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."
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.
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.