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Georges Bernanos: Journal d’un Curé de Campagne (Diary of a Country Priest)
The title alone is enough to put off many contemporary readers but, even if you are not in any way religious, you should read this book, Bernanos’ masterpiece. The unnamed priest of the title writes his diary, which finishes at his early death from cancer. The priest is in a rural parish where, for most people, religion is something that is accepted but not important. Nothing happens in the parish. On the very first page, he states Ma paroisse est dévorée par l’ennui. [My parish is devoured by boredom.] But this is as much a reflection of him as of the parish. Later, he will say Même solitude, même silence….Je respire, j’aspire la nuit, la nuit entre en moi par je ne sais quelle inconcevable, quelle inimaginable brèche de l’âme. Je suis moi-même nuit. [Same loneliness, same silence…I breathe the night in. I breathe it out. The night enters me by some inconceivable, unimaginable breach in my soul. I am myself night.] This is a tortured man. Has he lost his faith as some critics have suggested? I am not sure. He certainly struggles with it, with what his role is and how he can help his parishioners (he can’t) but he still believes in God, indeed, believes that the concept of losing one’s faith is nonsense.
Were Bernanos just to paint the struggles of this poor priest, this would still a have been a fine book, but he also skillfully makes comparison with other approaches. There is the priest of Torcy, a priest but a man of the world, who tells his colleague not to worry about all of this stuff. All his parishioners need is a bit of discipline and order. Then there is his friend, whom he meets at the end, who tries to rationalise his own loss of faith by saying that he has developed intellectually, when the real reason is that he has fallen in love with a woman. There are the two doctors. The first is the local doctor who, as is implied, like others had to do, including our narrator, had to chose between faith and science and chose science, which was the wrong choice for him. He is found dead, almost certainly from suicide. Then there is the doctor whom he meets at the end and who diagnoses his cancer, who, himself, is suffering from cancer and knows that he is to die within a few months but carries on, not stoically but, rather, realistically.
However, it is with the locals that he has the most trouble. His illness causes him to faint and the locals think he is a drunk. He is teased by one of the girls for his beautiful eyes. In particular, he gets embroiled in the life of the local earl and his family. The earl’s mistress asks his help (she is the only regular daily mass attendee). The priest speaks to the earl’s daughter and then to the countess, who effectively confesses to him her sad life. She has accepted (though resents) her husband’s regular affairs and her daughter’s contempt, brought on in part by her devotion to her now dead son, whom she has never got over. She then dies the same night (of a heart attack). He is roundly condemned – by the daughter, whom he has tried to help, the earl and by others (including the earl’s uncle, a senior church official) – for intervening, when his job is merely to carry out the routine tasks of a priest.
Bernanos’ skill is to show us a man – for he is a man before being a man of God – who is sinking down, without fully realising it, who is clinging on to his faith, without being aware that he needs to cling, who is every bit an existential victim of ennui as the heroes of Sartre and Camus, who cannot fathom a life without God and religion but cannot, either fathom what God’s purpose is for him. At the end he seems to refind his faith but we are not convinced.
First published 1936 by Plon
First published in English 1937 by Boriswood
Translated by Pamela Morris earlier editions); Howard Curtis (Penguin)