- Essais sur la littérature catholique (1870–1940): pèlerins de l’absolu par Richard Griffiths
Richard Griffiths is best known for his magisterial study, The Reactionary Revolution: The Catholic Revival in French Literature, 1870–1914 (London: Constable, 1966; reviewed in FS, 21 (1967), 75–76). While some of his many articles on Mauriac were collected in Le Singe de Dieu: François Mauriac entre le ‘roman catholique’ et la littérature contemporaine (Bordeaux: L’Esprit du temps, 1996), this new volume offers a selection of equally important articles on J.-K. Huysmans, Léon Bloy, Paul Claudel, Maurice Barrès, and Ernest Psichari, as well as Mauriac (and the name of Charles Péguy appears frequently, too). The articles will already be known to specialists from their publication between 1978 and 2014 in edited collections or reviews devoted to the work of the individual writers, but there is much to be said for bringing them together. Certain strands of thought run through the volume: variations on the doctrine of expiatory suffering and the reversibility of merits, and four others highlighted in a brief preface, which celebrates the friendship and encouragement of a whole host of scholars but fails to acknowledge the most recent research in the field, such as Francesco Manzini’s The Fevered Novel from Balzac to Bernanos: Frenetic Catholicism in Crisis, Delirium and Revolution (London: Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies, 2010). These are: the convergence between orthodox and heterodox doctrine in fin-de-siècle Catholicism; the influence of rhetoric on the language of both religious and political discussion; the influence of the liturgy on literary form; and the relationship between secular and religious literature (and art) of this period in various domains. In connection with this last point, it is sobering to see how little both Huysmans and, later, Mauriac appreciated the significant artistic developments of their own age (Les Nabis and surrealism respectively): but then even Baudelaire, often so attuned to true artistic worth, failed to recognize the genius of Manet. Griffiths is always careful to challenge over-simplifications, even those that appeared in his own earlier work, and to detail the complexities involved, whether in terms of multiple and sometimes conflicting ideas (as in Bloy’s exploration of despair), or in terms of chronological development (as with Claudel’s use of liturgy in his plays). Very occasionally there is a suspicion that sources are being used inconsistently: in the article on À rebours, we are warned against taking memoirs and letters too seriously (and not just in the specific case of Huysmans), whereas when it comes to Psichari, it is precisely the letters that are appealed to against the evidence of the novelistic text. But we are also encouraged to make up our own mind, so this is only a minor quibble. Griffiths’s book is a stimulating read that challenges lazy assumptions and suggests further avenues of research: the interplay of different quasi-liturgical systems in L’Otage, for instance, or the influence of his sister Camille’s art on Claudel’s scenic imagination. There is clearly still plenty to be said about Catholic literature in this period, both in itself and in its relationship to the wider literary and artistic context, and Griffiths is a sure-footed guide.