Since little by the French Catholic author Charles Du Bos (1882-1939) has been translated, and nothing is in print today, fleeting descriptions of him by English writers may gain undue weight.
In her biography of the novelist Edith Wharton (Chatto, 2007), Hermione Lee described Du Bos, who translated Wharton’s House of Mirth into French in 1908, as “pernickety, vain, snobbish, naïve, pompous and affectionate”.
Doubtless Professor Lee was reflecting Wharton’s uncharitable private view of her friend, but this is hardly an adequate epitaph for Du Bos, whose Journal includes an intense account of his conversion to Catholicism.
Fortunately, Wharton was not his only literary friend: Gabriel Marcel, François Mauriac, Jean Daniélou, Bernard Berenson, Vernon Lee and Ernst-Robert Curtius all admired him.
Writing about the fine arts as well as literature, Du Bos integrated faith into his aesthetic appreciations. Michel Crépu, whose Charles Du Bos and the Temptation of Blamelessness (Le Félin, 2007) is one of the most lucid studies on the subject in recent years, describes Du Bos’s conversion as the “solution to an aesthetic problem”.
Delving into the arts as profoundly as Marcel Proust did, although lacking Proust’s humour, Du Bos concluded about a portrait attributed to Giorgione in a museum in Budapest: “Supreme art is an incarnation; it’s the profane mystery corresponding to the sacred mystery. Just as it cannot be imagined that God would reveal himself to us in a finer way than by the Mystery of the Incarnation, so we cannot envision a loftier or fuller manifestation of his selfhood than this incarnation of emotion in form.”
This credo, noted in his journal in December 1912, extended across all the arts. With its unique range and depth, the Journal of Du Bos is esteemed, if unread.
Part of the problem is its sheer size. In the most recent reprint in France from Éditions Buchet/Chastel, the Journal covering the years 1921 to 1939 was published in three volumes, each of around 1,000 pages.
Du Bos was much at home in high society, where he fulfilled a self-appointed role of cultural representative, which he considered as a personal vocation no less sacred than the priesthood. Perhaps for that reason he was drawn to clergy who ministered to the upper crust. In a diary entry in May 1914, he lauded Abbé Pierre Vignot as the “only truly great preacher I have ever heard”. Abbé Vignot’s sermons were avidly followed by the Parisian beau monde and intellectuals, including Proust himself.
Du Bos likened Abbé Vignot to Louis Bourdaloue, a 17th-century French Jesuit and preacher whose own religious writings he praised as examples of “thought in its purest state”. By contrast, two priests who shepherded Du Bos through his conversion were somewhat more worldly, if no less posh. Abbé Arthur Mugnier (1853-1944) was considered such a social butterfly that he once jokingly asked to be buried in a shroud woven from dinner napkins.
Mugnier’s Journal, untranslated and without an authoritative edition in the original French, records table talk with literary celebrities from Joris-Karl Huysmans to Jean Cocteau.
It was Mugnier who urged Du Bos to start keeping a diary. In March 1927, Du Bos noted in it that despite the “continual abundance of religious emotion I have poured out on profane objects … I have never quite lost the feeling that the high altar of my spiritual life was empty.”
Another counsellor was Abbé Jean-Pierre Altermann (1892-1959), founder of the House of Ananias, which prepared adults for baptism. It was named after the disciple of Jesus at Damascus mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. Many were of Jewish origin like Abbé Altermann himself.
The House of Ananias was supported by Jacques Maritain among others. In July 1927, Du Bos was encouraged by Abbé Altermann who paraphrased St Augustine by saying, “One must swim with the current.” It appears that the Abbé was quoting from a letter written by Augustine to St Jerome in which the former asks, “Why should I strive to swim against the current, and not rather ask pardon?” As a longstanding admirer of Augustine, Du Bos replied with a quotation from Cardinal Newman: “I have never sinned against the light.”
Du Bos was an Anglophile before studying for a year at Balliol College, Oxford, where he honed an already acute appreciation of English literature. In addition to composing perceptive essays on French and German books, he also analysed the writings of Browning, Byron, Hardy, Pater, Shakespeare, and Shelley. His contemporaries, from Henry James to Lytton Strachey, were also explicated.
After his conversion, when he edited Jacques Maritain’s Catholic review Vigile, Du Bos published English Catholic poets from Coventry Patmore and Maurice Baring to GK Chesterton, supporting others as they had inspired him.
A selected translation into English, a language he loved, of the Journal of Du Bos is long overdue.
Benjamin Ivry is the author of biographies of Ravel, Poulenc and Rimbaud, and is a translator from the French of authors including Gide, Verne and Balthus