14 JANUARY 1966, Page 18

A Catholic Literary Revival

By MARTIN TURNELL NovEusTs like Francois Mauriac, Graham Greene and Jean Cayrol are fond of assert- ing that they Are Catholics who write novels and not Catholic novelists, or are merely novelists who have w-ittcn books in which some of the characters Ir-.ppen to be Catholics. The distinc- tion is svmp:omatie of our time. It would have been unthin,able in a Christian society where a writer was simply a writer who might treat religious or secular subjects. It was only with the fragmentation of Christendom and the divi- sion of the community into a large number of warring factions that labels and distinctions of this kind became possible. Even today we find it a little difficult to think of Chaucer either as a Catholic poet or as a Catholic who wrote poetry.

One of the reasons why these three novelists are reluctant to describe themselves, or to be described, as Catholic novelists is plain. They are afraid of being taken for the authors of works of propaganda or, worse still, edification. They are therefore at pains to emphasise their solidarity with the secular world and to play down the religious element in their books. They vie with the secular writer in the boldness with which they handle the seamy side of life and dwell With delight on the rawest details of the sexual connection. This explains in part the violence. the love of extremes, which are characteristic of Catholic imaginative writers from Barbey d'Aure- villy and Huysmans to Mauriac and Greene.

Their attitude seems to me to be understand- able but mistaken. Nobody wants a novelist to spend his time turning out pious stories or to spoil the view with too many fig-leaves, but we do expect a writer's religion to be the centre of his work, the unifying principle which places all experience in perspective. While it is clearly right to stress the primacy of literary values in any work of imagination, it is idle to minimise the effects on literature of the rift in civilisation. The rift is a fact and provides Mr. Griffiths with his theme.* He declares his interest in his preface. 'I am not,' he writes, 'a Roman Catholic, though am extremely sympathetic to that religion.' His aim is to assess the impact on French literature from 1870 to 1914 of the large number of con- versions among the intellectual 6lite. He draws the same distinction as, say. Mauriac between the Catholic writer and the Catholic who writes. but in.:sprets it differently. He has little time for the man who uses religion purely as a backdrop or an ornament in his work, for the Chateaubriands and the Barbeys. He thinks that the Revival produced for the first time for two centuries a hard core of writers in whom a 'deep involvement in religious matters was associated with works of literary value.' His title is not in- tended to be derogatory. The word 'reactionary' does not imply that they were regressive; it is used in the sense of reaction—an extremely mili- • THE REACTIONARY REVOLUTION. The Catholic Revival in French Literature 1870-1914. By Richard Griffiths. (Constable, 50s.) tant reaction—against the false philosophies of the contemporary world.

On the literary front (he observes] the move- ment is important for this very injection of new values, new preoccupations and even new stylistic qualities; and it was by a strong religious involvement that such literary changes took place.

The design of his book precludes detailed studies of individual writers. It is rather a piece of literary history in which the author isolates certain tendencies which were common to the writers of the Revival. Inevitably the literature of the period was to a considerable degree determined by the attitudes against which its authors were reacting. The principal enemy was the materialism on which the theories of the realists and the naturalists were founded. Huysmans, who began as a follower of Zola, repudiated the master and in La-bar—the last of the pre-conversion novels—entered a plea for a `spiritualisme naturaliste.' It is the reaction against materialism which explains the emphasis in the works of the Revival on 'the mystical and the miraculous' and according to Mr. Griffiths is one of the sources of their originality. Yet, as he points out, the influence of the materialism they were rejecting is apparent in the very realistic and sometimes horrifying descriptions of mental and physical suffering.

The majority of the writers who made a name for themselves were converts animated by the enthusiasm of the neophyte. They were violently antipathetic to the smug, complacent religion of the middle classes. 'They stressed.' as My. Grif- fiths says, 'the harsh nature of Christianity as they saw it.' They were constantly engaged in the fiercest polemics against their own class and against the clergy, not even sparing the liberal policies of Leo XIII, which they regarded as a compromise with the forces they had rejected. All this is evident in their choice of subjects. Mr. Griffiths has chapters on their anti- intellectualism, on their violence and exaggera- tion, and on the exceptional importance they attached to the doctrine of vicarious suffering which provided ample scope, or possibly a con- venient excuse, for their realistic accounts of physical torment. They were greatly concerned with the problem of evil which the materialists denied, and there is much in their books about the occult and satanism. On the positive side, they insisted on the value of tradition, order and patriotism as necessary disciplines in a bewildered world.

It is less easy to follow Mr. Griffiths when he argues that there is a direct relation between the literary value of their work and the attitudes against which they were reacting.

What is interesting here [he remarks] is the way in which, in these men, the combination of a strong Christian belief and of diverse elements left over from their pre-conversion ideas pro- duced an extremely varied and exciting literary movement.

He is undoubtedly right in saying that the Revival injected fresh values into literature and created a salutary ferment, but it is difficult to accept the implication that there was a genuine fusion of Christian vision and 'pre-conversion ideas' which produced finished works of art. The situation he is describing is not, after all, entirely new. There is at least a parallel with the sixteenth arid seventeenth centuries. Baroque art was both a reaction against the gloomy iconoclasm of the Protestant north and a positive attempt to absorb what was best in the discoveries of the Renaissance. If it was in the main a success, it was because the genius of the artists and their spirituality enabled them to impose their Chris- tian vision, but the ornate churches, the paintings dripping with the blood of martyrs and the sculptures of saints writhing in ecstasy, like Bernini's St. Teresa. reveal already something of the imbalance that we find in the works of the Revival.

By the latter part of the nineteenth century the odds had moved heavily against the artist. The French writers belonged to a minority. They were not able to dominate their age, to absorb and transform their material, as their Baroque forerunners had done. The outside pressures were too strong. They distorted the writers' ex- perience and led to highly esoteric forms of religion which sometimes verged, in Mr. Grif- fiths's words, on heresy. They did not see life steadily or see it whole. Theirs is a stimulating but lopsided art : an art of stress and strain and violence.

There is a bizarre fascination about Huys- mans's earlier novels, but his pre-conversion aestheticism makes La Cathedrale frankly unread- able. Claudel has been much admired, but he was a man of violent emotions which were not bal- anced by a correspondingly powerful intellect. Bloy was a highly talented eccentric, Francis Jammes a decidedly minor performer. Verlaine, who has been hailed as a 'great religious poet' by critics with little sympathy for religion, is a test case and underlines the dangers of 'reaction.' When he writes Je ne yeux plus aimer que ma mere Marie,

or speaks of 'les Angelus roses et noirs' and of 'anges bleus et blancs,' we are reminded uncom- fortably of the Place Saint-Sulpice. For writing of this kind illustrates as clearly as the poetry of Francis Thompson how easy it is for the poet, unless he is a Hopkins, to compromise with all that is basest in contemporary religious senti- mentality.

We may hesitate to describe any of the indi- vidual writers of the Revival as a 'great writer.' We need have no such scruples in acclaiming Charles Peguy as a great man and a great ex- ample. Mrs. Villiers calls her bookt a 'study in integrity.' It was this quality that gave him his exceptional place in French political and intellec- tual life in the years immediately preceding the First World War. His vast epics on Joan of Arc and Eve are a daunting prospect for any reader, and his polemical writings with their constant repetitions are hard going. But his distinction between mystique and politique and his cham- pionship of the basic human verities were a shattering indictment of the corruption of public life in all countries. Mrs. Villiers's admirable critical biography does full justice to the man and the writer. The same cannot be said of Dr. Jussem-Wilson's brief essay.t. She guides us painstakingly through the principal works, but fails to convey anything of the true stature of the man.

t CHARI ES PtGUY. A Study in Integrity. By Mar- jorie Villiers. (Collins, 42s.) CHARLLS (Studies in European Literature

and Thought) By N. Jussem-Wilson. (Bowes. 12s. 6d.)