Obituary: Claude Mauriac

James Kirkup
Tuesday 26 March 1996 00:02 GMT

Like many sons of famous fathers, Claude Mauriac found his inheritance both a blessing and a curse. He was born into the lap of literature. His father Francois, whom his son revered and loved, was one of France's greatest modern novelists who, though rather distant, guided Claude's footsteps in the pursuit of literary fame.

But the son often considered his own gift with words to be a burden, for he knew it bore no comparison with his father's genius. It was this powerful charismatic example that fed Claude's hunger for heroes. He married the daughter of Suzy Mante-Proust, only daughter of Marcel Proust's brother Robert - a suitable match, for Proust was one of his first idols and Claude Mauriac's great achievement, Le Temps immobile, is a monumental work whose theme, like Proust's, is time and memory. L'Oncle Marcel was the title of one of his books.

Given the peculiar circumstances of his birth, it was inevitable that he was brought into touch with many of the great figures of his day - Gide, Cocteau, Marcel Jouhandeau, Malraux among the older generation, Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Robert Pinget among the younger writers.

One of his first idols was General Charles de Gaulle. From 1944 to 1947 Mauriac was his private secretary and his fifth volume of memories, Aimer de Gaulle (1978), contains many curious intimate details about the General's daily life.

In the 1970s Mauriac developed unexpected friendships with the innovatory philosophers Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, who provided him with links between literature and political engagement. It seemed paradoxical that Mauriac, hitherto decidedly right-wing, should have joined forces with these radical thinkers to follow Sartre and Genet in signing petitions, militating in favour of the excluded, political prisoners and the homeless and in campaigning against the Vietnam war or against the Franco regime.

It was a move typical of his impressionable character and openness of mind. The homosexual Foucault (later to die of Aids) became another of his heroes, as well as a close friend.

Claude Mauriac was an excellent journalist who contributed essays and reviews as a critic of literature and the cinema for Le Figaro and Le Monde and, too, for L'Express. In 1948 he wrote a book about the heroic figure of Andre Malraux, followed in 1949 by one on Andre Breton, the self- appointed magus of Surrealism.

The first of his many novels, Toutes les femmes sont fatales, appeared in 1957. His novels, though well made, now seem rather dull, like those of the Nouveau Roman writers with whom he was associated for a while. Le Diner en ville won the Prix Medicis in 1959.

He had started writing a diary at the age of 13. In 1974, he began his major literary achievement, the monumental journal Le Temps immobile. This was truly original. Instead of trudging through his life and times in the usual horizontal chronological fashion, Mauriac took the vast bulk of his notebooks and treated them as a sculptor with a block of wood. He made a series of vertical cuts in their dense matter, alternating these slices of past times with sections dealing with the present as it appeared to him at the time of writing. As the title suggests, this technique succeeded in "immobilising" time, and it was taken up later by Marguerite Duras and other Nouveau Roman experimenters.

This unique treatment of his gigantic text created revealing juxtapositions and an almost "romanesque" intensity in which his feeling for past epochs and for the present day often provoke startling comparisons. He went so far as to define his work's 10 volumes as a "Nouveau Roman". They appeared every year between 1974 and 1988 and were followed by two sequels called Le Temps accompli (1991 and 1992).

Mauriac said: "I want to make a stand against the pain that the passage of time inflicts upon me. Therefore, all I need to do is to decide that time does not go on passing. And thus, we too shall not pass away."

This concept of time that knows neither past, present nor future and remains immobile is indeed a realisation of the true nature of immortality. He had completed another volume which Grasset is to publish next week, with the significant title Travaillez quand vous avez encore la lumiere ("Work while you still have light"). Claude Mauriac lives on through the pages of this masterpiece, which in every sense of the term is his life's work. As Ben Jonson said of Shakespeare: "Thou art a monument without a tomb."

Claude Mauriac, writer and journalist: born Paris 25 April 1914; married 1951 Marie-Claude Mante (two sons, one daughter); died Paris 22 March 1996.

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