finally, an assertion by the translators that the work’s major theme is that, even when people know the right thing to do, they ultimately fail to act upon it, does not seem to be borne out by the text. Perhaps this would have been made more apparent in a final version. Nor does it seem to me that du Gard’s later attempt to recast the work as a diary, or in epistolary form (also included in the volume), succeed any better than the early, novelized memoir.
But, imperfect and incomplete as it is (and what life, in the end, is not?), Lieutenant -Colonel de Maumort still delights and astonishes, and deserves to be much better known.
Dale Boyer’s latest work is Columbus in the New World: Selected Poems. www.daleboyerworks.com