Fran├žois Mauraic's The Frontenacs and the Roles of Memory, Family, and Grace

“In a word, Your Reverence, what is a priest to me?  He is Christ.  What do I expect of a priest, and what do I receive from him? Christ.  He gives me Christ in His power, but he also shows me Christ in His suffering.” “What do you expect of a priest?” Bernanos’ country priest?  Yes, of course.  But the holiness of the little vicar of the ordinary type is not that sort:  he eats black bread, and no angel comes to wipe the sweat from his brow.  The true drama of the priest has never yet been written.” --Letters on Art and Literature
Francois Mauraic

François Mauraic's own understanding of his identity and purpose as a Catholic novelist evolved over time, especially in the late 1920s when André Gide confronted Mauraic with the nature of his literary style and concerns. By 1961, Mauriac had not only won the Nobel Prize for Literature (1958) but had settled into his permanent role as a literary and cultural figure in French intellectual life. The Frontenacs is reflective of both a more settled understanding of the role of his faith in his fiction and a more assured sense of his literary vision. The novel has also been called his most autobiographical, reflecting his faith, his childhood in the French countryside of Bordeaux, and his early literary career.

Discussion Questions

  • How does Mauriac's focus on the role of memory shape his prose style? his use of setting? his approach to literary atmosphere?
  • How important are family relationships among the members of the Frontenacs? Can you map out the emotional and relational connections and extensions?
  • What actually is the "Frontenac mystery"?
  • What role does Roman Catholicism play in the family's life?
  • Likewise, how does it shape the key characters, esp. Blanche, Yves, and Jean-Louis?
  • How does death shape the actions and interactions of the novel's characters?
  • What is the structural relationship between Parts 1 and 2?
  • Does the character of Jean-Louis evolve in anyway? Why or why not?
  • How should we understand Yves's vocation as a poet?
  • Why does the novel end the way that it does? Does it suggest anything about Mauriac's view of grace?

Literary Jansenism

Mauriac has often been accused of being a literary Jansenist, that is a Catholic writer, who influenced by the Jansenist movement in 17th and 18th century France, stresses the power of evil, the inscrutability of predestination, and the terribleness of grace, especially that grace is extended only to some and is irresistible. Jansenists gave particular stress to the importance of contrition in conversion. The attrition of God's grace through the sacraments was not enough, and only God's efficacious action could move the sinner towards true contrition.

Sometimes Jansenism, as a historical and theological movement is compared to Calvinism, though there are some differences, such as Cornelius Jensen holding that Christians may still lose their eternal salvation. Two of Mauriac's favorite French writers--Racine and Pascal--were shaped by this religious movement, a movement that was eventually condemned by Pope Innocent X in 1653. However, the movement continued to influence French Catholic beliefs in many quarters.

At least in the current novel, The Frontenacs, is it fair to call Mauriac a Jansenist? Explain your answer. Likewise, consider the following passages from Mauriac's non-fictional reflection. What do they reveal about his position by the 1950s and 60s?

Second Thoughts: Reflections on Literature and on Life (1961)

"A Christian novelist has other reasons for not losing confidence in himself. I may be attaching too much importance to works of the imagination—the Church has always viewed them with more disdain than fear—but it does seem to me that Grace sometimes makes use of this trouble-stuff, these quite feeble poisons. . . .To this the theologian will retort that even if Grace makes use of evil for a greater good, the evil is not excused or made legitimate thereby. The Christian studies and observes his passions only to conquer them; he lingers over them only so long as he must in order to win his victory over them. We flatter ourselves (he would say) that a faithful, accurate picture portraying the horror of sin is therefore inoffensive. Passion being what it is, has the unveiling of its shame and unhappy consequences ever persuaded anyone to give it up? If it is true, so bitterly true as to be almost inadmissible, that we never commit a wrong action, even against our will, without longing sooner or later to commit it again (after all, habit begins with the first act), then even the unpitying delineation of grave human aberrations makes us, through the power of the imagination, accomplices in evil. It may even incite us to more concrete experience, because the image itself can become an enticement, drawing us from the familiar in to the habitual "(36-37).

Words of Faith (1955)

“That—to put it baldly—is the humanist point of view. In addressing a Spanish audience, obviously, I have no need to defend the saints against charges of weakness and cowardice. And indeed not only with regard to saints, but even the humblest Christian who strives to live by grace, there is obviously no question of fleeing for cover or protecting themselves from life’s risks. No, it is a question of love. But when one speaks of love one speaks of suffering. And what love is more exacting than the unique love? The sanctification of a soul is a long, drawn out task, a day by day severance from the world that entails obscure struggles, a prolonged and silent heroism. It is quite the reverse of sleep, of nonexistence, of nothingness. Union with God is the fruit of a superhuman victory. Shelter and rest, indeed! . . . .Some of the saints were kings, some soldiers, others were married; and while they performed their duties of state faultlessly, they never allowed these to alienate them from the inner world--…” (20-21).

“A writer who focuses his work on human being made in the image of the Father, redeemed by the Son, and illumined by the Holy Spirit could never, possibly, as I see it, be considered a master of despair, no matter how somber a picture he paints.

True, the coloring still remains somber.  That is because he sees human nature as wounded, if not corrupted.  It stands to reason that the human story as told by a Christian novelist is no idyll, since he is forbidden to shut his eyes to the mystery of evil.

But to be obsessed by evil is also to be obsessed by purity, by childlike goodness.  I am sorry that some of my critics, reading too hastily, fail to notice the place that children occupy in my stories.  A child’s dream is the keystone of all my books: children love and exchange their first kisses, and for the first time experience loneliness—all the things I cherish in the music of Mozart.  People see the vipers plainly in my novels but fail to see the dove that nests in many a chapter, because in my works childhood is the lost paradise where the first acquaintance with the mystery of evil is made” (74).

Francois Mauraic