Mauriac, Claude 1914–
Mauriac, a French novelist and essayist, is the son of Nobel Prize-winning author François Mauriac. His fiction, which is in the New Novelist tradition, is a curious and complex presentation of simultaneous perceptions and points of view.
Claude Mauriac is engaged, in his novels, in justifying the "increasing presence … of writer-heroes in the works of writers." And so he, himself, is triply present in his own books—twice as a man named Bertrand Carnéjoux, who is both the object of his observations and the subject who makes them, and once as Mauriac himself who intrudes into his own novels to discuss them and himself, and to rub elbows with the other characters. He has written a suite of four novels thus far, three of which have by now appeared in English. Together they are titled The Interior Dialogue (though Carnéjoux calls his suite Communication) and they concern the mysterious and tricky technique of communication with others, and among one's selves.
From a technical point of view, Bertrand Carnéjoux, the hero-writer-subject, the "I" of all Mauriac's remarks, is fascinated by movie-making and philosophical treatises. His novels and Mauriac's are an amalgamation of these two elements: the first represents a move toward extreme realism in which the author seeks to "invent" the minimum and achieve "exactitude" in beauty; and the second represents an attempt to comprehend whatever unity underlies the multiplicity of events and persons. Mauriac and Carnéjoux, his alter-ego, are also heirs to Proustian investigations of the transcendence of time—the discovery that consciousness is not chronological, but immediate as well as cumulative.
Mauriac speaks often of the "reality of time"; that man lives both within and out of it. The sum of facts, therefore, both defies and annihilates time and is symbolic of the complicity between man's temporal engagements and his eternalness. It is this existentialist theme that Mauriac's novels invade.
The same characters appear and reappear in all of his novels, but they do not change, that is, they bear perpetually the same relationship to each other. At the bottom of all this lies a personal obsession about the inevitability of solitude and the mystery of communion (thus, the "interior" nature of the "dialogue"). One Mauriac personage affects another, if he does, principally by being a constant reminder that each is entirely replaceable for the other, that all men are interchangeable, all women are fatal, that each encounter is a reminder of our habitual aridity. Conversation is to be understood as simultaneous monologue.
All Women Are Fatal was the first of Mauriac's novels….
[It recounts] four episodes in the life of Bertrand Carnéjoux (the name literally means flesh and games) at the ages of 33, 38, 42 and 25, in that order. Each is an account of specific event when, in a crisis of passion, an act of love or a loss of affiliation or desire, the impossibility of love is especially typified.
All these failures are symbolized by sexual encounters because, one supposes, they represent an ultimate attempt to contact another human being. But sex is a poor religion for, unlike his father François, Claude's preoccupation is not with morality in the traditional sense … but with metaphysical man. To put it another way, with man's ability to transcend the limits which enjoin him from any real joy. (p. 20)
In The Dinner Party, in which eight people monologue simultaneously to themselves and each other, he has joined far more complex observations, and in The Marquise Goes Out at Five, Mauriac evokes, during the time span of one hour, not only the mind of Carnéjoux in its entire cogitative spectrum, but an extremely complicated environment.
By the third book, one knows a great deal about the mind of Mauriac and Carnéjoux and, also, the convolutions of style and manner have been elucidated. Significantly, in the Marquise, Carnéjoux has retired from the world to contemplate, not his pleasures but the meaning of his pleasures. In this book and in his fourth, L'Aggrandissement, Mauriac again employs a virtuoso scheme by which his is triply present: "a novelist, animated by a novelist whom I, myself a novelist, have put into a novel." In the fourth, the novelist prepares a book, evokes a former book and in so doing makes a present one. This attempt to dramatize both subjectivity and objectivity at the same time, to treat them at once on all three levels of abstraction is a major conception.
There is, of course, the inherent danger of monotony. The incessant analysis and mass of detail may have the cumulative effect of a telephone book…. We see more but we do not always see better.
However, like his literary mentor Nathalie Sarraute, Mauriac's lucidity transforms the minutiae into a tremendous equation. "Man," he concludes, "has his states of grace which escape any chronicle"; but his own chronicles admit their shadowy existence. Mauriac is by no means an easy writer, but his vision is particular and severely absorbing. (pp. 20-1)
Alice Mayhew, "All Things at Once," in Commonweal (copyright © 1964 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), September 25, 1964, pp. 20-1.
As much dominated by rigorous intellect as his father's books were by violent, instinctive passion, [Claude Mauriac's] first piece of fiction, Toutes les Femmes sont fatales (1957), is meticulously composed, full of scrupulous correspondences and subtle balances—"A true mind-teaser for careful readers." The words are from the book itself, for Claude Mauriac likes to have his narrator, who discusses a work he is planning to write, provide the key to the one being read: "One could begin reading my book anywhere, reading and rereading it in any order one might choose. An essay more than a novel. Fictional essay, perhaps, a genre that needs to be invented."… That sort of thing makes for a fascinating game of patience, but there is another side to the coin—what fascinates a reader's rational intellect might not attract one with a creative mind.
Told in the first person by Bertrand Carnéjoux, the character who provides the major link between this and the three subsequent books, Toutes les Femmes sont fatales consists of four separate interior monologues, each one covering a brief period of time, but the entire set spans about fifteen years. Through his eyes and mind one also meets, among a host of others, most of the characters who will figure prominently in the later fiction, but one is not much affected by what is hardly more than a succession of names. That, at any rate, is all they represented to me. There is little rapport between them and the narrator who ruminates on his anxieties in Rio, Paris, New York, and prewar France—little rapport, it seems, beyond matters of sexual involvement. Within the text's frame of reference, this is as it should be. (pp. 133-34)
What informs all four sections, saving them from being merely the record of a retarded adolescent's search for personal gratification, is Carnéjoux's constant preoccupation with death, his realization that he will grow old and die without the world's being the poorer for it. Flitting from one woman to the next, he seeks, beyond physical pleasure, what he calls "the frontiers of death."…
While Claude Mauriac makes use of some relatively new techniques introduced by other writers, among them Dujardin, Gide, and Joyce, his first novel is not exactly revolutionary. (p. 135)
Le Dîner en ville (1959) showed far greater originality. The setting is a snobbish apartment on the Ile-Saint-Louis in Paris during a formal dinner party. The book opens with the guests' entrance into the dining room and closes as they leave the table to go back to the salon for coffee. Plot is characteristically nonexistent. The apartment is that of Bertrand Carnéjoux, now married to Martine, the daughter of one of his former mistresses. Six guests have been invited, and they are either single or have come alone, for a variety of reasons engineered for the sake of providing more revealing material. With the same aim, Mauriac also arranged for an unlikely combination of age groups, including a young student and an ancient, although hardly respectable, woman. There is no narrator involved, and the book consists exclusively of a supposed transcription of the conversation and thoughts of those eight people seated around the table. But the lack of descriptions or narrative statements is not its main originality. Marguerite Duras' Le Square, published four years earlier, one remembers, was almost entirely in dialogue form. Le Dîner en ville includes not only conventional dialogues and interior monologues but also interior or "silent" dialogues. Ironically, the disappearance of the narrator is somewhat illusory, for he has been resurrected in the guise of an omniscient transcriber who records not only the dinner conversation but the thoughts of each and every guest. First-person narration, third-person narration with central intelligence, interior monologue—all had a vague claim to realism. Mauriac's technique, in theory, has none. In practice though, it affords a greater illusion of reality, partly because of its newness, partly because the reader has been granted godlike powers to see (or hear) things "as they really are." Such aggravating problems dealing with fictional realism are not laid to rest until writers of the next generation, like Sollers, Ricardou, and others, reject the concept of literature as mimesis.
Claude Mauriac's "recording" technique is endowed with one additional feature, which might have been considered a drawback but actually fitted his purpose quite well: as the transcription is supposed to be authentic, with no editorial matter added, there is no external way of identifying the person who thinks or speaks. Since, according to Mauriac's postulate, all men and women are basically alike, the anonymity of the guests conforms to reality. There are, nevertheless, distinguishing characteristics, superficial as they might be, that permit identification in many if not all cases—manner of speech, obsessions, professional competence, and so forth. Such features also prevent the reader from getting lost among the eight table talkers and transforms the text from the puzzle it might have become into something eminently readable. (pp. 136-37)
Removing Carnéjoux from his former position as narrator also adds to the dimension of Le Dîner en ville. Previously, his obsession with sex and death had an egotistical tinge. He said that all men were like him, but in the text he was the only one to say so. Here, the obsessions are shared, emerging clearly out of the several interior monologues. (p. 138)
In La Marquise sortit à cinq heures (1961) the setting shifts to the Carrefour de Buci, a busy Paris intersection on the left bank, filled with detailed and confused activity. It is between the hours of five and six on a warm afternoon, late in the summer of 1960. Once more there is no conventional narrator, only what appear to be transcriptions of dialogues, interior dialogues, and interior monologues. Bertrand Carnéjoux is still the central character, and he spends the hour watching the street scene from his balcony. But something has happened to him. He is separated from his wife, has renounced his mistresses, and resigned from his editorial positions to devote himself to the writing of his next book, which one is now reading. He has apparently become fully aware of the futility that characterizes human activity, including his own, and in contrast with the attitude of his earlier representations he has become reconciled to it. "I am conscious of my nonexistence at the same time as I realize theirs. I am detached from our ephemeral lives. Ever since, I have left women, children, newspaper, and relative wealth in order to devote myself, no longer to my pleasures, but to the understanding of what my pleasures meant."… He has taken over the role of outsider that belonged to the student in Le Dîner en ville.
The situation, however, is a bit more complicated, for Claude Mauriac is becoming more and more self-conscious in his own role as author and needs to have Carnéjoux's thoughts focus on problems of the writer. The main character becomes split: Carnéjoux's alter ego Desprez, an erudite historian, who is watching from a balcony on the other side of the intersection, assumes the part of commentator that Carnéjoux, in his statement, has led the reader to expect. The link between the two is made clear by their identical physical stance above the Carrefour de Buci as well as by their sharing the same cleaning woman. If the name "Carnéjoux" suggests the idea of toying with flesh, "Desprez" is close enough to dépris and its connotation of being freed from a bond or a habit. He could be said to represent Carnéjoux's new self, one who fully accepted the Saint-Germain-des-Prés revelation, for the name also echoes the last two words in the name of the church. (pp. 138-39)
Such a concentration of time into the fictional hour during which the action of the book takes place is what expands the scope and interest of La Marquise sortit à cinq heures far beyond what had been attempted in Le Dîner en ville. Desprez can account for "at least eight centuries of Paris life, at this precise spot" …, and he discloses a frightening record of crime and injustice throughout those centuries. Everything that is read by a character is of course reproduced in the text. (pp. 139-40)
What emerges is of course a strong indictment of Western civilization. Such a condemnation, intellectual in origin, is given an emotional hue by the pervasive presence of children, both on the Carrefour de Buci and in the literature of the past. Carnéjoux's daughter, Rachel, whom Martine has brought to visit her father, serves as catalyst for the reader's feelings. (pp. 140-41)
These devices are much the same that Michel Butor had used in Degrés, which appeared a year before La Marquise sortit à cinq heures, in a very different context, but with essentially the same effect of arousing the reader. There is also a difference in the handling of the episodes. Butor is more discreet, less prone to call attention to what he is doing, while Mauriac cannot help explaining everything, constantly tugging at the reader's elbow. (p. 141)
The themes of injustice and suffering subsume the theme of death that has been carried over from the previous works. Many more characters from different walks of life help to express the universal fear of death posited by Claude Mauriac. (p. 142)
Mauriac's characters like to think of themselves as full of love and sorrow for others: "Me, such a noble heart!"… exclaims a woman poet…. The anxieties of all these people are not limited to their fear of death. They are all wrapped up in themselves. (p. 143)
Such anxieties, as they were in Toutes les Femmes sont fatales, are usually translated into sexual terms, only they are now applied to a host of characters instead of being nearly monopolized by Carnéjoux, who, in this book, appears strangely ascetic.
His main task is to express himself on the techniques of fiction. He does this first, as in the previous work, as a writer thinking and dropping hints about the book he is writing and about fiction writing in general. But earlier, Carnéjoux was a character who was also a writer, and his other activities were in the foreground; now he is a writer and nothing else. What he had to say in the past about the book he was planning threw light on the one being read. In Le Dîner en ville, when he talked about "Le Plaisir grave," one had the impression that it resembled Toutes les Femmes sont fatales, and one feels that "Le Déjeuner au bistro" has much in common with Le Dîner en ville. In Marquise sortit à cinq heures, however, it becomes increasingly obvious as one progresses through the book that it is precisely the one Carnéjoux is working on. The far greater frequency of his reflections on his craft are partly the cause of that impression. How the convention that forms the basis of this work is gradually exploded becomes a more important consideration.
In Le Dîner en ville an identical convention was strictly adhered to. Here, Mauriac begins by respecting the framework of his carrefour and of his hours. Then, a first, plausible exception is made for historical texts, and next, texts about Algeria are brought in. What goes on in the street is supplemented by what happens inside the various houses. Historical persons who have lived on the spot are followed by others who merely passed by. These are succeeded by fictional characters who could be connected with the carrefour (the eighteenth-century Manon Lescaut, for one) and by real persons who simply might have passed by, "Anonymously and without leaving any evidence," for it is reasonable to assume that "they all have one day or another passed through this intersection … Voltaire, Bonaparte, Hugo."… Finally, a fictional character is introduced who lives somewhere overseas and happens to be thinking about the carrefour, the name of which he can no longer remember.
The process is not without analogy to one Butor used in Degrés when, by introducing the concept of negative relationships, he managed to integrate all the students and teachers of a lycée into his system of family relationship groups. That is, of course, quite legitimate, but one of its consequences can be, as it is here, to call attention to the fiction qua fiction and to the close connection between what Carnéjoux is thinking and what is actually taking place, that is, to his creating the events that he pretends to be recording. The impression is completely confirmed by the instance in which he notes what another character has thought, in an interior monologue that has just been transcribed with the obvious intent of using it in his book—which he has just done…. What is clearly meant by Carnéjoux's being the author of the book we are reading is that he has now become Mauriac—a harmless supposition, since he has, early in the text, divested himself of nearly everything that made him the fictional character of the two other works. He has become the omniscient narrator and Claude Mauriac's surrogate. In the last few pages, Mauriac gives the show away by stepping into the text himself: "Novelist brought to life by a novelist that, as novelist, I have myself placed in a novel where, nevertheless, nothing has been invented."… As usual, he must carefully explain what was becoming evident.
This explanation does not really mar the ending of the book. It matches the tone of this and previous works and brings matters to their logical conclusion. At one point Carnéjoux admonishes himself, "I must carefully avoid adding commentaries, no matter how short, to my quotations" …, but Mauriac does precisely the opposite by means of Carnéjoux's remarks on fiction writing. In another respect, he is like Nathalie Sarraute: not only does he want to control carefully what goes into his work, he also wishes to restrain the reader and make sure he does not take out of the work more than was intended. As he intervenes is La Marquise sortit à cinq heures, he stresses what he considers to be the link between the fiction and the reality. (pp. 143-46)
The title of this third work refers of course to Paul Valéry's saying that he would never write such a preposterous sentence as "La marquise sortit à cinq heures," which had been publicized by André Breton in his surrealist manifesto…. Because the marquise is a middle-aged, male homosexual, it acquires an ironic twist, but that is a minor point. Valéry, in attacking that kind of narrative statement, was condemming what he thought was trivial and traditional in the mass of contemporary fiction, but in effect he was attacking a symptom rather than a disease. The judgment weighed heavily in the minds of writers during the thirties and forties, and Claude Mauriac deserves some credit for reversing it, so to speak—showing that even such a statement as "la marquise sortit à cinq heures" might be used in a serious work…. As Mauriac writes, in the guise of Carnéjoux: "In the present as in the past, the anecdotes to which my fictional essay will be boiled down will have no importance at all. And yet, they will make up my only reliable asset."… (pp. 146-47)
He undoubtedly shared the apprehensiveness of many older novelists when faced with Valéry's dictum. Even though he used the anathematized statement to show that the poet had been mistaken, his last sentence, "The marquise did not go out at five," is an unwitting justification of Valéry's distrust. In emphasizing the reality that lies at the source of his fiction, he not only refuses to recognize the creative power of language but, by laying bare the mechanisms of his work, he has in one sense retreated from the position assumed by traditional novelists, who, like Balzac, might have considered their fiction more important than reality. (p. 147)
L'Agrandissement (1963), the final volume of the series featuring Bertrand Carnéjoux, is something of a letdown. As the title suggests, this work is an enlargement of a detail of the preceding one, and it consists of a long interior monologue attributable either to Carnéjoux or to Mauriac himself, spun in the length of time required by the Carrefour de Buci traffic light to turn amber to red, green, and amber again. In his monologue, Carnéjoux (let us suppose it is he) creates and expands on what he had previously pretended to record, to the extent, for instance, of projecting the lives of passing lycée students forward to the time when they have become old lycée professors. He also reminisces about aspects of his own life, and he thinks, as usual, about the art of fiction. If it does not provide an exciting esthetic experience, it certainly is not uninteresting. I might even say that it generates considerable intellectual enjoyment. (pp. 147-48)
The handling of time in this tetralogy is both logical and fascinating in its progression. From an extended time sequence involving a narrow subject, Mauriac moved on to a more restricted framework in time (one evening) and a broadened subject. Next, by limiting the time to one hour, he extended his scope tremendously. In the fourth fictional work, reducing the framework to approximately two minutes might have permitted an enlargement encompassing the infinite depth of the human psyche. But if that does not take place—perhaps because Mauriac lacked genius, perhaps because the human psyche lacks depth—the experiment was well worth undertaking. In any case, it marks a point beyond which the Carnéjoux series could not logically be continued.
Claude Mauriac broke the cycle with L'Oubli (1966), which was greeted by several enthusiastic reviews but in my opinion had best be forgotten. The mock detective-story plot that holds things together, involving cliques of novelists, was probably meant to be taken as light satire and high-level amusement. Actually, it is more grotesque than burlesque and somewhat embarrassing in its inanity. Too bad, because an excellent idea lies at the center of the narrative. A boy of twelve and a girl of seven play together in spite of their parents' forbidding them to, and during their play they discover something very important. Both are obsessed with the incident throughout their lives, although neither one can remember what was discovered and said or who the other one was. When they meet again much later, both, separately, think of the incident but do not connect it with each other, and they part never to meet again.
Ideas, however, are not sufficient to make a work of art, and this one gets lost among the nonsense. It does serve to remind us that most of Mauriac's characters have had a traumatic experience in their childhood or youth that haunts them from then on. That, and other obsessive elements as yet unnoticed, will perhaps emerge more clearly when his fictional work is complete—assuming that he does pursue it—giving it a greater dimension that his intellect had allowed. What is clear is that his esthetics remains traditional. (pp. 148-49)
It appears that he cannot bring himself to abandon the myth of the individual creator, perhaps even the genius, with inspiration manifesting itself in some gifted individuals. Nor does he like to think that the writer might not be responsible for what he writes, that he might be conveying the realities of his culture, civilization, or class more than anything really his own. One should also add, with respect to another prejudice manifested in this last quotation, that the wealth of meaning a reader might extract from an aleatory work of art does not reflect credit on the author—that, again, is an individualistic fallacy. It enriches the reader and, if that reader is a critic, many other readers as well. For Mauriac, however, the reader's function is less to create than to decipher. (p. 150)
Leon S. Roudiez, "Claude Mauriac," in his French Fiction Today: A New Direction (copyright © 1972 by Rutgers University, The State University of New Jersey; Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, N.J.), Rutgers, 1972. pp. 132-51.
Claude Mauriac's The Marquise Went Out at Five (1961) [is] one of the most interesting novels to come out of the fervor of fictional experiment in France during the past fifteen so years….
[All] serious novelists must confront the arbitrariness, the necessary falsification, of the worlds they invent through words. In his critical writings, Mauriac has coined the term alittérature to describe this intrinsic problematic of literature. All literary creation worthy of the name, now and in previous ages, is seen as a reaction against the inevitable falsity of antecedent literature, a restless devising of strategies to escape being "just" literature. I think the idea is more historically accurate than the notion of a contemporary literature of exhaustion, and The Marquise Went Out at Five is a persuasive demonstration of its efficacy as a rationale for the continual renewal of literature.
By the conclusion of the novel, Carnéjoux, the novelist as self-observing observer, imperceptibly gives way to the author of The Marquise Went Out at Five. The evoked world of fiction, revealed as fiction, shrivels up, and, as at the end of many of Nabokov's novels, the fabricator of the fiction himself stands in its place…. Mauriac, it should be noted, does not in the end make the facile gesture of some contemporary novelists who simply shrug off their own fictions as, after all, mere fictions: he avows the artifice but affirms it as a means of mirroring "life's sensations, feelings and thoughts," fiction seen as perhaps the only way to get at a whole range of real human experience. (pp. 226-27)
All this might be mere cleverness if the novel did not have the impelling sense it does of the urgency, the philosophical seriousness, of its enterprise. What drives Bertrand Carnéjoux, and behind him Claude Mauriac, is an acute perception of two concentric abysses beneath the artifice of the novel—history and death. The Marquise Went Out … attempts to exhaust the human experience intersecting [a] carefully delimited time and place. But as Carnéjoux and his inventor realize, such an undertaking is "doomed to failure" because "the unity of actual time … [is] surrounded, penetrated, absorbed … by the infinite pullulation of innumerable past moments."… Though Mauriac explicitly compares the achronological method of composition here through a long series of separate "takes" with the methods of a film-maker, the effect is precisely the opposite of cinematic composition in Robbe-Grillet because Mauriac accepts and works with the essentially time-soaked nature of language as a medium of art. (pp. 227-28)
Some readers may feel that Mauriac is too explicitly direct in the way he reveals … fundamental matters of motive and design in the making of his novel, but the fiction itself bears out in concrete detail what otherwise might seem portentous assertion. A writer, about to vanish like every human being born, has only words to grasp with at some sort of tenuous, dubious permanence. Words console, words are the most wonderful of human evasions; but the writer, using them as truly as a writer of fiction can—which is to say, with a consciousness of how their enchantment transmutes reality into fiction—comes to perceive profoundly what words help us to evade. The seriousness and the ultimate realism of the novel that mirrors itself could have no more vivid demonstration. (pp. 228-29)
Robert Alter, in TriQuarterly 33 (© 1975 by Triquarterly), Spring, 1975.
Le temps immobile is not an account of M Mauriac's novels, nor of his critical writings, and it has relatively little to say about his family, It covers the period from 1958 to 1975, and is concerned mainly with three men who played a dominant role in his life during those years, General de Gaulle, André Malraux and Michel Foucault, and the discussions and episodes which they inspired or originated.
Naturally, one other person is also constantly present, and that is the author's father, François Mauriac. Not only was Claude Mauriac dominated by his presence and his memory, he was often made to serve his father's needs….
But it was because of Francǫis that Claude Mauriac has constantly been surrounded by the distinguished and famous, and it is this which has enabled him to write a journal which other people will want to read. There are always those who like to hear anecdotes, and all that M Mauriac has had to do is to record the stories which he heard in the course of the day…. To this extent M Mauriac has published a book which is bound to be successful.
But it has two aspects which are unusual. The first is its variety. It begins with de Gaulle's return to power and the establishment of the Fifth Republic. M Mauriac wonders whether he is to be appointed to de Gaulle's staff, as he was in 1944. But the appointment does not materialize, and it is as a spectator only that he watches the new regime….
In the second, longer half of this volume, M Mauriac describes a direct and active life in the politics of protest: the small intellectual, groups who form associations, hold meetings, pass resolutions, investigate injustices and combat authority. Here the concern is with the scandal of prison life, with the atrocities committed against Algerian immigrants, with the terrible housing conditions in certain parts of Paris, as well as with the larger injustices to be laid at the door of particular governments.
The Mauriac who patiently interviews Algerians in the hope of finding out the exact truth about some incident, and who spends so much of his time drafting statements which are ignored by most of the press, seems very different from the man who hangs on to every reminiscence which a garrulous Malraux is prepared to proffer…. Thus this is a journal of particular interest and distinction.
Its second unusual aspect, however, is less satisfactory. M Mauriac claims to be preoccupied with the problem of time, a preoccupation which takes the form of interposing the record of events from one year to another, so that at certain moments there is a deliberate confusion of narrative….
The method is meant to be significant for his life, and to resemble artistically a montage, in which the observer becomes aware of intricacies that would otherwise be concealed. But it looks more like a device than a principle, and in spite of M Mauriac's insistence, one has the impression that the method is secondary to the matter.
Douglas Johnson, "The Best of Company," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1976; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), September 17, 1976, p. 1161.