THE ART OF FICTION

NO. 2

FRANÇOIS MAURIAC
“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. —Translated by Lydia Moffat & John Train, 1953

Proust resembled none of his predecessors and he did not have. Balzac created the “Balzacian” novel. whether good or bad. In fact. I believe that my younger fellow novelists are greatly preoccupied with technique.FRANÇOIS MAURIAC My opinion hasn’t changed. or if I know too much about my characters. he alone can use it. When I begin to write I don’t stop and wonder if I am interfering too directly in the story. 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. Really there is no problem of this type whose solution is not found in the completed work. or whether or not I ought to judge them. They seem to think a good novel ought to follow certain rules imposed from outside. 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 2 FRANÇOIS MAURIAC . however. A borrowed style is a bad style. There is a close tie between a novelist’s originality in general and the personal quality of his style. I’ve never had any preconceived notion of what I could or could not do. The great novelist doesn’t depend on anyone but himself. The great novelist breaks his mold. its style was suitable only for Balzac. I write with complete naïveté. this preoccupation hampers them and embarrasses them in their creation. any successors. he could not have. 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. spontaneously. If today I sometimes ask myself these questions it’s because they are asked of me—because they are asked all around me.

INTERVIEWER All the same. My novel Destins [Lines of Life] was likewise composed with an eye to film techniques. I had no idea at the outset how M. I’m convinced that a man with the real novelist’s temperament would transcend these taboos. There is a point of departure. more inconsistent characters show new possibilities as the story goes on. vaguer. It often happens that the first characters don’t go any further and. on the other hand. In general they aren’t. and Faulkner hold the Tables of the Law of fictional technique. Asmodée. INTERVIEWER In writing your novels. To take an example from one of my plays. Kafka. Thus in Thérèse Desqueyroux I used some devices that came from the silent films: lack of preparation. flashbacks. 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. and assume a place we hadn’t foreseen. these imaginary rules.getting rid of the naïve idea that Joyce. has any one problem given you particular trouble? THE PARIS REVIEW 3 . INTERVIEWER When you begin to write. are all the important points of the plot already established? MAURIAC That depends on the novel. the sudden opening. They were methods that were new and surprising at that time. and there are some characters. I simply resorted to the techniques that my instinct suggested to me. Coutûre was going to develop. and how important he was going to become in the play.

I cannot remain unaware of the comments made about my work from the standpoint of technique. 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. All my novels take place in the period contemporary with my adolescence and my youth. 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. They are all a “remembrance of things past.” But if Proust’s case helped me to understand my own. but I have also described situations of which I had no direct experience. “That will be something I can use”? 4 FRANÇOIS MAURIAC . I’ve never poisoned anyone! Certainly a novelist more or less comprehends all his characters. INTERVIEWER Have you ever described a situation of which you had no personal experience? MAURIAC That goes without saying—for example. That’s why the novel I just finished won’t be published this year. INTERVIEWER How distant in time do you have to be before you can describe your own experiences. A certain distance in time is absolutely necessary for a novelist. I want to look over it again in that light. Today. or things you have seen? MAURIAC One cannot be a true novelist before one has attained a certain age. unless he is writing a journal.MAURIAC Not yet. however.

its milieu. I rediscover. sound. Before beginning a novel I recreate inside myself its places. INTERVIEWER To what extent is your writing dominated by sense-perceptions —hearing. unhappy. when I no longer feel as though I were taking down dictation. a novel should not be interrupted. and sight? MAURIAC Very largely—the critics have all commented on the importance of the sense of smell in my novels. INTERVIEWER Do you write every day. 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. I don’t observe and I don’t describe. and introverted childhood. or only when you feel inspired? MAURIAC I write whenever it suits me. but I’ve never done it. I revive within myself the atmosphere of my childhood and my youth—I am my characters and their world. I rediscover the narrow Jansenist world of my devout. its colors and smells. THE PARIS REVIEW 5 . for the reason I have just given. 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. During a creative period I write every day. When I cease to be carried along.MAURIAC Never. I stop.

but then he changes so that sometimes he no longer bears the slightest resemblance to the original. So far. around Bordeaux. I have been able to avoid the great embarrassments that this system could have caused me. In general it is only the secondary characters that are taken directly from life. Yves 6 FRANÇOIS MAURIAC . For a true novelist this transformation is a part of one’s inner life. I particularly described myself in L’Enfant chargé de chaines and in La Robe prétexte. . It is quite indescribable. it is simply the art of the novel. . If I used some trick of prefabrication the result would not be a living character. INTERVIEWER Have you a special system for changing a real person into an imaginary one? MAURIAC There is no system .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. INTERVIEWER Do you describe yourself in any of your characters? MAURIAC To some degree in all of them. INTERVIEWER To what extent are your characters based on real people? MAURIAC There is almost always a real person in the beginning. What takes place is a sort of crystallization around the person.

Like a man who has decided to start his life over again. . I am a novelist of atmosphere. I don’t think I have been influenced by any other novelist. Baudelaire. I have never begun a novel without hoping that it would be the one that would make it unnecessary for me to write another.Frontenac in Le Mystère Frontenac is both me and not me: There are strong resemblances. INTERVIEWER From the standpoint of technique. THE PARIS REVIEW 7 . Maurice de Guérin. and poets have been very important for me: Racine. . for example. or again by all the authors I have read. The effort of self-expression should affect the manner of expression. INTERVIEWER Do you think a novelist should “renew” himself? MAURIAC I feel that a writer’s first duty is to be himself. 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. One is always the product of a culture. but at the same time a considerable deformation. I was not adding to a fresco. As far as technique goes I have been influenced by nobody. 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. and Francis Jammes. Rimbaud. What had gone before didn’t count . very strong. what writers influenced you most? MAURIAC I can’t tell. I have had to start again from scratch with each one. the books I read in childhood. to accept his limitations.

the characters from Balzac. thus we touch it like a thing: a handful of ashes. The publication of my complete works condemned me to this. Every day I find that age asphyxiates the characters inside of me. this book has. INTERVIEWER Do you still read novels? MAURIAC I read very few. living creatures. my own future assured to the Madame Bovarys. Actually.INTERVIEWER Once a novel is finished. This little world was speaking. Night before last I listened on the radio to an adaptation of Désert de l’Amour. which perhaps are not the best. Distorted as it was. For example. the Anna Kareninas. I don’t reread it any more than the others: I only reread my books when I have to in correcting proofs. the kept woman. I was once a passionate reader. the atmosphere that made them. We put the most of ourselves into certain novels. I recognized it. 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. . who was our tutor. for me. a heart-rending tone. I might say insatiable. 8 FRANÇOIS MAURIAC . Quite apart from any merits or defects it might possess. in Le Mystère Frontenac I sought to record my adolescence. this world that had left me thirty years before. Maria Cross. I recognized Dr. slightly distorted by the mirror that reflected it. his son Raymond. I wrote a sequel to Thérèse Desqueyroux because I was induced to do so from outside. to bring to life my mother and my father’s brother. It is thus that death emerges from abstraction. . for me. it is as painful as rereading old letters. Courrèges. but now . When I was young. suffering before me. Once a book is written and has left me it exists only through others. or writes an article about them. of dust.

in this case a discussion of Julien Green’s Sud.” a series of articles by François Mauriac on contemporary subjects. .An extract from “Bloc Notes.

On the other hand.They spread out before me all that I dreamed of for myself. rather. along with nonrepresentational art. and is connected with a certain conception of man. I can still reread a novel by Bernanos. they closed around me like rivals. I might add. in my opinion. 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. or even Huysmans. as I lived longer. the crisis of the novel. inasmuch as the public does read novels today. The events we are living through would not suffice to explain what is loosely called “the crisis of the novel. This altered view of the individual began a long time ago. Today. No. It is because novels no longer have any hold on me that I am given over more to history. that interests me. it is their technique. INTERVIEWER Do you believe this attitude is peculiar to yourself? Don’t you find. however. is of a metaphysical nature. we have the 10 FRANÇOIS MAURIAC . and printings are much larger today than they were in my youth. As the novel advances. they have become part of that which has been completed. to history in the making.” which is not. a crisis of readership. Now. because it has a metaphysical extension. The argument against the psychological novel derives essentially from the conception of man held by the present generation. Between Swann’s Way (the perfect novel) and The Past Recaptured we watch the characters dissolve. My destiny was prefigured by theirs. above all against the characters of Balzac. the characters decay. Then. a conception that is totally negative. As for my younger contemporaries. The works of Proust show it. A kind of competition obliged me to measure myself against them. more than anything else.

and it is from there that we must begin. In Proust. and the bad was not good. of course. The novel has lost its purpose. The good was not bad. is metaphysical. I cannot read them. the novel turns into a long meditation on jealousy. but it believed in the individual. they exist for the reader. then. you know them by name. After The Captive. Albertine no longer exists in the flesh. in the domain of technique. I believe that the crisis of the novel. that it has discovered the “purpose” of the old novel to have been prefabricated and unrelated to reality. What each of us understands by the word soul is different. The younger generation believes. MAURIAC I am going to shock you. his letters. The collapse of the novel is due to the destruction of this fundamental THE PARIS REVIEW 11 . as compared to those of Balzac. INTERVIEWER Doesn’t talking about the characters’ dissolving put too much emphasis on the experimental novel? After all. but not the values this faith postulates. and yet at the same time I know him well. But as for his novels. characters who seem to exist. The crisis of the novel. everything about him. after Joyce and Proust.nonrepresentational novel—the characters simply have no distinguishing features. become confused with the vice that devours them. The generation that preceded ours was no longer Christian. I have mentioned that one is struck by the slow decay of each character. I have read his diary. which comes to the same thing as believing in the soul. They have changed. there are still characters in the novels of Proust and Kafka. if it exists. because he himself fascinates me. at the beginning of the novel. I scarcely know the names of Kafka’s characters. Faith in God was lost for many. is right there. but in any case it is the fixed point around which the individual is constructed. such as Charlus. but you remember them. essentially. That is the most serious difficulty.

” But let’s not go into that—I’m no philosopher. Observe that for the novelist who has remained Christian. I admire in the young novelists their “search for the absolute. 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 philosophers gain. without which he would not have taken the position he now occupies. The present generation is terribly intelligent. why deny it? MAURIAC Each time literary talent decreases. great talent. who stayed in the domain of ideas and only affected literature indirectly. In the old days one could have talent and still be a little stupid. but little by little they have taken over. It is very important. The human being as I conceive him in the novel is a being caught up in the drama of salvation. fixed. that the master who has most influenced our period in literature should be a philosopher. INTERVIEWER That’s what everyone says you are. like myself. today. man is someone creating himself or destroying himself. Jean-Paul Sartre has. moreover. I am not saying that’s against them. Besides. Insofar as the young are philosophers. 12 FRANÇOIS MAURIAC . And yet. through his influence on the literary men themselves. They made me think of what Alain and Simone Weil said of a “purifying atheism. all the same. He is not an immobile being. even if he doesn’t know it.concept: the awareness of good and evil. The language itself has been devalued and emptied of its meaning by this attack on conscience. no.” their hatred of false appearances and illusions. they probably have much less need of fiction than we did. Compare his influence to that of Bergson.

have any chance of lasting. In the Figaro Littéraire. People have worn themselves out writing about the life of Racine without being able to establish anything. In a word. The opposite almost always comes about. however. 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. that only his journal and Si le grain ne meurt. the author steps into the foreground and little by little takes over the scene. or of Chateaubriand than his Mémoires d’outre-tombe. you wrote that throughout Wuthering Heights it is the figure of Emily Brontë that attracted you. and the only success. Even the great characters that have survived in novels are found now more in handbooks and histories. That is quite rare. is when the author disappears and his work remains. There are almost no writers who disappear into their work. MAURIAC Almost all the works die while the men remain. when the characters disappear. and they grow feeble. . I have always been and still remain a great admirer of Gide. He is lost in the radiance of his creation. We don’t know who Shakespeare was.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. As living creatures they get worn out. He did not create it. Sometimes we even see them die. The rarest thing in literature. the story of his childhood. It already appears. They alone interest us. as though in a museum. Sartre expressed the despair of this generation. We seldom read any more of Rousseau than his Confessions. THE PARIS REVIEW 13 . . Madame Bovary seems to me to be in poorer health than she used to be. or Homer.

MAURIAC I was praising my merchandise. “Do you believe your faith has hampered or enriched your literary life?” I would answer yes to both parts of the question. It has also hampered me. and the new generations are less and less capable of providing them with the air they need to breathe. If I were asked. and even Anna Karenina. First. INTERVIEWER Has Christianity lived so intensely as yours created problems for you as a novelist? MAURIAC All the time. That held me down somewhat. silence. My Christian faith has enriched me. and I would like to end my life not in violence and anger. INTERVIEWER In one place you speak of the greatness of the novel as the perfect literary form. but in peace. Even to the music 14 FRANÇOIS MAURIAC . Tolstoy and Dickens and Balzac are great. For the greatest temptation at the close of a Christian’s life is retreat. in that my books are not what they might have been had I let myself go. but no art is more royal than another. the king of the arts. I am a Christian. though.INTERVIEWER You think so? MAURIAC Yes. not the literary form they demonstrated. It is the artist who counts. but I was regarded in Catholic circles almost as a pornographic writer. It seems comical today. Today I know that God pays no attention to what we write. even the Karamazovs. He uses it. because they need readers in order to live.

but our poor lives that linger in the histories. it is not our books that survive. What I fear is not being forgotten after my death. but. § . because there is no silence with God. trying to guess the direction of the wind from the odors it carries. rather.I love most I now prefer silence. All rights reserved. Nothing in this publication may be reproduced without the permission of The Paris Review or the original copyright holder of the text to be reproduced. not being enough forgotten. © 2004 The Paris Review Foundation. As we were saying. Inc. They would be astounded indeed if they knew that my greatest happiness is to be alone on my terrace. My enemies believe I want to remain on stage at any price— that I make use of politics in order to survive.

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