Mauriac, François 1895–1970
Mauriac, a French Roman Catholic novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, scenarist, and journalist, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1952. His novels, according to one critic, offer us "a theology of the passions—or, more exactly, the opposite of a theology: a demonology." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)
[What is] surprising, as we re-study Mauriac, is the now apparent fact that much of his thought and insight corresponds to the work of existentialist philosophers. Both they and he search out the unauthentic, the complacent illusion, the fear of honest confrontation in human experience. They and he are obsessed with the isolation of the human person in an alien universe. Correlative is the disillusionment seemingly inevitable in human love.
Seen in retrospect, however, the existentialist motif most evident in Mauriac's writing is the working-out of the search for self-knowledge and self-realization….
For Mauriac, the world is indeed a somber place, but not for the reason that evil is an inherent and undefeated force therein. Rather does Mauriac center on the paradox rooted in man: the inviolable nature of his person as a unique human being with a destiny he alone can achieve and the inescapability of his fulfillment without surrender to Someone transcending himself. The sacredness of the human person is acknowledged first and recognized by the individual as he looks at himself in the light of the truth….
Certainly we find often in the novels of Mauriac shallow and complacent Christians carefully cushioning themselves from the shock of self-recognition. Sometimes we see them in another aspect—that of those who attest their self-knowledge, but who refuse the gift of themselves, serving only their ego, in a monstrous parody of life. It is on these individuals that Mauriac is especially harsh in judgment….
Seldom does Mauriac choose to show us those who, recognizing themselves for what they are, give themselves fully to God in service, carrying on with Him a dialogue of love. Self-knowledge and self-realization here become reciprocal in growth. Mauriac usually portrays these rare persons as unattractive or misunderstood, perhaps to emphasize how little the approval of others is necessary for their peace or joy. Their common quality in Mauriac's work is a greathearted generosity with which they freely offer their lives or their ambitions or their sufferings that others may live.
Sister Anita Marie Caspary, "Introduction" to her François Mauriac ("Christian Critics" series), B. Herder, undated, pp. v-x.
[Mauriac] is concerned not with outward appearances, but with the heart; not with neat artistic designs executed as an end in themselves, but with words as a means of testifying to the Word. Reality is the aim of his fiction—a reality whose drama is heightened because it is played against an eternal background…. To restore to the flesh its mystery and to speak truly of the heart Mauriac has risked everything.
Neville Braybrooke, "The Seventh Skin: The Novels of François Mauriac," in Blackfriars, October, 1954, pp. 430-38.
Although a Christian view of life brings with it a sense of drama that may be propitious to the writing of a novel, the novelist, if he is to succeed as such, must still graft this onto a personal vision of life—thus necessarily revealing his own imaginative powers and limitations. As good a novelist as Mauriac is haunted by this problem. There is no doubt that his work suffered at times from his ambiguous attitude toward his own creations. A humorless pathos pervades his tone when he bids us look upon the—to him fearful—creatures of his own imagination. Why should an author have so much trouble accepting the stories he invents? Mauriac's bad conscience occasionally makes us uncomfortable, and whenever it protrudes, it tends to destroy the integrity of his fictional world. (p. 99)
[According to] Mauriac,… man [is] condemned [by fate] to wander unsatisfied on this earth, exiled from the love of God that alone gives meaning to man's relationship with the Creation. Human beings therefore attempt to satisfy their inner void—a void that can be filled only by God—through the spiritual and physical possession of their fellow beings…. As Mauriac sees it, the novelist, like the priest, is deeply concerned with the fate of human beings; but unlike the priest, he uses them for his own ends, like a Mephistopheles in disguise…. But the particular atmosphere of the novel comes rather from an imaginary inner landscape that Mauriac seems to carry in his mind both as a memory and as an image of remorse…. (p. 114)
This inner landscape pervades Mauriac's novels, imposing a strong and simple pattern and carrying its own recognizable atmosphere…. His imaginary land can … seize one in a glacial grip, but never can it give relaxation or temporary comfort. There is a terrible beauty in it, an alien, disquieting beauty, that generates disaster…. (p. 115)
The story that Mauriac tells is the story of individual solitude and hunger, a spiritual hunger that springs from the deep realms of the subconscious where our hidden aspirations, lusts and frustrations lurk. The plot is less a succession of events than the welling up of this secret inner life; this life breaks through to the surface and then subsides, sometimes becoming perceptible in an action, more often simply in the modifications it imposes on the relations of the central character to those around him. There may be no external evidence of a life thus led in secrecy, merely a dramatic heightening of the atmosphere…. Mauriac's novels are sustained by the brilliance of their tense atmosphere. But they can stand no dilution, and dilution for moral purposes is the pitfall that Mauriac finds difficult to avoid. (pp. 116-122)
Germaine Brée and Margaret Otis Guiton, in their An Age of Fiction: The French Novel from Gide to Camus, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, N.J.), 1957.
In the wake of Pascal the fundamental fact of human life is, for Mauriac, the collision of the Christian ethic with the inclinations of nature. The Christian is committed to a perpetual struggle. The concupiscence of the flesh and the pride of life are twin rivers of fire which he must breast. The whole nobility of man consists in vanquishing his nature where God demands that it should be vanquished. (p. 16)
His many gifts of style, his amazing sensuous awareness, must, in any critical evaluation of the French novel in the twentieth century, be subordinated to the fact that it was his undeviating practice to impregnate the novel of naturalism with the agitated Pascalian concern with sin. (p. 17)
Many of Mauriac's readers, even those inclined to sympathize with his basic view of life, have been repelled by what they feel is the harshness of his vision…. [But the] true force of Christianity does not lie for him in its power to exempt man from suffering but rather in its ability to give meaning to suffering….
Obviously, the omnipresence of spiritual struggle has given to Mauriac's novels their identifying character…. Although man, in Mauriac's view, can never escape his sense of divine filiation, his earthly pilgrimage is fixed in an environment which openly conspires with the inclinations of his physical nature. The earth from which he springs bespeaks the pagan deities rather than the Christian God. This paganism which looms large in all of the novels is not necessarily sinister, although always potentially so. Mauriac, as a Catholic, finds the conflict of earthly-inspired passions and grace inescapable. As a poet whose senses are keenly alert to the aching beauty of the universe he knows that myriads of his fellow men treasure a nostalgic attraction to that beauty. (pp. 19-20)
[The] particularization of the Mauriacien drama [is] the fact that in the internal struggle which rends man's soul the external universe participates on the side of the carnal inclinations. Because the struggle is internal, the actions of Mauriac's novels are uncomplicated and the settings are, for the most part, in the village or countryside. Strangely, on the pavements of the great city the drama of the flesh is muted. (p. 21)
Following [Maurice] de Guérin, Mauriac is a poet-novelist smitten with the beauty of the physical universe, yet never losing contact with the mysteries of the human heart which are inextricably bound up with that universe. For him it is at once man's burden and his glory that he cannot identify himself with the earth to which he is so deeply attracted. Human life is basically tragic, the tragedy lodging in the circumstance that man, a creature of two worlds, cannot rest in the one nor apparently attain the other. The struggle to reconcile the two worlds, as befits tragedy, always ends in failure. (p. 22)
Michael F. Moloney, in his François Mauriac (copyright 1958 by Michael F. Moloney; reprinted with permission of The Swallow Press, Inc.), Swallow Press, 1958.
A theme pervading many of the novels of Mauriac and providing a key to his view of human life and love is the concept of the essential isolation of each human being…. To suggest, however, that Mauriac's treatment of isolation is comparable to the existentialist concern with "estrangement" would be thoroughly to misunderstand him. For Mauriac, the isolation of the human person most frequently parallels his conviction of the futility of human love in attempting to possess another. But this dual theme is a distortion unless it is seen as supplementary to the thesis, central to Mauriac, that love of God alone can truly penetrate the "secret city" of the human heart….
The notion that human love is a betrayal, that the creatures we think we love do not actually exist at all but are merely reflections of ourselves whom we seek in the blind desire for union with the "Other" is the theme of The Loved and the Unloved….
Perhaps the best material for the analysis of Mauriac's treatment of human isolation is found in the novel The Desert of Love…. In this novel, the theme that God alone will satisfy the human heart is fundamental and is found in the structure of incidents as well as in the commentary of the basic voice….
The concept of the sphere, the planet, visualized as a microcosm self-contained and associated with other bodies in a gigantic but uncommunicative system, is Mauriac's most frequently chosen image of isolation in The Desert of Love….
In The Desert of Love, Mauriac draws the major theme—that Divine Love is man's only fulfillment—in bold outline. [To] describe the various aspects of human isolation as a secondary theme he employs chiefly a wide range of imagery. By his skill in the use of this technique, Mauriac implies delicately but unmistakeably that human isolation is viewed by him only against the background of God's ability to satisfy the lonely human heart.
Sister Anita Marie Caspary, "The Theme of Isolation in Mauriac's 'The Desert Love'," in Twentieth Century Literature, October, 1961, pp. 107-13.
If the French critics of 1930–45 had been asked which novelist, in their estimation, was the most likely to outlive the wreckage of time and to rank next to Proust in greatness, more votes would probably have been cast for Mauriac than for any other living French writer, his rivals being Malraux, Giono, and Bernanos, probably in that order. Mauriac's eminence remained comparatively unrecognized in English-speaking countries, long after his election to the French Academy in 1933 and even after the Nobel Prize had been bestowed upon him….
If the factors at work at any time in life and in art may be grouped into the conflicting forces of tradition and of experiment, Mauriac seems to rank with those novelists who have shunned the loudly advertised paths of experimentation. At a time when the roman-fleuve appeared as the order of the day and when juggling with the old-fashioned structural unity and with the continuous flow of time had become the first gesture of a writer asserting his modernity, Mauriac chose to compose isolated novels, strictly organized, with few of those contradictions and violent plunges into the unconscious that other Frenchmen took as evidence that they lived in a post-Dostoevskian era….
Mauriac's fiction has been charged with monotony. It moves in a world that indeed is, geographically and socially, narrowly limited. It revolves around the same perennial obsessions with money, property, the enticements of the flesh, and the wages of sin. Within these confines, however, it explores in depth. What is more, it conjures up that diseased and haunted world, and gains in vivid intensity what is sacrificed in diversity…. He writes because he must rid himself of the obsession of his characters and endow with shapes and sounds the desolate world that he carries within his imagination…. His novels move swiftly to a relentless denouement. Indeed, their tension is so feverish that they could hardly last longer without becoming painful to the reader….
The advantage derived by Mauriac from his Catholic conception of the world are to perceive life as unceasingly torn between contrary forces and to picture man as restlessly preyed upon by the powers of Evil. Christianity, says Mauriac, enters into souls in order to divide them. The world is an arena for the struggle in which the Devil fights against God, vice against virtue, the animal part of ourselves against the call of the spirit. To the honest observer, virtue is not triumphant, as it may be in edifying novels; nor can vice win in the end, for that would be a denial of Providence. Thus a conflict is perpetually being waged. Man finds in his own ability to doom himself the very proof of his freedom. He revolts against God; but the life he makes for himself is, but for a few unreal moments of bodily and sensuous exultation, afflicted with an oppressive sense of dereliction.
Life assumes a significance to the Catholic novelist, in contrast with the naturalist author in whose fiction one felt only the slow, meaningless gnawing of an average existence, abandoned to forces of heredity, environment, and instinct. The Catholic novel portrays a struggle, with an end at least dimly perceived, sometimes attained with the help of divine grace. Sin also takes on a significance….
Mauriac's originality as a novelist lies in his Catholic vision of the world, in his analysis of love and especially of middle-aged women and adolescents led by a love affair to explore the bitter depths of love. It lies, too, in his craftsmanship, which, conscious and subtle as it is, contrives to leave in the novel the element by which it is most likely to challenge time—poetry.
Henri Peyre, "François Mauriac," in his French Novelists of Today (copyright © 1955, 1967 by Oxford University Press, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Oxford University Press—Galaxy, 1967, pp. 101-22.
Mauriac was a great "Catholic novelist," but there has been a great shift in Catholicism in recent years; we are no longer so eager to appropriate, to claim, to elevate all things Catholic…. To be specific. The United States was never very hospitable to a certain strain of Catholicism and its literary expression. It was not simply the puritanical or Manichean aspects of Mauriac which put American readers off, for America has its own literary tradition of puritanism. But it is a Protestant puritanism, a tradition in which Hawthorne is a central figure, but a tradition which could accommodate, make sense of, a writer like the Calvinist Gide. Not, however, the Pascalian Mauriac, who knew on what side of the wager he was forever committed….
What did we lose with the passing of Mauriac? When the inevitable reassessment takes place—which in the case of an old man begins even before his death—what will his achievements amount to? The Kiss of the Leper, Genetrix, The Desert of Love, Thérèse Desqueyrous—these récits, clear as a stream and diamond-hard, are peaks among his books, nearly 100 in number. Almost more intensely than one can bear he has here exposed some of the cruel burdens that one person can impose on another, the tension between the flesh and a special kind of spirituality, the ravages of aging, the dissimulations of love. These artistic achievements I take to be secure, to be able to withstand, as well as any literary production which France has produced in the first half of this century, the waves of fashion and the ravages of time.
But in addition to being the creator of these works Mauriac was one of those persons one can best refer to as a presence. One knew he stood for a certain quantity and could gauge an event better by his reaction to it. He was a Catholic of a clearly defined tradition and a severe style. Never did he try to bend or yield to opposing ideas or trends. He took them full on and dealt with them full force….
A number of contemporary writers have been intent on showing us how miserable we are, and they have gone noticeably further than Mauriac in depicting certain aspects of our degradation. But Mauriac had a right to say, just as he had a need to argue, that he did not "fake reality." But for him reality included the greatness of the human spirit. He gave weight and dimension to these words. It is one measure of his achievement that we can, in speaking of Mauriac and his work, use these words without embarrassment.
James Finn, "François Mauriac," in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), December 25, 1970, pp. 320-24.
[Despite his decision to cease working as a specifically Catholic novelist,] the first work of Mauriac's new period, The Desert of Love in 1925, is a "Catholic novel" in a far more essential way than his earlier works. Explicitly religious background has duly been excised, but the principles behind the action have a moral and theological depth greater than any he had previously explored. The Desert of Love shows more than creatures overcome by greed or possessiveness. It depicts them drawn by a blind longing for good, which they cannot understand and which they distort, but which also touches them inescapably. The Desert of Love expresses a different side of Mauriac's Jansenism: emphasis on supernatural grace….
The Desert of Love reveals itself as a "Catholic novel" long before the Catholic ending in Maria's conversion, for the whole story depends on the Catholic idea that human beings seek the love of God behind all earthly loves. Nevertheless, The Desert of Love is not a depiction of the Catholic community. For most of her life Maria is not a believing and practicing Catholic, and Raymond is never one. The Desert of Love falls, therefore, into the older category of Catholic writing practiced by Huysmans, which was characterized primarily by opposition to the non-Catholic environment. But in 1932, when Mauriac began a new novel, Vipers' Tangle, and was ready to resume writing as a specifically "Catholic" novelist, he returned to the setting of the Catholic rural community of Les Landes, which had been the background for Genitrix and The Kiss for the Leper. Mauriac had learned a great deal from such ostensibly non-Catholic books as The Desert of Love. In his new novel he once more opposes grace to natural depravity but occasionally emphasizes freedom of choice. He also brings Catholics and non-Catholics into confrontation. Catholics and non-Catholics are equally recipients of grace, which they distort to varying degrees. The result is more powerful drama, in which there is an abundance of struggle, both internally in the mind of the protagonist and externally between the characters. Vipers' Tangle is a subtle work, easy to misinterpret….
Vipers' Tangle is, however, more than an attack on corrupted Catholicism. In this book corruption of man's faith is depicted as a reflection of a metaphysical corruption at the root of the world. The land itself is under a shadow. The rain that should nourish the vines also beats them down. A flaw at the heart of the universe has estranged it from God, as Catholics have been estranged from true belief. In this sense, Mauriac's attack on the degenerate Catholicism of the bourgeoisie of Les Landes is even more profoundly Jansenist than the theme of The Desert of Love.
There are at least two possible readings of Vipers' Tangle. One is to see Louis, the dying miser, simply as a villain who reforms, a sort of Harpagon who receives grace. Mauriac's neoclassical orientation makes this interpretation tempting, but it not only overlooks the metaphysical depth of the book but also destroys its unity. Avarice thus regarded is simply a universal vice, and the book's attack on the Catholic middle class becomes alien to the main point. A different reading, which I believe to be the only correct one, is to see the novel as an exposé of the Catholic middle class, whose victim is Louis. Shunning Louis because he is a freethinker, Louis' wife from the first years of their marriage forms a cabal against him with their children. If a child ever climbs into Louis' lap, she is quick to call it away. Denied love by his wife and children, Louis turns to his peasant passion for property as a love-substitute. Louis, therefore, is not so much a villain who reforms as a victim who forgives. In this reading, the book's unity is inviolate. It is a single thrust against the blasphemous false piety Mauriac so detested—and yet (here is the subtlety of this Jansenist drama) this same false piety becomes the source of Louis' redemption. Grace is so powerful that it can use evil itself as a source of light….
The recipient of grace must be shown as free to cooperate or refuse, as Louis was free in the sections where he was remembering Marie, if the reader is to feel any sense of continuous conflict. Bernanos and Graham Greene are experts at sustaining this kind of tension. Mauriac regrettably is not. One must conclude that at most periods of his life he simply did not believe in it. Mauriac was typical of French Catholics with strong Jansenist orientations. All his work reflects the community to which he belonged. The faults he saw in French Catholicism and opposed so vehemently ironically never included its Jansenism…. The bleakness of Mauriac's work comes not only from his Jansenist view of natural depravity and his antipathy toward a profit-oriented world, but is caused also by his complete separation of the world of God from the world of man and the inaccessibility, even to the author's prose, of the former.
Gene Kellogg, "François Mauriac," in his The Vital Tradition: The Catholic Novel in a Period of Convergence, Loyola University Press, 1970, pp. 39-52.
[In] his Christian faith Mauriac has been possessed of a great hope which pierces the shadows he has described. He feels that his characters differ from others in fiction because they have a soul. "Any writer who has maintained in the center of his work the human creature made in the image of the Father, redeemed by the Son, illumined by the Spirit, I cannot see in him a master of despair, however somber his painting may be." And if Mauriac is obsessed by evil, he is also obsessed by purity, by childhood. He regrets that critics have not observed the important role that children play in his works. "They see the vipers of my novels, they do not see the doves which nestle there also in more than one chapter, because with me childhood is the lost paradise and leads to the mystery of evil." (p. 49)
Throughout Mauriac's work we [can observe] three predominant themes, all of them present also in the personality of this most subjective of writers. First, there is the essential element of tension and conflict: sometimes between Cybele and God, passionate and pagan love of nature versus religious faith; sometimes between God and Mammon, worldliness and sensual passion combating the desire for purity and saintliness. Second, we have the desperate loneliness and solitude of the individual, unable to communicate with others, even those most beloved. We recall in this regard Mauriac's own admission that "desert of love" might well serve as title of his entire work. Third, there is the flagellation of bourgeois smugness, social conformity, and lack of true Christian compassion, a theme first appearing in the early Préséances but cropping up in most of the later works, particularly in that savage Noeud de vipères. (p. 158)
There can be no doubt of Mauriac's pre-eminence as an analyst of human motives and emotions and as a creator of characters who stand out in our memory long after we have closed the books in which they appear. From his earliest childhood Mauriac was possessed by curiosity for penetrating into the innermost recesses of those around him—family, comrades, servants, indeed all with whom he came in contact. In twenty novels he was able to return again and again to this rich storehouse of his youth, modified and transfigured by emotions coming from the least noble aspects of the writer's own depths. It is no coincidence that each great novel of Mauriac is called up for the reader by the memory of at least one impelling character who lives on with a life peculiarly his own. (p. 162)
Maxwell A. Smith, in his François Mauriac (copyright 1970 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co.), Twayne, 1970.
In February, 1939, when Mauriac had already been at the top of the tree for a good many years and Jean-Paul Sartre himself still had a very long way to go, Sartre took a savage swipe at the novelist. "God", he said, "is not an artist; nor is M. Mauriac…." Whatever Mauriac's final rating, nothing could have been further from the truth. He was an artist to his finger-tips and one of the most versatile writers of our time: poet, novelist, playwright, biographer, autobiographer, hagiographer, critic, essayist, author of religious treatises and a mass of miscellaneous writings who eventually became, like Sartre, a fierce political commentator….
The family is the centre piece in most of the novels. It presents a united front to the stranger. The reality is very different….
The only characters who really win our sympathy are the youthful sinners itching to hop into bed with one another, or the young innocents pursued by some lecherous middleaged female. The youthful sinners enjoy Mauriac's sympathy too. For he is not so much the Catholic novelist as the Catholic sex-novelist who is much more interested in seduction that conversion….
The atmosphere of violence, which permeates the novels, is intensified by the landscape. Mauriac appears as a man who was deeply rooted, physically as well as socially and psychologically, in his province, whose roots thrust down into the very soil. He extracts a grim, dry, gritty poetry from what he calls "this silent empty country", "this land of cinders" or, in the last novel of all, "this arid anguished land with its bleeding pines". It is a country of pines and vines and sand whose inhabitants live in a perpetual state of tension, sniffing the air, glancing at the skies. They fear the torrid heat which brings the forest fires that destroy the precious pines and the storms which wreck the vines—both a threat to their cherished prosperity….
Racine was almost certainly the greatest single literary influence in Mauriac's novels. They had a good deal in common as writers. They both display the same ruthlessness, the same preoccupation with the family feud, with violence, and hatred, with formidable women, and show the same fondness for the word "prey", meaning the victim of a highly aggressive sexual pursuer. There is a family likeness, too, in the characters. Some of Mauriac's characters turn up or are mentioned in more than one novel, but that is not the real point. The majority of them reveal the same sort of psychological resemblances among themselves as Racine's. What is even more striking is the form. At their best Mauriac's novels possess the same brevity, the same tightness of structure, develop with something of the same certainty and pace as Racine's tragedies. It was when this influence was at its height in the 1920s that Mauriac produced what still seem to me to be his finest novels: Le Baiser au Lépreux, Genitrix, Le Désert de l'Amour, Thérèse Desqueyroux, Destins and (with reservations) Le Noeud de Vipères….
It is particularly sad that Mauriac should have died when he did. He not only made a remarkable come-back last year by producing at the age of eighty-three the best novel that he had written for over thirty years: he had signed a contract to write two more….
Mauriac was a greatly gifted man who excelled in many fields. At the same time, we have to admit that his gifts as a novelist were limited. His world is a circumscribed world; he confines himself to one corner of society and one set of problems. He probes deeply, but does not possess the range or the weight which stamp a man as a master. The provisional verdict should perhaps be: a very distinguished novelist whose work may well outlast that of most of his contemporaries.
Martin Turnbull, "François Mauriac," in Encounter, February, 1971, pp. 46-8.