A Fire-Stained and Blackened Cathedral: An Interview with Joshua Hren

Meredith Wise: What made you want to translate La Femme Pauvre? You mentioned that Bloy had some connection with Jacques and Raissa Maritain, who inspired your novel In the Wine Press (parts of which have been published, of course, in Dappled Things).

Joshua Hren: I first came across La Femme Pauvre—the name of the novel, not an actual copy of it—ten years ago, in 2002. I had just started seeing  an incredibly wise, authentically mystical woman, founder of the  Theresian Institute, a Catholic psychological practice in Milwaukee. She who then served as my psychologist and who has since come to be my  spiritual director, and one of the most profound instruments of truth in my life and in the Church in Milwaukee (without her I would doubtless  not be Catholic, and would have by now lost what little semblance of  sanity I still maintain) gave me a paperback copy of Raissa Maritain’s  books We Have Been Friends Together/ Adventures in Grace (I still have the book, which is now kept alive by duct-tape over the binding).

Having barely made my way into the Catholic church at this point, I didn’t know the Maritains and their chronicles from Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. In this spiritual biography Raissa recounts how she and Jacques encountered Léon Bloy. Steeped in the intellectual nihilism of their times, troubled specifically by a scientific determinism the tenets of which they deeply understood and by which they were left in anguish, the two young geniuses, who were then courting, made a pact to commit suicide together on a given date, unless they should come in contact with absolute truth. If the world lacks absolute truth, as they had been taught, then existence, they concluded, is too cruel to countenance any longer. There is a remarkable earnestness to this proposition, even as it is extreme and dark. As their search for this truth ticked away, they happened to read a review of La Femme Pauvre that touted the novel as one of the only French works of the age that flashed with genuine metaphysical insights.

Upon reading the novel, they found themselves, “for the first time . . . before the reality of Christianity.” They did have some reservations about Bloy’s “endless endeavors to note minute ugliness or mediocrity, that fixed predilection for violence and force, the perpetual hyperbole,” still, they concluded that the novel was “saved by a shining sincerity, an unswerving uprightness, a genuine, deep, inexhaustible lyricism, by the exquisite tenderness of a heart made to love absolutely, to cling entirely to what it loved.”

To our desensitized minds, La Femme Pauvre is not exactly shocking in its presentation of ugliness, violence, and force. Taken as a whole, the story follows Clotilde Marechal as she is led by providence and eager teachers out of the world of her mother’s prostitution and her stepfather’s callousness and into the life of a saint. Innocent though not naïve and hungering after holiness, she is eager to be relieved of her poverty and affliction; and we learn that some suffering is actually sanctifying her whereas other suffering is arbitrary, is simply grinding away at her. Clothilde learns about the church from Gacougnol, a painter; Marchenoir, a writer; and Leopold, who illuminates manuscripts. Throughout the novel these three men discuss modern art and whether there can be such a thing as “Christian art.” They also give some sobering portraits of their fellow artists’ disillusionment with the Church. By means of his narrator, Bloy grants his readers a harsh warning: “Take it all round, in fact, and those gracious readers might do even better by not opening the present volume at all, for it is itself a long digression on the evil of living, the infernal misfortune of existence, hogs lacking any snout to root for tit-bits, in a society without God.” And yet, as in Flannery’s Wise Blood, this dark tale is, finally, filled with unsentimental hope.

This masked hope led the Maritains to send Bloy a letter (along with some money), and soon they were visiting his home. As Jacques notes, “once the threshold of this house was crossed, all values were dislocated, as though by an invisible switch. One knew, or one guessed, that only one sorrow existed here—not to be of the saints. And all the rest receded into the twilight.” The Maritain’s pact to kill themselves in the absence of the absolute also receded into the twilight, and soon they were welcomed into the Catholic Church, with Bloy as their godfather. And it was through this conversion that Jacques became one of the great neo-Thomist philosophers of our time. Through Bloy, Jacques met the painter Georges Rouault, whose conversion had also been incited by La Femme Pauvre. While researching In the Wine Press in Paris some years back, I was graced with the chance to meet with Rouault’s grandchildren, and they told me of the connection between Bloy, Maritain, and Rouault. Bloy was godfather to Rouault’s child, and the Maritains and the Rouaults would frequently find themselves around the table of the Bloys—engaging in intense debates, playing dominoes with the children, praying. In fact, Rouault was a major inspiration for Jacques Maritain’s now classic Art and Scholasticism.

Anyhow, I was amazed at the potency of La Femme Pauvre, which had affected the French Catholic Renaissance so directly. For years I searched for an affordable copy of the novel. One could buy it for somewhere between fifty and one hundred and fifty dollars online, and the libraries lacked a single edition.  Around this time I was beginning to understand my vocation as a Catholic fiction writer, and many framed the work as the first modern Catholic novel, so I felt I had to find it; but I could not justify spending so much money. So I prayed. Léon Bloy surrendered his entire being to Divine Providence, I thought, so in this spirit I’ll surrender this request. Well, years later, on Christmas of 2005, a friend of mine presented me with The Woman Who Was Poor, translated in 1939 by I.J. Collins. Bloy’s style was bombastic, abrasive, sometimes unbelievably hyperbolic, but in the wee hours before the first day of 2006, in the upper room of a smoky coffee shop, I had the only mystical experience that I have ever had while reading a work of fiction. Marchenoir, who is modeled after Bloy himself, ascends the mountain in La Salette, begging our Lady and our Lord for succor, for his child has died due largely to the awful sanitation in their region of Paris. I will not rewrite the scene here—you’ve got to read the book—but suffice it to say, Bloy emerged as much more than one novelist among many.

If over the years Bloy’s influence on me has waned, especially as I’ve become somewhat cautious about taking him as a “model,” the affinity nevertheless remains strong. My wife, our children and I do our best to live, like Bloy, in voluntary poverty, at least in our own little way—even though we’ve not known the utter destitution he knew. Still, whenever we lose a job, or come across some other immense suffering, Bloy is a sort of compass who gives our family concrete direction in spite of instability. In our living room we’ve a handmade plaque, created during the first weeks after our marriage, that proclaims Bloy’s characteristic insight into tribulation: “Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering, in order that they may have their existence” (this, incidentally, was used by Graham Greene as the epigram for The End of the Affair).

I’d long been toying with the idea of translating Bloy, but some free time came my way this year and finally prompted me to take up La Femme Pauvre. Although it is first and foremost a labor of love—I translate very slowly—my reasoning was partially practical: the novel has not been translated into English since 1939, and copies are exorbitantly expensive, as it is long out of print. And then there is its place within the Catholic literary tradition. If we can find in it not necessarily the original modern Catholic novel, then at least one of the original Catholic novels, it is important that we make these origins more readily available to the reading public, and to Christian writers.

MW: From his relationship with the Maritains we can see that Bloy had a deep capacity for friendship, but it must be said that he seems to have loved making enemies: he once insulted an author’s dead brother in a review and then hit up the man for money (the live one, that is). What are your thoughts on the nature of his faith?  Was there a core of real charity to it, or was it just another way of provoking people?

JH: Are you familiar with the Book of All Saints by Adrienne von Speyr? Von Speyr was a Catholic mystic who grew into her vocation under the guidance of Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar. The book is comprised of many years’ worth of von Speyr’s visions of various saints (and others). In the presence of Fr. von Balthasar, she was able, through a peculiar charism, to put herself in the presence of various holy people, to see and describe their prayer and their entire attitude before God. She would then dictate these visions to von Balthasar. She covers everyone from Saint Edith Stein to, believe it or not, Shakespeare. A very powerful book. Anyhow, she is given the gift of seeing Léon Bloy’s prayer, of seeing his soul before God, and her vision speaks to some of your questions concerning the nature of Bloy’s faith. Von Speyr sees that Bloy must, “be a beacon everywhere, represent Christianity, and draw people to it and its task with harsh words. But he must also fight for himself, insofar as he must attain the capacities to carry out the mission. That is the task, but in undertaking it he often fails, because when he defends himself . . . he sometimes forgets to see himself as one sent and instead sees himself, with his wishes and desires. Then his mission gets somewhat eclipsed, because when he ought to speak about God, he speaks about himself, and he dwells too long on himself.” So there you have his weakness, subject to some scrutiny. But von Speyr goes on to note that, “in his prayer and in his entire disposition, there is an aspect that he fulfills quite well, and that is the aspect of suffering: for he bears the humiliations, the pains, and the impotence truly just as they are given to him, in their entire fullness, and without making a tally.” He lives out his own vocation well, she goes on, but the trouble often comes when he tries to lead others to such a heroic attitude toward human suffering. “He is like one who desired to bring someone who is seeking the truth of the Church immediately before the demand ‘go and sell everything,’ with the warning that anything less is ‘worth nothing at all.’” Here we have the absolute quality that pervades his life and works. Enraptured with the absolute, other things in life, ordinary things, or more to the point, mediocrity, mediocre people, he cannot handle well.

MW: I must confess that I know nothing about Bloy aside from your own words and the googling I’ve done in the past few weeks; I always knew that he was a 19th century French Catholic novelist, but that was it.  Accurate information on his life is hard to come by!  One of my internet sources said two of his children died “of malnutrition,” and I formed a very unpleasant image of this Mel Gibson-like provocateur who drove away all of his potential readers—and drove the bread from his children’s mouths.

JH: Accurate information on Bloy is had to come by. I’ve been dealing with this problem for years. Whenever I’ve tried to do explicit research on him, it is as though a medieval wall blocks me from seeing into the truth. I’ve come across much what I know “by accident,” in books on Rouault or Maritain, and I have come to trust the portraits of him put forth by others whom I trust.
I am unable to say whether it was his attitude toward the absolute that led to the death of his two eldest children. I know that one of them died due to an excess of toxic dust from a nearby construction site. I am not sure whether it was entirely within his power to get out of the poverty he and his family lived under. It may have been a weakness, even a sin. But he wrestled with it always. In his journal, he writes many prayers to God pleading to simply be a regular worker. A characteristic passage: “Will God at last want me to live by my work like other laborers? This is a grace which I have so long begged with tears!” These words convince me that the impoverishment was much deeper than an accident of his striving after the absolute. He yearns to be free from the burdens of his vocation as a writer. He yearns, he notes elsewhere, to be able to support his family in a different way, in a “normal” way. When one of his children died suddenly, he made a solitary pilgrimage to the mountain in La Salette where Our Lady appeared in the mid-19th Century. “In the face of a child’s death, art and poetry come to resemble a great destitution,” he wrote.

In We Have Been Friends Together, Jacques and Raissa also speak to the question of charity: did Bloy’s faith and actions possess a core of real charity, or was he merely a gadfly? When the Maritains met Bloy for the first time, they note, in one of my favorite moments, that he “uncovered for them . . . the tenderness of Christian brotherhood, that trembling both of mercy and of fear with which a soul marked with the love of God is seized when it faces another soul. Bloy appeared to us as the contrary of other men, who hide grave failings in the things of the spirit and so many invisible crimes under a carefully maintained whitewash of the virtues of sociability. Instead of being a whitewashed sepulchre, like the Pharisees of every time, he was a fire-stained and blackened cathedral. The whiteness was within, in the depth of the tabernacle.”

A world filled with Léon Bloys, clones of Léon Bloys—Léon Bloy as a sort of absolute ideal for all humanity: this is indeed an unsettling picture to imagine. It is something like imagining a zoo filled with nothing but lions. Cage after cage; nothing but lions. But a world absolutely lacking the one Léon Bloy it knew: this is also unsettling—a vacuum! I wonder . . . alongside those who constitute the lukewarm the Lord speaks about in John’s Revelation, does someone like Bloy actually stand a chance of stoking the coals of their smoldering faith? How could Bloy come off as anything but a lunatic, a fanatic, a threat? To be fair, were he to be alive today, and were he to have made his way into one of our innumerable psychological clinics, he would perhaps have been diagnosed with severe depression, bi-polar disorder—something. His mind was not entirely sound. But mental sanity is not always the best measure of sanctity. Grace does build upon nature, and this dictum is proven with utter clarity in Bloy. A man who was recklessly abused as a child, who, even after his conversion, bore the marks of sin that came from his former life among prostitutes—a man such as this will not write the same stories as, say, an Evelyn Waugh. But grace will build even upon prose that lingers a little too long in the gutter, on the underbelly of Paris. This was the world he knew, and we all know it is best to write what you know.

I remain somewhat uncertain about his provocative prose and its, for lack of a better phrase, “rhetorical efficacy.” Jacques Maritain offers one answer to this question: “I understand quite well,” he writes, “that for certain minds, fortunate in having been spared the dizziness of any abyss, whether from its brink or from its depth, the case of Léon Bloy is a singularly obscure puzzle. But I must repeat: there are perishing souls who seek beauty in darkness, and on whom quiet apologetics would be without avail. Nor would pure theology act on them, for their reason is too weakened by error; they imagine that obedience to faith is incompatible with boldness of intellect, or with the play and freedom of art and beauty; in short, the mediocrity of a great number of Christians frightens them off. Bloy, in crying out his disgust at all lukewarmness, in shouting on rooftops his thirst for the absolute, inspires these famished ones with a presentiment of the glory of God. But nothing, in the last analysis, would have any effect without the secret of this magnificent beggar and vociferator, I mean without his charity: it is his love of God and souls that does everything.”

MW: Those who know Flannery O’Connor will be reminded of her famous saying: “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the blind you draw large and startling figures.” Can you tell us more about the links between the two authors?

JH:Bloy’s prose can hardly be read as anything but the equivalent of camel-skin clothes and a diet of honey and locusts. He writes with large lines, and here is where we find a crossover with Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor’s fiction is often perceived as being overly violent, extreme. My students are often shocked beyond comment by, say, the Misfit, or Manley Pointer, or Hazel Motes. “Could this really come from a Christian?” some wonder. Of course we know that she did not create violent characters simply to revel in their violence. But to make the link between O’Connor and Bloy, I have to take two steps back before taking a step forward . . .

Bloy began as a violently atheistic painter. He converted in 1870, a massive shift that resulted from friendships with, he notes, “various priests.” Later, however, he engaged in a relationship with a prostitute, Anne-Marie Roule, for whom he experienced immense sexual passion. Bloy brought about Roule’s conversion to Catholicism, and soon after this she began seeing visions and heard what he described as “celestial utterances,” which she communicated to him. Eventually Roule lost her mind and was committed to an asylum, where she remained until her death in 1907. In 1886 Bloy published his first major novel, Le Désperéré, and in 1890 he married Jeanne Molbeck, daughter of a Danish poet. She brought him peace and stability, much in the manner of Dostoevsky’s second wife, without whom we may never have seen The Brothers Karamazov. 1897 brought the publication of La Femme Pauvre.
I hope this doesn’t merely serve the interests of Flannery specialists, but the drafts of Wise Blood contain remarkable echoes of Anne-Marie Roule, in the form of the character Sabbath Lily Hawkes: both are visionaries who go mad and are locked up, and originally O’Connor planned for Sabbath Lily to be Haze’s wife. O’Connor had a copy of La Femme Pauvre in her library, along with Albert Beguin’s Leon Bloy: a Study in Impatience. But the sinews that tie O’Connor to Bloy go beyond her library and her early, discarded drafts of Wise Blood.

As Sarah Gordon notes, “Maritain’s defense or rationale of Bloy’s subject matter and technique sounds as though it could be a defense of O’Connor’s shock tactics: Bloy, Maritain argues, was writing to ‘men who most of the time live in the senses, and who need to be led to the intelligible by means of the tangible . . . Bloy liked to repeat that he wrote not for the righteous—neither for the perfect, nor for those who are progressing, nor for those who are beginning—but for the sleeping ones who needed his sufferings and his outbursts, for publicans and scoundrels.” At a time when many French saw the Catholic Church as the institution of the wealthy and powerful, Maritain notes that Bloy was intent on “opening the eyes of many a strayed person who foolishly believed the Church of Christ occupies itself more with safeguarding the possessions of the rich than with consoling the poor.”

La Femme Pauvre is not the pose of a literary man who is supposedly concerned with “the poor.” Poverty was holy for Bloy because Christ was poor. Here we have not the Parisian bohemian who lives an anti-bourgeois life for specious reasons, nor the romanticized debauchery that Hemingway depicts in A Moveable Feast. Here we have a holy, if sometimes problematic poverty (that he lost two children is haunting), flowering into a grotesque literary style. Again, this sensibility is O’Connor’s as well. After all, she insisted that “Catholicism is opposed to the bourgeois mind,” and that her favorite art form, the grotesque, was the “true anti-bourgeois style.” Yet the works of O’Connor and Bloy are more than mere anti-, mere negations. The violence their fiction does to the everyday nihilism lurking behind platitudes such as “It takes all kinds to make the world,” “Well, other people have their opinions too” (O’Connor, “Good Country People”) or “business is business” (Bloy); this violence does not merely abolish mediocrity. In both authors’ fictions violence makes way for the terrible speed of God’s mercy, for that grace which is experienced, at least subjectively, as painful and violent.

I would like to end by noting that this tradition of the Catholic grotesque is continued in Brian Jobe’s forthcoming novel Bird’s Nest in Your Hair, a novel I am currently editing, and which will soon be published through Korrektiv Press. The novel works against the idea of writer-as-hero, an idea I’ve unintentionally touted for the past few pages, through the many laurels I’ve laid upon Bloy’s head.

Republished by Blog Post Promoter


  1. Lauren says

    This was fascinating, as was the excerpt. Where can I find Joshua Hren’s version of The Woman Who Was Poor? I don’t see it online.

  2. Dennis Larkin says

    My favorite quote from Bloy: “I await the arrival of the Cossacks and the Holy Ghost.”

    After reading Bloy in translation this past thirty years, he was a prophet much like Jeremiah and John the Baptist: extreme in speech and sanctity. With Bloy, we should “hope to blow the dynamite of the Gospels.” Is that what Pope Francis is doing, albeit more tactfully?

  3. says

    Dennis, so glad to hear another soul whose discovered Bloy. Your comments about Pope Francis resonate deeply, especially in that Francis quoted Leon Bloy (“he who does not pray to God prays to the devil”) during his first homily. As much as Pope Francis seems like a lion roaring in the streets, Bloy was far more lionish, and yet this trait seems to have created many detractors and didn’t always help disseminate “the dynamite of the Gospels.” But, he was a prophet, and so, like Jeremiah or John the Baptist (thrown into a cistern and beheaded respectively), he received a prophet’s end. Pope Francis has a prophetic spirit, but this is blended with a pastoral disposition that allows him to articulate many of Bloy’s ideas more tactfully, as you say.
    Contact me via http://www.wisebloodbooks.com (wisebloodbooks@gmail.com) if you’d like me to send you a powerful ink drawing of Bloy one of my friends recently completed. Thanks, Dennis!

  4. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. says

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    My brother, Joseph Roccasalvo writes beautiful fiction, plays, and other literature that fits your high level of publishing. May I suggest that you google: http://www.josephroccasalvo.com
    to find an attractive website listing his works. You will not be disappointed.