The Religious Novel
Martin Turnell May 12, 2014 - 5:41pm
Notes on the necessary balance between 'the man who believes' and 'the man who writes.'
On October 30th, 1929, André Gide finished reading Claudel’s Soulier de Satin and recorded his opinion of it in his diary. "I am filled with consternation," he said. "I find it difficult to believe that in any other religion Claudel's faults would have flourished with the same ease as in Catholicism."
It is an observation that we should do well to ponder. It is commonly assumed that religious belief is a help to a writer, but we need to be clear about the exact nature of the help and about the meaning of the term religious writer. A religious writer does not necessarily write about monks and nuns or about what are loosely called 'religious subjects.' He is simply a writer whose vision is informed by definite beliefs. He has behind him a system which regards the individual as a soul to be saved or lost and which attaches immense importance to his least actions. He can never treat humanity as a herd of rutting animals like the characters in Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer.
We must remember, however, that the value of a novel is determined by the writer's literary talent and that belief can never be a substitute for it. A successful religious novel depends on a very delicate balance between the man who believes and the man who writes. When the balance is achieved his talent will be enhanced; but it is only honest to admit that the contrary is true and that belief may well destroy talent. Maritain once remarked that "to have been written as it should have been written, the work of Proust would have needed the inner light of an Augustine." What we cannot say is that even if Proust had possessed the inner light of an Augustine, his book would have been written "as it should have been written." It seems to me to be doubtful whether it would have been written at all. Nor must we forget that some novelists have left the Church and written excellent books about their defection like Joyce's Portrait of the Artist, while other have entered it and signalled their arrival by a disastrous book or have stopped writing altogether.
The contemporary religious novel cannot be studied in isolation. It is the fruit of a long period of evolution which reaches back to the Middle Ages. We do not expect novelists living in times of stress to possess the serene untroubled vision of a Dante or a Chaucer. A writer is not a disembodied intelligence imposing beliefs on experience. He offers us an imaginative interpretation of experience in which intelligence and sensibility have a part to play. The atmosphere of the age is reflected in his sensibility—his mode of feeling—which is or should be molded by his beliefs. The balance between ‘the man who believes' and 'the man who writes' therefore resolves itself into a balance between the writer's intelligence and his sensibility. What I want to discuss here is the precise effect of the religious element on the sensibility of certain contemporary novelists.
THE religious novelist lives in a world in which salvation and damnation are a constant possibility, in which good and evil, sin and temptation are realities. This gives him greater depth and seriousness than the secular novelist, but it also creates peculiar difficulties. The novelist is seldom happy in describing saints because he cannot see the saint from inside and he is scarcely more successful in writing about the soul's relation with God. Bernanos' Diary of a Country Priest is in many ways an excellent novel, but it seems to me to go to pieces in the end, and M. Mauriac's novels lose their interest when the seductions are over and the conversions begin. The novelist is inclined for these reasons to choose the line of least resistance and to confine himself to a field where he thinks that he can speak with some authority. This is how M. Mauriac describes his vocation:
I am a metaphysician who works in the concrete. Thanks to a certain gift of atmosphere, I try to make sensible and tangible, I try to give the smell of the Catholic universe of evil. I make incarnate that sinner of whom the theologians give us an abstract idea...
Often, impressed by my critics, I have dreamt of writing the story of a saintly little girl, a sister of Theresé Martin… but as soon as I set to work, everything takes on the color which is my eternal color. My finest characters become enveloped in a sulphurous light which is proper to me, which I do not defend and which is simply mine.
It is right in speaking of Mauriac to begin by paying tribute to his extreme accomplishment, to his narrative gift, to his sense of style and to the dry gritty poetry which he succeeds in extracting from his native landes. Yet we cannot help feeling that his vision is partial and incomplete, that it is largely determined by personal factors. "The reason why I have known people who have lost their faith," he writes in God and Mammon, "is because a troubled conscience like mine finds satisfaction in trouble and thus attracts and seeks out similar sorts of consciences."
I think these passages illustrate what is meant by taking 'the line of least resistance.' M. Mauriac cannot escape the charge of being something of a professional tourmente who uses his characters as projections of his own spiritual unrest and who is most at home in 'the Catholic universe of evil' precisely because it is the most fruitful breeding ground for unrest and troubled consciences. "I always make a mess of my virtuous characters," he remarks with truth. If the sinner occupies a privileged place in his world, it is because the sinner is the supreme example of the tourmente. For the sinner—particularly the sexual sinner—there is always hope; hut there is no hope at all for the fat greedy bourgeois or the decaying aristocracy who under cover of religion care only for their property and the yield of their vineyards.
"We ought," says a character in Mauriac's latest novel, Le Sagouin (The Slut), “we ought to be able to speak of 'making hate' as we speak of 'making love'." "This is a record of hate far more than of love," says the narrator in Graham Greene's The End of the Affair. It is impossible not to be struck by the vast place occupied by hate and the tiny place reserved for charity in the work of contemporary Catholic novelists. "What I detested beyond everything," says Louis of his pious family in Noeud de viperes . . . "was this crude caricature [of Christianity], this mediocre infusion of Christian life. I had pretended to see in it the authentic representation of Christianity in order to have the right to hate it."
That is the crucial point. They seek not the good points, the redeeming features of their neighbors, but something that will give them the right to hate, the right to exercise that passion which is the most destructive of all human passions and which becomes an excuse for exploiting all the other deadly sins. Once he has conjured up the horrors, the novelist dwells on them with savage glee. In Les Anges noirs he records the disintegration of the wretched harlot who has kept Graidere: "Her broad pasty face was painted without being washed. In the stratifications of her make-up her eyes gleamed, troubled and watery. A line of fuschia red marked the place of the split which was her mouth."
Then he turns on the silly aging husband who has married Gradère's girl on the rebound. His weak spot is his incompetence in bed: "He was perpetually conscious of the humiliation of failures and his miserable successes."
M. Mauriac has told us in God and Mammon that his masters were Dostoevsky and Balzac. It is an interesting admission. He has, indeed, some of Balzac's peculiar limitations. His characters like Balzac's are usually people with obsessions and he reveals the same restricted range of interests. The staple of his work is hatred, lust, avarice and a curious gloomy religion. The comparison with Dostoevsky is less flattering. The French admire the Russian writer for his insight into the dark places—the abimes—of the soul. It is here that in the last resort Mauriac seems to me to fail. For it is the excessive blackness of certain sides of the picture which creates the illusion of greater penetration and a greater degree of insight than is in fact there.
GRAHAM GREENE'S work bears a superficial resemblance to Mauriac's—they have written flattering essays about one another—but the differences are more striking and more important. It must be remembered that Mr. Greene is a convert writing in a society where Catholics are in a minority and he does his best to accentuate the rootlessness of the individual. There is nothing in his work that is comparable to Mauriac's Gascony. Ida Arnold in Brighton Rock, who knows "the difference between Right and Wrong," is too obviously a caricature of secularized society; and this is true of the setting of nearly all his books. He is in his element in the underworld—the underworld of crime or finance or colonial administration. The link between the novelist and his principal characters is much closer than in Mauriac and the personal element in his experience much more pronounced. Mauriac sets his 'monsters' against the background of a comparatively homogeneous society; Greene's, we feel, provide an outlet for the abnormal elements in experience. They have for the most part had an unhappy childhood which never ceases to haunt them; they feel themselves to be hunted, persecuted beings at odds with society; and they all have the same Manichaean attitude towards the sexual connection which is regarded simultaneously with horror and fascination. In Brighton Rock Binky 'broods over "the frightening weekly exercise of his parents which he watched from his single bed." "Phil opened an eye-yellow with sexual effort." "You could know every thing in the world and yet if you were ignorant of that one dirty scramble you knew nothing." The 'single bed' is a symbol of morbid isolation from natural processes; the 'yell' and the 'dirty scramble' are the sign of a guilty shrinking from them.
Mr. Evelyn Waugh has praised Mr. Greene for his use of what he calls 'spiritual melodrama.' The invention is not, perhaps, so original as he imagines. In one of his stories Barbey d'Aurevilly describes a husband who punishes an erring wife—she is taken in flagrante delicto for good measure—by the application of boiling sealing wax to the appropriate part of her anatomy. For 'melodrama' in the sense of a device for the release of violence has long been an ingredient in works of fiction written by Catholics. I have never had any patience with pious busybodies who complain that Catholic novelists deal with scabrous subjects. Where they are open to criticism is in their inartistic and unworthy use of religion to give a specious glamor to sin or, as in The Heart of the Matter, in the use of muddled theology to create an entirely spurious frisson. The weakness of much of Graham Greene's work lies in the discrepancy between the private feelings that he releases and the crudity of his symbols, so that we often have the impression that we are looking at a film on which two different pictures have been superimposed. If The Power and the Glory is the most successful of his serious books, it is precisely because in the whisky priest: he has found what Mr. Eliot calls an objective-correlative. For here the nameless fears and the sense of being a hunted man are in place and arise directly from the situation.
I HAVE said that the contemporary religious novel is the fruit of a long period of evolution which reaches back to the Middle Ages. The point I want to emphasize is that in the Middle Ages religion was not a special department of life or Christian writing necessarily a special department of writing. There was continuity between what might in the widest sense be called religious experience and everyday experience. Religion extended instead of narrowing the writer's field. From the seventeenth century onwards the process is gradually reversed. Religion no longer shapes the man; it is shaped by the man's emotions. Instead of the pattern being formed by the impersonal, the enduring, the normal, it is formed by the personal, the fortuitous, the abnormal, until finally it becomes merely one factor in a private world of hatred, lust and guilt. It is no longer the source of unity, but of discord. It is the source of discord not because it cuts across the values of a secularized world, but because it produces a deep division in the writer's mind. Nineteenth-century writers like Verlaine, Francis Thompson and Huysmans found no difficulty in coming to terms with a decadent literary tradition. It cannot be said that Huysmans' conversion transformed the writer Des Esseintes into Durtal reveals not a change of heart, but a change of decor. In the twentieth century Gide used an emotional attachment to Protestantism to maintain an artificial tension—the famous Gidean 'oscillation'—between religion and a new paganism; and it is equally the source of the 'troubled conscience' of a Mauriac or a Greene.
I am well aware that it is easy to write destructively of the religious novel and I have no intention of shirking the difficulties. When a man appears before the world as a Christian writer, we are entitled to expect certain things of his work, certain qualities which are at once novel and artistic qualities. We expect religion to provide a background of order, enabling him to see good and evil in their true perspective. We expect it to act as a discipline, as a corrective to vagaries of personal experience. We also expect charity, detachment and a balance in the portrayal of sin instead of what can only be called an incorrigibly romantic attitude towards it. It should not be a mere excuse for self-indulgence and for the release of the most destructive passions known 'to erring human nature nor should it degenerate into a mere religious aestheticism. For the rest, contemporary novelists who are also Christians are unquestionably most successful when they write in a lighter vein. They have given us some highly amusing 'scenes from clerical life' like Mr. Powers' Prince of Darkness; they have given us Mr. Greene's 'entertainments' and Mr. Waugh's earlier novels. When the writers grow serious they come to grief. Brideshead Revisited and The Heart of the Matter seem to me to be their authors' least happy productions.
About the Author
Martin Turnell is an English critic whose work as appeared in major literary reviews. He is the author of The Novel in France.