Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 835
Winner of the 1952 Nobel Prize in Literature, François Mauriac (mawr-yahk) is unquestionably one of the most prolific and versatile writers of twentieth century France. He was born in Bordeaux, the fifth and youngest child of Jean-Paul and Claire Mauriac. The Bordeaux origins of his mother and the Langon, Malagar, and Landes origins of his father provide the major settings for the sociopsychological dramas in his novels, short novels, and plays. Many of his protagonists share Mauriac’s own experiences of youth in Bordeaux. At the Marianite school of Grand-Lebrun, which he attended between the ages of twelve and seventeen, Mauriac read those authors who first made a deep impression upon him and about whom he would later write commentaries: Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Francis Jammes, Jean Racine, Honoré de Balzac, Maurice Barrès, and Blaise Pascal.
At the age of seventeen Mauriac enrolled at the University of Bordeaux, where he studied under Fortunat Strowski, a specialist on Pascal. While completing his degree in letters Mauriac joined the social Catholic movement of Marc Sangnier. Yet he continued to read Barrès, a lover of Pascal, individualism, introspection, and prayer. Instead of completing a thesis on the origins of the Franciscans in France, the twenty-one-year-old Mauriac decided to study theology in Paris, first with the Maristes, at which time he left Sangnier’s movement, and then at the School of Chartes.
The year 1909 marked the first turning point in Mauriac’s life: He abandoned his studies in theology, determined to become a writer. The same year he published his first work, a small collection of poems titled Les Mains jointes (folded hands). Encouraged by Barrès, Mauriac began to associate with such literary figures as Francis Jammes, Jean Cocteau, and Paul Claudel. Another collection of poems followed in 1911, and in 1913 he married Jeanne Lafon. After the publication of A Kiss for the Leper in 1922, Mauriac produced a series of other successful novels—Genitrix, The Desert of Love, Thérèse—another collection of poems, and a series of essays on literature, provincial life, and religion.
The second turning point in Mauriac’s life was marked by the publication of three essays. While working on Souffrances du chrétien (1928; sufferings of the Christian) Mauriac was tempted to abandon his faith. Only a few weeks later he underwent a spiritual experience that renewed his faith and enabled him to answer, in God and Mammon, André Gide’s accusation that being a writer and being a believer are incompatible. The third essay, Bonheur du chrétien (1929; happiness of the Christian), was then joined to the first to express an affirmation of faith; they were later translated together as Anguish and Joy of the Christian Life.
Mauriac’s 1932 Vipers’ Tangle, which many consider to be a masterpiece, proved to be an unsurpassed success in structure and character development. In his Le Romancier et ses personnages (the novelist and his characters), Mauriac once again expressed his view that a believer needs to separate the urgency of his faith from the independent choices of his art. In November, 1933, Mauriac was elected to the distinguished French Academy.
Thereafter Mauriac experienced success as well as failure, but his work never ceased to be a topic of controversy. He worked with several literary reviews and newspapers, in addition to producing four theatrical works, beginning with Asmodée, which was presented at the Comédie-Française in 1937. He wrote essays on a variety of religious and political subjects. By the end of his life, Mauriac had written thousands of pages of autobiographical works, memoirs, journals, and commentaries, many of which were read avidly by the French public. He also continued to write novels.
Mauriac’s creative works are characterized by protagonists whose isolation produces spiritual and psychological anguish. What is commonly recognized as Mauriac’s dark atmosphere is produced by the seemingly endless misery of most of the characters and a well-orchestrated environment of unpleasant sights, sounds, and smells. However, a few characters, such as Louis of Vipers’ Tangle, Yves of The Frontenac Mystery, Gradère of The Dark Angels, and Xavier of The Lamb, experience peace, an eternal bond of love beyond the grave, grace, or a more Christlike life through self-sacrifice.
Despite having produced indisputable masterpieces and receiving frequent praise for the poetic beauty of his prose, Mauriac was often plagued by criticism. He contended that the anguish and spiritual deprivation of his solitary protagonists logically led to the workings of grace, but some readers deplored his apparent fatalism and the conspicuous absence of spiritual growth in most of his novels. Some agreed with Jean-Paul Sartre’s charge that Mauriac’s religious intentions were gratuitously imposed—that in the guise of an omniscient narrator he was actually playing God. However, the dramatic and realistic spiritual transformation of Louis in Vipers’ Tangle, the sublime poetic passages of the works, and the unforgettable character portrayals continue to evoke a favorable response and justify Mauriac’s special recognition as a recipient of the Nobel Prize.
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