François Mauriac Essay - Mauriac, François

Mauriac, François

Introduction

Mauriac, François 1885-1970

(Full name François Charles Mauriac; also wrote under the pseudonym Forez) French novelist, short story writer, poet, dramatist, essayist, critic, journalist, screenwriter, and autobiographer.

Mauriac is considered one of the most significant authors of the twentieth century. Most of his short fictional works depict individuals tormented by the absence of virtue in their lives. The trials of Mauriac's protagonists reflect his abiding concern with Catholicism's interpretations of sin, redemption, pleasure, and morality. James M. Mellard has concluded: "For Mauriac's characters, mankind's sins may rest on their shoulders, but each man, not mankind, must work out his own redemption; the communal Church seems less crucial than the individual soul."

Biographical Information

Mauriac was born in the Bordeaux region of France. His father died soon after his son's birth, and Mauriac was raised by his mother in a strict Catholic household. As a boy he was sent to Catholic schools run by Marian priests. After earning academic degrees in 1904 and 1906, Mauriac moved to Paris where he remained for most of his life. He became close friends with many writers, including André Gide. In 1913 he married Jeanne Lafon, with whom he had four children; their son Claude is also an acclaimed novelist and screenwriter. During World War I Mauriac served as a hospital orderly in Salonika, Greece. During World War II he frequently wrote on political issues and was an outspoken supporter of Charles de Gaulle. From 1954 to 1961 Mauriac was a columnist for the newspaper L'express; after this and until his death he was a regular contributor of reviews and articles to Figaro littéraire. The recipient of numerous awards and literary honors during his lifetime, Mauriac was elected in 1934 to the Académie Française—the prestigious French cultural institution established in the 1600s by Cardinal Richelieu for preservation and perfection of the French language. Mauriac was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1952.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Mauriac wrote several short novels and only ten short stories, eight of which were collected in Trois récits and Plongées, the remaining two in Oeuvres complètes. Critics note that these works, like Mauriac's other writings, reflect his conservative, "Jansenist" interpretation of Catholicism. Named for the Flemish theologian Cornells Jansen, whose strict interpretation of St. Augustine's philosophy inspired it, Jansenism was a seventeenth-century movement in French religious thought that espoused the doctrines of original sin and absolute predestination. Jansenists believe that it is impossible to be good or do good without divine grace and that God has already determined the few who will receive salvation. This theology has been called a philosophy of pessimism because of its denial of free will and its conception of the wretchedness of man's fallen state. In accordance with Jansen's idea that mankind "bears the full burden of its condemnation," Mauriac portrayed his characters as essentially evil beings who could be redeemed only after they renounced all worldly pleasures and devoted themselves to the worship of God. Significantly, much of his short fiction contains vibrant depictions of sexual desire. While he was aware of and distressed by the possibility that his work might offend Catholic readers, Mauriac was resolved, in his words, to probe "the secret source of the greatest sins." His early works are semiautobiographical studies of young people on the verge of adulthood. In his first short novel—and first work of fiction—L'enfant chargé de chaînes (Young Man in Chains), the protagonist experiments with political activism and sexual promiscuity before accepting religious devotion as his true vocation. The short novel Le baiser au lépreux (A Kiss to the Leper) is considered by many commentators to be his first major exploration of religious issues. The story concerns the physical and emotional rejection of an unattractive man by his beautiful wife. After her husband's death, which Mauriac suggests was attributable in part to her years of aloofness, the wife belatedly realizes her love for him. In Génitrix Mauriac depicts the desperate dysfunctionality of an upper-class family. Here a weak-willed middle-aged man marries a lower-class woman who is much younger than he as a way of breaking the possessive grip of his domineering mother. Suffering an exceedingly unhappy marriage, which she entered into primarily to obtain wealth and status, the wife dies after several alcoholic binges and attempted affairs. After the death of his mother, the man is left alone, miserably trapped in old patterns of dependence.

Mauriac's most famous fictional character was introduced in the 1927 short novel Thérèse Desqueyroux (Thérèse). Feeling trapped by the conventions of her class, the provincial mores of her community, and by her circumscribed role as a woman, Thérèse unsuccessfully tries to poison her husband, explaining she just wanted "to see in his eyes a momentary flicker of uncertainty." After her crime is discovered, Thérèse becomes an outcast, tormented by guilt yet stubbornly refusing to seek God's forgiveness. Critics have noted that, for Mauriac, Thérèse's real crime appears to be a kind of spiritual arrogance more than attempted murder. Illicit passion and its attendant guilt are the subjects of Destins (Destinies), a short novel about a handsome young Parisian vacationing in Bordeaux who becomes the object of the desires of two lonely women.

Most of Mauriac's relatively few short stories were first collected in Trois récits and Plongées. Critics tend to regard these stories as studies for the novels that Mauriac was writing around the time of their composition. Among the best known of these works—and among the few that have been translated into English—are "Thérèse chez le docteur" ("Thérèse and the Doctor") and "Thérèse à l'hôtel" ("Thérèse at the Hotel"). Both were written in 1933 and continue the story of Mauriac's own favorite character; these short tales were translated and collected in 1947 as Therese: A Portrait in Four Parts. Le mal (The Enemy) is a short novel about a young man and his first serious love affair. The protagonist, raised in a pious, Jansenist household, goes to Paris and becomes involved with a beautiful woman who represents the sensual opposite of his upbringing. Eventually the young man's religious principals reassert themselves and he abandons the woman.

Le sagouin (The Little Misery), set soon after the first World War, also concerns the fate of a young man. Here, the protagonist is the unloved, somewhat slow-witted son of a middle-class woman who married into an old, no longer flourishing noble family. For a time the boy is entrusted to the care of a Communist schoolteacher, who, because he treats him kindly and gives him reasons to participate in the world, becomes his first positive parental figure. The boy is eventually called back by his family, however, and, feeling abandoned by everyone, kills himself. Irving Howe has called this short novel "one of the few successful works of religious fiction written in our time." In Galigaï (The Loved and the Unloved), Mauriac again examines the lives of the high-born. There are four main protagonists in the story: two are described as attractive, two as particularly ugly. The novel thus concerns, as S. M. Fitz-Gerald has put it, "the effects upon a human soul of physical ugliness." L'agneau (The Lamb)—one of Mauriac's last works of fiction—is a version of the Christ story. This short novel tells the story of a young seminary student who determines to sacrifice his life in order to save the soul of a corrupt older man.

Critical Reception

Generally, Mauriac's standing among literary critics is very high, as his membership among "the immortals" of the Académie Française and his Nobel Prize attest. However, there has been serious criticism leveled against his work. Chiefly, Mauriac has been accused of promoting misogynistic views in his fiction. Critics have pointed to the roles women often play in his novels—seductresses, tempters, and murderesses—and to his depictions of sexual activity—which frequently convey a certain measure of disgust with not merely the act itself but, importantly, with female anatomy. Mauriac has also had at least one notable detractor, Jean-Paul Sartre. In his essay "M. François Mauriac et la liberté" (in Nouvelle revue Française, February, 1939), Sartre accused Mauriac of hypocritically denying his characters free will. Focusing mainly on the 1935 novel La fin de la nuit (The End of the Night), but extending his critique to include all of Mauriac's work, Sartre demonstrated the ways in which Mauriac violated putative laws of fiction, namely that of identifying with a character but judging him or her by criteria outside the fictional universe. Sartre argued that Mauriac imposed judgments and destinies on characters ostensibly portrayed as autonomous individuals. As Robert Speaight has written: "If Sartre's criticism was well founded, Mauriac would not have been the first Christian to be caught by the problem of predestination and free will, nor the first to find it insoluble." Nevertheless, Gerard Hopkins, the main English translator of Mauriac's fiction, has commented that "Mauriac supplies .. . a moral fervour which was once a common feature of [English] literature." Mauriac's short fiction continues to be celebrated for its distinct prose style and for its psychological insights.

Principal Works

Short Stories

Trois Récits 1929

Plongées 1938

Short Novels

L'enfant chargé de chaînes [Young Man in Chains] 1913

*Le baiser au lépreux [A Kiss to the Leper] 1922; also published as A Kiss for the Leper, 1950

*Génitrix 1923

†Thérèse Desqueyroux [Thérèse] 1927

Destins [Destinies] 1928; also published as Lines of Life, 1957

Le mal [The Enemy] 1935

Le sagouin [The Little Misery] 1951; also published as The Weakling, 1952

...

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Criticism

Angel Flores (essay date 1930)

SOURCE: "Silver-Cord Motif," in New York Herald Tribune Books, August 10, 1930, pp. 3-4.

[A Mexican-born educator and critic who specialized in Spanish literature but also was an authority on Franz Kafka, Flores published extensively in English and Spanish. In addition, he edited more than a dozen booksincluding The Kafka Problem (1946), Franz Kafka Today (1958), The Kafka Debate (1977), and Explain to Me: Some Stories of Kafka (1983)and translated the works of major Spanish and South American authors into English. In the following review of the two short works collected in The Family—"The Kiss to the Leper" and...

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Irving Howe (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: "The Religious Novel," in The New Republic, Vol. 126, No. 14, April 7, 1952, pp. 18-9.

[An esteemed American critic, essayist, and social historian, Howe was a member of the "New York Intellectuals"a group of liberal, socialist writers that included, among others, Philip Rahv and Lionel Trillingand is perhaps best remembered for World of Our Fathers (1976), his history of Jewish-American culture and immigration to New York City. In the following excerpt from a review in which he also discusses Mauriac's work of nonfiction entitled The Stumbling Block, he examines the two short works collected as The Weakling and The Enemy. Howe describes...

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Anthony West (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: "Revolt Against Nature," in The New Yorker, Vol. XXVIII, No. 8, April 12, 1952, pp. 129-30.

[West was an English-born journalist and author who contributed essays and book reviews to magazines such as The New Yorker. The son of writers H. G. Wells and Rebecca West, he wrote a frank and revealing biography of his father titled H. G. Wells: Aspects of a Life (1984). In the following review of The Weakling and The Enemy, West discusses the misogyny evident in Mauriac's work.]

François Mauriac, whose two short novels The Weakling and The Enemy have just been issued in a single volume, is one of the intellectual pillars of the...

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S. M. FitzGerald (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: "Hecate Revisited," in The New Republic, Vol. 127, No. 21, November 24, 1952, pp. 19-20.

[In the following excerpt from a review in which he also examines The Illusionist by Françoise Mallet, FitzGerald discusses realism in The Loved and the Unloved.]

Dorthe, an ugly little community petrifying in the sun somewhere near Bordeaux, is the scene [of The Loved and the Unloved] in which several supernaturally ugly, and two handsome, people reach crucial points simultaneously, split apart and re-combine to the fulfillment of some need in each, whether of love or hatred. Only one is unshackled in the process and able to leave Dorthe freed of idolatry...

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Laurent LeSage (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: "Light for a Somber World," in The Saturday Review, Vol. XXXIX, No. 3, January 21, 1956, p. 17.

[An American educator and critic specializing in French literature, LeSage is the author of The French New Novel ( 1962), The French New Criticism (1966), and four book-length studies of the writer Jean Giraudoux. In the following favorable review of The Lamb, LeSage argues that Maurìac has "reached in this novel . . . a point of unsurpassable mastery. "]

Françcois Mauriac, often described as the outstanding novelist of the Catholic Renascence and who, among living French writers, is surely the greatest artist in fiction, undertakes in...

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James Finn (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: "Marks of Eternity," in The Commonweal, Vol. LXVII, No. 4, October 25, 1957, pp. 105-07.

[An American editor and author, Finn worked for the journals Commonweal, Worldview, and Christian Century, in succession, and published several books about war and pacificism. In the following laudatory review of Lines of Life, he briefly discusses the novel's place in Mauriac' s body of work and then assesses it as a great work of art]

Lines of Life, published first in France in 1928 under the title Destins, is part of the "early" Mauriac, those six or seven novels that made him a standard and symbol for young writers in the thirties. It...

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Germaine Brée and Margaret Guiton (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: "Private Worlds: François Mauriac," in An Age of Fiction: The French Novel from Gide to Camus, Rutgers University Press, 1957, pp. 114-15.

[A French-born American educator and critic specializing in French literature, Brée is widely acknowledged to be an expert on the life and work of Albert Camus. In the following excerpt, Brée and Guiton discuss Mauriac's focus on the morality of material possessions and the "inner landscape" evident in his novels.]

As a novelist, François Mauriac himself, as he has admitted, is haunted by the secret that lies at the heart of all human beings. In one of his last novels, L'Agneau (The Lamb), 1954, he analyzes the...

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R. T. Davies (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: "Reservations about Mauriac," in Essays in Criticism, Vol. IX, No. 1, January, 1959, pp. 22-36.

[Davies is an English educator and critic specializing in English literature of the Middle Ages. In the following essay, he argues that Mauriac is concerned with only a very narrow range of themes, and that, while he fails to address certain aspects of life in his novels, the power of his work is nevertheless at least partly related to the concentration of its focus.]

Reading, pondering and re-reading the novels of M. Mauriac over the last eight years, I have not found my first and almost unqualified love for them much diminished. M. Mauriac speaks my language: I am...

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The Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: "Tender Conscience," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3093, June 9, 1961, p. 353.

[In the following review of Young Man in Chains, the critic suggests that the questions that have intrigued Mauriac throughout his career were present in this early short novel]

We all know the world of M. Francois Mauriac by now, the landes "steaming with prayer and fornication", the vile meannesses of the men of property (or, better, the women, for men seem to die like drones once they have fecundated the monstrous queen bees) in their shuttered villas round which even the pines are sensuous. Yet we have waited nearly forty years for the translation of...

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K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "A Flawed Eden," in Francois Mauriac: Novelist & Moralist, Asia Publishing House, 1963, pp. 117-22.

[An Indian educator and author, Iyengar has written on a wide range of subjects, variously treating English studies, education in India, religious matters, and the relation between English and Indian literature. In the following excerpt, he discusses the influence of geographical settingprimarily the Bordeaux region and Parison Mauriac's characters. ]

In M. Mauriac's fiction we are introduced . . . to a world not less distinctive than the crowded world of Dickens, the agonized and diseased world of Dostoevsky, the intense if also vanishing...

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Philip Stratford (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "Mauriac: Poet into Novelist," in Faith and Fiction: Creative Process in Greene and Mauriac, University of Notre Dame Press, 1964, pp. 65-86.

[Stratford is a Canadian educator and critic. In the following excerpt, he discusses the development of and literary influences on Mauriac's early work.]

In the introduction to Commencements d'une vie Mauriac admits that the intensity of his childhood experience was heightened by the habit of self-dramatization. "As a child I played at being solitary and misunderstood," he writes, "and it was the most fascinating of games. Perhaps I found it so because I instinctively knew that much more than a game was involved, a...

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Harry T. Moore (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "The Chemistry of Conscience': François Mauriac, Georges Bernanos, Julien Green," in Twentieth-Century French Literature to World War II, Southern Illinois University Press, 1966, pp. 96-118.

[An American educator, critic, and author, Moore is best remembered for his studies of the life and works of D. H. Lawrence, though he also wrote and edited books on John Steinbeck, E. M. Forster, Lawrence Durrell, Rainer Maria Rilke, and other authors. In the following excerpt, Moore surveys Mauriac's body of work and finds that, despite a predilection toward didacticism, it is populated with compelling characters and offers trenchant psychological insights.]

Nietzsche's...

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J. E. Flower (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "Introduction," in Intention and Achievement: An Essay on the Novels of François Mauriac, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969, pp. 1-8.

[In the following excerpt, Flower discusses Mauriac as a "Catholic novelist. "]

With the exception of one of his earliest critics, Charles du Bos, and more recently Professor Stratford, and in spite of the apparent content of a number of critical studies, no commentators have paid adequate attention to the basic problem of the Catholic novel and to Mauriac's consideration of it. It has, to be sure, been acknowledged as a distinctive form but only in as much as it is a piece of writing which bears witness in some way to the Catholic...

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Maxwell A. Smith (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "The Short Stories," in François Mauriac, Twayne Publishers, 1970, pp. 121-28.

[An American educator and critic, Smith was the author of Short History of French Literature (1924), the editor of Short Stories by French Romanticists (1929), and coedited French Short Stories of the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century (1932). In the following essay, he analyzes Mauriac's two short story collections, Trois Recits and Plongées.]

I Trois Récits (1929)

Since Mauriac's most successful novels are brief or at least of medium length, it might be expected that he would find the genre of novella or...

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Robert Speaight (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Thérèse Rediviva," in François Mauriac: A Study of the Writer and the Man, Chatto and Windus, 1976, pp. 116-29.

[Speaight was a noted English actor and theater scholar. In the following excerpt, he discusses the composition of La fin de la nuit—a novel featuring the character Thérèse from Thérèse Desqueyroux—and the criticisms levelled against it by Jean-Paul Sartre.]

[In 1933] Mauriac lifted the curtain on the creative process of the novelist in an essay, Le Romancier et ses Personnages. With the deliberate exception of Le Mystère Frontenac, he had proved that 'the novelist begins to take shape in us at the same time as...

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Diana Festa-McCormick (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Mauriac's Thérèse: An Androgynous Heroine," in Writing in a Modern Temper: Essays on French Literature and Thought in Honor of Henri Peyre, edited by Mary Ann Caws, ANMA Libri, 1984, pp. 174-87.

[Festa-McCormick is an American educator and critic. In the following essay on Thérèse Desqueyroux, she traces Therese's motivation for murder to her unrequited passion for Anne.]

Thérèse is a strange heroine. Her story is that of a quest and the quest is, ostensibly, for a conscience, for a confrontation with a crime that defies her understanding. Although she would like to lay bare the mechanism within her that set her on the path to murder and made it...

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Edward J. Gallagher (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Sexual Ambiguity in Mauriac's Thérèse Desqueyroux," in Romance Notes, Vol. XXVI, Spring, 1986, pp. 215-21.

[In the following essay, Gallagher argues that Mauriac is purposefully ambiguous regarding the sexual orientation of Thérèse Desqueyrouxmuch more so than is conveyed by the standard English translations of the novel, which tend to attribute gender to verb forms that in the original French are neutral.]

To the reader of François Mauriac's 1927 novel Thérèse Desqueyroux the complexity of the title character's personality and motivations is readily apparent. Critics have, in fact, suggested affinities between her and...

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Richard Griffiths (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Mauriac and the Art of the Short Story," in François Mauriac: Visions and Reappraisals, edited by John E. Flower and Bernard C. Swift, Berg Publishers, 1989, pp. 77-95.

[A Welsh educator and critic, Griffiths is the author of The Reactionary Revolution: The Catholic Revival in French Literature, 1870-1914 (1966), among other works. In the following essay, he examines Mauriac's short stories and argues that they should be viewed on their own terms as literary worksnot simply in relation to the novels.]

François Mauriac is famous above all as a novelist. The fact that he wrote a number of successful short stories appears, on the whole, to have...

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David O'Connell (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "The Early Fiction and the Short Stories," in François Mauriac Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1995, pp. 28-50.

[O'Connell is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt, he surveys Mauriac's short stories and relates them thematically to the novels he was writing at the time.]

Mauriac's short fiction appeared during his lifetime in two principal collections: Trois récits (1929), (Three stories) and Plongées (1938), (Fathomings), which contained another five stories. In addition to these collections, there are two more stories, "Le Visiteur nocturne" and "Le Drôle," which were published separately and not gathered into a collection...

(The entire section is 6195 words.)