Georges Bernanos

The French novelist and essayist Georges Bernanos (1888-1948) was concerned with the concrete reality of evil and with the struggle to achieve saintliness in an uncomprehending, hostile modern world. His work was Catholic in inspiration.

Georges Bernanos, born in Paris on Feb. 20, 1888, spent his childhood in a small village in the north of France. Between 1906 and 1913 he studied in Paris for degrees in arts and law and worked as a journalist for the extreme right-wing newspaper Action Française. He joined the army at the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and fought in the trenches. In the years after the war Bernanos suffered financial hardship, and only in his late 30s did he publish his first novel, Sous le soleil de Satan (1926; Under the Sun of Satan). This immediately successful novel deals with the struggles of a priest, Father Donissan, against the evil and temptation in the world around him and against his conviction of his own inadequacy. Further novels and polemical essays followed, the best-known being the novel Journal d'un curé de campagne (1936; The Diary of a Country Priest). In this book Bernanos treats the theme of saintliness. A young priest, living in poverty and slowly dying, remains faithful to his vocation despite his lack of success in fighting sin and evil in his parish. By complete self-sacrifice he achieves a degree of greatness of soul clearly regarded as saintly in quality.

During the 1930s Bernanos went to live on the Spanish island of Majorca, and during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 he bitterly attacked the atrocities committed by the fascist side. In 1938 he left Europe for Paraguay and later Brazil, where he spent the years of World War II helping the cause of France with further books of political essays. In 1943 he published his last important novel, M. Ouine (The Open Mind). By now Bernanos's vision had become more violent, and the novel presents a somewhat incoherent picture of the corrupting influence of the schoolteacher Ouine, who is almost a personification of evil.

Bernanos's books draw their strength from his passionate sense of commitment and his refusal to compromise with complacent bourgeois attitudes. In his contempt for conformity and traditional values, he can be seen as a revolutionary—but of a very special kind, since his aims are not political but religious. His vision of a world corrupted by sin and dominated by evil is necessarily one of somewhat narrow appeal, and the hysteria and exaggeration that sometimes break through the surface of his religious novels give them an uneven quality which offsets their intensity.

In 1945 Bernanos returned to Paris, where he lived until his death in 1948.

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Further Reading on Georges Bernanos

A book on Bernanos in English is Peter Hebblethwaite, Bernanos (1965). Bernanos is discussed in Donat O'Donnell (pseudonym of Conor Cruise O'Brien), Maria Cross (1952), and by Ernest Beaumont in John Cruickshank, ed., The Novelist as Philosopher: Studies in French Fiction, 1935-1960 (1962).

Additional Biography Sources

Speaight, Robert, Georges Bernanos; a study of the man and the writer, New York, Liveright 1974.