The Catholic writer who rivalled Dostoyevky

A self-portrait from 1863 titled ‘Promises of a beautiful face’

In March 2013, in the first homily after his election, Pope Francis said: “When one does not profess Jesus Christ, I recall the phrase of Léon Bloy: ‘Whoever does not pray to God, prays to the Devil.’”

For many, the French Catholic polemicist Léon Bloy (1846–1917) approaches prophetic status for his intense concentration on the Crucifixion as the central theme of human experience, along with the acceptance of poverty and the notion of Jesus as an impoverished man. Yet how moral and merciful should our prophets be?

Bloy spurred the French philosopher Jacques Maritain and his wife, Raïssa, to convert to Catholicism in 1906. His fiery advocacy, combined with a powerfully rhythmic writing style, captivated Maritain, who claimed that Bloy wrote the finest prose since the 17th-century bishop and theologian Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet.

But readers of English may find themselves somewhat at a loss when trying to measure the full legacy of Bloy. His most effective efforts, including much scatological invective, are in his published journals and letters, mostly still untranslated.

Bloy’s short story collections, Disagreeable Tales (1894) and Sweating Blood (1893), were translated by Erik Butler and published by Wakefield Press in 2015 and 2016 respectively. In 2015, St Augustine’s Press also reprinted an older translation of Bloy’s novel The Woman Who Was Poor (1897).

The adjective “disagreeable” hardly captures the violent, dark imagery of Bloy’s fiction. Disagreeable Tales contains a story about a dentist who murders a love rival, but after he marries and fathers a baby, the child resembles his victim, so he strangles his infant offspring.

To understand why Bloy’s imagination was so bleak, it is useful to read him in context in French Decadent Tales (Oxford World’s Classics), a collection of stories by writers who were traumatised by the horrors of the Franco-Prussian War.

Decades on, the Maritains were far from alone in being impressed by Bloy. Graham Greene cited him in the epigraph to the novel The End of the Affair: “Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering in order that they might have existence.” In a 1953 study on Bloy, Rayner Heppenstall suggested that the latter’s “violence” and “cultivation of the extremes of joy and despair” outdid the extremes in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

The painter Georges Rouault and author Jorge Luis Borges were likewise lastingly influenced. About Bloy’s frequently crude language, Franz Kafka told his friend Gustav Janouch: “Bloy can swear. That is something quite extraordinary. Bloy has a fire which reminds one of the fervour of the prophets. What I am saying is that Bloy is much better at swearing. That is easily understandable, because his fire is nourished by all the filth of modern times.”

In page after page, Bloy seethed against automobiles, telephones, stage actors and almost all his literary contemporaries, especially the famous ones. Calling himself an ungrateful beggar, Bloy declined journalistic jobs for fear of compromising his vision. Instead he ferociously demanded that his books be subsidised by all and sundry.

He survived to the age of 71, although two of his children died young, and one of his wives, a former prostitute whom he tried to reform, was admitted to a psychiatric hospital.

Some of his resulting aphorisms, after making an initial impression, scarcely stand up to analysis. For example, “Priests are latrines. They are there for humanity to pour out our filth.”

Equally dated is Salvation by the Jews (1906). A curate’s egg, Salvation responded to Gallic anti-Semitic writings of his day by adding further hateful stereotypes. As the critic Rémy de Gourmont observed, “Monsieur Bloy, in defending the Jews, defends them rather in the way we defend a carpet against dust.”

Walloping pitilessly all those he identified as enemies, Bloy lacked the empathy of another prophetic visionary, William Blake. Instead, Bloy’s hatred of the rich caused him to exult in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and a fire at the Opéra-Comique in 1887 which killed dozens. Another fire in 1896, at the Bazar de la Charité, an annual Catholic charity event, cost more than 100 lives, but in The Woman Who Was Poor and in letters, Bloy jubilated at the idea of wealthy women burning to death.

He detested everything English as representing opposition to his hero Napoleon Bonaparte. In his published journal for 1900, he reacted to the attempted assassination of the Prince of Wales by noting: “A young Belgian shot at the swine and missed. Swine are usually bled. It is more effective, and makes a better black pudding.” Bloy called the prince’s mother, Queen Victoria, “the old harlot” (la vieille gueuse) and fantasised that a full chamber pot should be emptied into her mouth each morning.

Today’s readers who consider Bloy a prophet must accept prophetic status as a rude condition indeed.

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