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by Bamber Gascoigne

Georges Bernanos (1888-1948)


French novelist and essayist, whose masterpiece is Journal d'un curé de campagne (1936, The Diary of a Country Priest). Georges Bernanos was not a priest but he is considered one of the most original Roman Catholic writers of his time. He believed that heroic innocence, not technological advances or political parties, will save the world at the end. Unlike many contemporary French writers, Bernanos was a supporter of the rightist Action Française movement and the French monarchy.

"Je me disais donc que le monde est dévoré par l'ennui. Naturellement, il faut un peu réflechir pour se rendre compte, ça ne se saisit pas tout de suite. C'est une espéce de poussière. Vous allez et venez sans la voir, vous la respirez, vous la mangez, vous la buvez, et elle est si fine, si ténue qu'elle ne craque même pas sous la dent. Mais que vous vous arrêtiez une seconde, la voilà qui recouvre votre visage, vos mains. Vous devez vous agiter sans cesse pour secouer cette pluie de cendres. Alors, le monde ságite beaucoup." (in Journal d'un curé de campagne)

Georges Bernanos was born in Paris, the son of Émile Bernanos, an interior decorator, and Hermance Moreau, a pious and meditative woman, who from early on steered her son in the direction of the priesthood. As a child Bernanos was rather timid and retiring. His vacations Bernanos spent in the family's spatial country house in Fressin, in Pas-de-Calais, the setting of many of his works. Bernanos's father read  Édouard Drumont's anti-Semitic newspaper La Libre Parole. Drumont's views had a lasting influence on Bernanos, who once said that his anti-Semitism was "not a whimsical idea or an intellectual viewpoint, but a great political concept." (Bernanos: His Political Thought & Prophecy by Thomas Steven Molnar, 1997, p. 17.)

Bernanos studied at the Collège des Jésuits, Collège Notre-Dame-des-Champs (1901-1903), Collège Saint-Célestin, Bourges (1903-04), and Collège Sainte-Marie, Aire-sur-la-Lys. During his years in the dark, stinking, and heartless religious schools Bernanos developed a profound aversion for the Jesuits. After giving up the idea of becoming a priest, he entered Sorbonne, receiving in 1909 a license in both law and literature.

At the age of 20, Bernanos joined the Camelots du Roi (Hawkers to the King), the militant youth organization of the Royalist Action française. He spent some time in prison in Paris for being involved in the Thalamas Affair riots, which helped to promote the cause of the organization. His days in La Santé Bernanos later recorded in Essais et écrits de combat (1971). From 1909 to 1910 he was in the military service. In 1913-14 Bernanos edited L'Avant-Garde de Normandie, a roaylist weekly located in Rouen, where he met his future wife, Jeanne Talbert d'Arc. 

Upon the outbreak of World War I, Bernanos enlisted in the Sixth Dragons Regiment in the French army. He witnessed the battles of Somme and Verdun, was wounded several times, and decorated for bravery. In the trenches he constantly scribbled in his notebooks, and then crossed out what he had just written. (Bernanos: An Ecclesial Existence by Hans Urs Von Balthasar, 1996, p. 62.) While convalescing in Vernon, he discovered the work of Léon Bloy, a prominent figure of French Catholicism. Bloy considered writing a divine calling and his thoughts influenced deeply Bernanos.

In 1917, while on leave, Bernanos married Jeanne Talbert d'Arc; they had three sons and three daughters. She was a direct descendant of Saint Joan of Arc through her brother. Joan's character inspired  Bernanos's essay from 1929, 'Jeanne, relapse et sainte' (Joan, Heretic and Saint), in which true meaning and vitality of the Saint's message is contrasted with bourgeois spirituality.

After the war, Bernanos worked as an inspector for an insurance company until the deat of his father in 1927. "I have no more interest in insuring the life of my contemporaries, which in any event is for the most part hardly worth it. (Bernanos: An Ecclesial Existence by Hans Urs Von Balthasar, translated from the German and the French by Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, 1988, p. 68) Most of his major fiction Bernanos wrote in a period of barely twelve years, between 1926 and 1937.

Like a number of French writers, from Joris-Karl Huysmans to François Mauriac and Julien Green, Bernanos wrestled with Catholicism throughout his literary career.  (He attended Mass nearly every day.) The central characters of his major works of fiction were priests. Sous le soleil de Satan (1926), his first novel, came out when he was 38 years old. It was followed by L'Imposture (1927), about the spiritual crisis of a prominent member of the Parisian clergy, and  La Joie (1929), its sequel.

While writing Journal d'un curé de campagne Bernanos dreamed of stuffing the manuscript away in a drawer so that it would not surface until after his death. The first two parts of the novel take place at rural Ambricourt in the province of the Pas-de-Calais (Ambricourt was placed on the village of Fressin), and the third in the city of Lille. Bernanos used the diary formto portray the inner thoughts of the protagonist, the curé. The only character who sees him writing is a cafe owner in Lille. 

From 1930 to 1932 Bernanos was a columnist for Le Figaro. His fervent Catholism entered into conflict with his royalist beliefs when Action Française, for which he started to write as a student, was condemned by the Vatican. In 1932 he broke off all contacts with the movement and Charles Maurras, its leader. This painful decision marked one of Bernanos's most bitter crises. When Maurras was elected to the French Academy in 1938, Bernanos denounced him in Scandale de la vérité (1939).

Much of the last twelve years of his life Bernanos devoted himself to writing polemical essays and articles. Turning away from fiction, he campaigned against barbarism which he saw approaching and pleaded for a new spiritual and moral integrity. Unfortunately, La Grande peur des bien-pensants (1931), Bernanos's first critical work, drew from the anti-Semitic author and politician Éduard Drumont.

As a speaker, Bernanos was impressive, tall, blue eyed, with his moustache turned up at the ends, he radiated the elegance of a chivalry officer. Although Bernanos was well known figure, his writings did not bring the family financial security. Feeling humiliated, he played wit the idea of moving to America. In 1933 he became disabled in a traffic accident– he was a motorcycle enthusiast and one day near Montbéliard he crashed against a wall and fractured both his legs. Bernanos refused to have morphine or any other strong pain-killer to dull his pain.  Because of debts, he was evicted from his family home. He moved with his family to Palma de Mallorca, staying there between the years 1934 and 1937.

Bernanos loved the sunny island. Moreover, living was also cheaper than in France – he had a wife and six children to support without any steady income. By the end of 1936 he had completed all but the final chapter of his last novel, Monsieur Quine (1943).

At the very early stage of the Spanish Civil war, Bernanos took the side of General Franco, and his eldest son, Yves, joined the falangists. But his illusions were shattered by the brutality with which the falange and the Civil Guard treated their opponents. Simone Weil wrote to him in a letter: "I do not see anybody outside of yourself alone, who, to my knowledge, has been immersed in the atmosphere of this war and could resist it." (The French Intelligentsia and the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 by Thomas P. Anderson, 1965, p. 107)

In 1938 Bernanos went with his family, relatives and friend to Paraguay, and continued then into self-imposed exile to Brazil, where he spent seven years. Bernanos lived in many places, the longest sojourn was near Barbacena, a small place called Cruz de Almas. With his radio addresses, broadcast via the BBC, he became one of the most listened voices of the Resistance back in France. After the war, he returned to his home country at the request of Charles de Gaulle, his former classmate, but for his disappointment, he did not find any signs of renewal of faith.

However, Bernanos did not lack followers. Robert Bresson's film adaptation of Journal d'un curé de campagne (1951, Diary of a Country Priest ) won at the twelfth annual Venice International Film Festival the Golden Lion. Bresson also adapted for the screen Bernanos's pre-war novel Nouvelle histoire de Mouchette (1937), about an adolescent girl, "the bride of hell", who lives in a shack with her family, is beaten by his father, bullied at school, and raped by a poacher. "And yet Bresson has the magical ability to show us humanity, humor, and grace surviving in Mouchette's soul," said Roger Ebert in his review. (Roger Ebert's Four-Star Reviews, 1967-2007 by Roger Ebert, 2008, p. 513.) The film, which premiered in 1966, was not released in the US until 1970.

The hero of Diary of a Country Priest is an enthusiastic but an inexperienced priest (Claude Laydu), whose attempts to introduce extreme versions of Christianity lead to tragic consequences. The character was partly inspired by Thérèse de Lisieux, a Carmelite nun, who died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four.

Bresson's film recounts, through the pages of a diary, the daily life of a young priest, his self-doubts and the problems of his small parish. He is upset that no one comes to Mass. The villagers wrongly suspect that he is greedy and an alcoholic. However, in his own despair he is able to bring spiritual peace to a dying countess, who has long rejected God. He ultimately dies alone, painfully of stomach cancer, murmuring '"All is Grace". Thérèse de Lisieux's final words were "Grace is everywhere."

The scenario, which Bresson wrote himself, used the literary device of first person narrative or interior dialogue. And as usual in his productions, actors were non-professional. Claude Laydy, playing the tortured priest, lived for a time in a monastery to achieve the thinness required for the role and to accustom himself to clerical behavior. The unused script written by Pierre Bost and Jean Aurenche was a standard work, which took liberties with the novel. The writers concluded the film with a minor character's cry, "When you're dead everything is dead," instead of Bernanos's "What does it matter, all is grace." François Truffaut, Bresson's young protégé, criticized later in Cahiers du Cinéma ('A Certain Tendency in French Cinema') the rejected scenario of Bost and Aurenche; they couldn't write a good script because Bernanos was alive. And Bresson had said that if the writer had been alive, he would have taken more liberties. Bresson himself protested later in The New York Times the cuts made by the American distributor.

Bernanos gave lectures in Switzerland, Belgium, and North Africa, and contributed to many journals, including Carrefour, La Bataille, L'Intransigeant, and Combat, edited for some time by Albert Camus. His last years Bernanos lived in Tunis and in France. He died of cancer of the liver on July 5, 1948, at the American Hospital in Neuilly. Bernanos was buried in the family vault in Pellevoisin.

Shortly before his death Bernanos completed Dialogues des Carmélites, a dramatic scenario telling the story of sixteen nuns imprisoned and executed during the French Revolution. The scenario was based on Die Letzte am Scafott (Song at the Scaffold) by the German poet and novelist Gertrud von le Fort. This work was adapted for the stage in 1952 and it was the basis for the libretto of Francis Poulenc's famous opera  Dialogues of the Carmelites, first performed in 1957.

As an essayist, Bernanos moved from right-wing nationalism to an undefinable political position, where both communists and the extreme-right could occasionally agree with him. He denounced Francisco Franco's dictatorship in Spain, appeasement in Munich, France's armistice with Germany, and the cruel aftermath of the liberation in 1944. For Bernanos writing was a divine calling, to defend both Christian civilization and advocate his mystical vision of an "ancienne France".

In the essay 'Joan, Heretic and Saint' he wrote: "Just when the old man raises a finger to set a thousand typist in action, just when the peace of the world is about to emerge from all this machinery, in comes a young girl, mocking and tender, who belongs to no one, and whose soft voice answers the political theologians with old sayings and proverbs, after the manner of shepherds. The democratic abbes of the illustrious University of Paris, with their dream of some sort of universal republic; the distinguished pacifist prelates, dazzled by the dollar rate and impressed by the solidity of the good Burgundian coins; the Carmelite Eustache, making up to the Communist flayers of the Butchers' Corporation; the graduates of the Rue Clos-Bruneau; the clerics of the Rouen Chapter and those of the Chapter of M. Julie Benda – all these old men, many of them under thirty, look enviously at this little France who is so fresh, so mischievous, who is awfully afraid of being burnt, but still more afraid of telling a lie."

Bernanos's central works of his later period include Diary of My Times (1938), and Plea for Liberty (1942). His wartime essays gained him a reputation as "bard of the French Resistance". Bernanos had a vision of France's destiny to lead the whole postwar world in a spiritual revolution, but he made no serious attempts to fuse his ideals with political realities. He never bargained with his faith but he had no coherent system of thought, arguing that "the systematic spirit is a form of madness." (Bernanos: An Ecclesial Existence by Hans Urs Von Balthasar, translated from the German and the French by Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, 1988, p. 37)

A determined anti-American through his literary career, Bernanos maintained the view that American liberalism, and its perfected democracy and technology, are a major threat to France's spiritual vocation. He argued that "the Modern State, the Technological Moloch, in erecting the solid foundations of its future tyranny, remained faithful to the old liberal vocabulary, covering or justifying with that liberal vocabulary its innumerable ususpations." (Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard by Richard Brody, 2008, p. 231) Before making his dystopic Alphaville (1965), the director Jean-Luc Godard re-read Bernanos's La France contre les robots (1944, Tradition of Freedom); there is even an entire sentence from the book in the film.

For further reading: Présence de Bernanos by L. Estang (1947); Bernanos par lui-même by A. Béguin (1954); Soffrance et expiation dans la pensée de Bernanos by W. Bush (1961); Georges Bernanos by William Bush (1965); Georges Bernanos by Max Milner (1967); Bernanos by Michel Estève (1965); Bernanos: An Introduction by Peter Hebbletwaite (1965); The Poetic Imagination of Georges Bernanos by G. Blumenthal (1965); Dimensions et structures chez Bernanos by B.T. Fitch (1969); Georges Bernanos by Robert Speaight (1973); L'imagunaire et le quotidien: Essai sur les romans de Georges Bernanos by Y. Rivard (1978); Georges Bernanos: A Study of Christian Commitment by Jon E. Cooke (1981); Bernanos: An Ecclesial Existence by Hans Urs Von Balthasar (1988); Les Royaumes de Georges Bernanos by Jean Bénier (1994); Bernanos: His Political Thought & Prophecy by Thomas Steven Molnar (1997); Touching God: the Novels of Georges Bernanos in the Films of Robert Bresson by Beth Kathryn Curran (2006); Georges Bernanos: the Theological Source of his Art by Michel R. Tobin (2007); L'écriture de l'abandon: esthétique carmélitaine de l'œuvre romanesque de Georges Bernanos by Philippe Richard (2015); Georges Bernanos: un prophète pour notre temps by Monseigneur Patrick Chauvet (2020); Georges Bernanos: la colère et la grâce by François Angelier (2021) - See also: Graham Greene, Francois Mauriac, Jerzy Andrzejewski

Selected works:

  • Sous le soleil de Satan, 1926
    - The Star of Satan (translated by V. Lukas, 1927) / Under the Sun of Satan (translated by H.L. Binsse, 1949) / Under Satan’s Sun (translated by J.C. Whitehouse, 2001)
    - films: tv film 1971, dir. Pierre Cardinal, cast: Catherine Salviat, Maurice Garrel, Jacques Serizier, Armand Babel; 1987, dir.  Maurice Pialat, starring Gérard Depardieu, Sandrine Bonnaire, Maurice Pialat, Alain Artur
  • L'Imposture, 1927
    - The Impostor (translated by J. C. Whitehouse, 1999)
  • La Joie, 1929
    - Joy (translated by Louise Varèse, 1946)
  • La Grande peur des bien-pensants, 1931
  • Jeanne; relapse et sainte, 1934
    - Sanctity Will Out (translated by  Rosamond Batchelor, 1947) / Joan, Heretic and Saint (in The Heroic Face of Innocence: Three Stories, translated by  R. Batchelor, 1999)
  • Un crime, 1935
    - A Crime (translated by A. Green, 1936)
  • Journal d'un curé de campagne, 1936
    - The Diary of a Country Priest (translated by P. Morris, 1937)
    - Maalaispapin päiväkirja (suom. Helena Anhava, 1953)
    - film 1950, dir.  Robert Bresson, starring Claude Laydy, Nicole Maurey, Nicole Ladmiral, Marie-Monique Arkell, Jean Riveyre
  • Nouvelle histoire de Mouchette, 1937
    - Mouchette (translated by P.C. Whitehouse, 1966)
    - Mouchette (suom. Leena Kirstinä, 1968)
    - film 1966, dir.  Robert Bresson , starring Nadine Nortier, Jean-Claude Guilbert, Paul Hebert, Marie Cardinal
  • Les Grands Cimetières sous la lune, 1938
    - A Diary of My Times (translated by Pamela Morris, 1938) / Sermon of an Agnostic on the Feast of St. Thérèse (in The Heroic Face of Innocence: Three Stories, translated by Pamela Morris, 1999)
  • Scandale de la vérité, 1939
  • Nous autres Français, 1939
  • Lettre aux Anglais, 1942
    - Plea for Liberty (translated by H.L. Binsse and R. Bethell, 1944)
  • Monsieur Ouine, 1943
    - The Open Mind (translated by G. Dunlop, 1945) / Monsieur Ouine (translated by William S. Bush, 2000)
  • Le Chemin de la croix-des-âmes, 1943-45 (4 vols.)
  • La France contre les robots, 1944
    - Tradition of Freedom (tr. 1950)
  • Dialogues des carmélites, 1949
    - The Fearless Heart (translated by Michael Legat, 1952) / Dialogues of the Carmelites (in The Heroic Face of Innocence: Three Stories, translated by Michael Legat, 1999)
    - films: 1960, dir. Philippe Agostini, Raymond Leopold Bruckberger, starring Jeanne Moreau, Alida Valli, Madeleine Renaud, Pascale Audret, Pierre Brasseur; TV film 1984, dir. Pierre Cardinal, starring Nicole Courcel, Suzanne Flon, Madeleine Robinson, Anne Caudry; TV drama 1999, dir. Don Kent, libretto by Georges Bernanos. Emmet Lavery, cast: Anne-Sophie Schmidt, Valérie Millot, Nadine Denize, Patricia Petibon
  • Les Enfants humiliés, 1949
    - Tradition of Freedom (tr. 1950)
  • Georges Bernanos, essais et témoignages réunis, 1949 (edited by Albert Béguin)
  • Un mauvais rêve, 1950
  • La Liberté, pour quoi faire?
    - Last Essays (translated by Joan and Barry Ulanov, 1955)
  • Le Crépuscule des vieux, 1956
  • Français, si vous saviez, 1945-1948, 1961
  • Oeuvres romanesques suivies de Dialogues des carmélites, 1966
  • Le lendemain, c'est vous!, 1969 (edited by Jean-Loup Bernanos)
  • La France contre les robots, 1970 (edited by Jean-Loup Bernanos)
  • Essais et écrits de combat, 1971-1995 (2 vols.)
  • La vocation spirituelle de la France, 1975 (edited by Jean-Loup Bernanos)
  • Lettres retrouvées, 1904-1948, 1983 (edited by Jean-Loup Bernanos)
  • Les prédestinés, 1983 (edited by Jean-Loup Bernanos)
  • Romans, 1994 (foreword by Michel del Castillo)
  • Œuvres romanesques complètes, 2015 (2 vols., foreword by Gilles Philippe)

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