Mauriac Accepts the Nobel Prize in Literature Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The French Catholic novelist François Mauriac received the Nobel Prize in Literature to honor him not only for writing novels that explored the reality of evil but also for his resistance to the Nazis during the occupation of France.

Summary of Event

At first glance, it might seem surprising for the Swedish Academy to have chosen François Mauriac for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1952, because Mauriac’s strong commitment to Roman Catholicism and his novels exploring conflicts between Catholics Christianity;literature and atheists seemed out of touch with literary movements such as existentialism that dominated French literature in the 1940’s and 1950’s. After deeper consideration, however, the choice of the Swedish Academy made perfect sense, because Mauriac’s well-crafted and elegantly written novels explored such eternal themes as the reality of evil in the world and the amorality of people who rely on specious or fallacious reasoning in order to justify their selfish and exploitative actions. Nobel Prize in Literature;François Mauriac[Mauriac] [kw]Mauriac Accepts the Nobel Prize in Literature (Dec. 10, 1952) [kw]Nobel Prize in Literature, Mauriac Accepts the (Dec. 10, 1952) [kw]Prize in Literature, Mauriac Accepts the Nobel (Dec. 10, 1952) [kw]Literature, Mauriac Accepts the Nobel Prize in (Dec. 10, 1952) Nobel Prize in Literature;François Mauriac[Mauriac] [g]Europe;Dec. 10, 1952: Mauriac Accepts the Nobel Prize in Literature[03970] [g]Sweden;Dec. 10, 1952: Mauriac Accepts the Nobel Prize in Literature[03970] [c]Literature;Dec. 10, 1952: Mauriac Accepts the Nobel Prize in Literature[03970] Mauriac, François Mann, Thomas Gaulle, Charles de [p]Gaulle, Charles de;influence on François Mauriac Wiesel, Elie

Like the eminent German novelist Thomas Mann, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature Nobel Prize in Literature;Thomas Mann[Mann] in 1929, Mauriac was indifferent to politics, until he recognized the pure evil represented by the Nazis and the Holocaust. Until the ends of their lives, both Mann and Mauriac understood all too clearly that writers had to deal with key moral issues. Mann emigrated from Germany in 1933 so that he could write freely against the violations of basic human rights perpetrated by the Nazis. Mann found Nazism incompatible with his Lutheran faith. As the greatest German writer of the twentieth century, he saw no choice but to renounce his German citizenship and to become an American citizen, because his homeland had turned against the core teachings of Christianity. Similarly, Mauriac realized that the Holocaust and the willing cooperation by so many people with Nazi crimes against humanity were incompatible with his Catholic faith. As a Catholic, he had to resist evil.

The major influence on Mauriac’s political views was General Charles de Gaulle, whose famous speech of June 18, 1940, broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corporation, called upon all citizens remaining in France France;German occupation to resist the Nazi occupation of their homeland and upon those French citizens who were able to leave France to join the Free French forces in their fight against the Germans. During occupation, which lasted from 1940 to 1944, Mauriac was actively involved in the French Resistance under the pseudonym of Forez.

Mauriac was a man of faith, who reached out to the Jewish Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel when he came to France after the liberation of the death camps in 1945. In his autobiography, Tous les fleuves vont à la mer All Rivers Flow to the Sea (Wiesel) (1994; All Rivers Flow to the Sea, 1995), Wiesel spoke eloquently of the central role that Mauriac played in his own career as a writer. They met first at the Israeli Embassy in Paris, and Mauriac argued that if Wiesel did not write about his personal experiences in the death camps, future generations would not understand the profound suffering of the Holocaust. Mauriac’s encouragement persuaded Wiesel to begin writing his masterpiece, La Nuit Night (Wiesel) (1958; Night, 1960). Long after Mauriac’s death, Wiesel still felt the need to express his admiration for a Catholic writer who denounced the reality of evil in the world.

Although Mauriac produced a great number of novels, plays, and essays, it is generally agreed that his masterpiece was his first-person narrative Le Nœud de vipères Vipers’ Tangle, The (Mauriac)[Vipers Tangle, The] (1932; The Vipers’ Tangle, 1933). In this novel, Louis, an aged and bitter lawyer, writes a lengthy confession to his wife Isa in an attempt to justify his mistreatment of her and their children. Instead of admitting that he was wrong to mock her Catholic faith and to be so miserly over the years—despite all the money that he inherited from his wealthy mother and that he gained from his successful law practice in Bordeaux—he shows extreme bad faith by blaming his wife’s parents for his amoral behavior.

Louis alleges that Isa’s parents never accepted him, because he and his wealthy mother were of peasant birth, even though they were wealthier than Isa’s parents. Even before their wedding, he prepared his vengeance. He hid from Isa his atheism and his contempt for Catholicism until after their wedding. Then, he took great pleasure in mocking her religious faith. He ate meat in front of his wife and children on Fridays, and he ridiculed them each Sunday morning before they left for Mass.

Despite his great wealth, Louis prided himself on spending as little as possible on his family. When their young daughter became very ill, he delayed contacting a doctor until it was too late to save her life. Isa understood all too well that he had delayed calling a doctor because he did not want to spend money on medical treatment for their daughter. His cruelty permanently alienated Isa and their two remaining children. When Isa died, he pretended to grieve, but his hypocrisy fooled no one. After his death, his children got control of his fortune, but they never fully recovered from the cruelty that their father had imposed on them. Even after their father’s death, his two surviving children were still angry and lacking in generosity.

In the acceptance speech that Mauriac gave in Stockholm on December 10, 1952, he expressed surprise that the august members of the Swedish Academy had decided to honor a French provincial novelist and not a more famous writer from a capital city. He argued, however, that the Swedish Academy must have somehow recognized his skill in “revealing the universality in this narrow world” of southwestern France. He pointed out that writers cannot yield to superficial readers who want to hear “pleasant things,” but Mauriac saw nothing positive in extreme pessimism.

As a Catholic writer, he recognized the coexistence of good and evil in the world. He went on in his speech to point out that, although many readers considered his work to be dark and somber because so many of his major characters are unsympathetic if not completely insensitive, the very evil of his fictional characters may serve to remind readers of the existence of “purity” and “childhood” that contrast with amorality or immorality. No one who lived through the horrors of Nazism would be so foolish as to deny the reality of evil, but Mauriac argued that evil is as mysterious as good.

As a child, Mauriac knew that Mozart’s music was beautiful, but he also realized that it would make no sense to try to explain logically why Mozart’s exquisite music brought him such immense pleasure. In his novels, Mauriac strove to describe the “mysteries of evil,” so even agnostic or atheistic readers might come to experience the contrary of evil. While reading his novels, readers must decide why they cannot identify with Mauriac’s amoral characters and why they judge these fictional characters so harshly. A passive reading of his novels is not reasonable, because Mauriac leads readers to make moral judgments.

Significance

Although in his Nobel acceptance speech he readily admitted that he was a Catholic writer, Mauriac compared himself to Catholic writers Gilbert Keith Chesterton and Graham Greene, whose popularity extended well beyond a Catholic readership. Like Greene and Chesterton, he treated universal moral issues from a Catholic perspective and sought to reach readers who did not necessarily share his religious faith. The very fact that one of the most consistent admirers of Mauriac’s novels was the eminent Jewish writer Elie Wiesel confirmed the wisdom of the Swedish Academy in honoring a Catholic writer whose appeal extended well beyond Catholicism. His receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1952 helped to expand Mauriac’s readership, producing an audience that extended well beyond France and Catholicism for his very Catholic novels. Nobel Prize in Literature;François Mauriac[Mauriac]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Flower, J. E. Intention and Achievement: An Essay on the Novels of François Mauriac. London: Oxford University Press, 1969. A very solid book that explains clearly how Mauriac’s regional novels explore universal moral and religious themes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gallagher, Edward J. Textual Hauntings: Studies in Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” and Mauriac’s “Thérèse Desqueyroux.” Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2005. Compares one of Mauriac’s most famous novels to the nineteeth century classic by Flaubert, noting striking thematic and narrative similarities and using them to comment on the relation of each text to the French canon.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Connell, David. François Mauriac Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1995. A thoughtful study that places Mauriac’s work in the context of twentieth century French Catholic literature but also describes the breadth of his appeal to non-Catholic readers. This is an excellent introduction in English to Mauriac’s works.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scott, Malcolm. Mauriac: The Politics of a Novelist. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1980. Describes very well the shared political vision and mutual admiration of General de Gaulle and François Mauriac.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Welch, Edward. François Mauriac: The Making of an Intellectual. New York: Rodopi, 2006. Traces Mauriac’s personal and professional development from a novelist concerned primarily with fiction into a journalist and intellectual making nonfictional interventions into French and global culture.

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