The Silence of God in the Modern Catholic Novel: Graham Greene and French Catholic Novelists Adopting a Pascalian Deus Absconditus Perspective on Faith, Truth and Reason

Article excerpt

Introduction

This paper examines the narrative representation of God in Graham Greene's Catholic novels. On the basis of examples mainly taken from the novel The Power and the Glory (1940) I aim to show that Graham Greene's God is basically a silent God, and that this representation of God is decisive for the modernity of his Catholic works.

Greene's Catholic novels are often, somewhat misleadingly, connected with the literary Catholic revival (1), a term used too inclusively not only about the original current of traditional Catholic literature emerging in France in the 1880s (2), but also about the French Catholic novel of the interwar and post war period. This broad use of the term has the unfortunate effect of creating the impression that all Catholic literature written in this period is essentially traditional and static, thus concealing possible historical, theological and aesthetic changes.

This paper adopts the perspective of change in one specific field of investigation, namely the narrative representation of God. I argue that an important rupture can be observed within this field between the traditional, early revival novel (1880-1914) and a more modern Catholic novel in the interwar and post war period, and that this rupture is closely related to the narrative representation of God. Whereas the early French revival novel constructs a present and communicating God, the new Catholic novel emerging after the First World War constructs an absent and silent God. These two distinct representations of God are constructed by different uses of specific narrative techniques such as characterization, plot, narrative voice and focalisation. In France this new type of Catholic novel is developed by major novelists such as Francois Mauriac, Julien Green and Georges Bernanos, and my purpose is to show that Graham Greene belongs to this group of modern novelists.

I shall also try to point out some interesting parallels between the silent God in the modern Catholic novel and the hidden God in the Jansenist philosopher Blaise Pascal's apology for the Christian faith, Pensees, from 1670. My purpose is not to claim that Graham Greene shares Pascal's Jansenist views in general, but to show that he may be inspired by central aspects of Pascal's Pensees: the consistent use of the human perspective of the individual believer, to whom God necessarily appears as hidden.

The present and speaking God in the early Catholic revival novel

In order to show the novelty of Graham Greene's novels, I shall begin by presenting two examples of the narrative representation of God in the early revival novel. The first example is Leon Bloy's novel La femme pauvre (1897). The setting is the artistic circles of the reactionary Catholic revival movement. The heroine Clotilde is surrounded by flamboyant writers and artists who make vehement speeches against the French anticlerical republic and celebrate the saints, the miracles, the ideal Catholic community of the golden Middle Ages and the necessity to imitate the poverty, humiliation and suffering of Christ. Clotilde embodies all these religious ideas. She is a stock character endowed with the attributes of the traditional female saint: the face of a saint, a pious life in poverty borne with humble nobleness, a disposition to suffer, and mystical gifts resulting in recurrent mystical experiences, presentiments, dreams and visions. The initial prophecy made by an Orthodox missionary that one day she will be consumed by flames (3) is a central leitmotif. One example is when Clotilde wakes up surrounded by flames (her bed curtains have caught fire) after a dream of premonition in which she sees her benefactor being stabbed to death and her future husband Leopold burning to death in flames (La femme pauvre, 236-38).

These predictions are not mere words or imagined inner experiences of the characters, since the predicted events actually happen at the reality level of the novel. …