Article on Francois Mauriac
by Fr David Featherstone
To commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the death of this great French Catholic Author who died on 1st September 1970.
I first encountered Francois Mauriac when I was 16 years old as on my A Level French course we studied “Therese Desqueyroux” which I loathed mainly because my French was not quite good enough to grasp the complexities of the subtle storyline. I was also studying it in a Non-Catholic school, so my own priorities were different in those days. My second attempt at reading a Francois novel in 1979 was “the Frontenac Mystery” was much more edifying and it is one of the books I have listed below. Since then, I did not look back and have read most of his novels several times in English and some in French. My love for his work has been infectious and I have introduced his books to a number of people over the years and many have become appreciators like myself.
Most of his novels are set in his native city of Bordeaux and the areas to the south of Bordeaux among the vineyards and the pine forests. His descriptions of characters and countryside leave nothing to the imagination. He mainly puts his characters against a backdrop he knows best; Catholic wealthy, landowners dealing with ambition, sin, greed, love and family preservation.
Francois has played a significant part in my life these last forty years or so and I felt it was right that we somehow mark the 50th anniversary of his death on 1st September 1970, aged 84 years old.
This is the reason I am organising a Mass to mark this significant landmark to remember Francois and thank the Lord for his talents, his life, his Catholic faith and of course his wonderful books.
I had planned to have a celebration after the Mass with “French-style” refreshments on 1st September at which we would read out extracts from some of his work but because of the Covid Pandemic, this is not possible. I had also planned to have a holiday to Mauriac’s native Bordeaux and make visits to the Landes forest area but this also had to be cancelled. Instead I have put together this short article which gives a short extract from 6 of my favourite Francois books, prefaced with a little paragraph from myself about why I like each particular book. I hope this is of help to you.
Fr David Featherstone
The Life of Jesus
Using all four Gospels, Francois has stitched together a lovely, almost chronological account of Christ’s life from the hidden life in Nazareth, right up to the Resurrection. He is faithful to the Gospels, but he adds in his own inimitable interpretation of the character of Jesus. He adds a colour and a depth to the Gospels just as he pays attention to detail in describing the scenery and the faces of his characters in his novels. For these reasons I have often used the chapter of the Discourse during “Watching” in church on Maundy Thursday evening after the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. In his account, he writes: “For a moment Jesus gazed upon this ocean of sorrow on whose shores he now stood: then his eyes turned to contemplate his eternal handiwork.”. The extract I suggest is his account of the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
The Lord went out a little way from Jerusalem but did not leave Judea.
He must not go very far away from the city now. But neither must he perish before his hour had come. These were the last days of abandonment and relaxation when he poured out his heart,or told those parables by which humanity still lives. A scribe having asked him: “Who is my neighbour?” he devised the story of a man set on by robbers on the road going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, the road which the Arabs call “The red stairs” because of its colour. Was it fiction? It is true that this route was a nest of swindlers. And it rather seemed that as the story progressed the Master was himself present, not at the unfolding of an imaginary adventure but that he, who saw everything, saw these things happening, perhaps at the very moment, only a short distance from the spot where he was surrounded by the “spellbound” little group and where the well-meaning scribe received his word. Here then was a man beaten and wounded by the roadside. A priest passed, then a Levite who did not even turn his head, then the man distrusted by the priests -a Samaritan. The latter bound up the wounds of the traveller, after pouring on them wine and oil, he mounted him upon his own beast, and arrived that evening at an inn, and left the little money which he had with him; he would bring back more when he passed by again. He had delayed his journey, he had deprived himself of what he had.
This is such a lovely book and it is just a peeling away of the different layers that make up one of the richest, most beautiful and significant days of the Church’s Liturgical year. Mauriac has a chapter on the different aspects of Maundy Thursday. He looks at the account of the Last Supper according to St Paul. He looks at the Washing of the feet: First and Viaticum,: the terrible backdrop of the impending Cross to the Last Supper which he describes as the “secret” of Holy Thursday. If t”he Life of Jesus” is one to read on Maundy Thursday, then this is one to read during Holy Week in preparation for the Triduum. The extract I give, dares to look at the mystery of “Transubstantiation”.
Chapter 9 Transubstantiation
It is not when everything seems to be lost that one must forsake the Host; on the contrary, it is when all seems lost and if the state of grace is maintained or recovered, that one must feed on the Host and rely on the solemn and reiterated promises of the Lord. The Eucharist never deceived those who remain faithful to It through all vicissitudes; Christ is never the first to leave us.
Let us rejoice that we were born in an age when no doctrine of mistrust or fear concerning frequent Communion prevails. Let us thank God for having prompted His Church earnestly to invite us to receive Christ as often as we can.
And since so few people now hear the words: “Come to me, all you who labour and are burdened” let each of us, when he approaches the Holy Table, look upon himself as the delegate of all those he loves or has loved, living or dead. When God makes His way into our souls, He does not find us alone. All those from whom we proceed and who have gone to sleep before us may receive, in Purgatory, some benefit of the grace pervading us, their living children, when we pray for them. And all our friends who are kept away from the Source of grace by sin, indifference, ignorance and incredulity ~ those who have helped us and those we have harmed~ are present in our thoughts in this ineffable instant.
The Frontenac Mystery
This was the second ever Mauriac book that I read when I was 18 and it was the first one I fell in love with. It is mainly set in Bordeaux but also in Bourideys, the Landes pine forest family retreat south of Bordeaux and also in Paris. The mystery is really the strong bonds of relationship that tie together a fairly well-off Catholic family. The main character in the book is Yves, who is volatile, sensitive and a talented poet and there is a lot of similarities between him and Mauriac. One of the strongest characters in the book is his elder brother Jean Louis who is balanced, level-headed, caring, idealistic ,strong in his Catholic faith and in his duty to his family. I feel this is one of Mauriac’s most optimistic books and contains some of the most beautiful descriptions of Mauriac’s beloved Landes countryside, as illustrated in the following extract.
Easter, that year, fell so early that the Frontenac children were back at Bourideys by the end of March.. Spring was in the air, though as yet the material signs of it were few. The oaks in their dress of last year’s leaves seemed still constricted by the hand of death. From beyond the meadows the cuckoo called. Jean-Louis, his small bore-rifle on his shoulder, tramped the woods, fondly thinking he was out after squirrels, though really he was looking for the Spring. Spring prowled through the days of imitation Winter like someone who feels quite close but cannot see. Now and again he thought he could smell it, only to find it gone again. It was cold. For one brief moment the afternoon light touched the trees with a soft finger, so that the pine-bark glowed like scales, its gummy wounds holding the gleam of sunset. Then suddenly everything went dull. The West wind drew the heavy clouds so low that they hung about the tree tops, and drew from the ranks of sombre trunks a prolonged moaning. .It was as he approached the meadows watered by the Hur, that Jean-Louis came at last upon the Spring caught in the river grasses which were already thick along the banks. It oozed from the sticky and half-opened alder buds. He leaned above the water to watch the living floating tresses of the weed ~ the hair of those whose faces must, since the world’s creation, have lain buried in the sand which had been worked into ridges by the river’s gentle flow. The sun came out again. Jean-Louis leaned his back against an alder trunk, took from his pocket a school edition of the “Discourse on Method”, and for ten minutes paid no more attention to the Spring.
Flesh and Blood
This is another of my favourite novels and perhaps not one Mauriac’s best known. The main character is Claude, a young man whose family run the vineyards at Lur, near the Garonne River, for their rich owners. He has left seminary and returns home to his family to work and try to discover what direction his life should take. Claude is a very likeable character and though he suffers emotionally in the novel he retains his dignity and actually manifests many priestly and Christian qualities. As the title implies, Mauriac raises issues caused by class, religious prejudice as well as lust, greed and other sins of being flesh and blood. I find the second half of the book a real page-turner.
Claude burrowed into the winter which, that year was so rainy that the young man spent whole days at a time reading in the kitchen. He took down books from the shelves just as they came, and not as a result of deliberate choice, wandering about in the icy gloom of the library, carrying them to the light and spelling out their titles, as a diver might uncover, under the sun’s glare, an orient pearl which he had fished up from the ocean’s depths. Seated in the chimney corner he gave himself up to his reading, while his mother, by the window, so as to get what remained of the daylight, sat endlessly darning. Sometimes flinging a sack over his head, and putting on his clogs, he plunged no matter how bad the weather, into the thick fog of damp and mist, and set off at random up the hill, along the flooded path between the twisted willows. Flocks of birds lumbered across the sky, alighted all together on the bare fields, and, then, the world became for Claude that place of appearances of which he had read in his philosophy textbook. There was nothing in the scene to distract him, nothing to keep him from seeing May wandering from hill to hill.
The Unknown Sea
This is also not one of Mauriac’s most popular works, but I love this book. It is really about two Bordeaux families whose lives are inter-twined with love and friendship but the choices of the parents change the relationships and the fortunes and futures of the children. I love the poem “Le sang d’Artys” that Mauriac credits to the deep, moody yet talented Pierrot Costadot. I love the way that Rose Revolou remains strong throughout and despite the knocks she experiences retains her dignity. My favourite scene is the late night carriage scene which is beautifully described and very poignant. The extract features Rose at prayer.
Although she had already said her prayers, Rose knelt down again. It did not occur to her to repeat a second time the usual formulae of her devotions. Instead, there rose from her defenceless heart a supplication which seemed to have its origin elsewhere than in her consciousness. She was speaking now at last to that Love of the shrouded countenance as though its name were not God, but quite simply Love. She had crossed the last ditch, the last trench, the last strand of barbed wire. The agonies of slighted love had made her own particular cross. Her anxieties for her family were with her still, but she heard them only as one hears the confused murmur of daily cares. She was no longer at their centre but had moved beyond. “I know now that I am not walking aimlessly through trackless woods; that though my feet are wounded by the roots and briars, they are set on a path that stretches sure and clear before me. I follow it but I am utterly alone. How that can be I do not understand, because at every moment You make it clear to me that I must tread that path with those whose fate You have given into my hands. I do not understand how it is that I have failed with those entrusted to my care by You. I must believe, I do believe, with all my heart, that all this only seems, and that some day I shall hear Denis running after me as he used to run when he was small, and shall hear his voice calling my name; that some day at a turning in my path, I shall see someone sitting in the ditch, and shall recognize in him, the man to whom You gave me, but who had no use for the gift. Instructed by You and in spite of those who no confidence in sinners, he will have taken a short cut, and there he will be, waiting for me. Perhaps he will have been there for years, and we shall mingle our sorrow and our kisses. Quite possibly the moment will come to me at the very gates of death. …”
A woman of the Pharisees
I think Brigitte Pian, the main character in this novel, is one of Mauriac’s strongest, but not one of the easiest to sympathise with. She is one these people who always tries to do the right thing but often goes about it the wrong way. Despite his strong Catholic faith, Francois does not always depict the priests in his novels over kindly. The priests in the country villages do not usually get the best of press. However, my favourite priest in Mauriac’s novels is easily the Abbe Calou in this novel. He comes across as strong, yet gentle: fair and frank, genuine and pure in intention, utterly humble and totally faithful to his priesthood. Though fictitious he was a big inspiration to me when I first “encountered” him in my early twenties when I was discerning within myself what God was calling me to do. The extract sees Brigitte through the Abbe’s eyes.
These were words were found in diary of the Abbe Calou….
An extraordinary woman ~ quite a miracle of perversity. In her eyes the appearance of evil is as important as evil itself ~ when it suits her purpose. A deep nature, but she reminds me of those aquariums in which the spectator can see the fish from every side. Each one of Madame Brigitte’s most secret motives, the intention behind her every act, is plainly visible. If ever that gift of judgement and condemnation which she now exercises at the expense of others is turned against herself, she is in for a bad time!
Much shocked that I should plead the case of these young people, and should anticipate nothing but good for Jean from this first love affair. She pursed her lips at me. Obviously she thinks me a second “Savoyard Vicar”. I ventured to warn her against being overzealous in her desire to act as the mouthpiece of the Divine Will. It is a fault to which pious persons are only too prone. But how unwise of me to include the clergy in my criticism!. It was simply asking her to hit back at me with a remark about my denying the rights of the Church to instruct its children! She is quite capable of denouncing me to the Archbishop ~ I can see her doing it! She is not so much concerned to find out what I think as to remember enough of what I say to incriminate me with the authorities. She would have no hesitation about ruining me if she thought it necessary to do so. I said as much, and though my attitude when I took my leave was respectful enough, hers was decidedly dry ~ not to say rude.