Having blogged about Cluny Media’s 2020 republication of What I Believe by Francois Mauriac, I subsequently read a novel from their list of Cluny Classics: Mauriac’s Genetrix, also republished this year. The story of a mother’s malignant, possessive love for her middle-aged son, it was first published in 1923 and demonstrates its author’s sombre view of human nature. Mauriac resisted the label of a “Catholic writer”, preferring to describe himself as a writer who was a Catholic. Nonetheless, his lifelong faith, reflected upon in What I Believe, led him to see the characters in his novels as spiritual beings, their lives in danger of being destroyed by their vices.
In this story the son, Fernand Cazenave, unable to break free from his mother’s domination, despises himself for his weakness. An ill-fated attempt to escape her through a rash marriage to a much younger neighbour – who has her own share of selfishness and calculation – ends in tragedy: his wife dies of puerperal fever following a miscarriage, callously neglected by the mother, Felicite, as she lies dying. Yet her mischief-making does not bring her son back to her: embittered by his belated recognition of the part his mother has played in destroying his own capacity to love, he rejects her. “Fernand was incensed to feel how little of his life had belonged to his wife, over what long tale of years brooded the vast shadow of his mother.”
The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre criticised Mauriac’s characters for not being “free”. Unlike his contemporary, Georges Bernanos, Mauriac allows his characters little capacity to develop, still less to respond to grace. Here, as in his most famous novel, The Knot of Vipers, they mock religion. “What did he [Fernand] care about the soul! Were there people so idiotic as to find comfort in such fairy tales?” Described as “bred up in spiritual corruption”, Fernand lacks the desperate spiritual energy of his later novel, where the protagonist, Louis, cries out, “Oh God! – If only You existed!”
A theological response to Sartre’s criticism might be to say that from a Catholic perspective, if you are living in what the Church would call a state of mortal sin, as the mother and son in Genetrix are shown to be, you are “dead” to the possibility of a “resurrection”; existing in a self-made “hell”, you are not “free”. Are there people in life, mirrored in Mauriac’s fiction, who are in this state? Certainly. Yet we also believe that grace can penetrate even this darkness. That Mauriac does not allow a shaft of light to penetrate the Stygian gloom of the old decaying house in the Landes area of France where mother and son remain stuck in their pathological relationship, suggests a fictitious world so pessimistic that it is hard for readers to contemplate.
Fortunately, Cluny Classics includes other writers in its list, such as GK Chesterton, Robert Hugh Benson, Gertrud Von Le Fort, Ignazio Silone and Sigrid Undset, who invent alternative and less claustrophobic worlds where their characters work out their destinies.