“To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, Flaubert’s fiction is of manners without mystery.” So wrote Santiago Ramos a few years back in a perceptive article in Image. I’ve read or heard similar comments from a number of young Catholic and Christian writers. The distinction is certainly valid—O’Connor was the Catholic writer par excellence, Flaubert a nonbeliever who dissected bourgeois illusions but for the most part ignored “the action of grace.”
And yet from an artistic standpoint, driving a wedge between faith-driven American fiction and secular French novels creates unnecessary obstacles to cultural flourishing, all the more so at a time when America’s European roots are under sustained assault from an organized iconoclastic movement. And one does not need to dig very deeply to discover that the excellence of American Catholic writers in the 1950s and 1960s was based on a very different approach to the modern classics.
Take O’Connor. When she wants to get at what novels do in her essay, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” she turns to Flaubert. “All the sentences in Madame Bovary could be examined with wonder,” she writes, “but there is one in particular that always stops me in admiration.” The subtext is clear: Flaubert is a master. Anyone attempting to represent reality in prose should study him.
Flaubert was of course not the only French writer O’Connor admired. To give just one example: “I read 50 pages of Proust in the hospital and was surprised how much I enjoyed it,” she wrote to “A” in 1960. A year later she received the complete seven-volume Remembrance of Things Past for Christmas, and by 1962 was able to write to Margaret Lee: “I read the whole bloody thing and liked the first books best and the last book.” Proust wasn’t an influence on her fiction, as he had been on Mauriac’s. But O’Connor’s appreciation of him suggests how widely she ranged as a reader, and how natural it was for her to familiarize herself with European writers.
Like O’Connor, Walker Percy looked beyond America for models to emulate. Jessica Hooten Wilson has shown what a deep and fruitful influence Dostoevsky exerted on Percy. Yet Percy also admired, and even revered, French literature. O’Connor makes herself Flaubert’s pupil (“The more you look at a sentence like that, the more you can learn from it”); Percy claims Blaise Pascal as one of two spiritual fathers (Kierkegaard is the other). And he speaks of kneeling “before the altar of Lawrence and Joyce and Flaubert… .”
In the mid-1980s, speaking to a French audience, Percy doubled down. “I owe less to Faulkner, and Southern writers, and indeed American writers,” he said, “than to certain French writers.” He mentions Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Gabriel Marcel. Elsewhere he gives a nod to French Catholic writers Paul Claudel and François Mauriac, but says he thinks still more highly of Sartre and Camus.
Today, we repeat the names of O’Connor and Percy with mantra-like regularity, and understandably so. They are icons, quasi-legendary embodiments of the Catholic sensibility in fiction. Yet we easily forget that they became great in no small part by immersing themselves in the European—and notably in the French—tradition. They did this, I suspect, because they recognized the all-around greatness of those foreign models.
Acknowledgment of another’s superiority is the royal road to cultural achievement (the opposite attitude, a resentful iconoclasm, guarantees stagnation and sterility). As Rémi Brague observes in an interview, Rome’s recognition of Greece’s artistic and cultural excellence is archetypal:
This provided Europe with a practical version of a theoretical truth: what is mine is not necessarily better than what comes from elsewhere. We have to be ready to accept foreign goods and to prefer them to our own traditions. Hence, we should be curious and keep an eye on other cultures that might have something to teach us.
In preserving Greek and Roman literature, including many pagan works, medieval monks set the stage for the Renaissance. The earlier battle of Saint Irenaeus against marcionism anticipated this European cultural strategy. In his Eccentric Culture, Brague says the defeat of marcionism was “the founding event of the history of Europe as a civilization.”
With this thought in mind, what of the American Catholic writers who have earned mainstream recognition in the last twenty-five years? I searched Ron Hansen’s collection of essays, A Stay Against Confusion, for a mention of Flaubert, Proust, Cervantes, or Rabelais (a favorite of J.F. Powers), and found nothing. When Don Quixote comes up in Alice McDermott’s 2006 novel After This, it is in reference to the Dale Wasserman musical.
This is not to discount the remarkable achievements of these two writers, or to insist that every American author pledge allegiance to Proust. Rather, it is to highlight a shift that has taken place in the last three quarters of a century. More provocatively, it is to suggest that if the Catholic novel continues to languish today, this may be because it—like American fiction more broadly—has too often positioned itself outside the great stream of European literature.
Indeed, to the extent that the anecdotal evidence I have presented is indicative of something real (and I believe that it is), the move among Catholic writers away from European models reflects a wider trend. Several years ago a member of the Swedish Academy complained of American fiction’s self-absorbed focus on the minutiae of its own culture. He was greeted with a mixture of indignation, amusement, and dismissive acceptance: “They say we’re too insular, we’re not writing about the world, we’re only writing about ourselves,” said Jonathan Franzen in a 2013 interview.
Given how Americanized the world has become, I think they’re probably wrong about this—we probably say more about the world by writing about ourselves than a Swedish author does by writing about a trip to Africa. But even if they’re right, I don’t think our insularity is necessarily a bad thing.
Franzen went on to compare the US to Russia in the 19th century—a superficially persuasive but unhelpful parallel. In the era of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Russia was striving to catch up to Western Europe. Its intellectuals and artists were all too aware of their country’s insularity, and the besetting temptation was idolatry of all things European. Franzen’s words reflect the opposite tendency.
By way of contrast, consider a 1947 letter from Hemingway to Faulkner in which Flaubert is described as “…our most respected, honored master.” True, Hemingway speaks of surpassing Flaubert (and elsewhere of figuratively punching out Stendhal). Nonetheless, his language reflects a sincere reverence. In the wake of World War II, France had lost its prestige as a military power. Yet in the eyes of America’s writers it retained the status of cultural elder brother—a position it had by that time occupied for at least two centuries.
To look for one’s source outside oneself is to cultivate excellence, no matter its provenance (provided, of course, that the model is truly excellent, something that the winnowing process reflected in a tradition tends to guarantee). As indirect proof, take the example of German novelist Martin Mosebach. He’s better known among English-speaking readers for his essays on the Latin Mass than for his 2010 novel What Was Before. Yet he’s published about a dozen acclaimed novels and in 2007 won the Büchner Prize, Germany’s top literary award.
This devout Catholic writes on liturgy and martyrdom, yet enjoys the very heavyweight status contemporary American novelists who share his faith have failed to acquire. What is his secret? To judge from his public statements, it may well be bound up with his close familiarity with the great French realists, and with his awareness of the European novel’s Catholic roots.
“The great renewal of narration,” the German author said in an interview upon winning the Büchner Prize, “was due to the Frenchmen Stendhal and Flaubert in the 19th century.” And in an article recording a separate conversation with Mosebach, journalist Matthias Matussek writes: “The literary form of Catholicism, according to Mosebach, is the comedy, the satyr play, the grotesque gargoyle, the grotesque and the absurd, from Rabelais and Cervantes to Joyce…”
Catholics who swear by O’Connor and Percy but hold Flaubert at arm’s length seek to create an island of belief-saturated fiction in a secular literary sea. In light of the disdain with which some unknown percentage of the urban literati views religion, this is understandable. And then, there is a distinctive sanity to the incarnational vision, which lets writers embrace the concrete without dead-ending in naturalism. All the same, it is possible that we are shoring up a religious identity at the expense of becoming the best artists we could be.
Catholic writers dream of recapturing lost territory. New journals and publishing houses catering to the fold have sprung up in the last decade. But for now the subculture remains tiny. Friends, family members, a handful of sympathetic book reviewers, and a few dozen poets, artists, and novelists seem to make up most of the audience.
The literary novel is an especially tough sell. It puts heavy demands on the reader’s time, and often fails to give lasting pleasure in return. The remedy, says no less a figure than Percy, is not in the first place an injection of uplifting faith, of edification, but rather a search for truth: “…truth about the way things are, the way people are; in a word, a truth about the human condition; and a truth of such an order, both old and new, that one recognizes oneself in it. Therein lies the pleasure.” A few lines later in the same essay he asks a question to which he has already provided the answer:
Why is it that Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, which caused a great scandal when it was published, is a more truly Christian novel than, say, The Big Fisherman, which is about St. Peter and not only was edifying but also made a lot of money?
In recent years, Catholic new formalists have revivified the art of poetry, offering beauty and meaning in rhyme, meter, and narrative. Catholic novelists could be at the vanguard of a new classicism along similar lines. Like O’Connor and Percy, we could turn intentionally to the modern European tradition and reacquaint ourselves with Cervantes, Balzac, Flaubert, and others. In this way we would draw closer to our literary heroes, partaking of their tastes and influences. We might also bring the incipient Catholic literary revival toward greater maturity.
T.C. Merrill has published essays and book reviews in The University Bookman, Education & Culture, The American Conservative, and others. His novel Minor Indignities is now available from Wiseblood Books.