He belonged to the lineage of French Catholic writers who examined the ugly realities of modern life in the light of eternity. His major novels are sombre, austere psychological dramas set in an atmosphere of unrelieved tension. At the heart of every work Mauriac placed a religious soul grappling with the problems of sin, grace, and salvation.
Mauriac came from a pious and strict upper-middle-class family. He studied at the University of Bordeaux and entered the Ecole Nationale des Chartes at Paris in 1906, soon deserting it to write. His first published work was a volume of delicately fervent poems, Les Mains jointes (1909; "Joined Hands"). Mauriac's vocation, however, lay with the novel. L'Enfant charge de chaines (1913; Young Man in Chains) and La Robe pretexte (1914; The Stuff of Youth), his first works of fiction, showed a still uncertain technique but, nevertheless, set the pattern for his recurring themes. His native city of Bordeaux and the drab and suffocating strictures of bourgeois life provide the framework for his explorations of the relations of characters deprived of love.
Le Baiser au lepreux (1922; The Kiss to the Leper) established Mauriac as a major novelist. Mauriac showed increasing mastery in Le Desert de l'amour (1925; The Desert of Love) and in Therese Desqueyroux (1927; Therese), whose heroine is driven to attempt the murder of her husband to escape her suffocating life. Le Noeud de viperes (1932; Vipers' Tangle ) is often considered Mauriac's masterpiece. It is a marital drama, depicting an old lawyer's rancour toward his family, his passion for money, and his final conversion. In this, as in other Mauriac novels, the love that his characters seek vainly in human contacts is fulfilled only in love of God.
In 1933 Mauriac was elected to the French Academy. His later novels include the partly autobiographical Le Mystere Frontenac (1933; The Frontenac Mystery), Les Chemins de la mer (1939; The Unknown Sea), and La Pharisienne (1941; A Woman of the Pharisees), an analysis of religious hypocrisy and the desire for domination. In 1938 Mauriac turned to writing plays, beginning auspiciously with Asmodee (performed 1937), in which the hero is a heinous, domineering character who controls weaker souls. Such is also the theme of the less successful Les Mal Aimes (1945; "The Poorly Loved").
A highly sensitive man, Mauriac felt compelled to justify himself before his critics. Le Romancier et ses personnages (1933; "The Novelist and His Characters") and the four volumes of his Journal (1934-51), followed by three volumes of Memoires (1959-67), tell much of his intentions, his methods, and his reactions to contemporary moral values. Mauriac tackled the difficult dilemma of the Christian writer--how to portray evil in human nature without placing temptation before his readers--in Dieu et Mammon (1929; God and Mammon, 1936).
Mauriac was also a prominent polemical writer. He intervened vigorously in the 1930s, condemning totalitarianism in all its forms and denouncing Fascism in Italy and Spain. In World War II he worked with the writers of the Resistance. After the war he increasingly engaged in political discussion. He wrote De Gaulle (1964; Eng. trans., 1966), having officially supported him from 1962. Though Mauriac's fame outside France spread slowly, he was regarded by many as the greatest French novelist after Marcel Proust.
David O'Connell, Francois Mauriac Revisited (1995), discusses Mauriac's life and work. Critical studies include Malcolm Scott, Mauriac: The Politics of a Novelist (1980); and John E. Flower and Bernard C. Swift (eds.), Francois Mauriac: Visions and Reappraisals (1989).
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