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Georges Bernanos: Monsieur Ouine (The Open Mind; Monsieur Ouine)

Critics are in two minds about this book. Some claim that it is Bernanos’ best novel and a work of genius. Others have called it unreadable. Bernanos struggled ten years over it and clearly put more into it than into any of his other works. The result has been that there have been varying interpretations. Who or what is Monsieur Ouine? Some have commented that his name looks like oui and ne put together, hence he is Mr. Yes/No. Others have said he is Satan/the Antichrist/the force of evil. I take the view – aided by comments from the priest in this novel – that he represents the absence of religion. Bernanos was, of course, a very religious man and the priests in his novel are usually key characters. All the very unpleasant things that happen in Fenouille are, in the priest’s view (and, presumably, Bernanos’) due to the lack of religion.

The story starts with Steeny, a fourteen year old boy, who lives with his mother (and is spoilt by her) and her English maid/friend, generally known as Miss. His father apparently was killed in World War I though he is about to learn that this is not, in fact, the case and his father is probably still alive somewhere. Some have even suggested that Monsieur Ouine may be his father. Steeny’s real name is Philippe but he is called Steeny from a character in his mother’s favourite English novel (not named). Steeny was, of course, the nickname James I gave to the Duke of Buckingham. Steeny is not a nice boy. He is rude to his mother and to Miss, as well as to others. In short, he behaves as one might expect a fourteen-year old boy to behave.

Steeny meets Monsieur Ouine. Monsieur Ouine is a retired language teacher. As we later learn, Monsieur Ouine suddenly arrived in the village, no-one knows where from. He lodged with the local squire, Anthelme de Néréis and his wife, Ginette. Very soon, he was telling them what to do. Anthelme is dying and, indeed, dies very soon after the start of the novel but it is he that tells Steeny about his father, before dying. Ginette rides a wild, almost legendary mare that is itself a character in the novel. She, too, will shortly die, murdered by the mob in the village. But, though he meets both Anthelme and Ginette (and her wild mare), it is Monsieur Ouine who seems to have an unhealthy control over Steeny. Steeny professes not to like him, yet goes to him, and even falls asleep there, with Monsieur Ouine stroking him. Yet, despite this, and his other interventions (e.g. with the Mayor), Monsieur Ouine remains a shadowy figure, difficult to grasp and not just because of his unknown antecedents. Though it is impossible to attribute blame to Monsieur Ouine for any of the unpleasant things that happen, there is always the impression that he is somehow connected.

Anthelme is the first to die. Then the naked body of a young valet is found in the stream. The local poacher is accused. The Mayor, who is investigating the case, is so overcome by the presence of evil (and not just because of the death of the boy), that he kills himself. None of these events can be attributed to Monsieur Ouine, but… And that is why the novel has been deemed to be unsatisfactory. We never know for sure who Monsieur Ouine is or who killed the boy or where Steeny’s father is and, in particular, why the village of Fenouille suffers this curse. Of course, there is no rule that says that a novel has to tie up the loose ends. But, like other readers, I recognise the brilliance of this attempt but was left unsatisfied.

Publishing history

First published 1943 by Atlantica Editora, Rio de Janeiro
First published in English 1945 by John Lane
Translated by William Bush (Monsieur Ouine); Geoffrey Dunlop (The Open Mind)