Albert Camus said that André de Richaud’s novel La douleur – The pain – inspired him to become a writer. When it came out in 1930, it created a scandal. The author was just twenty-three years old and had sent his manuscript to the Jury of the Prix du premier roman of the Revue Hebdomadaire. The jury was so shocked but impressed by the writing, that nobody won the price that year. While they considered La douleur too shocking for publication, it was clearly the best book. Despite the risk of a potential scandal, Bernard Grasset published the novel anyway that year, as he liked it so much.
Even though he entered the literary scene making such an impression and even though people like Camus and Cocteau praised him, de Richaud never got the fame or recognition he deserved. He went on to write more novels, short stories, plays, and poems but without any success. At the age of fifty-one, prematurely aged, he moved into a nursing home where he died of tuberculosis in 1968. He wrote his final work, the autobiographical novella Je ne suis pas mort – I am not dead, in 1965, after having found his own obituary that someone posted erroneously in a newspaper.
You’re certainly curious to find out now why La douleur was such a scandalous book. What was particularly scandalous was the combination of several themes that were taboo at the time. The love between French women and German prisoners of war, incest, and female sexuality.
La douleur is set during WWI, in the village of Althen-des-Paluds, in the Comtat region in the South of France, very far from the trenches. In the village, like in so many other French villages, there are only women, old men, and children, until the day when three German prisoners of war arrive.
Thérèse Delombre has lost her husband six months ago. Since then she’s been living alone with her small son. Thérèse Delombre suffers intensely. Not so much because she misses her husband, but because the loss leaves her sexually frustrated. She can’t think of anything else, can’t sleep. While it isn’t explicit, it’s obvious that her relationship with her son has an incestuous undertone. He sleeps in her bed, they touch constantly. She’s jealous whenever he makes a friend, especially a female friend. And when she catches the kids playing doctor’s games in the attic, she freaks out. This changes when she meets the German prisoner Otto and begins an affair with him. She neglects her son and throws herself into this love affair, unaware that people have noticed and disapprove.
Even for a contemporary reader some of the passages are very outspoken but not explicit. There isn’t any description of any of the sexual encounters, but the longing is described in an explicit way.
The book is courageous and interesting because of these themes but what made me really love it is the writing. De Richaud is a stunning writer. His descriptions are so lyrical I read many passages several times just because they were so beautiful. He also manages to give us a feeling of what it was like to be in one of those villages far from the trenches, but still so deeply affected by the war.
It’s tragic to know that the book is based on de Richaud’s own childhood. He was traumatised by his mother’s affair with an enemy.
What I find even more tragic is that de Richaud has hardly been translated. La douleur has been translated into German for the first time in 2019. I don’t think that an English translation of this exists. It’s a shame. People would love it and those interested in Camus would appreciate reading it even more.
This was such a haunting book. I will certainly read more of de Richaud’s work.