Édouard Surin (ay-DWAHR sewr-AHN), a handsome, elegant, irresistible man who divides his time between running the textile factory he inherited from his wife’s father and getting away from the boredom of the country to the excitement of a big apartment in Paris. There, he keeps a mistress while maintaining his affectionate feeling for the wife and many children he leaves behind. Outwardly happy and content with his double life, he secretly longs for a heroic end to it all. As an infantry captain in World War II, he leads an assault on a Belgian town held by the Nazis but is afterward captured. In prison, his health worsens, and he is diagnosed as a diabetic and dismissed from the army. In Paris, he finds a resistance group to join, and his dream of a heroic death is revived, but it is his wife who is recognized as a resistance fighter and sent away by the Germans. Édouard wanders through the displaced persons camps of Europe looking for her and wearing a sandwich board with her picture on it. Four years later, he dies quietly, nearly blind.
Maria Barbara Surin
Maria Barbara Surin, Édouard’s wife and mistress of the big family house, La Cassine. She is the mother of a large brood, the last of whom are identical twin boys that only she can tell apart. Motherhood for Maria Barbara is a blissful state, and into her happiness she incorporates the retarded children of St. Brigitte’s, a home (beside the textile factory) run by nuns. She has no interest in accompanying her husband to Paris, and so domestic and homebound does she seem that no one suspects that she is an active member of a resistance group that includes sixteen recruits from the children’s home and the factory. One morning, German officers arrive to take her away, and she never returns.
Alexandre Surin (ah-lehk-SAHNDR), the brother of Édouard and uncle of the twins. He is never allowed to meet his nephews because of his shocking behavior as a homosexual dandy who runs the family garbage disposal empire at close proximity to seedy young male employees and to the municipal dumps he supervises. He wears a waistcoat with six pockets, each holding a medallion of pressed garbage from the six cities he serves, and he carries a walking stick with a hidden dagger that he calls “fleurette,” the name bestowed on him while a schoolboy by a club of youthful homosexuals.
Paul Surin, one of the identical twins known jointly as Jean-Paul. The unique closeness of “twinship” is essential to Paul, and all relationships are either twin or nontwin, that is, complete or incomplete. When Jean tries to escape the suffocating “ovoid” condition of their twinship (they sleep as two fetuses, head to feet), by bringing his fiancée to La Cassine, Paul manages to discourage the young woman, and she leaves hastily. After Paul loses an arm and leg trying to escape to West Berlin through a tunnel that collapses, he turns for solace, bedridden and alone, to a mystical communion with meteorological mysteries.
Jean Surin (zhahn), the restless twin who wants to escape Paul. After his fiancée’s departure, he becomes a vagabond, moving from Paris to Venice to Djerba to Japan to Vancouver and across Canada, then to Berlin, where he rejoins the “nontwin,” Urs Kraus, a German artist he met in Japan.
The most immediate defining feature of all the characters is their paradoxical sexual status. Edouard is the straight man of the novel, the only married heterosexual male with children. He is likably polygamous but feels redundant in the all-female group of mill workers. Maria-Barbara is first described as an alma genitrix, or pure womb. Later, she symbolically castrates her husband by stealing his glory in the Resistance. Paul is specifically sexed—a monogamous homosexual unique to his type, with the important exception that he once acts as incubus to Sophie. Jean is nervously sexed. He sleeps with Denise out of spite, because she is a...
(The entire section is 1,095 words.)