French novelist, playwright, and essayist; b. Paris, Feb. 20, 1888; d. Neuilly, July 5, 1948. A family legend, doubtless based on the sound of the name, ascribed to Bernanos a Spanish ancestry. It told of ancestors who had lived in Santo Domingo until 1787, and hinted that one of these could have been a corsair during the time of Jean Bart. This picturesqueness, fitting as it may have been to the writer's temperament—his haughty air, love of the sun, and pugnacious vitality—is pure fiction. As far back as one can trace, Bernanos's roots are entirely French: Lorrainese on the side of his father Émile, from the vicinity of Metz; natives of Berry on the side of his mother, Hermance Moreau, a daughter of countryfolk of Pellevoisin, where the writer is buried near his parents. Bernanos's true native soil, however, is Artois. His home was in this province at Fressin (Pas de Calais). Since the meetings of the clergy of the deanery took place there, the child met many priests. After attending several colleges and minor seminaries at Paris and Bourges, he received his decisive character molding at the College of Saint Mary at Aire-sur-la-Lys. Finally, he chose Artois as the site of all his novels.
As a student at the Sorbonne (where he took degrees in the arts and in law), he was in the thick of the political struggle in which Catholics were opposing the monarchists of the action franÇaise under Charles maurras and Léon daudet, and the democrats of the Sillon organization, led by Marc sangnier. On the eve of World War I, for which he volunteered as a poilu, he was a journalist at Rouen. On May 11, 1917, he married Jeanne Talbert d'Arc, a direct descendant of a brother of Jeanne d'Arc (see joan of arc, st.). She bore him six children. The necessity to support this large family without giving up his independence as a writer was not the least of the reasons for his nomadic existence. He never knew material security, though he sought it in various parts of France and then in Majorca, where the Spanish Civil War overtook him. On July 20, 1938, he embarked with his family for Paraguay, but he had to settle in Brazil. He stayed there until July 1945, when he returned to France at the call of General de Gaulle. He resumed his nomadic habits and while in Tunisia (1947–48) he became ill, at a time when he had vowed to write nothing more except La Vie de Jesus.
Literary Career. Bernanos came into literary prominence rather late. His first book, the novelette Madame Dargent, was published in 1922. He was an insurance inspector when his novel Sous le soleil de Satan (1925) brought him immediate fame. The novel of Catholic inspiration owes its revitalization in France to this book— those that followed could only plumb somewhat deeper, and the influence of Bernanos's priest character on the agnostic writers of the period was profound. The hero of Sous le soleil de Satan was indeed a priest, the Abbé Donissan, another Curé of Ars (see vianney, jean bapt iste marie, st.). A priest is the principal character in nearly all the Bernanos novels, and the significant factor of Bernanos's portrayal is that it is not a matter, as it so often is in other fiction, of depicting a social specimen (however edifying) of the same category as a doctor or
a lawyer, but of creating a being consecrated to and engaged body and soul in the spiritual drama. Bernanos tried to present these priests from an internal viewpoint, as if he and they were kindred spirits of the same calling; he succeeded so well that the critic Albert Béguin could style him "the priestly novelist."
Novelist of Holiness. Of course the Bernanos priest does not conform to plain reality. He represents a special "case" each time. Abbé Donissan, devoid, one might say, of armor, struggles with the demon and suffers the "temptation of despair" in ransoming those souls he saves. Abbá Cénabre (L'Imposture, 1927), who has lost his faith but keeps up outward appearances, is taken in charge by Abbé Chevance, who on his deathbed passes the burden on to a young woman, Chantal de Clergerie (La Joie, 1929), herself subject to some rather ecstatic phenomena. The parish priest of Ambricourt (Le Journal d'un curé de campagne, 1938, a novel of most classic construction, which won the Grand Prix of the Académie Française) is a hereditary alcoholic suffering from cancer, a condition that common sense would accept as an explanation of his apostolic "imprudences." But it is necessary, in dealing with the tumultuous and tormented genius of Bernanos to renounce what one ordinarily calls common sense. What animates this writer is a "supernatural sense." François Mauriac has written that Bernanos was very close to being "the novelist of holiness"; at the very least he suggests the mystery of holiness, and those contemporaries furthest removed from the faith were fascinated by the all-pervading presence of the supernatural in a literary work.
The Supernatural in Bernanos. Bernanos believed that "the supernatural cannot be set apart," meaning that human life is not lived in two compartments, one profane, the other sacred. The characters of his novels are at the extremes in their choices between good and evil, or perhaps it would be better to say that they play to the hilt the game of God or devil, and at all hazards. Bernanos disdained the middle ground, the "average man," of whom he did not think except, in a polemical vein, as an imbecile or a coward (La Grande peur des bien pensants, 1931). More important, he portrayed in his novels the unhealthy unrest, even the crime and decay, that surrounds those who claim the supernatural does not affect them one way or the other, whose position is neither a clear "Yes" nor "No" (M. Ouine, 1943) and thus make of a town—drawn as an image of a great part of the contemporary world—a "dead parish." In thus embracing the absolute, the romance of Bernanos enhances the tragedy of life, but in it destiny bears the name of vocation. The calamity is never such, nor is the obvious Manicheism such, that love cannot prevail over it. The confrontation of good and evil is made concrete in the struggle of "a soul for a soul" as expressed by the little parish priest of Ambricourt (Le Journal d'un curé de campagne ), whose last words, borrowed from St. Thérèse de Lisieux, are well known: "What matter? All is grace."
In Bernanos's novels the champions of God never stop until they have snatched away the devil's prey; the strong pick up the burdens of the weak, as in the drama Dialogues des Carmélites (1948), where the ignoble death of a prioress, during the French Revolution, ensures the glorious martyrdom of a young religious overtaken by morbid cowardice. There is a constant illumination of the dogma of the Communion of Saints "whose majesty fills us with wonder," in the author's own words; no less constant is the illustration of what Bernanos called "the eternal youthfulness of the Beatitudes." These stances explain, in their somewhat extreme evangelical viewpoints, a certain reversal of some current values: the characters for whom Bernanos showed the greatest affection, to begin with the priests (just as in Dostoievskiĭ), are the most humble, indeed the most disinherited, humanly speaking. He showed deep compassion and a veritable tenderness toward the young woman in La Nouvelle histoire de Mouchette (1937), where it is evident that the heroine's suicide is an appeal from the deceit of this world to the justice of the kingdom of heaven. In this supernatural vision of the human soul, "psychology," in the usual sense of the word, plays no part. Bernanos, who in more than one novel (notably in La Joie ) evidenced his detestation of psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, excelled at "confessing" the essential reality of the soul. For him, this reality is demonstrated by the faithfulness of the young, and by that "spirit of youth" that is candor, honor, generosity, and courage. He associated it strongly with "the spirit of Christianity," which sustains all his polemical works.
Polemical Works. Considered apart from the situations that occasioned them and from their contemporary French relevance, and making allowance for the vehemence and extremism of his writing, his polemical works manifest in general the same uncompromising spirituality as his novels. Bernanos possessed a sort of "gift of prophecy"; a number of his statements concerning the lot of peoples during and after World War II are now seen to have been amazingly correct. But the most interesting and most fundamental of these essays, some of them single self-contained pieces (Les Grands cimitières sous la lune, 1938; Scandale de la vérité, 1939; Lettre aux Anglais, 1942), others in the form of diaries or journalistic contributions (Les Enfants humiliés, 1949; Le Chemin de la Croix des âmes, 1942), concern the demands of the Christian for his rights. The essayist, like the novelist, refused to accept a radical separation between the supernatural and the temporal; he grew indignant if the former came to terms with the latter, or if the latter guarded itself unduly against the requirements of the former; an obedient son of the Church, he did not hesitate to belabor ecclesiastical diplomacy when he judged that it had bargained with the "honor of Christianity"; he wanted to "reconcile morals with politics"; he believed that countries— but not "nations"—are individuals, that each has its proper calling, and that they, too, run the risk of losing their souls.
In short, Bernanos dreamt of the Sermon on the Mount as the master plan for that "kingdom of the meek on earth." This role of the "great objector" is inseparable from the personality of Bernanos himself, although it is the novelist who will best evidence this to posterity. Isolated, dragged this way and that by opposing camps, the author on various occasions made himself heard as the voice of the Catholic conscience; in a sense, he was a living apologetic.
Bernanos's other works are: novels—Un crime (1935), Un mauvais rêve (posthumous, 1950); essays— Saint Dominique (1926), Jeanne relapse et sainte (1934), Noël à la maison de France (1931), Nous autres Français (1942), La France contre les robots (1944); novelettes— Une Nuit (1928), Dialogues d'ombres (1928); articles— Ecrit de combat (1944), La liberté pour quoi faire? (collected 1953).
Bibliography: g. bernanos, Bernanos par lui-même, ed. a. bÉguin (Paris 1954). l. estang, Présence de Bernanos (Paris 1947). w. m. frohock, "Georges Bernanos and His Priest-Hero," Yale French Studies 12 (1953) 54–61; "The Vocation of Georges Bernanos," Catholic World 168 (March 1949) 448—452. h. hatzfeld, "Georges Bernanos, 1888–1948, A Bibliography," Thought 23 (1948) 405–424; "Georges Bernanos and Henri Bremond," Renascence 3 (1951) 120–127. p. macchi, Bernanos e il problema del male (Varese 1959). t. molnar, Bernanos: His Political Thought and Prophecy (New York 1960). g. picon, Georges Bernanos (Paris 1948). h. u. von balthasar, Le Chrétien Bernanos, tr. m. de gandillac (Paris 1956).
The French novelist and essayist Georges Bernanos (1888-1948) was concerned with the concrete reality of evil and with the struggle to achieve saintliness in an uncomprehending, hostile modern world. His work was Catholic in inspiration.
Georges Bernanos, born in Paris on Feb. 20, 1888, spent his childhood in a small village in the north of France. Between 1906 and 1913 he studied in Paris for degrees in arts and law and worked as a journalist for the extreme right-wing newspaper Action Française. He joined the army at the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and fought in the trenches. In the years after the war Bernanos suffered financial hardship, and only in his late 30s did he publish his first novel, Sous le soleil de Satan (1926; Under the Sun of Satan). This immediately successful novel deals with the struggles of a priest, Father Donissan, against the evil and temptation in the world around him and against his conviction of his own inadequacy. Further novels and polemical essays followed, the best-known being the novel Journal d'un curé de campagne (1936; The Diary of a Country Priest). In this book Bernanos treats the theme of saintliness. A young priest, living in poverty and slowly dying, remains faithful to his vocation despite his lack of success in fighting sin and evil in his parish. By complete self-sacrifice he achieves a degree of greatness of soul clearly regarded as saintly in quality.
During the 1930s Bernanos went to live on the Spanish island of Majorca, and during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 he bitterly attacked the atrocities committed by the fascist side. In 1938 he left Europe for Paraguay and later Brazil, where he spent the years of World War II helping the cause of France with further books of political essays. In 1943 he published his last important novel, M. Ouine (The Open Mind). By now Bernanos's vision had become more violent, and the novel presents a somewhat incoherent picture of the corrupting influence of the schoolteacher Ouine, who is almost a personification of evil.
Bernanos's books draw their strength from his passionate sense of commitment and his refusal to compromise with complacent bourgeois attitudes. In his contempt for conformity and traditional values, he can be seen as a revolutionary—but of a very special kind, since his aims are not political but religious. His vision of a world corrupted by sin and dominated by evil is necessarily one of somewhat narrow appeal, and the hysteria and exaggeration that sometimes break through the surface of his religious novels give them an uneven quality which offsets their intensity.
In 1945 Bernanos returned to Paris, where he lived until his death in 1948.
A book on Bernanos in English is Peter Hebblethwaite, Bernanos (1965). Bernanos is discussed in Donat O'Donnell (pseudonym of Conor Cruise O'Brien), Maria Cross (1952), and by Ernest Beaumont in John Cruickshank, ed., The Novelist as Philosopher: Studies in French Fiction, 1935-1960 (1962).
Speaight, Robert, Georges Bernanos; a study of the man and the writer, New York, Liveright 1974. □