Friday, March 5, 2010

Diary of a Country Priest (Bernanos, 1936)

This is the first part of a two-part review of the 1936 novel by Georges Bernanos, Journal d'un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest), and the 1951 film by director Robert Bresson based on the novel.

Bernanos was awarded the Grand Prix du Roman de L'Académie française for the novel, while Bresson's film won eight international awards, including the Grand Prize at the Venice International Film Festival.

Bernanos and Bresson were both French Catholics. Bresson also made a film based on another book by Bernanos, Mouchette. This post will focus on the book Diary of a Country Priest. Part II will focus on Bresson's film of the same name. Perhaps sometime in the future there will also be a post on Mouchette.

Bernanos was born on February 20, 1888, in Paris, and spent most of his childhood and youth in Fressin, a small village in the Pas de Calais region. He was educated by Jesuits at Vaugirard College, where one of his classmates was the future General, Charles de Gaulle. Bernanos attended the Institut Catholique and the University of Paris, where he received licentiates in law and letters. One source says that he attended two minor seminaries before going on to the Sorbonne and that he had at one time thought to become a priest.

Bernanos was a cavalryman in World War I, was wounded and received the Croix de Guerre. He married in 1917. His wife, of the family Du Lys D'Arc, was a direct descendant of the brother of St. Joan of Arc. The couple had three boys and three girls. The family lived in various places, including South America from 1938 to 1945, much of that time on a remote farm in Brazil. Between 1926 and 1945, sixteen of his books were published. Bernanos died at Neuilly sur-Seine on July 5, 1948.

The reader is not told the year in which the events of the novel Diary of a Country Priest take place. There is a reference to a motorbike, however, and other commentary that seems to set the novel at about the same time it was written. The main character and narrator is a nameless Catholic priest, about 30 years of age, who keeps a journal as a way of gathering his thoughts.

The young Curé comes from a poor background but entered the seminary at the age of 12 and was a gifted student. Now he has been assigned to the village of Ambricourt as the parish priest. According to his Dean, Ambricourt is a "double parish". It includes many smaller villages and he has many homes to visit. Although he goes about his work with dedication and sincerity, the villagers reject him. The only person who attends weekday Mass is Louise, the governess in the home of a Count who lives in a nearby château.

The Curé is sickly and becomes increasingly so as time goes on. He finds his stomach can only tolerate sugared wine, dry bread, and sometimes baked apples or potatoes. For this and other minor things, he is suspected, ridiculed and condemned. He thinks he might have tuberculosis but puts off going to Lille to see a specialist for diagnosis.

Occasionally, the Curé visits an older priest in the nearby village of Torcy who apparently was one of his teachers in the seminary. The older priest has a bleak view of the degree to which humans have been wounded by Adam's sin. His worldview is perhaps more Lutheran than Catholic. In fact his first name is Martin and he prays regularly for Martin Luther. One should not confuse the voice of the priest of Torcy with the voice of Bernanos or the voice of the Church. Still, there is sometimes humor in the ramblings of this older priest that is enjoyable to read.

The priest of Torcy seems to have a genuine affection for the Curé but calls him a "ragamuffin" and berates him about his demeanor and his diet. He even complains about the cloak the Curé wears, which was given to him by an aunt, because he thinks it makes the Curé look like "a romantic German poet." Their conversations are mostly one-sided harangues by the priest of Torcy. Early on, the priest advises the Curé, "A true priest is never loved, get that into your head. . . . Try first to be respected and obeyed. What the Church needs is discipline."

Lacking social skills, the Curé often alienates one or the other villager while always intending to do good. At the same time, on occasion he has an uncanny ability to read souls and exercise his priestly authority in a manner that can only be explained by God acting through him.

A sexually precocious village girl name Seraphita torments the Curé. She is the star pupil in his catechism class. He believes she is longing for her First Holy Communion. When he asks her about it, however, she says, "It'll come soon enough." He replies, "But you understand me though, you listen so well." To this, she responds, "It's 'cause you've got such lovely eyes."

In his sickness and isolation the Curé longs for, and finds himself incapable of, deep prayer. "I know, of course, that the wish to pray is a prayer in itself, that God can ask no more than that of us. But this was no duty which I discharged. At that moment I needed prayer as much as I needed air to draw my breath or oxygen to fill my blood. . . . A void was behind me. And in front a wall, a wall of darkness."

The Count's daughter, Chantal, believes that the governess, Louise, is the Count's mistress, which may be true. She hates Louise, hates the Countess for tolerating Louise's presence, and is angry with her father. Both Louise and Chantal seek the Curé's help and he is thus drawn in to the struggles at the château. The Curé receives an ominous note warning him to leave the village that he later discovers was likely written by the governess, Louise.

One of the most dramatic parts of the book begins when the Curé approaches the Countess about Chantal, who he fears is suicidal. It emerges that the Countess has been alienated from God for years because her only son died when he was just eighteen months old. What ensues is an encounter where the Curé fights for the Countess's soul in a struggle so fierce it almost resembles an exorcism. The result is that the Countess is reconciled to God. The next day she writes to the Curé telling him of the peace she has found. That night she has an angina attack and dies. Chantal then lies about what occurred between her mother and the Curé, and he is blamed for the Countess' death.

Toward the end of the novel, the Curé sometimes feels healthier while in fact his condition is rapidly worsening. On his way back from a round of home visits, he hemorrhages and collapses, vomiting blood. Seraphita discovers and helps him. She thinks perhaps someone at one of the homes he has visited poisoned him. "Someone's been poppin' ash in your glass -- they think it's funny, a kind o' joke." Later, however, Seraphita describes the incident to Chantal who uses the information to further discredit the Curé.

Among the minor characters is a general practitioner, Dr. Delbende, who lost his faith in medical school, spends his life in doing works of mercy, but in the end commits suicide because of financial problems. Another is Louis Dufréty, a priest who took a leave for health reasons and ended up cohabitating with a former charwoman from the sanatorium where he had been treated. He was the Curé's best friend in the seminary. Now he is trying to make a living as a drug salesman.

A third minor character is Olivier, a nephew of the Countess, a soldier on leave who gives the Curé a ride on his motorbike. Another is Madame Dupluoy, a pub-keeper who treats the Curé with kindness while he is waiting for the train to Lille when he finally leaves to see the specialist there. "Mme Duplouy made me share her lunch . . . . I had some soup and vegetables. While I was out she had lit the stove, and she left me alone after lunch, very cosy, with a cup of black coffee. I felt warm and comfortable."

Finally the Curé arrives in Lille to see the specialist Dr. Delbende referred him to before Delbende's death. As it turns out, the physician he actually sees is not the same doctor to whom he was sent (Lavigne) but one with a similar name (Laville). The doctor prescribes a medicine but forgets to give the prescription to the Curé. When the latter goes back for it, he finds Dr. Laville shooting opium into his leg. At that point, Laville finally tells the Curé that he has stomach cancer.

After hearing the diagnosis, the Curé goes to visit Louis Dufréty who lives in Lille. Dufréty inhabits a dream-world of lies in which he imagines himself an intellectual and claims the woman with whom he lives was the "chief sister" at the sanatorium who had "made a thorough study of medicine" and a "refined, cultured girl". In fact she is a pitiful, uneducated woman who chars at several locations in a single day in order to support the couple.

Dufréty and his mistress make up a camp bed for the Curé in the room where Dufréty keeps his supplies. The Curé is repelled by the situation and does not want to die there. At 4:00 in the morning, however, Dufréty and his mistress (whose name we never learn) discover him rapidly approaching death. He has hemorrhaged again and fainted. When he regains consciousness, he motions for his Rosary, then asks Dufréty for sacramental absolution. As Dufréty later writes to the priest of Torcy, "Although I realized I had no right to accede over hastily to this request, it was quite impossible in the name of humanity and friendship, to refuse him. May I add that I was able to discharge this duty in a spirit which need leave you with no possible misgivings."

Although Dufréty has sent for the parish priest so that the Curé could receive "the final consolations of Our Church", the Curé dies before the priest arrives. His last words are borrowed from Thérèse of Lisieux, "Tout est grâce". ("All is grace", mistranslated in the English version as "Grace is everywhere .")

Bernanos was intensely critical of the state of the Church and society and there is much material for reflection on these subjects in the book if one has a solid understanding of Catholic doctrine and the background to put the commentary in context. If one does not, it is better to focus one's attention on the story itself.

The key to this novel seems to be found in a realization the Curé had during one of the diatribes of the priest of Torcy. The older priest talks about how God's calling of each priest comes in a different way, "So to get things straight I start off by taking each one of us back where he belongs in Holy Writ." This triggers a realization by the Curé, "The truth is that my place for all time has been Mount Olivet . . . in that instant -- strangely in that very instant, when He set His hand on Peter's shoulder asking him the useless question, almost naïve yet so tender, so deeply courteous: Why sleep ye? . . Our Lord this day [has] granted me, through the lips of my old teacher, the revelation that I am never to be torn from the eternal place chosen for me -- that I remain the prisoner of His Agony in the Garden. Who would dare take such an honour upon himself?"

Reviewers of the book often declare that the Curé is a Christ figure and then go on to speak of other things. It is true that he is a Christ figure, but Bernanos' manner of portraying this is unique. In a manner so hidden that one can only fully perceive it in retrospect, the events of the final months of the Curé's life allude to the final events of Christ's earthly life -- those incorporated in the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross.

Over the course of time, the Curé seems to take the sins of the villagers upon himself. When he is ridiculed and lied about, one thinks of the Scourging at the Pillar. In his weakness, he falls several times. When Seraphita finds him fallen on a path and cleans his face with a rag, one thinks of Veronica wiping the face of Jesus. When Olivier, the soldier, gives the Curé a lift on his motorbike, it reminds one of Simon of Cyrene helping Jesus carry the Cross. When Madame Duplouy comforts the Curé with food and warmth, in a sense Jesus meets his mother. In Lille, especially at Dr. Laville's, evil is so palpable that one has a hint of its concreteness on that long-ago Friday. Since Dufrety and his mistress both also have terminal illnesses, even the Curé's death at Dufréty's could be seen as an allusion to Christ's crucifixion between the two thieves.

Thus, the novel can draw the reader into a deep experience of, and identification with, Christ's Passion in an unanticipated manner that is quite effective. Needless to say, the book is good Lenten reading and reading it is an experience not easily forgotten.

Quotations are from the 1937 translation into English by Pamela Morris entitled Diary of a Country Priest using the 2nd Carroll & Graf Edition (New York, 2002).

Ruysdael's, "After the Rain," from Web Gallery of Art. In the public domain.

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