RECENTLY, while on vacation in Savannah and browsing in a wonderful little bookstore, I came across a thick volume by Roger Martin du Gard titled Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort. I had never heard of either the book or the writer but later learned that du Gard won the Nobel Prize in 1937 and that this translation was published with great fanfare by Knopf in 1999. Intrigued, I purchased it, and then 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 while writing it regarding how exactly to tell the story; more on that later. What surprised me the most was a) how little known it is today, and b) how incredibly frank and nonjudgmental it is on sexual matters in general and on homosexuality in particular. Indeed, du Gard, who was a close friend of André Gide (in fact, the work is dedicated to him), spends a lot 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 ones—were with men.
The recollections begin, conventionally enough, with the 77-year-old Maumort remembering how, at age ten, 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 with 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.
Dale Boyer, a frequent reviewer in these pages, is the author of Columbus in the New World: Selected Poems.