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Georges Bernanos: Un Mauvais rêve (UK: Night Is Darkest; US: A Bad Dream)

There is a type of French novel, common in the first part of the twentieth century, which seems to have a lot of the same or, at least, similar features. The hero is an essentially solitary male, though usually with another male friend, with whom he spars intellectually. There is generally a suggestion of suicide, which is sometimes carried out. There is also generally a suggestion of homosexuality, sometimes carried out. The hero is, of course, writing a novel. He often has contact with an older (but now fading) novelist who can be mentor/Svengali/rival. There is usually a girl, sometimes a tough, fairly masculine girl who can, at least to some degree, spar intellectually with the boys. There may, of course, also be an older woman. The hero is either Oedipally obsessed with his mother or an orphan. The father, who may be an important person in business or politics, is generally in the background, if around at all. Though much of the action will take place in Paris, there is a country estate/village to visit. There may also be a trip to a seaside resort. The hero may mention money as a problem but he never seems to want for anything. And, of course, he suffers for his art. Proust, Cocteau and Gide are obvious practitioners but certainly not the only ones. Bernanos is normally not, but here, at least in the early chapters, he is.

Bernanos initially planned to write a long detective novel but, at his publisher’s behest, split it in two. The first one (published, but not chronologically) was Un Crime (US: A Crime: UK: The Crime). This novel was the second one, published posthumously. However, the plot of this novel effectively ends where Un Crime (US: A Crime: UK: The Crime) begins. The story is initially divided into chapters with two characters featuring strongly in each, often in dialogue. The first one, for example, has our hero, Olivier Mainville, writing a letter to his aunt. Olivier is an orphan (of course!) and is the second secretary to the writer Ganse. (The name means braid, in the sense of braid on a curtain and not hair. It also recalls the German word Gans, which means goose. These two facts may well be totally irrelevant.) The first secretary is Simone Alfieri, who, as we later find out, is Mainville’s lover and is desired by Ganse. Ganse has no children (writers should not have any, he says) but does have a nephew, Philippe, who is the same age as Mainville and they are friendly, if not friends.

The letter Mainville writes is suitably vitriolic and confessional, damning Ganse as a fading, second-rate writer and confessing his sexual interest in Simone. He foolishly leaves it on the desk, where it is seen (and read) by Ganse and nearly costs him his job. It is Philippe who returns the letter to Mainville and, in doing so, proposes a suicide pact. Mainville thinks he is joking but when he realizes that he is serious, declines. Philippe tries to kill himself and fails but succeeds on a second attempt (in Mainville’s presence). Meanwhile, the action focuses more on Simone and her love for Mainville which includes her plan to kill his aunt, who will leave him a lot of money. As we know from Un Crime (US: A Crime: UK: The Crime), she succeeds.

Bernanos is not sure whether he is writing a detective novel, a psychological novel or one of those French literary novels I mentioned above. As a result, the novel did not have much success and has generally received a relatively poor critical reception. However, it really is not a bad novel, if you like that French literary style, and though we might know the outcome, Simone’s careful plotting is very well told.

Publishing history

First published 1950 by Plon
First published in English 1953 by Bodley Head
Translated by W J Strachan