Georges Bernanos’ essays are far more voluminous than his better-known fiction. Six volumes appeared during his lifetime: La Grande Peur des bien-pensants (The great fear of conformist thinkers) in 1931; Les Grands Cimetières sous la lune (The great cemeteries in the moonlight; translated as Diary of My Times) in 1938; Scandale de la vérité (The scandal of truth) and Nous autres Français (We French) in 1939; Lettre aux Anglais (Plea for Liberty: Letters to the English, the Americans, the Europeans) in 1942; and, finally, La France contre les robots (Tradition of Freedom) in 1944. A further halfdozen compilations of Bernanos’ articles and occasional texts were published posthumously. The two most substantial are Le Chemin de la Croix-des-Ames (1948; The way of the Cross-of-Souls), which assembled Bernanos’ Brazilian wartime articles in one volume with an important preface-essay by the dying author, and Français, si vous saviez (1961; Frenchmen, if you only knew), a compilation of articles written between his return to France from Brazil in 1945 and his death in Paris in 1948.
Seven additional volumes of essays were published posthumously by Albert Béguin, Bernanos’ literary executor. Les Enfants humiliés (The humiliated children), lost during the war and brought out only in 1949, contained Bernanos’ 1939–40 poetic meditations on France’s plunge into war again. La Liberté, pour quoi faire? (Last Essays) in 1953 brought together lectures from 1946–47. In 1956 Béguin assembled Bernanos’ literary criticism and interviews from 1909–39 in Le Crépuscule des vieux (The twilight of old men). Four more recent compilations, prepared by Jean-Loup Bernanos, indiscriminately combine published and unpublished texts. Le Lendemain, c’est vous! (The next day it’s you!), published in 1969, was followed in 1970 by a volume deceptively entitled La France contre les robots (France against the robots), even though the 1944 text (translated as Tradition of Freedom) bearing the same title comprises barely half the compilation. Further articles appeared in La Vocation spirituelle de la France (The spiritual vocation of France) in 1975, and Les Prédestinés (1983; The predestined ones) assembled texts on St. Dominic, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther, the few pages of Bernanos’ Life of Jesus, and, from Last Essays, Bernanos’ famous “last lecture,” “Nos Amis, les saints” (“Our Friends the Saints”), in which the author gives a synthesis of his views on God, man, and creation as well as on freedom and human suffering.
As an essayist Bernanos moves effortlessly from the strident tone he learned from Édouard Drumont and Léon Bloy to the subtle, nostalgic irony of Charles Péguy, whom he profoundly admired. His most powerful quality as an essayist, however, is a rare gift he developed as a novelist and shared with Dostoevskii: the ability to pierce his reader’s heart through a sorrowing tenderness he himself called the “lost language of childhood.”
Readers attesting to their admiration for this gift include Antonin Artaud, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, André Malraux, Gaston Gallimard, and Charles de Gaulle.
Bernanos’ desire to convince his reader of what he called “that part of the truth” given to him was rooted in his conviction that he must answer to God for all he wrote. For Bernanos, as for Bloy, writing was a divine calling, a vocation, and all true vocations, he said, must lead to Calvary. Having opted at age 18 for a writer’s vocation over that of a priest, he strove to defend both Christian civilization and France—for him the foremost Christian country of Europe—with sacerdotal fervor.
As he sought in his essays to make his ideas live, Bernanos often personified them so that they might directly challenge his reader. As for his readers, Bernanos once said he liked to think that they were simply “all those men of good will” to whom the angel of Bethlehem first promised peace. In darker moments, however, he admitted that only those not totally subject to the technological seduction of the modern world remain intact enough to hear his voice.
Bernanos’ audience did evolve radically from the right-wing nationalists of the Action Française (French action) for whom he started writing as a student. His long evolution carried him beyond any definable political position. By the end of his life communists no less than the ultra-right claimed him as one of their own. Even in his first essay volume in 1931, La Grande Peur des bien-pensants, Bernanos was already far more preoccupied with the future of French Christian society than with Édouard Drumont, whose biography he was supposedly writing.
His best-known essay, Diary of My Times, determined Gaston Gallimard to attach Bernanos to his publishing house and caused Simone Weil to write that Bernanos alone expressed what she herself had experienced in the Spanish Civil War. Launching “whole squads of images,” as he liked to say, Bernanos denounced the Roman Catholic hierarchy for its stance on the Ethiopian conquest as well as on the “crusade” of General Franco.
When Charles Maurras, head of the Action Française, was elected to the French Academy in 1938, Bernanos, from Brazil, denounced the revered master of his youth in Scandale de la vérité for approving the Munich Pact, accurately foreseeing the fate awaiting the French Right during the war. Then, as war loomed, the essayist glorified those Christian values he particularly associated with French history and culture in Nous autres Français. France’s defeat was the subject for his Plea for Liberty: Letters to the English, the Americans, the Europeans, a work triggered by a request in 1940 from the Dublin Review for an article on that subject. After May 1940, and for the duration of the war, Bernanos devoted himself exclusively to essays on the meaning of the conflict, both to France and to the world.
Bernanos’ seven years in Brazil (1938–45) and the devotion of the Brazilian elite to French civilization much softened the author’s strident nationalism. He now attempted to define France’s supernatural destiny to lead the whole postwar world in a spiritual revolution. His violent voice still surged up, however, in both Tradition of Freedom and Last Essays as he denounced technology’s increasing threat to human freedom.
Bernanos’ wartime essays won him a reputation as “bard of the French Resistance,” but after his return to France in 1945 his inability to fuse his ideals with political realities in postwar France disappointed those who had relied on his voice for strength and moral courage during the occupation. To the end, however, Bernanos’ articles in newspapers such as La Bataille (The battle), Carrefour (Crossroads), Combat, Le Figaro, and L’Intransigeant won him devoted readers from all social and political strata. Even half a century after his death Bernanos’ passionate and thought-provoking assessment of two World Wars, the German occupation of France, and the significance of the atomic bomb remains hardly less gripping than his astonishingly fresh, pertinent, and eloquently challenging denunciation of the threats posed to the freedom of a human race increasingly enslaved by technology.
Born 20 February 1888 in Paris. Studied at the Collège des Jésuits, until 1901; Collège Notre-Dame-des-Champs, Paris, 1901–03; Collège Saint-Célestin, Bourges, 1903–04; Collège Sainte-Marie, Aire-sur-la-Lys, 1904–06, baccalauréat, 1906; the Sorbonne, Paris, 1906–09, licence in law and literature, 1909. Military service, 1909–10. Editor, L’Avant- Garde de Normandie, 1913–14. Served in the French army, 1914–19: wounded. Married Jeanne Talbert d’Arc, 1917: three sons and three daughters. Sold insurance, 1919–27.
Columnist, Le Figaro, 1930–32. Crippled for life in a motorcycle accident, 1933. Evicted from family home because of debts, and moved to Majorca, 1934–37, then returned to France; settled in Brazil, and involved in the resistance movement, 1938–44; returned to France, 1945. Contributor to many journals, including Combat, Carrefour, L’Intransigeant, and La Bataille. Gave lectures in Switzerland, Belgium, and North Africa. Awards: Prix Fémina, for novel, 1929; French Academy Grand Prize, for novel, 1936.
Died (of liver problems) in Paris, 5 July 1948.
Essays and Related Prose
La Grande Peur des bien-pensants, 1931
Jeanne, relapse et sainte, 1934; as Sanctity Will Out: An Essay on St. Joan, translated by Rosamond Batchelor, 1947
Les Grands Cimetières sous la lune, 1938; as Diary of My Times, translated by Pamela Morris, 1938
Scandale de la vérité, 1939
Nous autres Français, 1939
Lettre aux Anglais, 1942; as Plea for Liberty: Letters to the English, the Americans, the Europeans, translated by Harry Lorin Binsse and Ruth Bethel, 1945
Le Chemin de la Croix-des-Ames (articles), 4 vols., 1943–45; in 1 vol., 1948; revised edition, edited by Jean-Loup Bernanos and Brigitte Bernanos, 1987
La France contre les robots, 1944; as Tradition of Freedom, translated by Helen B.Clark, 1950
Essais et témoignages, edited by Albert Béguin, 1949
Les Enfants humiliés, 1949
La Liberté, pour quoi faire?, edited by Albert Béguin, 1953; as Last Essays, translated by Joan and Barry Ulanov, 1955
Le Crépuscule des vieux (articles), edited by Albert Béguin, 1956
Français, si vous saviez, 1945–1948 (articles), 1961
Le Lendemain, c’est vous!, edited by Jean-Loup Bernanos, 1969
La France contre les robots, edited by Jean-Loup Bernanos, 1970
Essais et écrits de combat (Pléiade Edition), edited by Yves Bridel, Jacques Chabot, and Joseph Jurt, 1971
La Vocation spirituelle de la France, edited by Jean-Loup Bernanos, 1975
Les Prédestinés, edited by Jean-Loup Bernanos, 1983
Other writings: eight novels (Sous le soleil de Satan [The Star of Satan], 1926;
L’Imposture, 1927; La Joie [Joy], 1929; Un crime [The Crime], 1935; Journal d’un cure de campagne [The Diary of a Country Priest], 1936; Nouvelle histoire de Mouchette, 1937; Monsieur Ouine [The Open Mind], 1943; Un mauvais rêve [Night Is Darkest], 1951), the screen scenario Dialogues des Carmélites (1949; The Fearless Heart), short stories, and correspondence.
Jurt, Joseph, Georges Bernanos: Essai de bibliographie des études en langue française consacrées à Georges Bernanos, Paris: Minard, 3 vols., 1972–75
Béguin, Albert, Bernanos par lui-même, Paris: Seuil, 1982 (original edition, 1954)
Bénier, Jean, Les Royaumes de Georges Bernanos, Troyes: Librairie Bleu, 1994
Bernanos, Jean-Loup, Georges Bernanos à la merci des passants, Paris: Plon, 1986
Bush, William, Georges Bernanos, New York: Twayne, 1969
Bush, William, “Georges Bernanos,” in French Novelists, 1930–1960, edited by Catharine Savage Brosman, Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 72, Detroit: Gale Research, 1988:58–76
Chesterton Review issues on Bernanos, edited by William Bush, 15, no. 4 (November 1989) and 16, no. 1 (February 1990)
Cooke, John E., Georges Bernanos: A Study of Christian Commitment, Amersham, Buckinghamshire: Avebury Publishing, 1981
Estang, Luc, Présence de Bernanos, précédé de “Dans l’amitié de Léon Bloy” de Georges Bernanos, Paris: Plon, 1947
Estève, Michel, Bernanos, Paris: Gallimard, 1965
Estève, Michel, Georges Bernanos: Un triple itinéraire, Paris: Hachette, 1981
Gaucher, Guy, Georges Bernanos; ou, L’Invincible espérance, Paris: Cerf, 1994
Georges Bernanos in His Time and Ours, 1888–1948, special double issue of Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, edited by William Bush, 41, nos. 1–2 (Fall 1988/Winter 1989)
Gillemin, Henri, Regards sur Bernanos, Paris: Gallimard, 1976
Hebblethwaite, Peter, Bernanos: An Introduction, London: Bowes and Bowes, 1965
Milner, Max, Georges Bernanos, Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1967
Molnar, Thomas, Bernanos: His Political Thought and Prophecy, New York: Sheed and Ward, 1960
Speaight, Robert, Georges Bernanos: A Study of the Man and the Writer, London: Collins and Harvill, 1973
Urs von Balthasar, Hans, Le Chrétien Bernanos, Paris: Seuil, 1956 (original German edition, 1954)
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