A Beggar to the End

LÉON BLOY’S CRANKY GENIUS

Invective seldom harms the reputation of a writer. “A Frenchman must be always talking,” Samuel Johnson said, “whether he knows anything of the matter or not.” We love Dr. Johnson for saying so whether we agree with him or not. And we sense that he is playing with words rather than with people’s lives.

Other writers are not so gentle. When D. H. Lawrence—a master of invective—called the critic John Middleton Murry “a dirty little worm,” or when he told Bertrand Russell, “You are too full of devilish repressions to be anything but lustful and cruel,” he wasn’t glancing over his shoulder for knowing nods. He was deadly serious—as was Murry, who said he planned to hit Lawrence in the face the next time he saw him. And Russell said he contemplated suicide. Ezra Pound played it safer for all concerned, saying of Walt Whitman that “his crudity is an exceeding great stench.” Long dead, Whitman could not rise from the grave, cane in hand, to flatten Pound.

But both Lawrence and Pound seem tame beside Léon Bloy (1846–1917), the great French Catholic writer whose eight volumes of journals, running from 1892 to 1917, are almost an anthology of invective, and a classic in a literature where the journal is honored. In keeping with his belief that everything modern is the work of the Devil and that the thirteenth had been the greatest of centuries, he condemned the phonograph (it ruins conversation in a café) and the telephone (“an irresponsible vehicle of depravity”). He hated the airplane, and as for the newfangled automobile, it is “a hideous machine…that stinks and crushes.”

Nations, writers, and the people he meets every day come off no better. England “is to the world what the Devil is in the life of man”; the Danes (Bloy spent seventeen unhappy months in Denmark with his Danish wife and two daughters) are Lutherans, and even the ringing of their church bells is hideous. When, in 1917, a friend sends him a newspaper clipping showing American government officials doing calisthenics, he is horrified to think that these “loathsome toads” are to be the saviors of France and of civilization. Émile Zola is known as the Cretin, Rodin’s sculpture of Balzac is “a prodigy of hideousness and folly,” Dante is no thinker and has “the soul of a theological journalist,” and Cervantes’s Don Quixote is revolting because it mocks chivalry, “one of the most beautiful things that mankind has ever seen.” As for all those maids, landlords, and grocers who made his life a torture, they are venal through and through.

The first volume of Bloy’s journals is called The Ungrateful Beggar (Le mendiant ingrat), a title that almost sums up his life. Bloy literally had to beg to keep his family together. He felt he was fit for one thing—writing—and his books, which he said were made out of his memories of unhappiness, seldom brought in any money. He claimed again and again there was “a conspiracy of silence” against him in the literary world. The arrival of the facteur at his door with the mail really meant something, for a day without a letter containing money was often a day without food or coal. On January 6, 1885, he writes: “There is one sou in the house.” Money orders for five, fifty, and one hundred francs, sent by close friends and unknown readers of his many books, were often the family’s only income, and were soon gone to pay outstanding bills. Now and then he received a larger gift of a thousand francs, though as he kept pointing out, the rich and the hated bourgeoisie never gave him much help. “Money,” he wrote, “flows through the universe like blood, and the rich man is a cannibal.” He could never forgive the rich for not being poor.

Though he was a daily communicant, Bloy’s relations with the church were always difficult. It was no easy matter to be his parish priest, as the Prussian Abbé Storp in Denmark found out. Another priest’s sermon on Joan of Arc is “an infusion of commonplaces.” When his parish priest comes to visit, Bloy finds him “odd and sympathetic” but doubts if he’ll be able to read his books. He blamed the Jesuits for not extending their hand to the poor, and much of the French hierarchy for not recognizing the 1846 Marian apparition at La Salette, near Grenoble, a subject of unending and querulous disappointment to him. And when Pope Benedict XV remained neutral in the beginning years of the First World War, Bloy called him Pilate XV.

To rage against the injustices of the world is a common enough attitude, but Bloy saw the world’s rejection of him as part of God’s reason for his being on earth. He was meant to suffer. So, Bloy believed, should every Catholic if he really believed. He accepted poverty as central to his life as a Catholic because “God wants me to be poor.” Again and again he noted that he could never be a successful author because his readers would always be few. Almost every one of his books, written with such enthusiasm and hope, seemed to go nowhere—small sales, lukewarm reviews. A less committed man might have given up, yet in the last three years of his life, he published Joan of Arc and Germany, On the Threshold of the Apocalypse—the seventh volume of his journals—and Meditations of a Lonely Man in 1916.

His poverty and gift for invective did not mean he was friendless. Around him gathered a number of distinguished people—he was godfather to Jacques and Raïssa Maritain when they converted, and a close friend of the writer Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, the artist Georges Rouault, and the composer Georges Auric. Others, less well known, arrived for visits like guardian angels, bringing gifts of francs, chickens, rabbits, and wine, ready to talk and play chess and dominoes with him. Strangers were always writing, asking him if they could visit, and usually he said yes. But he could be blunt, telling more than one letter writer he didn’t want to hear from him again. Very little was needed to put him off—an ill-considered word, an imprecise opinion, a hint of materialism.

It is often exasperating to read Bloy’s journals, but the urge to throw them across the room has to be resisted, if only to see what literary outrage he could commit next, if only to see him reconsider an opinion, as he occasionally does, to his own and the reader’s amazement. Up to the end of his life, charity came hard for him, and he probably was one writer whose invective was personally harmful. When the Titanic sank in 1912, he imagined himself launching the fatal iceberg (though he felt sorry for those in steerage), and after the Iroquois Theatre burned in Chicago in December 1903, killing more than six hundred people, he opened his journal on New Year’s Day 1904 by expressing his satisfaction with the “incineration of the propertied class.” A contemporary called him the poet of poverty. He could just as well be called the champion of catastrophe. When the hated Boches—how Bloy would have excoriated political correctness—shelled Reims Cathedral during the First World War, he saw it as retribution for the archbishop’s refusal to accept the Marian apparition of La Salette.

What drew him to rejoice in so much horror and tragedy? Could one be a Catholic and take so damning, so indifferent a view of others? Bloy certainly thought so. One answer may lie in his complex relationship with the God he worshiped. Like T. H. Huxley, who was known as “Darwin’s Bulldog,” Bloy became an attack dog for a retiring God. In 1912 he said, as only he could say, “I write for God, being perhaps today his only witness, and if I am not that, I am nothing.” And did anyone ever believe so strongly that heaven was his destination? “Not to be among the saints,” he wrote, “is the only sad thing in life.”

Bloy has been called everything from a pamphleteer (though he published two novels) and a megalomaniac to a deformed genius. The English novelist, poet, and critic Rayner Heppenstall acknowledges as much in his book The Double Image, but he stresses Bloy’s importance to French literature in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Writing in 1947, Heppenstall credits Bloy with singlehandedly initiating the modern French Catholic novel that opened the door for writers such as Bernanos and Mauriac. Furthermore, Heppenstall writes, “Four writers restored the Catholic faith in England and France. They were John Henry Newman and Gerard Hopkins, Charles Péguy and Léon Bloy.... For the first time in a hundred years, four great writers believed.”

Bloy died on November 3, 1917, living in a house previously rented by Péguy, a victim of the 1914 battle of the Marne. His last journal entry is dated October 20. Characteristically, he notes that he received a money order for fifty francs that day from a doctor in the French Army. He was a beggar to the end.

Published in the 2012-11-09 issue: 
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Harold Bordwell is a retired editor living in Evanston, Illinois.

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