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Winter Books

A welcome return for Bernanos’ lost works

By Georges Bernanos
University of Nebraska Press,
250 pages, $20

To order: 1-800-755-1105

By Georges Bernanos
Wm. B. Eermands, 162 pages, $13
To order: 1-800-253-7521


The author of Diary of a Country Priest seems sadly forgotten. Last year’s 50th anniversary of the death of the great French novelist Georges Bernanos went virtually unnoticed in the United States, and for the younger generation even his classic novel remains an undiscovered treasure. Progressives are apt to consider him out of date: Didn’t he take original sin and the reality of Satan a little too seriously? As for conservatives, they remain uneasy at the prophetic witness of a layman who poured out his scorn at ecclesiastical connivance with the powers of this world and insisted that the poor should have the place of honor in the church.

But now the University of Nebraska Press and the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. have given us reasons to look at him again. Nebraska has published The Imposter, his previously untranslated second novel, originally published in 1928; and Eerdmans has brought out The Heroic Face of Innocence, including his stirring essay “Joan, Heretic and Saint” (1929), the previously untranslated “Sermon of an Agnostic on the Feast of St. Thérèse” from The Great Cemeteries Under the Moon (1938), and his last work, Dialogues of the Carmelites (1948), the dramatic scenario that was the inspiration for Francis Poulenc’s opera of the same name.

A semester course in Catholic Studies could show how Bernanos ultimately mastered the excesses and unresolved tensions of The Imposter. J.C. Whitehouse’s superb translation should make readers think of Dostoyevsky, but this darkly troubling story of a priest-intellectual who rejects his faith remains unresolved at its conclusion. A specialist on the Florentine mystics, Abbé Cenabre comes to awareness that his life has been a lie. Bernanos himself complained that he should have welded The Imposter together with his later novel Joy, in which the sacrificial innocence of the young Chantal de Clergerie frees Cenabre from the burden of his apostasy. In the earlier book, Chantal appears only at the conclusion, comforting her dying spiritual director, Abbé Chevance. In the throes of anguish, Cenabre had summoned Chevance in the first section of The Imposter, believing that this timorous simple-minded man would not dare to question him closely.

The two scenes between Cenabre and Chevance are especially powerful, revealing the latter as a transparent vessel of grace who struggles to relieve his antagonist of bitter pride. A nighttime sequence in which Cenabre buys the confidence of a beggar for a hundred francs, overwhelming his victim with the consciousness of debasement, reads like pages from Notes from the Underground. But the action is sometimes murky and the narrative voice turns harshly polemical in the novel’s second section, a satire of ecclesiastical politics and journalism during a time when the debate over Modernism remained crucial. Bernanos’ Royalist sympathies sometimes produce stirring essays on the meaning of honor, but here his suspicion of accommodation with the Third Republic undermines his thrust at a fatuous bishop who announces that he is, above all, a man of his time.

Whatever its imperfections, The Imposter represents an important stage in Bernanos’ development. And the University of Nebraska Press promises us more in the near future, including a re-issue (in a new translation) of his first novel, Under the Sun of Satan, and the long-delayed translation of Monsieur Ouine, which some critics believe is his finest novel. (And shouldn’t Joy also be made available again?)

The Eerdmans volume is an inexpensive way to acquire two long out-of-print works, Bernanos’ masterly tribute to Joan of Arc, and Dialogues of the Carmelites, which Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, in a penetrating foreword, believes “may emerge as his literary and religious masterpiece.” As for the third selection, the “Sermon of an Agnostic on the Feast of St. Thérèse,” first translated in Communio, Hans Urs von Balthasar comments: “The unbeliever holds a mirror up to the pious congregation, in which it can see how the world sees it from outside and what the world has with perfect right expected from it but which they have never delivered.” The Heroic Face of Innocence is especially revealing because Bernanos has chosen three young women --Joan, Thérèse and the Carmelite martyr Blanche de la Force -- “as embodiments of his reflections on the power of the vocation to Christian innocence.”

Joseph Cunneen, NCR’s movie critic, contributes the introduction to Jean Sulivan’s new novel, Eternity, My Beloved (River Boat Books).

National Catholic Reporter, November 5, 1999