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Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 4.1 (2001) 76-97
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Georges Bernanos's Monsieur Ouine: The "Great Novel" of "The Greatest Novelist of His Time"
André Malraux, Charles De Gaulle's brilliant Minister of Culture, once referred to Georges Bernanos, some thirty years after his death, as "the greatest novelist of his time." Since no one could possibly accuse André Malraux, a nonbeliever, of having any Catholic axe to grind, it is mind-boggling to think that all those novelists touted by the critics of Bernanos's time--that is, Gide, Giraudoux, Mauriac, Sartre, Camus, Genêt, Julian Green, and Malraux himself--were, in Malraux's mind, of lesser stature than Georges Bernanos.
Certainly, over the more than half-century following Bernanos's early death from cancer of the liver at age sixty in 1948, this father of six children has shown far more staying power, not just as a novelist, but as a Christian novelist, than his better-known contemporaries, be it his more famous Catholic contemporary and member of the French Academy, François Mauriac, or his two best-known English Catholic contemporaries, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh.
Bernanos's staying power as a Christian, speaking not only to Christians, but also for Christians, is derived from the simple fact that [End Page 76] Christianity's great and unique truth that God was made man in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary was, for Bernanos, a nonnegotiable one. Indeed, the platform provided by the Incarnation of Almighty God in the person of Jesus Christ, and in the reign of Augustus Caesar, was the basis for all of Bernanos's thought, and the one vibrant reality around which beat his great and generous heart. To all men of good will who accepted this truth, Bernanos reminds us, peace was promised by the angel of Bethlehem.
Certainly, it was the uniquely Christian quality of Bernanos's voice that struck me when, at age twenty-three, I first heard it reverberate from the pages of his first novel, Under the Sun of Satan. Nothing in fact has ever quite been the same since, be it the way I look at literature, at man, or, especially, at the mystery of God manifested in human life. That voice, like a voice crying in the wilderness, seemed to cry out to me in a very personal way at age twenty-three, prompting me to explore the truth about Christianity, challenging me to dare open myself up to the mysteries that Bernanos himself had loved and explored in his life as a believer.
I have long pondered how it was possible that my first reading of Under the Sun of Satan made Georges Bernanos--whom I had never even heard of before--a sort of instantaneous spiritual master for me. Whatever the explanation, it was in that novel that Bernanos taught me just what it means to accept the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ as the one truly urgent and burning reality, not only in one's religious life, but also in one's intellectual life. Bernanos insists, as might the most Orthodox monastic spiritual father of the desert, that the only really living, burning reality in life is the fact that God was made man. Neither life, nor death, nor all that one may be given to suffer and endure in this life can possibly compete in importance with the implications of that basic fact on the life of each of us.
Bernanos's very Christian voice in Under the Sun of Satan also awakened me to the fact that within the divine economy, the sufferings [End Page 77] of Christ are indeed continued in those who love Him, thereby perpetuating His Incarnation within His Mystical Body, the Church. St. Paul writes of this to the Colossians when he speaks of "making up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ" (Col. 1:24), a Christian truth shunned, ignored, or even unheard...