Thursday, July 16, 2020

Georges Bernanos's Diary of a Country Priest - a long monologue that I listened to without understanding it

Finally, I have finished Georges Bernanos’s Journal d'un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, 1936), a 285-page novel that has taken me four weeks to read.  Reading in French, it is pour les oiseaux.  The birds who already read French.

A bit more of the Wuthering Expectations Short History of French Literature I was writing last year:

The French twentieth century began with a crushing defeat of the Catholic Church, and the triumph of laicization, a struggle that had continued since the French Revolution.  For more detail, see “The Law of the 9th of December 1905 Concerning the Separation of Church and State.”  Meanwhile, French artists and writers were turning into godless Communists and lunatics.  So there is a Catholic counter-reaction, eventually.  Bernanos is the Catholic writer who has survived the best in French literature, I think, aside from Charles Péguy, who was killed in the war in 1914.  Bernanos is probably a better novelist than his peers in the movement, but I have not read them – I would have to look up their names – so what do I know.

This novel is well-described by its title.  A young priest in his first parish has a crisis of faith, and decides to write it down.  He does not doubt his own faith, but rather that of everyone else, the superstitious no-longer-peasants who would make up his congregation if they ever came to Mass, and the neurotic wealthy family in the mansion on the hill.  The latter provides most of the plot.  This is very much not a novel about a priest dealing with ordinary people.

The book is a mix of the priest’s reflections, some of which are personal, some theological, some both – doubts about the intensity of his prayer, for example – which is what I would expect from a priest’s diary, and long Thomas Bernhardish monologues by other people, like an older priest who is something of a mentor, an atheist doctor who kills himself, and an old friend from the seminary who gives up the vocation, which are completely preposterous as diary entries, unless I am supposed to think  the priest is inventing them.  But I think I am not supposed to think about it.  Just a convention.  Occasionally, Bernanos and the priest do acknowledge the problem:

He must have pursued this for a long time, since I have the memory of a long monologue that I listened to without understanding it. (299 of this Librairie Plon edition, tr. mine)

The priest does not have a forceful personality, so he mostly just lets people talk.  His own writing is clear, but the numerous long monologues are full of regional words, slang, and irony – oh so hard, so slow.  The monologues are a clue to the tradition Bernanos is working.  He is one of the French writers of the time who read Dostoevsky carefully, and he is bringing Dostoevsky’s many voices into French.  It is as if Alyosha, from The Brothers Karamazov, became a priest and kept a diary.  The narrator’s voice is orthodox, but many other voices have their say.

André Malraux, who writes the introduction to the edition I read, dated when I have no idea,  is another of the French Dostoevskians of the time, but he is interested in the political Dostoevsky, of The Possessed, for example, while Bernanos works the religious side.  It is all something new in French, and it is all about to turn into existentialism.  The parallels between Country Priest and Sartre’s Nausea, published a year later, are curious, although Bernanos never achieves the hallucinatory lunacy of Sartre.

Maybe just once.  The priest, poor fellow, has serious stomach problems, which may be psychological (a parallel with Sartre’s narrator’s nausea), but maybe not.  In the last, and I thought best, section, the priest finally visits a doctor.  After a professional examination, the young doctor begins to wander, perhaps just because his patient is a young priest.  I am paraphrasing: “You are like my double.  Do you think about suicide? Boy, I sure do!  By the way, I have a terminal illness.  Also by the way, so do you.”  That is one bad doctor, and one weird monologue.

The essential existentialism of the novel is likely another reason it has survived so well, is what I am saying.  As with Dostoevsky, it does not matter much if the reader agrees with the author, whatever that might mean.  There are other things to do with the book.

Regardless, now I will refer to my list of French books appropriate for junior high students and find a French book that is much shorter and much easier.


  1. This sounds messier or more complex than what I remember of Bresson's film adaptation, but maybe that's just my memory hoodwinking me. Interesting to hear of the Dosto parallels; I wouldn't have expected that going in although I suppose it fits.

  2. Messier, that sounds right, although I have not seen Bresson's film. I sure feel like I have read plenty about it, but that was mostly about the "acting."

    It took me a while to figure out how much Dostoevsky was in this novel, but once I did many things became clear. The priest's great enemy, the teenage daughter of the rich family, for example, seemed like a soap opera character until I realized that she was a variation of Liza in Karamazov. I am still not convinced that she is a success, artistically, but I can place her.

  3. Bresson's film is staggering. He also directed Mouchette, based again on a Bernanos book. I haven't seen it, but I have read the book in French. If you're looking for something a bit easier than Diary of a Country Priest (which I haven't read), then I'd recommend Mouchette, which is also quite short. My French is probably not nearly as good as yours, and I didn't find it too difficult - although it was a student edition with the odd phrase translated at the bottom of the page.

  4. Sous le soleil de Satan, published a decade before Mouchette, has a Mouchette, too. I have not been able to figure out if they are the same character, or if they just share a name. Anyway, both novels are likely worth reading.

  5. I haven't read the novel and probably won't (though the Dostoevsky connection intrigues me), but I second the recommendation for the Bresson film. Of course, it helps if you're a Bresson fan; I don't know how the average movie lover would react.

  6. I haven't read this one since rligious stuff is really a put off for me. (just abandoned Snow for the same reason)

    How brave of you to read Bernanos. I don't know how his style is in Journal d'un curée de campagne but in Les grands cimetières sous la lune, it was unreadable.
    So congrats for finishing it.

  7. I have seen just three Bresson movies, A Man Escaped, Pickpocket, and Lancelot du Lac, and thought the first two were all-time masterpieces and the last a catastrophe. I guess that makes me a fan.

    Now one can visit Montluc Prison in Lyon, recently made a national memorial, which is a strange experience in part because so much of it looks exactly like it does in A Man Escaped. Some of it looks different now.

    As a non-religious reader, I found things to enjoy and think about in Journal d'un curé de campagne, especially some of the parts about his illness, but I have no doubt that the serious Catholic reader will get way more out of it. Much, much more.

    Was that Orhan Pamuk's Snow? I read that when it was published in English. I did not think it was good.

  8. I have seen just three Bresson movies, A Man Escaped, Pickpocket, and Lancelot du Lac, and thought the first two were all-time masterpieces and the last a catastrophe.

    That's my take on them as well. You should do your best to see L'argent if you can; I would recommend Au Hasard Balthazar as well, but it's really depressing.

  9. Tolstoy! I did not know that. Yeah, I gotta see the donkey movie.

    A film that seems deeply influenced by this Bernanos novel, or perhaps just by the Bresson film, is Bergman's Winter Light. I meant to mention this, but forgot until now. All of the Catholic stuff stripped out.

  10. Another haven't read the book, but seen the film, here. It is pretty great. He really is sick in the film.

    There was a Bresson retrospective here before all the movie theaters shut down. I thought they were generally pretty great, but then...Lancelot du Lac.

  11. The illness of the priest is ambiguous for most of the novel, meaning it could be something psychological, like the Nauseaist's nausea. But in the end, it is utterly real. Then, for me, the illness takes over the meaning of the book.

    I guess we have a consensus about Lancelot du Lac!

    1. Then that would be the same as the movie; we're not sure if his problems psychosomatic. He gets diet advice, which probably made sense to a mid-century Frenchman--you should eat more, eat more meat, & you'll feel better. Well.

  12. The part where the old mentor priest worries that the young priest's ascetic diet is part of an attempt at sainthood, when really he just needs to see a dang doctor, is brilliant.

  13. Has my comment vanished adding.
    I was saying that I knew him less than the other two famous Catholic writers of the time, Mauriac and Green but am quite tempted to read this. Isn’t the doctor in the last quote Referencing Kierkegaard’s Sickness Unto Death?

  14. I would never have guessed that the two Mauriac novels I have read were Catholic, although the Bernanos novel is blatantly Catholic, and what did I do with that? Nothing. Julien Green I don't know at all, except as an example of a language-switcher. What's an especially good Green novel?

    Referencing Kierkegaard - very likely. I have not read Sickness Unto Death, but the timing is right. The Kierkegaard Kraze was just getting moving in England and France.

  15. I can sense Mauriac‘s Catholicism. It’s not as explicit as in Bernanos but in the mood, the guilt, those brooding feelings.
    I find, style wise Julien Green to be the most interesting of the three but have not read that much. His most famous are Adrienne Mesurat and Léviathan but I’ve read some of his others. I think you might find both Minuit and Le Visionnaire interesting. He’s much more complex and imaginative than the other two. Walter Benjamin praised him as one of the most important writers. One of his books that I read in my early twenties and stayed with me was Le mauvais lieu.

  16. Thanks for the Green recommendations. I am poking around - I really knew nothing. He wrote a historical novel titled Dixie!

  17. "Je considère qu'aucune époque ne possède des romans de sujet aussi admirable que Le Tour d'écrou, Le Procès ou Le Voyageur sur la terre. "
    Jorge Luis Borges
    Les Voyageurs à travers les siècles (aka Varouna) is also interesting. And Green's diaries are among the best examples of the genre, not as good as Jules Renard's but better than Gide's.

  18. Now that is some praise. La voyageur sur la terre is a sensible length, too.

    Thanks for the recommendations. For some reason I have read 800 pages of Gide's journals. Maybe I should try someone else's.