Interviews

François Mauriac, The Art of Fiction No. 2

Interviewed by Jean Le Marchand

“Every novelist ought to invent his own technique, that is the fact of the matter. Every novel worthy of the name is like another planet, whether large or small, which has its own laws just as it has its own flora and fauna. Thus, Faulkner’s technique is certainly the best one with which to paint Faulkner’s world, and Kafka’s nightmare has produced its own myths that make it communicable. Benjamin Constant, Stendhal, Eugène Fromentin, Jacques Rivière, Radiguet, all used different techniques, took different liberties, and set themselves different tasks. The work of art itself, whether its title is Adolphe, Lucien Leuwen, Dominique, Le Diable au corps or À la Recherche du temps perdu, is the solution to the problem of technique.”

With these words François Mauriac, discussing the novel in the French literary magazine La Table Ronde of August 1949, described his own position. In March 1953, he was interviewed on the same subject for The Paris Review by Jean le Marchand, Secrétaire Générale of La Table Ronde. M. Le Marchand began by asking him about his earlier statement.

 

FRANÇOIS MAURIAC

My opinion hasn’t changed. I believe that my younger fellow novelists are greatly preoccupied with technique. They seem to think a good novel ought to follow certain rules imposed from outside. In fact, however, this preoccupation hampers them and embarrasses them in their creation. The great novelist doesn’t depend on anyone but himself. Proust resembled none of his predecessors and he did not have, he could not have, any successors. The great novelist breaks his mold; he alone can use it. Balzac created the “Balzacian” novel; its style was suitable only for Balzac.

There is a close tie between a novelist’s originality in general and the personal quality of his style. A borrowed style is a bad style. American novelists from Faulkner to Hemingway invented a style to express what they wanted to say—and it is a style that can’t be passed on to their followers.

INTERVIEWER

You have said that every novelist should invent his style for himself—how would you describe your own?

MAURIAC

In all the time I have been writing novels I have very seldom asked myself about the technique I was using. When I begin to write I don’t stop and wonder if I am interfering too directly in the story, or if I know too much about my characters, or whether or not I ought to judge them. I write with complete naïveté, spontaneously. I’ve never had any preconceived notion of what I could or could not do.

If today I sometimes ask myself these questions it’s because they are asked of me—because they are asked all around me.

Really there is no problem of this type whose solution is not found in the completed work, whether good or bad. The preoccupation with these questions is a stumbling block for the French novel. The crisis in French novel-writing that people talk about so much will be solved as soon as our young writers succeed in getting rid of the naïve idea that Joyce, Kafka, and Faulkner hold the Tables of the Law of fictional technique. I’m convinced that a man with the real novelist’s temperament would transcend these taboos, these imaginary rules.

INTERVIEWER

All the same, haven’t you ever deliberately made use of definite techniques in novel writing?

MAURIAC

A novelist spontaneously works out the techniques that fit his own nature. Thus in Thérèse Desqueyroux I used some devices that came from the silent films: lack of preparation, the sudden opening, flashbacks. They were methods that were new and surprising at that time. I simply resorted to the techniques that my instinct suggested to me. My novel Destins [Lines of Life] was likewise composed with an eye to film techniques.

INTERVIEWER

When you begin to write, are all the important points of the plot already established?

MAURIAC

That depends on the novel. In general they aren’t. There is a point of departure, and there are some characters. It often happens that the first characters don’t go any further and, on the other hand, vaguer, more inconsistent characters show new possibilities as the story goes on, and assume a place we hadn’t foreseen. To take an example from one of my plays, Asmodée, I had no idea at the outset how M. Coutûre was going to develop, and how important he was going to become in the play.

INTERVIEWER

In writing your novels, has any one problem given you particular trouble?

MAURIAC

Not yet. Today, however, I cannot remain unaware of the comments made about my work from the standpoint of technique. That’s why the novel I just finished won’t be published this year. I want to look over it again in that light.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever described a situation of which you had no personal experience?

MAURIAC

That goes without saying—for example, I’ve never poisoned anyone! Certainly a novelist more or less comprehends all his characters; but I have also described situations of which I had no direct experience.

INTERVIEWER

How distant in time do you have to be before you can describe your own experiences, or things you have seen?

MAURIAC

One cannot be a true novelist before one has attained a certain age, and that is why a young author has almost no chance of writing successfully about any other period of his life than his childhood or adolescence. A certain distance in time is absolutely necessary for a novelist, unless he is writing a journal.

All my novels take place in the period contemporary with my adolescence and my youth. They are all a “remembrance of things past.” But if Proust’s case helped me to understand my own, it was without any conscious imitation on my part.

INTERVIEWER

Do you make notes for future use? When you see something of interest in the course of life do you think, “That will be something I can use”?

MAURIAC

Never; for the reason I have just given. I don’t observe and I don’t describe; I rediscover. I rediscover the narrow Jansenist world of my devout, unhappy, and introverted childhood. It is as though when I was twenty a door within me had closed forever on that which was going to become the material of my work.

INTERVIEWER

To what extent is your writing dominated by sense-perceptions—hearing, sound, and sight?

MAURIAC

Very largely—the critics have all commented on the importance of the sense of smell in my novels. Before beginning a novel I recreate inside myself its places, its milieu, its colors and smells. I revive within myself the atmosphere of my childhood and my youth—I am my characters and their world.

INTERVIEWER

Do you write every day, or only when you feel inspired?

MAURIAC

I write whenever it suits me. During a creative period I write every day; a novel should not be interrupted. When I cease to be carried along, when I no longer feel as though I were taking down dictation, I stop.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever tried to write a novel entirely different from those you have written?

MAURIAC

Sometimes I’ve thought of writing a detective story, but I’ve never done it.

INTERVIEWER

How do you hit on the names of your characters?

MAURIAC

I have been unwise enough to use names that are very well known in my part of the country, around Bordeaux. So far, I have been able to avoid the great embarrassments that this system could have caused me.

INTERVIEWER

To what extent are your characters based on real people?

MAURIAC

There is almost always a real person in the beginning, but then he changes so that sometimes he no longer bears the slightest resemblance to the original. In general it is only the secondary characters that are taken directly from life.

INTERVIEWER

Have you a special system for changing a real person into an imaginary one?

MAURIAC

There is no system ... it is simply the art of the novel. What takes place is a sort of crystallization around the person. It is quite indescribable. For a true novelist this transformation is a part of one’s inner life. If I used some trick of prefabrication the result would not be a living character.

INTERVIEWER

Do you describe yourself in any of your characters?

MAURIAC

To some degree in all of them. I particularly described myself in L’Enfant chargé de chaines and in La Robe prétexte. Yves Frontenac in Le Mystère Frontenac is both me and not me: there are strong resemblances, very strong, but at the same time a considerable deformation.

INTERVIEWER

From the standpoint of technique, what writers influenced you most?

MAURIAC

I can’t tell. As far as technique goes I have been influenced by nobody, or again by all the authors I have read. One is always the product of a culture. We are sometimes influenced by humble writers whom we have forgotten—perhaps I was influenced only by those books I was steeped in for so long, the books I read in childhood. I don’t think I have been influenced by any other novelist. I am a novelist of atmosphere, and poets have been very important for me: Racine, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Maurice de Guérin, and Francis Jammes, for example.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think a novelist should “renew” himself?

MAURIAC

I feel that a writer’s first duty is to be himself, to accept his limitations. The effort of self-expression should affect the manner of expression.

I have never begun a novel without hoping that it would be the one that would make it unnecessary for me to write another. I have had to start again from scratch with each one. What had gone before didn’t count ... I was not adding to a fresco. Like a man who has decided to start his life over again, I have told myself that I had so far accomplished nothing: for I have always believed that my chef d’oeuvre would be the novel I was working on at the time.

INTERVIEWER

Once a novel is finished, do you remain attached to your characters? Do you maintain contact with them?

MAURIAC

My characters exist for me only when someone talks to me about them, or writes an article about them. I wrote a sequel to Thérèse Desqueyroux because I was induced to do so from outside. Once a book is written and has left me it exists only through others. Night before last I listened on the radio to an adaptation of Désert de l’Amour. Distorted as it was, I recognized Dr. Courrèges, his son Raymond, Maria Cross, the kept woman. This little world was speaking, suffering before me, this world that had left me thirty years before. I recognized it, slightly distorted by the mirror that reflected it.

We put the most of ourselves into certain novels, which perhaps are not the best. For example, in Le Mystère Frontenac I sought to record my adolescence, to bring to life my mother and my father’s brother, who was our tutor. Quite apart from any merits or defects it might possess, this book has, for me, a heart-rending tone. Actually, I don’t reread it any more than the others: I only reread my books when I have to in correcting proofs. The publication of my complete works condemned me to this; it is as painful as rereading old letters. It is thus that death emerges from abstraction, thus we touch it like a thing: a handful of ashes, of dust.

INTERVIEWER

Do you still read novels?

MAURIAC

I read very few. Every day I find that age asphyxiates the characters inside of me. I was once a passionate reader, I might say insatiable, but now ... When I was young, my own future assured to the Madame Bovarys, the Anna Kareninas, the characters from Balzac, the atmosphere that made them, for me, living creatures. They spread out before me all that I dreamed of for myself. My destiny was prefigured by theirs. Then, as I lived longer, they closed around me like rivals. A kind of competition obliged me to measure myself against them, above all against the characters of Balzac. Now, however, they have become part of that which has been completed.

On the other hand, I can still reread a novel by Bernanos, or even Huysmans, because it has a metaphysical extension. As for my younger contemporaries, it is their technique, more than anything else, that interests me.

It is because novels no longer have any hold on me that I am given over more to history, to history in the making.

INTERVIEWER

Do you believe this attitude is peculiar to yourself? Don’t you find, rather, that at a time when the impact of events such as those in Algeria is very heavy, the world has detached itself somewhat from fiction? Perhaps the distance is no longer there that is necessary for the reception of the novel.

MAURIAC

Every period in history has been more or less tragic. The events we are living through would not suffice to explain what is loosely called “the crisis of the novel,” which is not, I might add, a crisis of readership, inasmuch as the public does read novels today, and printings are much larger today than they were in my youth.

No, the crisis of the novel, in my opinion, is of a metaphysical nature, and is connected with a certain conception of man. The argument against the psychological novel derives essentially from the conception of man held by the present generation, a conception that is totally negative. This altered view of the individual began a long time ago. The works of Proust show it. Between Swann’s Way (the perfect novel) and The Past Recaptured we watch the characters dissolve. As the novel advances, the characters decay.

Today, along with nonrepresentational art, we have the nonrepresentational novel—the characters simply have no distinguishing features.

I believe that the crisis of the novel, if it exists, is right there, essentially, in the domain of technique. The novel has lost its purpose. That is the most serious difficulty, and it is from there that we must begin. The younger generation believes, after Joyce and Proust, that it has discovered the “purpose” of the old novel to have been prefabricated and unrelated to reality.

INTERVIEWER

Doesn’t talking about the characters’ dissolving put too much emphasis on the experimental novel? After all, there are still characters in the novels of Proust and Kafka. They have changed, of course, as compared to those of Balzac, but you remember them, you know them by name, they exist for the reader.

MAURIAC

I am going to shock you. I scarcely know the names of Kafka’s characters, and yet at the same time I know him well, because he himself fascinates me. I have read his diary, his letters, everything about him. But as for his novels, I cannot read them.

In Proust, I have mentioned that one is struck by the slow decay of each character. After The Captive, the novel turns into a long meditation on jealousy. Albertine no longer exists in the flesh; characters who seem to exist, at the beginning of the novel, such as Charlus, become confused with the vice that devours them.

The crisis of the novel, then, is metaphysical. The generation that preceded ours was no longer Christian, but it believed in the individual, which comes to the same thing as believing in the soul. What each of us understands by the word soul is different; but in any case it is the fixed point around which the individual is constructed.

Faith in God was lost for many, but not the values this faith postulates. The good was not bad, and the bad was not good. The collapse of the novel is due to the destruction of this fundamental concept: the awareness of good and evil. The language itself has been devalued and emptied of its meaning by this attack on conscience.

Observe that for the novelist who has remained Christian, like myself, man is someone creating himself or destroying himself. He is not an immobile being, fixed, cast in a mold once and for all. This is what makes the traditional psychological novel so different from what I did or thought I was doing. The human being as I conceive him in the novel is a being caught up in the drama of salvation, even if he doesn’t know it.

And yet, I admire in the young novelists their “search for the absolute,” their hatred of false appearances and illusions. They made me think of what Alain and Simone Weil said of a “purifying atheism.” But let’s not go into that—I’m no philosopher.

INTERVIEWER

That’s what everyone says you are. Besides, why deny it?

MAURIAC

Each time literary talent decreases, the philosophers gain. I am not saying that’s against them, but little by little they have taken over. The present generation is terribly intelligent. In the old days one could have talent and still be a little stupid; today, no. Insofar as the young are philosophers, they probably have much less need of fiction than we did.

It is very important, all the same, that the master who has most influenced our period in literature should be a philosopher. Jean-Paul Sartre has, moreover, great talent, without which he would not have taken the position he now occupies. Compare his influence to that of Bergson, who stayed in the domain of ideas and only affected literature indirectly, through his influence on the literary men themselves.

INTERVIEWER

Do you believe that literature has been turned over to the philosophers by accident?

MAURIAC

There is a historical reason for it: the tragedy of France. Sartre expressed the despair of this generation. He did not create it, but he gave it a justification and a style.

INTERVIEWER

You said that you were more interested in the man Kafka than in his work. In the Figaro Littéraire, you wrote that throughout Wuthering Heights it is the figure of Emily Brontë that attracted you. In a word, when the characters disappear, the author steps into the foreground and little by little takes over the scene.

MAURIAC

Almost all the works die while the men remain. We seldom read any more of Rousseau than his Confessions, or of Chateaubriand than his Mémoires d’outre-tombe. They alone interest us. I have always been and still remain a great admirer of Gide. It already appears, however, that only his journal and Si le grain ne meurt, the story of his childhood, have any chance of lasting. The rarest thing in literature, and the only success, is when the author disappears and his work remains. We don’t know who Shakespeare was, or Homer. People have worn themselves out writing about the life of Racine without being able to establish anything. He is lost in the radiance of his creation. That is quite rare.

There are almost no writers who disappear into their work. The opposite almost always comes about. Even the great characters that have survived in novels are found now more in handbooks and histories, as though in a museum. As living creatures they get worn out, and they grow feeble. Sometimes we even see them die. Madame Bovary seems to me to be in poorer health than she used to be...

INTERVIEWER

You think so?

MAURIAC

Yes, and even Anna Karenina, even the Karamazovs. First, because they need readers in order to live, and the new generations are less and less capable of providing them with the air they need to breathe.

INTERVIEWER

In one place you speak of the greatness of the novel as the perfect literary form, the king of the arts.

MAURIAC

I was praising my merchandise, but no art is more royal than another. It is the artist who counts. Tolstoy and Dickens and Balzac are great, not the literary form they demonstrated.

INTERVIEWER

Has Christianity lived so intensely as yours created problems for you as a novelist?

MAURIAC

All the time. It seems comical today, but I was regarded in Catholic circles almost as a pornographic writer. That held me down somewhat.

If I were asked, “Do you believe your faith has hampered or enriched your literary life?” I would answer yes to both parts of the question. My Christian faith has enriched me. It has also hampered me, in that my books are not what they might have been had I let myself go. Today I know that God pays no attention to what we write; He uses it.

I am a Christian, though, and I would like to end my life not in violence and anger, but in peace. For the greatest temptation at the close of a Christian’s life is retreat, silence. Even to the music I love most I now prefer silence, because there is no silence with God.

My enemies believe I want to remain on stage at any price—that I make use of politics in order to survive. They would be astounded indeed if they knew that my greatest happiness is to be alone on my terrace, trying to guess the direction of the wind from the odors it carries. What I fear is not being forgotten after my death, but, rather, not being enough forgotten. As we were saying, it is not our books that survive, but our poor lives that linger in the histories.