Sunday, October 11, 2015

Burning at the heart

François Mauriac, a French novelist and Nobel Prize winner barely read in the English world, was born 130 years ago today. As an old man emerging from the Second World War, he was a strong supporter of Charles De Gaulle; indeed, Mauriac’s son worked for the president. For some of his life, Mauriac kept diaries, but these - like most of his novels - have not been translated into English. One extract, though, in Robert Speaight’s biography, tells of him struggling to find the balance in his writing so that ‘the young saint, my hero, is burning at the heart of the furnace.’

Mauriac was born on 11 October 1885 in Bordeaux, France. His father died soon after, leaving his mother to raise five children, of which he was the youngest. He studied at the University of Bordeaux and then at the École Nationale des Chartes, Paris, but soon left to pursue a career in literature. He managed to publish his first work, a collection of poems - Les Mains jointes - in 1909. But, it was to novels that he soon turned, publishing L’Enfant chargé de chaînes and La Robe prétexte in 1913-1914. In 1913, he married Jeanne Lafon and, between 1914 and 1924, they had four children. In 1923, Le Baiser au lépreux (The Kiss to the Leper) made him famous in France, and established his literary reputation.

Further novels followed, including Le Noeud de vipères in 1932, a marital drama often considered Mauriac’s masterpiece. The following year, he was elected to the Académie Française. As the decade progressed, he wrote more novels, but also plays. He took a strong stance against totalitarianism, and denounced Fascism in Italy and Spain. During the war he lived in occupied territory, and worked with writers of the Resistance. After the war, he was a great supporter of Charles De Gaulle, who made him Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour. From the mid-1950s, he wrote a popular weekly newspaper column, Bloc-Notes.

Mauriac was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1952. Though his fame did not spread far outside France, some consider him the country’s greatest writer after Marcel Proust. He died in 1970. One of his sons, Claude, was a writer and also worked as personal secretary to Charles de Gaulle. And, through a daughter, he was the grandfather of Anne Wiazemsky, actress and novelist who married Jean-Luc Godard. Further biographical information is available in English at Wikipedia (a fuller bio can be found at the French Wikipedia), the Nobel Prize website, Encyclopædia Britannica or Authors’ Calendar. A little more information can also be gathered from English reviews of Jean-Luc Barré’s biography of Mauriac (at the TLS for example).

Very few of Mauriac’s novels appear to have been translated into English, so it is no surprise to find that there are no diaries published in English either. However, it seems, he did keep a diary. In 1948, he published Journal d’un homme de trente ans: (extraits); and, from 1950 on, I believe, the French publisher Gallimard, began publishing his complete works. One volume, published in 1952, contains a series of his journals - see the British Library holding. But the only diary extracts I can find that have been translated into English are in Robert Speaight’s biography - François Mauriac: A study of the writer and the man (Chatto & Windus, 1976) - as per the following:

9 June 1916
‘Paris. Temptations. Passions go on velvet feet in the jungle. Huge beasts. Perfume of sensuality.’

18 July 1916
‘Must free our body of desire.’

28 January 1917
‘My son Claude to keep me pure.’

2 March 1917
‘Paris is disgusting. 
 “Great Ladies”, pederasts, lesbians, everyone is procuring for somebody else.’

‘The war is ending on a picture postcard where we see the French re-entering Metz and Strasbourg . . . Frightening absence of God in the triumphal cries of Clemenceau.’

‘Perhaps it is always enough that a creature we love should live beside us, not perhaps that we should love them less, but that we should no longer realise that we love them.’

‘Still, after many years, to have so much to say to one another, from the most trivial to the most serious, without any desire to astonish or to be admired - what a wonderful thing that is!. No more need of lies; man and wife have become so transparent to each other that lying can no longer be of any use. This is the only love that cherishes immobility, that feeds on the habitual and daily round.’

29 July 1953
‘At my age, the conflict between the Christian and the novelist has moved on to another plane. It’s much less a question of the Jansenist scruples that used to trouble me in describing the passions than a kind of disenchantment with everything to do with art in general, and with my own art in particular. A feeling that art is literally an idol, that it has its martyrs and its prophets, and that for many people it is a substitute for God. And not art alone, but the word - the word that has not been made flesh. [. . . Having resumed work on a new novel, L’Agneau, he is determined not to put it aside] ‘until I have found the balance that I’m looking for, and the young saint, my hero, is burning at the heart of the furnace.’

[Whatever the motives
 of General de Gaulle’s withdrawal from power in February 1946, Speaight says, Mauriac could only look back on a great dream that was dead:] ‘All the Resistance tightly gathered round its leader; the C.N.R. as the nucleus of the new Assembly; prompt punishment for traitors and assassins by regular court martial, whose impartiality was beyond suspicion - a punishment followed, after a few months, and in despite of all the complaints, by a total amnesty for those whom the legality of Vichy . . . had led astray; the prisons reserved for crime, and adolescents rescued from their corruption; and finally reforms, at once bold and proportionate to the needs of a country which has been drained of its blood, and is covered with graves and ruins.’

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