Sexuality, Repression and the Problem of Evil: Remembering François Mauriac
by Robin Baird-Smith
The parallel with François Mauriac (1885 – 1970) is striking. In 1952 François Mauriac was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. He too was little known outside France except among the Catholic literati. But he had something far worse to contend with – the venom, spite and jealousy of his fellow Frenchmen. This is something Modiano has been spared. The celebrated French poet, Paul Claudel (1868 – 1955), dismissed Mauriac's novels as slight and provincial. Simone de Beauvoir described Mauriac as senile. Jean Paul Sartre cuttingly wrote: `Dieu n'est pas un artiste. M. Mauriac non plus.’
So who was François Mauriac? He was a French novelist, essayist, public intellectual and later in life a prolific journalist. These days, though his novels are somewhat out of fashion, he still has a strong contingent of admirers. His novels, like those of two other modern Catholic novelists, Muriel Spark and Beryl Bainbridge, were short but exquisite and perfectly formed. Written with beautiful economy and profound psychological depth, they are a brilliant study of the murky depths of the human personality. There was little that was outside his creative range: incest, miserable marriages, sexual ambiguity, religious hypocrisy and the endless capacity of human beings for self-deception. More recently, scholarly interest has focused on his work as a journalist and the major public disputes in which he engaged, as a moralist and a polemicist.
Whereas Graham Greene once said famously: `I am a novelist who happens to be a Catholic,’ Mauriac declared himself ‘a Catholic who writes novels.' The distinction is subtle but crucial. The greatest influence on Mauriac was the philosopher and polymath Blaise Pascal (1623 – 1662). Pascal believed that man can be saved from his sinful self, that the misery of man can be transformed into the glory of man. In Mauriac`s Le Noeud de Vipères (1932), Louis, the antihero of the novel, is a lawyer who is a congenital miser, undergoes a personal transformation and is liberated him from his self-inflicted misery. A fundamental issue in Mauriac's novels, as indeed in his personal life, was the conflict between passion and religious virtue. And he really knew how to write about women. Of possibly his most famous novel, Thérèse Desqueyroux (1927), he said, echoing Flaubert's remark about Madame Bovary, `Thérèse Desqueyroux, c'est moi.’
It was only after the Second World War that Mauriac embarked on a new career as a journalist. He wrote a weekly column under the title `Bloc Notes' which appeared first in L'Express, and then in the Figaro Litteraire. Here, as in all his literary and creative output, there were some outstanding themes which are also of importance for us today.
He had an abiding concern with the problem of evil, especially as it manifested itself in human self-deception. So many of his characters are enslaved by convention, the destructive power of jealousy, bigotry and the repressions of childhood and family ties. The women he writes about (not lest Thérèse Desqueyroux herself) are either monsters or victims, and sometimes they are both at the same time. It is important to point out that the characters in Mauriac's novels are truly human – that is, they are subject to all the raw vicissitudes of human nature. They are also fully sexual human beings – they are not people shrivelled up by religion they are not desiccated by belief.
It was on this issue that Mauriac was first subjected to intense criticism. Critics from the Catholic right attacked him for not writing about basic theological themes like redemption and salvation. He was even dismissed by some as a pornographer. Of Georges Bernanos, Mauriac wrote: ‘In my writings he hears and smells the sounds and odours of the water closet.’ But for Mauriac nature was essentially corrupt and fallen, and he had to write about it as such.
Another determinant in Mauriac's life and work was his hatred of anti-semitism, at a time when the Catholic right in France was often intensely anti-semitic. This is a major issue today with anti-semitism once again on the increase. Anti-semitism impinged itself on Mauriac at an early age in the form of The Dreyfus Affair. In old age Mauriac would recall that ‘at the age of twelve I was already tormented by Dreyfus.’ What had appalled Mauriac was the indifference of the Catholic Church to the injustice and its refusal to condemn anti-semitism. For this reason he became very anticlerical: he mistrusted Church authority and the Church as an arbiter of human justice. Many of his closest friends were Jewish (including the French Prime Minister Pierre Mendès France) and it was Mauriac who first discovered the talent of the Jewish writer Elie Wiesel and urged him to publish his book Night (1955), an account of his time as a child in a Nazi concentration camp. This book was an international bestseller after the war, and remains in reprint as a classic of its kind. It should be noted that at the time of the Anchluss, Mauriac raised money to found a home in France for Jewish children who fled from the Nazi occupation of Austria and became its patron.
Today, when there is much discussion about sexual identity, Mauriac has much to teach us. Sexual ambiguity is a theme in many of his novels, and not only in Thérèse Desqueyroux. Across his oeuvre we regularly encounter characters who are married but have strong homosexual instincts. Although ostensibly happily married with five children, Mauriac had throughout his life a number of homoerotic friendships, something that is clearly portrayed in his extensive correspondence. The friendships included the painter Jacques Émile Blanche, the artist, film-maker and poet Jean Cocteau and latterly with a Dominican priest whom Mauriac's biographer describes as `promiscuous.’
When Mauriac's son was quizzed after his father`s death as to whether any of these friendships ever extended to physical consummation, he replied that he thought it unlikely as Mauriac did not like being touched very much! But the complexity of Mauriac's feelings emerged clearly in another of his public disputes. In 1965 the gay French novelist Roger Peyrefitte published a book called Les Amitiés Particulières. In it Peyrefitte describes the passionate friendship between an older boy and a flirtatious younger pupil in a strict Catholic boarding school. This novel created something of a succès de scandale and was made into a film. In the film, there was a scene vividly filmed in which the older boy pushed ahead of the queue to kneel beside his beloved and receive communion side by side with him This was too much for Mauriac and he published a withering attack on Peyrefitte and his book. No doubt this portrayal of the homoerotic and the spiritual was more than he could bear. Peyrefitte had his revenge and responded by pointing to the homosexual themes in several of Mauriac's novels, and even quoting early correspondence between Mauriac and Jacques Émile Blanche.
Mauriac had throughout his life a passion for human justice. After the war Mauriac became very close to Charles De Gaulle and indeed became one of his most important champions, defending him publicly in his Bloc Notes. He felt a deep sense of moral outrage at the French torture of native Algerians during the Algerian War of Independence (1952-64) and argued fiercely for the decolonisation and independence of that French colony. Among the right, especially the Catholic right, this was not a popular view.
But it was another matter which brought him greater notoriety: the debate over the retribution to be meted out to French war time collaborators. Mauriac argued forcefully for a distinction between justice and revenge, and on these grounds argued for leniency. This led to a celebrated public row with the writer Albert Camus, who argued for much greater severity - indeed for the death penalty. Maybe at this late stage in his life Mauriac became more interested in the possibilities of forgiveness and redemption. In his later journals he seems to dwell much more on such serious theological themes.
Claude Miller’s brilliant film adaptation of Thérèse Desqueyroux, which was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, will have helped bring Mauriac to the attention of a wider audience. Certainly his exquisite novels have much to offer the modern reader. His central intellectual preoccupations – his exploration of the human psyche, his profound commitment to human justice – make him very much a man for our times.