Marriage is often an idol, but isn’t much of one. A beautiful girl, Noemie d’Artiailh, necessarily weds the rich Jean Peloueyre in A Kiss for the Leper (1921), a short novel by the French Francois Mauriac, but the marriage is absurd, never consummated. Noemie is repulsed by Jean’s ugly body. After his death, however, she grows to love Jean and, in fact, must accept being “condemned to greatness”: renunciation.

Both characters are Catholic, though at first the devoutness belongs to Noemie. Jean is drawn to Nietzsche, without abjuring Christian belief. What Leper is about is the difficulty of spiritual growth in lonely and depriving circumstances. Noemie and Jean spiritually advance and then retreat, retreat and then advance. For Jean this goes on in a short life. Noemi never remarries: “Every path but the path to renunciation was closed to her.” But that’s okay; to Mauriac this reality involves “a poor woman” driven to “stretch her hands to the cool waters of Eternal Life.” It makes sense to do so.