Claudel and the press

The relationship between Claudel and the press was complex and contrasting, but never antagonistic. He condemned only the bad press that visits a curse on the world like the scroll of parchment that the prophet Zechariah sees flying in the air. He often complained about silences rather than attacks. But as soon as he entered the literary world, he benefited from enthusiastic articles that covered him in glory in intellectual circles. Moreover, among the most hostile, some recognize his value and will finally, but reluctantly, grant him genius.

Attacks are often related to religious matters. In December 1913 he noted in his Journal  “atrocious calumnies . . . about Camille’s internment.” They denounce “a clerical crime”. But he concludes: “That’s good.” The Corriere d’Italia accused him in 1916 of lack of respect for sacred texts and of ostentation. In 1932, he again noted: “An Italian newspaper calls me ‘the Catholic Gorilla’ and says that the Duse was horrified by the ‘fiero e crudele’ character of my religion.” But in the interwar period, hostility came mainly from the “school of intelligence”, a group of intellectuals close to Maurras and more or less affiliated with the “Action française” movement. Antoine Rédier launches a treacherous personal attack against him in the Revue française, Lasserre targets him in La Minerve littéraire, the “pawn André Beaunier” in L’Écho de Paris, Dubech, Bidou do not spare him. Souday in Le Temps questions his verse, his “overblown prose”, his habit “of using anathemas against the alexandrin“, his admiration for a Gallican Bossuet. But, if he reproaches him for the ugliness of his material, “a sound that is not French”, if he resents him for “not being French”, for having a Jew, Darius Milhaud, among his friends, if he calls him “a barbarian”, he nevertheless recognizes a rich imagination and a kind of genius. Marcel Anaîs accuses him of bad taste, clumsiness and foolishness. Alain Sanger, in La République, blames him for a clerical hatred of Germany and for not knowing how to write. Claudel repeatedly denounces the anti-Christian, Nietzschean dimension of these attacks. But political motivations are not absent, and they are particularly apparent concerning his “glorious failure” to enter the French Academy. In April 1935, the press close to the “Action française”: Candide, Je suis partout, is the only one to rejoice about it, ostentatiously. They denounce a Claudel “following the leadership of Briand-Berthelot, a tendency that is dear to contemporary arrivistes, that of the clerical-Freemasons”. For Maurras, in L’Action française, this “election is the defeat of Claudel, the nuncio, Romanticism, Le Populaire, les Nouvelles Littéraires, l’Aube, the pro-German Jesuits and Victor Hugo!” Such is the view of him in this movement. 

The post-war period reveals the hostility, this time, of “progressive” circles who nevertheless recognize his genius. According to his Journal, at the premiere of Partage de midi, young reporters from left-wing newspapers want to heckle the play: “Little by little [they are] pushed down and silenced, and, with the curtain fallen, [they talk] about their difficulty in reconciling their political obligations with their admiration.” When on March 5, 1955, L’Express asks Merleau-Ponty whether Claudel is a genius, he reluctantly gives a positive answer to add immediately, but… bad diplomat, sectarian and fundamentalist. On the other hand, the director and producer Vilar responded with a very laudatory commentary in the March 5 and 12 issues.

However, the enumeration of Claudel’s grievances against the press somehow distorts reality: admirers respond to detractors. And when he complains about silences and indifference, he forgets the enormous mass of often enthusiastic articles published about him. There are few writers to whom such an admirative assessment was provided in their lifetime. Francis de Miomandre, from 1905 to 1913, publishes no less than six important articles or studies. We can mention those of Georges Batault, Gabriel Marcel, Stanislas Fumet, Jacques Madaule and, more than any other, Mauriac the faithful friend who provides in Lycéennes, Le Figaro and Le Figaro littéraire, from 1936 to 1955 really appreciative declarations: “When I say that I like Claudel”, “Our Claudel”, “The meaning of a word”, “One of the elected”, “Claudel”, “Theatre and Religion”. In his “Bloc-notes”, he published in 1955 “Listening to Partage de Midi, the play of the connoisseurs of God” and in 1936 he denounces the role of Pierre Benoît in Claudel’s failed election to the Académie in favor of Farrère.

The performances of his plays are contested only exceptionally. According to the Journal , he received in Shanghai in 1921 huge “heaps of insults and stupidities”. These are probably the 14 articles listed in June concerning the performance at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées of L’Homme et son désir, only some of which are frankly hostile, such as Dubech in Action française, Louis Marcelleau who speaks of a “good joke”. Henri Bidou in L’Opinion is harsh. Another one jokes about a “charitable festival”. 

But in September of the same year, his departure from Marseille is the occasion of 6 articles in the local press, proofs of his notoriety. In 1930, the eventful premiere of Christophe Colomb at the Berlin Opera earns him abundant articles: 6 French, 7 American and 17 German articles with frequent terms “Skandal”, and especially “Stürmisch”, but also “Durchgefallen”. Le Soulier de satinL’OtageJeanne au bûcher  arouse the interest of critics who are rarely malicious and never indifferent, with few exceptions. The Belgian press reacts to the performances in Brussels. In 1935, except for Action française, everyone defends him. Le Figaro denounces the “carnival of the Academy”, and with Maurice Noël, “The mid-Lent elections”. Wladimir d’Ormesson devotes two articles to him in Le Temps. les Nouvelles Littéraires titles, with Maurice Martin du Gard, “The Academy against Claudel”. Marianne, with Emmanuel Berl, says that the Academy is unworthy of Claudel, and abroad, Le Journal d’Orient d’Istanbul presents the Turks as confounded by this election.

Very early on, Claudel presented pre-publications of his works in journals, but he had a truly lasting collaboration only with the N.R.F.  of Gide, Rivière and Paulhan. With the latter, especially, relations were difficult. He does not tolerate certain indecent or irreligious articles. The press must not pervert people’s minds. In December 1928, following “disgusting” articles by Léautaud and Montherlant, he mentions a break that did not turn out to be definitive since after a new threat in May 1937, he breaks the publication contract in 1939, only to resume his collaboration three years later. In April 1946, he reconciles with Le Figaro, which must have been preceded by a quarrel. Perhaps its lukewarm reception by the press prompts him in June 1921 to write an article in Le Gaulois about L’Homme et son désir. That same year he gives an interview to Excelsior, makes statements to German newspapers, and writes especially in Canada for La Patrie. In 1928, he publishes 8 articles. This continues in the following years. From 1934, Le Figaro and Le Figaro Littéraire are privileged, and with an accelerating pace due to the leisure of retirement, they benefit in 1937 from 6 articles out of 14, and a near exclusivity with 18 in 1938. From now on, they will become his place of expression until his death, on any question.  

Claudel suffered hostility, especially in the interwar period, of anti-Christian schools of thought. His supporters, on the other hand, could be of political, social, and religious views distant from his own, such as Jacques Madaule and François Mauriac. They loved him for himself and for his work. They wrote in publications of very different orientations. He himself saw in the press above all a way to do good. He defended his increasingly contested faith as the European crisis deepened. He did so in journals that did not share his ideas or sensibility. He also suffered from the silence that greeted his biblical commentaries that he considered important in the context of difficulties in exegetical reflection.

Jacques Houriez