This photograph of Leon Bloy was taken in 1887, just after his book ‘The Desperate Man’ was published. (Public domain)
This photograph of Leon Bloy was taken in 1887, just after his book ‘The Desperate Man’ was published. (Public domain)
In his first homily after being elected in 2013, Pope Francis quoted the Belle Epoque Catholic thinker Leon Bloy. Bloy had written, “Whoever does not pray to God prays to the devil.” The pope explained that those who don’t profess Jesus Christ tend to abide by a worldliness of Satan’s ilk. It’s just the kind of explosive comment for which Bloy became famous and infamous.

Richard Robinson, a scholar who attends Mass at St. Stephen Parish in Southeast Portland, at the time had never heard of the French writer. Now, less than a decade later, Robinson is the chief translator of Bloy into English.

Robinson considers his subject akin to the prophet Isaiah, a feisty proclaimer of the true and the good.

Bloy (1846-1917) is not well known, even in France, but became a model for later Catholic thinkers. He was the godfather of philosopher Jacques Maritain.

In the 1980s, Robinson started studying for a doctorate program at UCLA, but left, traveling to Europe instead. A passion for poetry and foreign literature emerged, especially writing from France. He became a skilled translator.

In 2019, Robinson was speaking with a publisher who suggested he translate “A Desperate Man,” Bloy’s 1886 novel. Robinson still knew nothing of Bloy, but looked him up and thought the writer had a cracking mustache.

“It was a mustache to envy and so I decided to try,” Robinson said. After reading the first page, facial hair was no longer required to make Robinson a fan.

“I was totally in,” he said. “The novel got better and better. The guy can string together sentences and words like no one else.”

Robinson discovered that in “The Desperate Man” are the seeds of Bloy’s mature thought, which dwells amid anguish, anger and integrity.

Robinson became a Bloy promoter and has translated more than a dozen works. Publishers have shied away because of the bottom line, but Robinson has persisted and self-published because he thinks Bloy has an important message.

“He is a really important thinker people should know about,” Robinson said.

Bloy was raised Catholic, stopped practicing, then returned to faith “like a meteor,” Robinson said.

In a rich but permissive period of French history, Bloy began as a journalist and forthright critic who earned the scorn of Parisian writers, including Emile Zola, whom Bloy pilloried.

“He couldn’t help himself,” Robinson said. “He had a very powerful style and pointed out hypocrisy and what was wrong.”

Bloy earned a moniker in the salons of Paris: “Demolitions contractor.”

Bloy was scorned and blackballed from writing jobs. While preferring a simple life, he was trying to support his wife and their two children on the edge of poverty. So he started penning novels.

According to Robinson, Bloy retained a young man’s idealism well into later life and always thought humanity could do better. His books reflect the theme.

In “The Desperate Man,” which is thinly-veiled autobiography, Bloy develops the notion of symbolism of history. Set in part in a Trappist monastery, the main character explains the idea: “Historic events envisage like divine hieroglyphs... to tease out from universal history a symbolic ensemble... to prove that history signifies something.”

“Salvation Through the Jews” — Bloy’s 1892 non-fiction work — left him open to modern charges of anti-Semitism, but only from those who don’t read the whole book. He moves toward the truth that the Jews are God’s chosen people and that Christians had best work with that or risk being a branch that gets pruned from God’s family.

In “She Who Weeps” — published in 1908 — Bloy reveals a zealous love for the Blessed Virgin Mary. He tells the story of her 1846 apparition at La Salette in mountainous southeastern France and the tale of one of the visionaries, the shepherdess Melanie Calvat. Calvat, who became a nun, was widely teased and persecuted. Bloy stood up for her, suggesting she is a saint.

In “The Blood the Poor” from 1909, Bloy calls out rich Catholics who neglect people in need. “He was an intransigent Catholic pugilist,” said Robinson.

Bloy insisted that many devout believers trust their riches instead of God. He called their habits “a syphilitic vegetation growing on an admirable face.” Even certain priests, Bloy fumed, forget that a life of poverty is what Christianity is largely about.

Bloy died in 1917. In mid-2022, Robinson traveled to France and visited the austere grave. It is marked with an image of Our Lady of Salette, commonly known as She Who Weeps.

“Today we admire people who have money, vulgar people. We worship them,” Robinson said. “I wish we had more Bloys in the world. He is an inspiring person who lived his life according to his principles.”

Learn more

Fourteen works of Leon Bloy, translated by Portlander Richard Robinson, are available at sunnyloupublishing.com and on Amazon.