Sous Le Soleil de Satan, Georges Bernanos

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As far as I know, this book is no longer available in English; if it is, Amazon prices it in the hundreds of dollars, and I don’t think it’s worth that much. The French original version is freely available here

I can’t remember how it was that I came to know of Bernanos except that he was mentioned in several online articles as being one of those excellent writers who are now forgotten. I had no idea that he was a Catholic so that while I was reading the excerpt on the back cover I thought that I will be reading something akin to The Lord of The Rings, a battle between manifest good and evil. I was wrong.

Bernanos said that he wasn’t a Catholic writer but a Catholic writing books, and I hope this will bring back the readers who might have mistaken the title for being a dogmatic pamphlet. It is not, and Bernanos himself was not a theologian, nor dare I say was he interested in theology per se. This makes the book even more worthy to be reviewed, for this was the first work of a regular man, impressed by the ideas of his age, politically engaged yet still an average father and husband.

The book is split into a prologue and two parts, though the prologue is a hefty one and I wonder if such a construction is due to rookie’s mistake or whether it was setup on purpose. The prologue introduces us to Germaine Malorthy, fondly referred to as Mouchette, a 16-year old who collapses one day in front of her mother as the early symptoms of her pregnancy are revealed. This is how Bernanos introduces to us the enamored Mouchette (all the translation is mine, a hell of a job!)

À seize ans, elle savait aimer (non point rêver d’amour, qui n’est qu’un jeu de société)… Elle savait aimer, c’est-à-dire qu’elle nourrissait en elle, comme un beau fruit mûrissant, la curiosité du plaisir et du risque, la confiance intrépide de celles qui jouent toute leur chance en un coup, affrontent un monde inconnu, recommencent à chaque génération l’histoire du vieil univers.

At sixteen, she knew how to love (not so much dream of love which is but a parlor game)… She knew how to love, that is to say she nurtured in her being, like a ripening fruit, the curiosity of pleasure and of risk-taking, the intrepid confidence of those who gamble their lot in one shot, confront an unknown world, and repeat with every generation the age old story of the universe.

The fingers are pointed at the Marquis de Cadignan, a known womanizer. In the ensuing rage between the Malorthys as to the proper action to be taken, Mouchette takes a bold step and confronts her lover who refuses to assume his responsibility. Realizing the futility of this relation, Mouchette kills the Marquis, attempts to peg her pregnancy on another lover, and a month later delivers a stillborn. I’m not sure why Bernanos elaborated so much on the above tragedy; only Mouchette’s character survives the coming events.

Part one of the book opens up on a very sophisticated discussion between two abbots: Menou-Segrais, the dean of the Campagne village, superior of Father Donissan, the main character of the novel, and Abbot Damange.The ambiance is calm, poised and quite distant from the flare ups at the Malorthys:

De tous les embarras de l’âge, l’expérience n’est pas le moindre, et je voudrais que la prudence dont vous parlez n’eut jamais grandi aux dépens de la fermeté

Of all the embarrassment brought on by old age, experience is not the least of which, and I should want that prudence, of which you refer, ought never to have grown at the expense of firmness

Father Donissan is talked of as being clumsy, of limited education, more zealous than wise, ready to work but always botching things up and lacking the eloquence of his superior when celebrating mass. Father Donissan is aware of his shortcomings and in a very elliptical conversation with his superior suggests that a convent might be a better place for him. This is the first episode of a series of doubts and insecurities that will fail to leave Father Donissan in peace until the very end of the novel. Thrusting his disciple forward through the good parish work that is needed in Campagne, Abbot Menou-Segrais concludes his preaching to Donissan with the below:

Alors, la prudence humaine n’est que pièges et folies. La Sainteté! s’écria le vieux prêtre d’une voix profonde, en prononçant ce mot devant vous, pour vous seul, je sais le mal que je vous fait!

Therefore, human prudence is but traps and follies. Holiness! cried the old priest in a deep voice, in pronouncing this word before you, for you alone, I know of the pain I will cause you!

This is a most marvelous sentence to me, because it defies conventional wisdom, and could only be uttered by a religious person. It opens up the human spirit to exceed Aristotle’s limiting prudence and to thrust himself into the unreasonable, into faith itself.

The essence of the book is here for holiness without wisdom is but folly, and the Christian faith, as our dear Donissan will find out, is rooted in love not performance. In a very 19th construction, the word holiness acts as a reinvigorating elixir for Father Donissan and he sets himself to work filling up the gaps in his education, improving his parish work, excelling in his visits to the faithfuls and for a while I wanted to believe that bubble will last, but unfortunately, the insecurities still linger, and to punish himself for doubting the grace of God, for thinking that he could have done better, should have done better, Father Donissan never gives up his self-inflicted mortification in a description that spans up pages and is of the most disturbing for readers sympathizing with Father Donissan.

There doesn’t seem to be a way out for Father Donissan’s insecurities: for they do not come about as he interacts with the outside world. To him, Satan does not reside in the pale temptations of the flesh, but traps the solitary faithful in his prayer, in his fasting and the deepest corners of his heart. That may be true and Bernanos, through fine traces here and there, sends his readers the message that Christianity is not the religion of the solitary, no matter how much the solitary soul would like to give more, do more and spread out the greatness of God. In fact, Father Donissan is tempted the most when he is face to face with his conscience, when indeed he is inactive, when his preaching and confessions and visits have come to an end. This understanding of Christian faith doesn’t surprise me form someone who wasn’t insensitive to his surrounding, and who was, on the contrary, even politically engaged.

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Another aspect of Christian faith was left out of Father Donissian’s reach and that is Christian love. For Father Donissan, towards the middle of the book, having overcome the presence of Satan during a long and dark journey to another village, receives a gift, the gift of a true believer, and that is to look past the sinful human flesh and penetrate into the depth of the soul of any human being. The good priest puts indeed that gift into use in his parish work and visits to the faithful. Sadly for him, his zeal consumes him and exceeds both his capacity to love and his wisdom.

Consequently, on his way back to his village, Father Donissan encounters Mouchette and is able to pierce through her, revealing her long-kept secret’s details and urges her to repent in an effort to vanquish Satan. There is no compassion nor understanding in his approach to her, just his obsession to vanquish Satan residing in her soul. Twice, Father Donissan attempts to rescue or save a soul but he does it in a showoff with Satan to vanquish him, he tests God, and Bernanos at the end of one Donissan’s messed up interventions, writes: ********SPOILER QUOTE ONLY********

Et ce signe ne lui sera pas refusé, car la foi qui transporte des montagnes peut bien ressusciter un mort… Mais Dieu ne se donne qu’à l’amour.

And this sign [from God] would have been given to him, as faith that moves mountains may as well resurrect the dead… But God offers himself to love.

Bernanos does not come out of this book as the enchanted Catholic standing by his clergy in their redemptive endeavors. On the contrary, when the priest fails in the matters of this tangible word, a man of science is standing right next to him to provide support for the poor devouts who placed too much faith in the works of another human being. If I remember my catechism correctly, that is hardly a Catholic message.

I will not add more to the plot of the story, and would like to note the writing of Bernanos, complicated and convoluted as it seemed, some passages I found myself referring back to them, and I think it is one of the books I tweeted the most quotes from.

Bernanos evokes the problematic Time for our Father Donissan frequently throughout the book; as one temptation is vanquished, in a matter of minutes another one sweeps in, as after Father Donissan has overcome the temptation of Satan in a long scene that spanned several pages, only to be doubting its occurrence phrases later:

Chaque objet reconnu, des habitudes reprises une à une, rendaient plus incertaine et plus vague la grande aventure de la nuit. Bien plus vite encore qu’il n’eût pensé, elle perdait ses détails et ses contours, reculait dans le rêve.

Each recognized object, habits repeated one after the other, made the great adventure of the night more uncertain and more vague. Faster than he could have fathomed, the night was losing its details and contours, retreating into a dream.

Or when he writes:

Souvenons-nous que Satan sait tirer parti d’une oraison trop longue, ou d’une mortification trop dure.

Remember that Satan can take advantage of too long a prayer, or of too hard a mortification
I hope that this book, if it will ever be picked up by any courageous reader of this blog, will be read as a serious piece of literature, and that the reader will not limit him or herself to the confines of Catholicism in interpreting this book. It’s true it’s got priests galore and temptation is the central theme, but there is more to that: the priests are a product of their (then) time: Donissan’s superior advises him to stay silent on his visions, his gift and his battles with Satan, for the “fashion of the time is towards neurology” and proceeds that the clergy itself would probably find the mentioning of Satan a ludicrous term. The setting and the themes are Catholic yes, but their treatment is Christian, and as the debut novel of a writer, it is very much worth one’s time.