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Summer Books

Bernanos’ ‘great novel’ murky, majestic

By Georges Bernanos
University of Nebraska Press, 256 pages, $20, paper


The University of Nebraska’s publication of Monsieur Ouine is a major literary event, offering the first chance most Americans have had to wrestle with what the author of Diary of a Country Priest designated as his “great novel.” As the name (oui/yes; ne/no) suggests, the almost Satanic title character constantly negates what he pretends to affirm. Ouine’s sinister influence brings to a head the long-simmering violence and hatred in Fenouille, a fictitious village in the Pas-de-Calais region of northern France.

Bernanos first planned to call his book A Dead Parish: A cowherd is mysteriously murdered, a young married couple commit suicide, the mayor goes mad with self-loathing, and the chatelaine, Mme. de Néréis (whom the young men in the area call Woolly-Leg) is constantly careening down the road behind a wild mare. At the center of this darkly prophetic vision of our contemporary world is the desperate search of Steeny, a fatherless adolescent, for a substitute father, whom at first he believes he has found in Monsieur Ouine.

Begun as early as 1931 but completed only in 1940 during his World War II exile in Brazil, Monsieur Ouine appeared in Brazil in 1943, and an English translation was brought out in London in 1945 under the title, The Open Mind. It was reissued in French in 1946, but received less attention than his post World War II polemical essays, sharply critical of all political factions and of the coming reign of technology.

After Bernanos died in 1948, however, Albert Béguin, his literary executor, discovered hundreds of errors in the typed manuscript from which the original publisher of Monsieur Ouine had worked, and brought out a corrected edition in 1955. It is this corrected text that Wallace S. Bush, professor emeritus at the University of Western Ontario and an international authority on Bernanos, has masterfully translated into English.

Bernanos deliberately leaves many strands of his narrative murky; even the murder of the little cowherd is left unresolved. Although the poetic power of his images and the Dostoyevskian intensity of his characterizations compel reader participation, he does not bother to present much sociological detail or surface psychology. We are compelled to grope in the dark, feeling our way uncertainly on an elemental background of good and evil.

A stranger in his own home because of the relationship between his mother and the governess, Steeny is taken to see Monsieur Ouine. This retired professor of modern languages, who dominates the chateau of the dying M. de Néréis and his wife Woolly-Leg, was probably himself seduced in his childhood by a false father figure. Steeny is unaccountably fascinated by Ouine’s powerful glance. “Like those masses of living jelly at the bottom of the sea, I float and absorb,” the old man tells the boy, who answers, “You frighten me. I would follow you to the end of the world.”

Bernanos wrote this much-interrupted novel under impossible conditions, often forced to move his large family about because of debt, and under the pressure of a contract with his publisher that meant he was always living on potential future earnings. What is amazing is not that its plot at first seems disjointed but that its nightmare world begins to fit together on close examination. Bush’s introduction is immensely helpful in teaching us how to read Monsieur Ouine, of which critic Germaine Brée wrote, “Bernanos may well be the precursor of a new approach to the novel, an innovation produced by the sheer intensity of vision on which his world rests.”

The judgment of such distinguished critics as Béguin, Brée and Bush that Monsieur Ouine is Bernanos’ greatest novel is no threat to the greater popularity of Diary of a Country Priest. Although Ouine could be considered a return to the same kind of village one encounters in Diary, a saintly priest is not its radiant center. In contrast, the ineffective young curé of Fenouille refuses to give his blessing at the public funeral for the cowherd, but his prophetic words so anger the villagers that when Woolly-Leg drives her trap recklessly on to the scene, she is almost lynched.

The ambiguous and fearful final encounter between Steeny and the dying Ouine is one of the most powerful scenes in modern fiction. Although the boy remains with him to the end, he hears his mentor concede, “I can now see to the bottom of my own depths ... and there is nothing there. Remember that word: nothing!” Steeny is amazed to hear Ouine conceding, with a groan, his longing for “A new childhood, a whole childhood.”

This should remind readers that Bernanos’ vision of the modern world, fueled by his experience of World War I, was haunted by what he saw as the slaughter of its children. It is hardly accidental that Steeny’s dream of great adventure, of setting out to find his father, has to be tested by an encounter with a high priest of negation.

Disturbing and opaque as it is, Monsieur Ouine is a powerful and lyric narration that should be read by anyone interested in Bernanos or the modern novel. Even better, read it twice!

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s film critic.

National Catholic Reporter, May 5, 2000