Georges Bernanos, Enemy of Ennui
by Anthony Martin


George Bernanos was born in Paris in 1888. His father Emile ran an upholstery establishment in the Rue Joubert. To his mother, a woman of strong personality and strong piety, Bernanos owed everything, particularly his unswerving religious faith. He had a sister, Marie-Catherine, a little older than himself.
As a boy Bernanos was remembered as being a little odd. He would for instance climb to the top of a tree and chant the Kyrie or Sanctus from the Mass and then preach to a congregation of his own imagining.
His father who was a keen photographer kept in his desk photographs amongst which many were of priests. These no doubt left an impression on the young boy and were to furnish the features of the curé d’Ambricourt and the curé de Torcy in Bernanos’ famous book Journal d’un Curé de Campagne (translated as The Diary of a Country Priest). All of his books except for one were to have priest characters.[1]
A Jesuit education and dreams of a vocation
In 1897 Bernanos was sent away to a school run by the Jesuits. He was not happy there and when in 1901 the anti-clerical legislation forced the Jesuits to close their colleges he was moved as a boarder to another school where he was even more unhappy. He was moved to yet another school.
He had his dreams too, a vocation to the priesthood or a literary career which he was later to consider to be his vocation. By 1908 he was studying law in Paris and had become actively involved in Action Francaise, emerging as a champion of monarchism. His short stories had by this time already appeared in royalist newspapers.
Bernanos was to experience the First World War as a volunteer in the Sixth Dragoon Regiment. Not a particularly efficient soldier, he admitted himself that he was “incapable of folding a greatcoat or packing a saddle-bag…”.[2] He was to come out of the war deepened but disillusioned. In the midst of the horrors of the conflict he continued with his scribbling and held on to his devout prayer life, as he would for the rest of his life.
On the move – France, Mallorca, Brazil
After the War, with a growing family to support and aware that he could not make a living from his published writings, in 1922 he accepted a post as an insurance salesman, an odd choice perhaps for one so opposed to any form of middle-class security and for someone so completely hopeless at domestic accounting. With constant travel in the eastern departments, he still managed to write even if it meant doing this in waiting rooms and hotel bedrooms.
Bernanos’ began working on his first novel Sous le Soleil de Satan (translated as Under Satan’s Sun and Star of Satan) soon after the end of the First World War. It was finally published in 1926 and was a success. By this time, having left the insurance company, he had already begun work on a second book, but it was to be a difficult time for him.
There was to be a succession of moves with his family, eventually leaving Paris for the Provinces. His father died of cancer of the liver in August 1926. He was to suffer from a serious illness himself and a serious motorcycle accident left him crippled. Finally, his relationship with Action Francaise, from which he had already distanced himself some years earlier, was put under even greater strain when the movement was condemned by the Vatican in 1926.[3]
Things finally came to a head in 1934 when Bernanos left France and settled in Mallorca where he was to write Un Crime, Monsieur Ouine, Un Mauvais Reve, and his best known and best loved book Journal d’un Curé de Campagne.
The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 was to create further difficulties for Bernanos and although he was to return to France briefly two years later, he finally left with his family, several relatives and friends for South America in July 1938. He settled briefly in Paraguay and then in Brazil where he was to remain until 1945. Bernanos was happy there and he loved the people of Brazil. In Brazil he continued to write and to follow closely world events.
The Final Years
Returning to France, he soon became disillusioned with what he found there. Had his country learnt nothing of spiritual values from the trials of war he asked?
After a brief sojourn in Tunisia he spent his final years in France thinking about a Vie de Jesus (started in 1943, a few pages were ever only completed) and working on a film script based on a novel by Gertrud von le Fort, Die Letze am Schafott about the martyrdom of the Carmelite Sisters of Compiegne in July 1794. This was to become Dialogues des Carmelites, the manuscript of which was found in a trunk among Bernanos’ papers and never in fact made into a film but produced as a stage play receiving its first performance in Zurich in 1951. [4]
Bernanos died on July 5, 1948 at the American Hospital in Neuilly with the mysterious words “A nous deux” on his lips. He was buried in the family vault in Pellevoisin.
The Diary of a Country Priest
Of all Bernanos’ works The Diary of a Country Priest is undoubtedly the best known and the most accessible to the English speaking reader. It was to be made into a remarkable film by Robert Bresson.
This was the book that Bernanos enjoyed writing and made him happy. “The face of the young priest, he told a correspondent, came up to him by day and by night…”.[5]
A superficial reading of the book might leave the present day reader unmoved. Here is another age and perhaps an unrecognizable Church. There is a noticeable absence of melodrama and sensation. But there are themes here which deserve our attention today. There is a beauty in much of Bernanos’ writing. It is the kind of book that one almost needs to read with a pencil.
In his own words the writer of the diary the curé d’Ambricourt (we are never told his name) explains “…I don’t think I am doing wrong in jotting down, day by day, without hiding anything, the very simple trivial secrets of a very ordinary kind of life”.
The themes of sin, suffering, hypocrisy, the forces of good and evil, the reality of Satan, the ever-present threat of mediocrity will be familiar to readers of Bernanos’ books. “My parish is bored stiff; no other word for it. Like so many others. We can see them being eaten up with boredom, and we can’t do anything about it” exclaims the young curé on the very first page of his diary.
He exercises his ministry like any other priest by baptising babies, teaching the children, visiting his flock, celebrating Mass, absolving sinners and burying the dead.
He would not perhaps be recognizable as a priest of today. He is not a good administrator and does not preach very well, he is even rather socially inept (he probably would not have got past a present day diocesan selection board).
He lives alone in poverty, hardly able to digest the little food that he cooks for himself as he is suffering from the cancer which will eventually kill him. He is highly sensitive and is often hurt by the way he is treated. The diary he writes, relieves the monotony of his daily routine, prayer he finds difficult.
His superiors think him a little odd, including the curé de Torcy, a priest of a neighbouring parish (who in many respects resembles Bernanos himself) in whom the young priest is able to confide. The older priest has a bluff exterior but in the words of his younger confrere “He’s a good priest, very efficient, but I usually find him somewhat uninspiring, for he comes of well-to-do peasant stock, knows the value of money, and always manages to impress me with his worldly experience”.
The impression of regularity and boredom (or ennui which gives a better sense) is conveyed well by Bernanos throughout the diary. Throughout we are offered spiritual wisdom and insights from the pen of the diarist or from the curé de Torcy as this almost poetical utterance illustrates:
“Go on with your work. Keep at the little daily things that need doing, till the rest comes. Concentrate! Think of a lad at his homework, trying so hard and his tongue sticking out. That’s how Our Lord would have us be when He gives us up to our own strength. Little things – they don’t look much, yet they bring peace. Like wild flowers which seem to have no scent, till you get a field full of them. And he who prays for little things – is innocent. There’s an angel in every little thing. Do you pray to angels? We don’t pray often enough to angels. Theologians are a bit scared of them because of old eastern heresies – just a nervous complex. The world is full of angels….”
And then there is the young priest’s dealings with the count, the countess, their daughter and governess living in the chateau. The count is unfaithful to his wife and although he attends Mass is not able to approach the altar; the countess seems unable to forgive God for the loss of her son. The fact that she hates both her husband and her daughter presents the curé d’Ambracourt with an enormous challenge when he visits the chateau.
During the course of a lengthy interview the curé confronts the Countess about her lack of charity exclaiming, “Hell is not to love any more. As long as we remain in this life we can still deceive ourselves, think that we love by our own will, that we love independently of God…”
Not long after the Countess dies, reconciled with herself and with God which she recognises in her last letter to the curé. The curé in his humility thinks he has failed, he thinks his directness in forcing the countess to open her conscience was an act of folly on his part …”I spent the first hours of this horrible day in a state very like rebellion. To rebel is not to understand, and I can’t understand! We can usually bear trials that at first sight seem beyond our strength – which of us knows his own strength? But I felt ridiculous in my grief, unable to do anything useful, a nuisance to everyone”.
The curé knows that he is seriously ill but it is not until near the end of his diary that the reader learns he has stomach cancer. He appears stunned by hearing the news expecting something else “However hard I try now, I know I shall never understand by what terrible mischance I was able at such a time even to forget the very name of God. I was alone, utterly alone, facing my death – and that death was a wiping out, and nothing more…”
In the end there is nothing remarkable about his death. He spends his last hours with a friend from the seminary M. Dufrety who had left the priesthood and shared his life with a woman in a squalid flat. A letter from M. Dufrety to the curé de Torcy sets out the last hours in which the young curé receives absolution from his friend and dies with the words “Does it matter? Grace is …..everywhere” on his lips.
Mediocrity as a theme in the writings of Bernanos
Georges Bernanos loved the Church but was not uncritical of it. His conservatism was of a type which impelled him to speak out in prophetic vein against the adaptations and compromises by which he felt the institution was seeking to please the modern world and betraying its true vocation. He saw the faith being re-interpreted in the light of modern political and intellectual movements, considered by some in the Church as a price worth paying for survival. But what sort of Church, Bernanos asked? Some sort of “community centre” to keep the masses in check?[6]
Mediocrity in the Church was a favourite theme of Bernanos: “Mediocrity is a snare of the Devil. It is God’s affair… too complicated for us” - words spoken by the curé de Torcy to his younger colleague which could equally have come from Bernanos’ own lips.
For Bernanos the mediocre Christian was perhaps too comfortable in his religious practices and oblivious of the sufferings and injustices around him. Was there not an element of the insurance policy in his religion?
Addressing the Spanish bishops in his own diary, Les Grands Cimitieres sous la lune (A Diary of My Times)Bernanos wrote:
“You cannot serve God and Mammon, you cannot serve God and Money. Don’t worry, I shall not expound that saying, since you do not allow it. I merely wish to say that if you had for the last twenty centuries taken as much trouble to justify it, as you have spent in ingenuity, cunning and psychology, not exactly to divert its true meaning, which God would not have allowed, but in cautioning your parishioners against too literal an interpretation – Christianity might have been very much more alive. It is of little importance that you have turned out average young Christians, for the modern world has fallen to such baseness that an ‘average Christian’ no longer even means an honest man. It is useless to turn out average Christians, for they will become that anyhow, when middle-age overtakes them.”[7]
As the Church at the beginning of the 21st century moves into a new era perhaps we could all do with some of that passion and fervour in our own Christian lives which Georges Bernanos so evidently felt himself and for whom the Beatitudes were a reality. The saintly curé d’Ambricourt might even lead us in the right direction too.
Suggested further reading: Peter Hebblethwaite, Bernanos: An Introduction, London: Bowes & Bowes, 1964; Malcolm Scott, The struggle for the soul of the French novel, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989; Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Bernanos: an Ecclesial Existence, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996; New Blackfriars November 1998 Vol.79. No.933 (Special issue: Georges Bernanos, 1888-1948).


Notes and References
[1] Robert Speaight, Georges Bernanos, Collins, 1973. p.26.
[2] Ibid., p.53.
[3] Ibid., pp.76-89.
[4] Ibid., pp.262-3.
[5] Ibid., p.146.
[6] John E. Cooke, Georges Bernanos, Avebury, 1981, p.58.
[7] George Bernanos, A Diary of My Times, London: Boriswood, 1938, pp.181-182.