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A middle-aged model of social and religious respectability, Oltave Coltenceau has family, profession, and his catechism, all according to traditional tenets. On his way home from work one evening, he meets a madman mystagogue preaching the pleasure principle. Josse Clamamus, Professor of Happiness, observes the singular lack of this earthly good in Oltave's existence. The heretical seed of doubt in pious belief grows into a dialogue between his hunger for happiness and search for salvation. As his enlightened teenaged progeny might describe it, their father was facing, at last, an ""existential"" dilemma, which resolves itself in an inner drama of tempting episodes with the young widow upstairs until finally happiness tips the balance -- Oltave and Marie-Laure escape with the classic lovers' insouciance to the Cote d'Azur. Insouciance is not, however, a Catholic virtue, and during the six months on leave from family, job and principles, Oltave develops a bitter taste for sin, which his churchless love is unable to grasp. The denouement in Paris is a little thick, however well prepared; Marie-Laure kills herself, leaving Oltave face to face with her only competition--God and Christian judgment. A temptation old as man is paraphrased in new terms (is the sacrifice of happiness a transcendental dupery?)--but the novel's work here is well-done, the past and the inner conflict convincing, and the general tone modern, --a reputable French version of the moral crisis of our age.

Pub Date: Jan. 24th, 1963
Publisher: Pantheon