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Georges Bernanos: Sous le Soleil de Satan (Star of Satan; Under Satan’s Sun)

Bernanos started this, his first novel, soon after World War I and when it was finally published, it brought him fame. There are three separate parts but they are related. The first part is the story of Germaine Malorthy, the sixteen year old daughter of the local brewer and known as Mouchette. Right at the beginning she has a twinge in her belly and her parents realize that she is pregnant. Her father immediately (and correctly) suspects the local marquis and goes to confront him. He has a plan to challenge him but loses his nerve as the marquis effectively outwits him. As he is broke, the marquis does not need any extra financial burdens. Mouchette herself also challenges the marquis but with a more romantic view of a nice trip to Paris and, finally, she does go off to Paris to have her baby. The local doctor is also interested in Mouchette but she teases him and is somewhat light-hearted about the fact that she has just killed the marquis, when he does not meet her romantic expectations.

The second story is about a priest, Father Donissan who, as Bernanos tells us, is to become a saint. For now he is naive and inexperienced and unsure of his vocation. He wears a hair shirt and flogs himself. His superior realizes that this is no ordinary priest and, while his innocence might seem a drawback, it is what makes him special. On a long night journey, he meets a man, who accompanies him on the way. The man turns out to be the devil. Donissan accepts the devil and receives from him the gift of reading souls. After parting ways from the devil, the first person he meets is Mouchette and immediately divines that she has committed murder. The fact that he has read this in her soul so distresses her that she goes home and cuts her throat.

The third part comes later when Donissan is the curate of Lumbres. Bernanos has continually referred to him as both the future priest of Lumbres and the future saint of Lumbres. He is known to many by this name but continues to struggle with his gift of reading souls, though he becomes almost a tourist attraction and the church seeks to profit from his gift. Indeed, much of this part is concerned with the church officials talking about him.

Donissan is based on the real life Jean Vianney, canonised by Pope Pius XII in 1925. Like Vianney – and this is Bernanos’ key theme – Donissan is tormented by the devil and struggles with the devil, only finally reaching holiness on death. Bernanos, of course, was very much influenced by what he saw in World War I and, for him, after what he saw, man had a continual struggle with the devil. Whether this works in the context of this book will probably depend on your degree of faith but, whatever you believe, it is still a powerful and idiosyncratic novel.

Publishing history

First published 1926 by Plon
First published in English 1940 by The Bodley Head