François Mauriac Mauriac, François (Vol. 9) - Essay

Mauriac, François (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mauriac, François 1885–1970

Mauriac is a French novelist, essayist, journalist, playwright, and poet. Although a Roman Catholic, much of his work exhibits strong existentialist ties. Mauriac imbued his works, especially his novels, with a pervasive concern with sin. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1952. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)

[To] the non-Catholic it may seem strange that Mauriac should have such a strongly Protestant sense of religion in a Catholic country…. This nominal adherence to the Catholic faith is manifest in Mauriac's novels by his protagonists' general failures to perform the traditional obligations of their religion. It is also manifest in their very personal response to sin and evil, in contrast to the much more communal response one normally associates with Catholicism…. 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. Moments of recognition in which they sense this personal responsibility come to many of Mauriac's people. The curé who helped consign Jean Péloueyre and Noémie to a grotesque marriage, in A Kiss for the Leper, suffers through an epiphany of enormous, archetypal guilt: "The curé was a man of scrupulous conscience … and he questioned with relentless rigour the motives which had led him to act as he had done…. Each time that he thus sat in judgment on himself, he ended by pronouncing absolution, but that did not prevent him from endlessly reopening the enquiry…. Had he really been an obedient servant of the Lord, or was the real truth that a poor parish priest had usurped the functions of the Eternal God?" And the almost totally evil Félicité Cazenave, who virtually murders her daughter-in-law, suffers a moment of personal and religious aloneness in Genetrix in the same way as her son had earlier: "Suddenly she started up. 'Somebody's walking in the garden!' Had she really heard somebody walking?… It was borne in upon her that this momentary terror had been the young woman's [her son's wife's] companion night after night. Coincidence?… Chance?…" Laughing off her sense of guilt and alienation, Félicité remembers how the "Terror" had once driven away the priests, and here Mauriac offers an image of religion that characterizes the rather Old Testament tenor of faith in Mauriac's work: "At the beginning of the previous century the children of the Landes had had but one religion, that of the implacable and fiery sun; had known but one Almighty, the blaze that burned the pines—a swift-moving, unapproachable God who left in the wake of his progress a host of smoking torches." For Mauriac, this more or less pagan God of the Landes is not essentially different from the Christian God he imagines in his fiction, for that God is no less powerful, implacable, inscrutable. In short, Mauriac's image of religion is close to the Dutch Jansenism whose doctrines of predestination, natural depravity, and irresistible grace seem so much more Calvinist than Catholic. (p. 160)

[The] violence is greater in the intent of his characters than in their physical actions. Félicité Cazenave, of Genetrix, for instance, intends mortal violence toward her daughter-in-law, but it is not action but inaction that causes Mathilde's death: Félicité does nothing to help the girl after she has a miscarriage and contracts puerperal fever, but the violence the fever does to the girl is no match for the violence Félicité would do. (p. 161)

In Mauriac there is a tendency to avoid overt physical violence …: the violence is not of event, but most frequently is one of language, of metaphor and simile, really of style. (p. 162)

[Imagery] of battles, fire and heat, martyrdom and death, rain and storm pervades Mauriac's best fiction. In Genetrix, where—as in much of Mauriac—every emotion is a passion, with all its connotations of violence, a favorite image is of enmity, "the legacy of fire," between mother and son, of a fury that swept through the mother "like a fire, burning up her will to renunciation even before it had come fully to birth." But in this tale the most pervasive imagery involves warfare; the human relations in the Oedipal triangle of mother-son-wife are all seen in the language of armed conflict: the side of the house where Mathilde lives is the "enemy wing"; mother and son together are "like two ancient frigates"; the son Fernand is a "captured fortress," "a piece of property snatched from her by another's hand and which she must recapture by violence."

In the end—and this is frequently true of Mauriac—the people do less violence to each other than to themselves. Hence, where the language of warfare clearly suggests the destructive violence of human relationships, the imagery of passion and fire and heat that dominates, say, in The Desert of Love just as clearly suggests the internal violence of Mauriac's characters…. Much of the problem with Mauriac's people in this work is their lust, not for real, but for imagined flesh—fantasy, imagination, drama, role-playing being vastly important here and elsewhere in Mauriac; it is the internalizing of love—a self-consuming Narcissism—that drives and corrupts…. The urge to self-destruction that haunts these people … is neatly imaged by Mauriac as "that species of madness which compels those whose clothes have caught fire to run." The desert of love Mauriac shows us here—and elsewhere—has been created by that same kind of fire. (pp. 163-64)

James M. Mellard, in Renascence (© copyright, 1974, Catholic Renascence Society, Inc.), Spring, 1974.

Thérèse [of Thérèse Desqueyroux] is a totally untypical Mauriac heroine, bearing no resemblance whatever to most others and only slight resemblance to two of her fictional sisters. Mauriac devoted his talent exclusively to depicting provincial life in southern France and his cast of characters is drawn principally from the Bordeaux area bourgeoisie. What sets Thérèse apart from the other women of her milieu is her knowledge of a certain fact of French provincial life. She would like to communicate the following idea to her daughter Marie, but the same information could be profitably communicated to all the wives and sweethearts of Mauriac's sensitive young men…. In Mauriac's novels, literary creativity is unquestionably the most important activity for any person, and women, or so it seems, interfere regularly and decisively with that activity. This interference takes a particular form, depending on whether the woman in contact with the poet is wife, sweetheart or mother. (pp. 15-16)

Mauriac coined a phrase in his first novel L'Enfant chargé de chaînes that describes magnificently the whole group of women who, as wives, interfere with literary pursuit on the part of their husbands. The phrase: petite âme ménagère. When Thérèse referred to her daughter as a "future commère d'Argelouse," this is her own expression of the same idea. The petite âme ménagère distrusts, fears, resents literature, especially poetry. In Le Baiser au lépreux, when Mauriac is explaining why Noémi cannot come to grips with her feelings, he states that she had never opened any book except her prayerbook and that no fiction could now help her understand her own heart. A key word in Mauriac's vocabulary is abrutissement, that state of mental atrophy sought after by all of Mauriac's provincials who literally bury their minds in business affairs, or, in the case of the women, in housework, children and servants' quarrels. When a petite âme ménagère and an intellectually inclined young man meet and marry, the result is disaster for the male and sometimes for both marriage partners. (p. 16)

Mauriac's fictional sweethearts have a very special role to play in his novels. When one considers the totality of his fictional work, it becomes obvious that, like his fellow Bordelais Michel de Montaigne, Mauriac considered friendship between two intellectual men the most perfect relationship on earth, incorruptible and uncorrupting, free from the caprices of the flesh. The role of the woman, a true femme fatale, is to disrupt this relationship, distract that member of the pair who is the potential intellectual, and metaphorically carry him off to the world of the flesh, of business affairs, of property, of abrutissement…. This oft-repeated pattern is most sharply defined in one of Mauriac's later novels, Les Chemins de la mer. Pierre and Denis have been lifelong friends. Pierre is a poet, Denis has a vocation to intellectualism. He shares Pierre's deep love of poetry and keeps himself informed of the progress of Pierre's poetic efforts. After his father's disgrace, Denis chooses to marry the ignorant and coarse Irène, daughter of a farm-hand, and becomes one of those whose life is a "chemin mort qui ne mène à rien." (pp. 16-17)

In the first two stanzas of "Bénédiction," Baudelaire gives us a description of the poet's mother that is startlingly similar to Mauriac's description of that character. According to Baudelaire, when the poet's mother discovers her son's inclination, she shakes her fist to heaven and curses the moment she conceived "her expiation." This situation, in varying forms and patterns, occurs in every novel in which a poet's mother is alive and on the scene. (p. 17)

In the light of this short study, it is tempting to see in Francǫis Mauriac a male chauvinist of gargantuan proportions. He seems to despise women. However, if one realizes that Mauriac is chiding women for hiding in the house, excoriating the practice of loss of self in offspring, if one realizes that a woman who, for instance, returns to school would get nothing but praise from Mauriac, the tag no longer seems appropriate. Let us consider Thérèse Desqueyroux. She jumps into a disastrous marriage with a male version of the petite âme ménagère, attempts to kill him, and yet retains all of her creator's sympathy. Thérèse is intelligent, she loves to read, she has no illusions about herself, she refuses to sacrifice to the family honor, she maintains a fierce individualism when all the women in her family expect her to live in and for her daughter, and she probably has a vocation to write. One night, Thérèse has a dream which illustrates both this vocation to writing and the yearning for sexual love which interferes with that vocation both in Thérèse and in Mauriac's intellectual males…. Mauriac loves her, despite the fact that she fails to develop her talent. He faults her for squandering her time on chimeric love affairs much as he chides his male intellectuals for wasting their time on women as sex objects.

In L'Education des filles, Mauriac made it clear that the subtle brainwashing of women … was primarily responsible for all the marital, all the maternal woes in his novels. I use the phrase "in his novels" judiciously, for Mauriac-novelist can appear to be in maddeningly total disagreement with Mauriac-essayist. Even within L'Education des filles, there appear to be contradictory opinions expressed. Mauriac both chides and sympathizes with the bourgeoise whose entire universe is populated by children and servants…. Mauriac has been called … a divided novelist whose art is the dialogue between the contradictory voices of his own self. We see this dialogue, this artistic tension, especially in his fictional treatment of women. They fail in his novels because they conform to one of his wishes as expressed in one of his essays.

Within the novels, there is a very clear double standard which Mauriac applies when determining the purpose of reading. For men, intellectualism is an end in itself and literary creativity, the most exalted occupation…. But for women, reading is ordered to a higher good. Women should read in order to be able to love men better…. There are, in Mauriac's novels, several startling "conversions" in which a woman, unsatisfactory for various reasons, picks up a novel and immediately is transformed from an ignorant shrew into an intelligent and passionate lover. The most notable example of this is Brigitte Pian of La Pharisienne. Brigitte's characteristics before she grew interested in literature suggested the title of that novel.

The year before Mauriac died, a new novel of his appeared in which, at last, he had finally created his perfect woman. Jeannette Seris in Un Adolescent d'autrefois was preparing herself, through study under the curé's tutelage, to be a good wife for Alain Gajac, the poet-hero of the novel. Even more hopeful and optimistic was Mauriac's creation of a poet's mother who, while not an intellectual herself, had advised Jeannette to study, read, meditate. (pp. 18-20)

Kathryn E. Wildgen, "Dieu et Maman: Women in the Novels of Francois Mauriac," in Renascence (© copyright, 1974, Catholic Renascence Society, Inc.), Summer, 1974, pp. 15-22.