The fevered novel from Balzac to Bernanos: frenetic Catholicism in crisis, delirium and revolution

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Book Review: The Fevered Novel from Balzac to Bernanos: Frenetic Catholicism in Crisis, Delirium and Revolution. By Francesco Manzini. (IGRS Books). London: Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies, 2011. 264 pp.

Full text: This monograph is an important and compelling account of a novelistic tradition that stretches from Georges Bernanos back to Balzac, by way of Léon Bloy, Joris-Karl Huysmans, and Barbey d'Aurevilly. Depending on a master plot that evokes Maistrean themes of blood, sacrifice, and redemption, working in a feverish female body, this canon combines Romantic freneticism and anti-Enlightenment religion to create a compound that Francesco Manzini calls ‘frenetic Catholicism’. The theme of fever, Manzini tells us, was commented on by Huysmans in writing about Barbey d'Aurevilly. When André Gide read Bernanos's Sous le soleil de Satan, he dismissed it as a rehash of Bloy and Barbey. In this present work Manzini aims to make us aware once more of the gradually intensifying themacity of fever in writings more usually classed in theologo-literary categories. His analysis encompasses (though is not restricted to) Balzac's Ursule Mirouët, Barbey d'Aurevilly's Un prêtre marié, Huysmans's En rade, Bloy's Le Désespéré and La Femme pauvre, and Bernanos's Nouvelle histoire de Mouchette. Thus, as Manzini argues in his conclusion, between the freneticism of the Romantics and that of the surrealists this corpus represents an intermediary wave of freneticism, foregrounding fever, hyperconsciousness, dreamlike episodes, and female automatism. Manzini's knowledge of, and ease amidst, the sources is constantly impressive. Much like Richard Griffiths before him (The Reactionary Revolution: The Catholic Revival in French Literature, 1870–1914 (London: Constable, 1966)), he has read both the bad novels and the good ones. For that we are in his debt. His commentary thrives on the oddities of his subjects. He points quite rightly to the peculiar hubris of writers whose contempt for the secular excesses of scientism leads them down a cul-de-sac of primitive medical quackery. Likewise, he underlines how Zola's attempt to unwrite Barbey — exorcising the former's anti-Romantic animus, as much as scratching his anticlerical itch — leads him to recapitulate Barbey's religious authoritarianism in the secular vernacular of patriarchy. Les espèces qui se rapprochent se mangent, to paraphrase Bernanos (Les Grands Cimetières sous la lune). In spite of all Manzini's tightly organized analysis, however, this reader wonders whether the fevered novel ‘best allowed contemporaries — and now […] literary critics and historians — to imagine the issues at stake in the amorphous scientistic, religious, and political debates’ of the period (p. 17). Below the ideological clashes of nineteenth-century science and religion, the two contending dynamics of anthropocentrism and theocentrism are attested and, it can be argued, even more perfectly dramatized in other Catholic literature (Charles Péguy's poetry, for example). In these terms, what distinguishes the Catholic frenetics from their Romantic or surrealist counterparts is that their fevered subject represents an attempt to build a road out of what Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls ‘buffered’ individuality, and back towards the theocentric porous subject who is open to divine influence. By way of minor corrections, nuns do not take holy orders (p. 94) but make religious profession by taking vows. Also, the last Eucharistic host is not extreme unction (p. 119) but viaticum.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)585-586
Number of pages2
JournalFrench Studies
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 4 Oct 2013

Bibliographical note

This is a pre-copyedited, author-produced PDF of an article accepted for publication in French Studies following peer review. The version of record Sudlow, B. (2013). The fevered novel from Balzac to Bernanos: frenetic Catholicism in crisis, delirium and revolution. French cultural studies, 67(4), 585-586 is available online at:


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