Metaphysician of the Concrete: A François Mauriac Primer

Feast of St Eusebius, Bishop of Samosata

Mauriac_Square.jpgFRANCOIS Mauriac (1885-1970) is an author whose work deserves to be better known amongst today’s English-speaking readers. Once considered one of the finest French writers of his day, Mauriac was awarded the Grand prix du roman by the Académie Française in 1925, and in 1952 received the Nobel Prize in literature “for the deep spiritual insight and the artistic intensity with which he has in his novels penetrated the drama of human life.” Yet today his legacy has fallen into comparative neglect (at least here in the United States––I cannot testify to his current reputation in France), most likely because the deep Catholic sensibilities that inform his novels have fallen out of fashion in the literary world at large. This does not, however, account for his remaining unknown among Christian circles, where his work ought to be esteemed alongside that of rightly renowned 20th-century Christian writers of the English language.

Mauriac was born and lived much of his life in Bordeaux. That city and its environs, at the heart of French wine country, comprise the setting for all of his novels. A vivid sense of space and atmosphere, of lived experience, is crucial to his literary style. In sparing but evocative language Mauriac paints the natural features of the region: the pines of Les Landes, the vineyards, thunderstorms, stifling summer heat, and the forest fires and sudden hailstorms that constitute an existential threat to the area’s inhabitants.

The social world of Mauriac’s characters is similarly unvarying: he is concerned solely with the insular social circles of the landed middle class––the bourgeoisie––for whom questions of inheritance, family legacy, and social prestige take pride of place. The drama of his stories plays out mostly within the nuclear family, but the expectations and pressures of the larger society are ever present. The religious milieu is nominally Catholic, yet his characters are often not virtuous: they are proud, avaricious, and lustful, indulging in petty family jealousies and rivalries. The world he depicts illustrates how such institutions as religion and family can become stifling and even inhumane when charity is superseded by materialism and obsession with social pretense. Mauriac’s chief literary theme is the exploration of the psychological and spiritual origins of humanity’s moral failings, which he elaborates with striking lucidity. Such was his prescience in this regard that his critics sometimes accused him of being more of a theologian than a novelist. Mauriac denied this charge, saying that he preferred to think of himself as a “metaphysician of the concrete,” which is to say that while he was interested in the problem of evil as an abstract idea, as a novelist his concern was with how sin manifests itself in the lives and consciousness of the characters that populate his stories.

Mauriac’s literary hallmarks are perhaps most clearly illustrated in his 1932 novel, Le Nœud de vipères (The Knot of Vipers). The book takes the form of an epistle written by the aging, middle-class lawyer Louis to his estranged wife, Isa. Their relationship soured early on when she confessed to him that prior to their marriage she had been in love with another man, and that she had been encouraged by her upper-class family to marry the wealthy Louis on account of their disapproval of her former suitor. Deeply disillusioned, Louis lapses into the habit of viewing their entire life together through the lens of bitterness and resentment: he refuses to believe in the authenticity of Isa’s love for him and accuses her of turning their children against him. Suffering from a heart condition and convinced that his now-grown children care only for his enormous fortune, the miserly Louis becomes obsessed with finding a way to disinherit them upon his death. And he can find nothing but contempt for the Catholic faith his family professes, which seems to him nothing but a pious veneer to cover their own greed and hypocrisy.

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The plot of Mauriac’s novels often turns on a crucial moment of internal crisis for the characters, and in Le Nœud de vipères a surprising occurrence shatters Louis’s disillusionment and forces him to see his wife and children from a new perspective, opening for him at least the possibility for an authentic religious conversion. The theme of conversion is another recurring feature in Mauriac’s work, which he manages to depict with a rare sense of authenticity. Louis’s conversion experience is shown to be entirely the work of divine grace, present with him his entire life even when he utterly failed to recognize it, and not something he achieved by his own merit. At the same time, there is nothing glib or automatic about his transformation. His character flaws remain, but he comes to the realization that his avarice, which he had viewed as a defining aspect of his personality, did not have the hold on him that he supposed. Nor does Louis’s conversion magically repair his strained relationship with his children, who are unable to accept or even understand the change that has come over him. They can interpret his actions only in terms of the side of his personality he had hitherto presented to them, and the legacy of his moral failures lives on in them.

This tendency of children to inherit their parents’ shortcomings––or, in more theological language, the concrete manifestation of original sin’s transmission to the next generation––was clearly a matter of great concern to Mauriac, as it figures prominently in all his major works. His writings are imbued with a profound awareness of the impressionability of youth, the immense moral significance of childhood: later in life one may change his behavior, but he can never shed the personality traits and proclivities toward virtue or vice acquired in adolescence.

This is the dynamic at the heart of Mauriac’s novel Le Desert de l’Amour (The Desert of Love), written in 1925. It tells of a father and son who, unbeknownst to each other, develop a mutual passion for the same woman. The teenaged son, Raymond Courrèges, becomes obsessed with Maria Cross, a local woman about ten years his elder who enjoys the dubious reputation of being the “kept woman” of a wealthy man about town. For Raymond, Maria is an icon of illicit sexuality, the embodiment of his burgeoning adolescent desires. Meanwhile, Raymond’s father, Dr. Paul Courrèges, also harbors a secret passion for Maria Cross—albeit of a more idealistic, less carnal nature. While Raymond’s knowledge of Maria’s character and circumstances is limited to what can be learned from local gossip, the doctor serves as her personal physician and is in a better position to know the details of her life. In his estimation, Maria Cross is nothing less than a misunderstood saint, who withstands the malignant persecutions of society with humility and grace, and his total idolization of her threatens the stability of his marriage to Raymond’s mother, Lucie. In reality, Maria Cross does not resemble either of these images that father and son have built up around her; she is neither the courtesan nor the saint, just an ordinary, somewhat lazy and careless woman. She is at first unaware, then indifferent, to the passion she arouses in the elder and younger Courrèges, seeing the one as a father figure and the other almost as a little brother.

These three characters’ inability to see and love one another for who they really are creates and reinforces an unbridgeable space between them: a spiritual wasteland, the titular desert of love. Raymond’s brooding lust for Maria overwhelms his consciousness and isolates him from the domestic life of his family, who cannot understand the change that has come over him. In turn, Raymond despises his father’s own reticence and detachment, unaware that it stems from guilt over his own obsession with Maria. Like in Le Nœud de vipères, unexpected circumstances eventually serve to span the distance between father and son, and they are able to come to a tentative understanding of one another––a nascent affection tinged with the melancholy of their long estrangement.

This cursory overview of Mauriac’s best-known works and major themes might seem to validate the criticism that he is more of a theologian than a novelist, considering his preoccupation with such heady spiritual matters. Yet throughout his work, Mauriac’s true genius lies in the specificity he manages to confer on these broad spiritual problems by persuasively incarnating them in the psychologies of his characters, who are so authentically rendered that the reader cannot help but catch the occasional glimpse of himself in them. From this perspective, then, it would seem that Mauriac’s self-appellation, “metaphysician of the concrete,” is perhaps the best summation of his authorial legacy.

Samuel Peliska is a freelance orchestral clarinetist working mostly in North Florida. In addition to his love for music, he also enjoys fiction and philosophical literature, and he writes occasionally along those lines.

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