Sometimes an understanding superior can make or break the literary career of a cleric. In 1964, Cardinal ClémentÉmile Roques, Archbishop of Rennes, released a middle-aged priest, Fr Joseph Lemarchand, from pastoral duties to allow him to concentrate on writing.
Fr Lemarchand (1913-1980), whose pen name was Jean Sulivan, observed in The Shallowest Chasm (Gallimard, 1965), an account of a spiritual voyage to India: “I found on my path a cardinal to tell me gruffly at a critical point, ‘Continue!’ ”
The result of this encouragement was an outpouring of novels and non-fiction, of which Anticipate Every Goodbye (Veritas, 2000), a memoir of his mother’s death, Eternity, My Beloved (River Boat, 1999), a novel, and not much else has yet appeared in English.
The son of a humble landless peasant from Brittany, Sulivan ardently believed that the Church should be concerned with the poor and outsiders, with a focus on individuals rather than trying to formulate policy for those outside the Church.
In his spiritual journal Morning Light (Paulist Press, 1988), he declared: “Jesus is on the side of the marginalised, immigrants, victims of prejudice, no doubt about it. But his attitude is far from democratic-style goodwill; he is no bleeding heart. Can you see him, for example, like our canny modern bishops, trying to use democracy to impose Christian law about divorce and abortion on non-Christians? As if Christian morality need not be born freely in each individual conscience.”
Sulivan’s Morning Light first appeared in France in 1976, during a wave of anti-religious sentiment. Sulivan reacted by claiming that the “Church’s face today is more luminous than when it seemed to rule. It has found glory in its humiliation.”
Earlier, in Provocation, or the Weakness of God (1959), he stressed the importance for each believer of developing a personal faith: “It is important to know how to read … Men of the Church proclaim that nothing must be added to the warehouse of truths which are the Church’s responsibility … They have transformed churches into a series of cash dispensers. Isn’t their call for orthodoxy and impersonality a secret wish to dispense with the burden of thinking?”
In August 1971 he told an interviewer: “When someone who presents himself as a firm believer, a servant of the Gospel, can’t rest until he has achieved status and can dictate values, there’s a contradiction. I reproach such a person for being more Catholic than Christian, for playing society’s game.”
To reach such conclusions, Sulivan read widely, delving into books by Pascal, Kierkegaard, Marx, Teilhard de Chardin, Heidegger, Bernanos, Claudel, Meister Eckhart and Nietzsche.
He likewise favoured tormented modernday outsiders such as the drug-abusing surrealist poet René Daumal and the anarchist Armand Robin (the latter also of Breton origin). In Paris, Sulivan affected gritty street garb, donning dark glasses and a leather jacket, but he also worked as an editor at two high-toned publishing houses, Gallimard and Desclée de Brouwer.
His thoughts could appear abrupt or peremptory, but he fully respected the Church hierarchy. In the diocesan archives of Rennes are letters in which Sulivan addressed Cardinal Roques respectfully.
In June 1960, Sulivan wrote: “I wish to feel in profound agreement with the Church that you represent among us … one word, a solitary word from Your Eminence telling me that the book goes against doctrine and I will halt the book’s publication.” In February 1961, he added: “In no way do I consider myself indispensable to the Church, which is vowed to eternity. I know my unworthiness and I am not prideful.”
Sulivan was devoted to the Church as he saw it, with its grandeur and flaws: “Beyond the Gospel and Church, nothing is permanent, that’s the truth. I never criticise the Church, only certain ideas or conceptions that prevent many non-believers from perceiving it.”
His criticisms were tempered by energetic optimism, and as a full-time writer in the 1970s, he continued to assist the charitable organisation Secours Catholique, founded by Fr Jean Rodhain (1900-1977). Sulivan once described Fr Rodhain as “from the Vosges mountains, granite-like, he remained
In Paris, Jean Sulivan affected gritty street garb, donning dark glasses and a leather jacket true to his roots, more powerful than all the urban social niceties.”
Sulivan’s pen name was inspired by a Hollywood film, Sullivan’s Travels (1941), in which a comedy director seeks to understand the suffering of the indigent by masquerading as one of them. Sulivan’s novel Words Stuck in My Throat (Gallimard, 1969) is about a journalist who defends too many underdogs, is fired and becomes homeless. The protagonist’s life on the street radiates freedom from consumer society.
In the novel Vagrant Delight (Gallimard, 1974) Sulivan echoed this message by reflecting: “Worldly honours. The ape who climbs a tree exposes his backside.” Words Stuck in My Throat is overdue for translation, as is an affectionate anthology published in 1996 by Gallimard, simply entitled Pages.
Sulivan’s personal voice was made audible thanks to the tolerance of Cardinal Roques.
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