- Bruckberger: L’enfant terrible by Bernard and Bernadette Chovelon
The French Dominican Raymond-Léopold Bruckberger (1907–98) described himself as an “unworthy priest.” But he also established a transatlantic reputation as cultural critic, renowned author, cinematic artiste, member of the French Resistance, bon vivant, and—as his successor in the Académie française put it—“enfant terrible of the Church.” Bernard and Bernadette Chovelon have written their biography Bruckberger: L’enfant terrible to convey to readers in the twenty-first century a sense of this turbulent priest’s “unconditional love for Jesus Christ” that “traversed the numerous and violent tempests of his life without ever weakening” (p. 11).
Bruckberger’s life began in the southern French town of Murat, the fourth of five children born to an Austrian industrialist father and the daughter of a local café owner. The family was left destitute when Franck Bruckberger was arrested in 1914 as an enemy alien. Poverty and shame clouded the remainder of Raymond’s childhood. His mother’s sorrow and bitterness were exacerbated by the fact that her husband never rejoined the family after the war, years passing before it was revealed that [End Page 165] he had resettled in his native land. The authors emphasize young Bruckberger’s conflicted relationship with his absent father and see in this early trauma the catalyst for his combative spirit, intense creativity, fervent patriotism, and restless search for love. His Catholic faith became a sure refuge within an otherwise rootless life.
Entering the Dominican order in 1929, Bruckberger was ordained a priest in 1934. His work editing the Revue thomiste in Paris brought him into collaborative contact with French Catholic intellectuals such as the philosopher Jacques Maritain, who introduced him to the novelist Georges Bernanos, with whom he forged a deep and lasting friendship. Increasingly, “Bruck” craved the spotlight and would be drawn to the world of French letters and cinema. After serving with valor in the 1940 campaign, Bruckberger was taken prisoner by the Germans, escaped captivity, fled to Marseilles, and eventually joined the Resistance. He was captured and only saved from a firing squad by the personal intervention of his former commanding officer and erstwhile friend Joseph Darnand, later the commander of Vichy’s paramilitary Milice. The priest would later try in vain to save the lives of Darnand and other collaborators condemned to death after the war.
Bruckberger’s cinematic career began when he worked with director Robert Bresson on realizing Les Anges du Péché (1943) and later directing his own film Le Dialogue des Carmelites (1960). After the Liberation, Bruckberger—who had accompanied Charles de Gaulle into Notre Dame on August 26, 1944, even as Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard was banned from his cathedral—lived the life of an auteur, celebrity, and contrarian increasingly at odds with the religious order in which he had taken his vows. A brief stay in the south Algerian desert did not reconcile him to his clerical superiors. After a sojourn in America in the 1950s, he lived in Greece, by now having begun a romantic liaison with an American woman named Barbara. He nonetheless insisted on his fidelity both to Jesus Christ and to his order, and the best-selling author achieved increased fame and notoriety in the 1960s as a critic of modernism within the Catholic Church and what he saw as the baleful impact of the Second Vatican Council. Moving to Switzerland, he was elected to the French Academy in 1984 (he won out over Emmanuel Levinas) and finished his days in a Dominican retirement community in Fribourg.
The Chovelons have fashioned an engaging and informative narrative that gives evidence of both strong personal admiration and an eye for biographical detail. Based on a thorough reading of Bruckberger’s published works (he published at least twenty-eight books, for example), as well as the abundant media coverage of his career, the reader is introduced to a remarkable and almost forgotten French Catholic priest, intellectual, artist, and controversialist. The authors...