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An author who shows the real cost of salvation

Georges Bernanos

In the way of regular on-line articles, I happened to read one a few weeks ago by a Dominican priest entitled “10 Catholic novels to take to the beach this summer.” Among predictable recommendations, such as Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor and GK Chesterton, as well as several authors I hadn’t heard of, I saw the Dominican had included Georges Bernanos’ novel, Under Satan’s Sun. Having decided several years ago that his The Diary of a Country Priest would be the one novel I would take to a desert island, I read this novel for the first time – and thus can say without hesitation that it is definitely not a book to take to the beach.

First published in 1926 when Bernanos was 38 and working at the most improbable career one could devise for such a creative writer – as an insurance inspector – in order to provide for his growing family, it made him justly famous and allowed him thereafter to live, even if sometimes in desperate circumstances, by his pen alone. Divided into two parts with a long prologue, it charts Bernanos’ imaginative reconstruction of the spiritual world and grim travails of St John Vianney, the Cure of Ars. Set in the flat, often overcast, countryside of northern France, the landscape of Bernanos’ childhood, the story (“plot” was never a concern) essentially concerns Father Donissan’s terrifying battles with Satan, who is disguised as a horse-dealer, for his own soul and the souls of those in his care, particularly a young woman, Mouchette, who has committed an unconfessed and undetected murder.

For a first novel it is an extraordinary tour de force. Bernanos is rightly compared to Dostoyevsky, though on a much smaller scale. No novelist in my view has ever shown the real cost of salvation as the saints know it, or what the loveless life of Hell actually means, with such conviction or intensity. As I said, whatever books one might take to the beach, this is not one of them.

Biographer and actor Robert Speaight has written a useful introduction to Bernanos and his writings in his biography of 1973. From it I learnt that Bernanos eagerly joined a company of dragoons in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I and, despite being wounded several times, “he was never promoted beyond the rank of corporal”; no surprises there. That for Bernanos there was “no separation between life and literature, whatever literature might pretend to the contrary”, and that he felt a close connection between the vocation of a priest and that of a writer. Indeed, his censure of the much-feted author Anatole France (savagely satirised in the character of Antoine Saint-Marin in Under Satan’s Sun) concludes: “I don’t hate him any longer. I should only like to borrow from the Gospel its most mysterious malediction and apply it to him: it were a good thing if this man had never been born.”

I also learnt from Speaight that Bernanos refused France’s highest award, the Legion d’Honneur, four times. But there are also lighter moments: on a pilgrimage to La Salette in 1928 he resolved to give up smoking, burying all his pipes nearby. However, “the resolution was short-lived; he made a second pilgrimage to recover one of them.” A friend once visited Bernanos and his family, including his in-laws, and noted a certain “electric atmosphere”: the children (Bernanos had six) were racing about brandishing home-made weapons and shouting “Justice!”; the mother-in-law had collapsed; while Jeanne, his long-suffering wife (a direct descendant of the brother of St Joan of Arc) was sitting calmly smoking a cigarette.

A friend who visited him in Paris in 1947, a year before his early death, aged 60, noted, “Dreaminess and rage were in his eyes, and a good deal of both.” I suspect the right backdrop to reading this extraordinary writer might be a hermitage in the French Alps, near La Grande Chartreuse.