François Mauriac is generally considered to have been the preeminent Roman Catholic novelist of the twentieth century, his accomplishments rivaled only by those of his presumed British disciple, Graham Greene. For a long time, however, Mauriac’s novels sustained strong attack from conservative Catholic critics, who argued with some justice that in Mauriac’s novels God is most conspicuous by His absence. Aided in his strongest works by a keen gift for social observation, Mauriac habitually portrays a fictional universe of almost unrelieved human meanness, with frequent incidence of avarice and lust; the most sympathetic among his characters are those who rebel, however ineffectually, against the drab conformity of their frequently privileged backgrounds.
Although primarily concerned with the inner spiritual state of his principal characters, Mauriac derives considerable effect, and credibility, from his evocation of the social and geographical milieu in which those characters exist. Admittedly influenced by Honoré de Balzac in his portrayal of property and its effects, Mauriac, in his strongest efforts, combines the concerns of the Catholic novel with those of the novel of manners, showing frequent flashes of bitter satire. Set almost exclusively in his native Bordeaux and the surrounding countryside, Mauriac’s novels nevertheless transcend their geographical boundaries to reach a worldwide audience, speaking eloquently of the individual at odds with him- or herself and with society. God, however conspicuous by His absence, emerges from the structure of Mauriac’s novels as the only “reasonable” refuge for those whose pleas for love and understanding go unheard. Despite Mauriac’s notoriously uneven production, the stronger of his novels continue to be read as exemplary studies of human character and destiny, notable also for their influence upon the works of Greene and upon the younger British novelist Piers Paul Read, whose frequently startling works sustain Mauriac’s probing analysis of character and society within a Christian (and specifically Catholic) context.