In a celebrated interview in the Observer in 1963, Graham Greene was asked if he was happy to be described as a Catholic novelist. His response was this: “No. I am a novelist who happens to be a Catholic.”
The French novelist François Mauriac (1885-1970) had no qualms about being described as a Catholic novelist. The distinction is subtle but important. It was Mauriac’s religious faith which underlay his creative work as a novelist, his concern for truth and also his lifelong fight for justice, as a public intellectual in France.
As a preoccupation with truth and justice seems to have faded in our present age, I want to show that Mauriac’s passion for these values has something to teach us in today’s troubled and chaotic world.
Let me start with truth. Under the influence of Pascal, Mauriac adopted the Augustinian notion that all men lie. Pascal had written “We are nothing but lies, duplicity, contradiction, and we hide and disguise ourselves from ourselves.” It was this that was part of Mauriac’s dynamic of creation – accompanied inevitably by a profound sense of good and evil. This was in a sense more important to him than propounding an ostensibly “religious” solution to everything that life throws at us. He hated hypocrisy; he believed profoundly in grace.
This in no way detracted from his genius as a novelist. He did not go in for happy endings or dramatic divine intervention.
His novels are in the main masterpieces of economy and profound psychological understanding. La Pharisienne is a shattering study of religious hypocrisy and thus of self-deception. His novel Genitrix is about what psychologists today would describe as a castrating mother figure who lives with her son and daughter-in-law and is determined to destroy their marriage. In the end, the daughter-in-law and her baby die in childbirth but the reader is left to wonder if the wicked mother-in-law caused their deaths. Mauriac’s novels are full of such ambiguities. In his most celebrated novel, Thérèse Desqueyroux, Thérèse attempts to poison her husband and set fire to his forests. These are dark areas of the human psyche.
In a celebrated public dispute with Mauriac, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in reviewing the Mauriac novel La Fin de la Nuit, “God is not an artist; neither is Mr Mauriac.” As an atheist, Sartre despised the fact that in Mauriac’s fiction “external” factors intervene – grace, the power of evil. Mauriac’s characters exist with astonishing physical and psychological completeness, but their acts are less important than the force, be it Good or the Devil, that compels them. Sometimes his plots are weak, but to Mauriac we are saved or damned by our thoughts, not by our actions, and it is these thoughts which he penetrates so deeply.
In 1952, Mauriac was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. As he arrived at Stockholm station he was greeted by the French ambassador, who told him that French troops in Algeria had shot several thousand Arabs, in an act of unmitigated butchery. Mauriac was appalled. All his life, a thirst and passion for justice was a driving force in him, and this was of Christian inspiration. He had been old enough as a young man to be fully aware of the Dreyfus Affair, in which a Jewish army officer had been condemned for treason in what was quickly shown to be a gross miscarriage of justice. He was eventually pardoned by the state but it was not until 1973 that the French army finally admitted that this officer had been innocent.
In his Bloc-Notes (his regular post-war columns in Le Figaro and L’Express) Mauriac had written: “Since adolescence I have been tormented by the Dreyfus Affair.” It was not the fact that Dreyfus was Jewish that concerned him – it was the injustice inflicted on Dreyfus that left its mark on him.
During the German occupation of France (1940-1944), Mauriac conducted himself with courage and dignity. So many of his literary and intellectual contemporaries had left France: Gide to North Africa, Bernanos to Brazil and the philosopher Jacques Maritain to the United States. In the first two years of the Occupation, Mauriac continued to write, attacking the Pétain regime until in 1942 the Gestapo forced him to stop writing his articles. By this time, he had in effect become the conscience of the nation, in his concern for Christian democratic values and his hatred of fascism. In their turn, the extreme right detested him and in their papers, L’Action française and Je suis partout, they attacked him mercilessly, as a novelist and a clericalist.
One of the first things that Charles de Gaulle did after the liberation of Paris on August 21, 1944, after he had set up his headquarters in the capital, was to send a car to fetch Mauriac from his wife’s family home just north of Paris at Vémars. Mauriac was a supporter of de Gaulle and his “certain idea of France”, though not an uncritical one. What they faced as an urgent issue was how to mete out justice to those who had collaborated with the Nazi occupiers. Readers will be familiar with photographs of women who had had affairs with German soldiers having their hair shaved off in public.
Vengeance was in the air but Mauriac in his newspaper columns urged restraint. He argued for justice, but justice with mercy in the Christian tradition. Ironically, the main culprits he was concerned with were the intellectual leaders of the extreme right, who had been his own fiercest critics: Robert Brasillach, Jacques Doriot, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle. After the trial and conviction for treason of Marshal Pétain, Pétain was given a stay of execution by de Gaulle, and was sent into exile on the Île d’Yeu. How could France hang or shoot the hero of the Battle of Verdun, one of the key turning points in the First World War?
But the others were another matter.
De Gaulle was unpredictable but could be unforgiving. Brasillach was condemned to death by firing squad. Just before the date of his execution, Brasillach made a public plea to Mauriac to intervene with de Gaulle, which he did – but to no avail. De Gaulle was unbending.
This episode showed Mauriac at his best. Justice, yes, but with mercy. And of course, what the fascist cause needed was to have its martyrs. It is worth noting that Albert Camus was not so merciful.
There were so many events in the remaining years of Mauriac’s life when he exercised his role as a public intellectual to argue publicly and powerfully for justice.
A particular concern was the injustice of French colonialism in the post-war years and the futile French war in Indochina.
We live in a world today which is rife with injustice, where we seem to have forgotten the pursuit of truth. We live, we are told, in a post-truth society. It is my contention that Mauriac should be read not only as a novelist of genius, but also because his passion for truth and justice should be ours too. Remember that in Dante’s Inferno there is a special place reserved in hell for those who look on injustice and do nothing. Mauriac certainly has something to teach us.
Robin Baird-Smith is the publishing director of Bloomsbury/Continuum
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