Uncovered Gems #4: François Mauriac

The list of Nobel laureates for Literature contains more French men than it does of any other demographic. That should not put you off reading Mauriac. But you may have trouble locating his work. His most famous novel, Thérèse Desqueyroux, is possibly the only one you’ll find in a bookshop today, due to the recent film adaptation starring Audrey Tatou. And it’s a good place to start with Mauriac. 

Better than good. Aside from the beauty of the writing and its complex vision of sin and grace, it’s an important novel for understanding him as an author. The character of Thérèse also features in a number of novels and stories, and even has a cameo in That Which Was Lost, so she clearly meant a lot to him.  

But there’s more to Mauriac than one novel, and you’ll need to go further afield to find out. It’s a strange fact that most Nobel laureates are not readily available in bookshops. But the internet was invented for solving issues like these. The majority of Mauriac’s novels are free downloads if you are willing to read facsimiles of old editions. And you should be, because not many Christian writes have tackled human sin and divine grace quite so skillfully as Mauriac. He’s sometimes called the French Graham Greene. There’s some truth to the comparison but I don’t think Mauriac liked the crime thriller quite like Greene did, and I find more living faith and less guilt in Mauriac. The closest thing I’ve found in English to his writing is Brideshead Revisited. Both show people living in complete disregard for God and discovering Him in completely unexpected ways nonetheless.

Some writers of faith get reprinted and sold at Christian bookshops, even when faith is not their main subject. Chesterton and Austen have both had fairly secular novels get the Christian marketing treatment. Not Mauriac, and I can see why. His faith is more overt than Austen’s but will make us more uncomfortable. (Perhaps Austen would too if we read her properly.) He doesn’t shy away from broken and messy realities, and even had to write a book called God and Mammon responding to André Gide (another French man who won the Nobel) who saw more kinship between himself and Mauriac than Mauriac was happy to accept. His work is gritty in a way that can’t sit next to Christian romance novels, but it should. Our shelves, and our faith, would be richer for it.

For me, the best thing he’s written is Viper’s Tangle, the story of a wealthy man dying with the knowledge that his whole family cares only about securing his wealth on his death. The viper’s tangle of the title is the complex rhizome of bitterness and resentment that has grown in his heart and mind all his adult life. I read it at the same time as Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Illyich and the two have much in common. Both made me wonder why we don’t have more Christian writers who can dramatise the movements of grace like that. Sadly, in our attempts to keep Christian literature clean, we’ve kept the power of grace out. Christian fiction does not need to be an allegory of the gospel to paint the gospel in all the rich colours of God’s creation. If more of our writes today took the time to uncover Mauriac, we might produce more novels that could help untangle the vipers in our own hearts.

“A catholic taste,” she said

and I nodded,
not knowing at all what she meant, for I
was not, nor have ever been, Catholic.
How then, I wondered, was my reading taste catholic?
The word, at the time, meant Mary and popes,
not expansive, far-reaching, inclusive. Now I
give my old teacher’s words new meaning:
yes, catholic in reading, in writing, because 
bodies matter, and ritual
and beauty are core;
catholic because
bread and wine, and brokenness,
sacrament, liturgy,
should inhabit the fibre of the Christian page.
Faith is not, should never be, prose.
So Mauriac and Merton, Marion and Nouwen
shall show me the way to paint Christ
in rich praise.

Five Nobel Laureates that should be better known

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The week just passed has seen quite a bit of controversy (some of which I’ve participated in) over Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature win. My personal favourite was the Tweeter who seemed confused over which Nobel Dylan won and felt prompted to say that, as good as it was that Dylan had won a Nobel Peace Prize, “the dude that has always given me peace is Leonard Cohen”. But amidst the debate I’ve been reminded of all the wonderful but still largely unknown, or largely forgotten, authors that have won the prize over the years. In light of this, here are five Laureates for the Nobel Prize for Literature that you’ve never heard of but should have.

1. Grazia Deledda (winner 1926): Italian novelist, one of only fourteen women to have won the prize. Check out the delicate and heart-rending Church of Solitude, an amazing reflection on faith and duty, as well as a (surprisingly for its time) moving portrayal of a woman with breast cancer.
2. Frans Eemil Sillanpää (winner 1939): the only Finnish writer to win (compare with the 8 won by their immediate neighbour Sweden, the home country to the award). Read Meek Heritage, if you can get your hands on a copy. I was spellbound from the first sentence. You know from the start that it’ll break you heart but you’ll want to finish all the same. I’m currently floating through the delicate and lovely People in the Summer Night, which is a free online read here.
3. François Mauriac (winner 1952): one of the best writers of faith of the 20th century. The Nobel list is overly full of male French novelists, but Mauriac deserves his place. Read Precedence and That Which Was Lost. Read anything by him, actually. He doesn’t shy away from human brokenness but always opens us into grace.
4. Halldór Laxness (winner 1955): the only Icelandic author to win. Icelandic village life never felt more real. He can paint the unique and the universal with the same poetic intimacy. Read Fish Can Sing and Independent People. The former is charming, the latter slow and heartbreaking. You won’t read many things more beautifully written than either.
5. Joseph Brodsky (winner 1987): Russian poet who moved to the United States. He and W.H. Auden had something of a mutual admiration society going, which says a lot. Though Auden strangely missed out on a Nobel, he earned fame. Brodsky won the Nobel but far fewer know him. Read his “Nunc Dimittis” as an introduction to his wonderful work. I really need to read him more.

It’s a challenge to locate work by all the writers on the Nobel list, though well worth the effort. Perhaps a list that contains historians, journalists, philosophers and politicians alongside novelists, playwrights and poets has room too for a songwriter. The best thing you can do is to discover the list yourself and make your own decision.

Grace, charm, a clenched jaw

If what Christians believe is true, then Gide knows now what all of us will know before long. What is it that he knows? What is it that he sees?
(Francois Mauriac, “The Death of Andre Gide”)

Was it better by far to be wily, in the end?
Maintaining to the last where Montaigne had failed,
were you applauded for living your art?

The wager – held firm to the last –
carried you further than most will willingly go.
Even Sartre, expelling God to the margins of thought,

rejected your logic, your choice of your filth.
Was your choice for all? In clenching your jaw,
you made God relevant, at every call.