Critical Context

After World War I, royalism and ultraclericalism were considered passe, but enough Frenchmen still believed in them that Under the Sun of Satan became a best-seller. Perhaps Bernanos’ counter reformatory Weltanschauung was also appealing as a reaction against secular writers, such as Andre Gide, whose stories reflected situational ethics. Whatever the reason, a book with a strongly Christian theme found a surprisingly strong market.

Bernanos’ later writings continued in the vein of this early success. Many of his books have priests as the protagonist; like Donissan, they struggle for a sense of religious purpose, seeking to serve God despite their limitations. As Menou-Segrais tells Donissan, “There is no way of judging your sincerity and clairvoyance except by your acts. What you do will bear witness for you.”

This obligation to lead a life of example reappears in the novel generally regarded as Bernanos’ masterpiece, Journal d’un cure campagne (1936; Diary of a Country Priest, 1937), which received a grand prize from the French Academy. Here the hero, a young priest dying of cancer, concludes that the real grace is to love oneself humbly “just as we might love any suffering member of the body of Jesus Christ.” Upon such basic elements of traditional morality, as much as on his stylistic mastery, rests Bernanos’ importance as a Catholic novelist.

For later generations, even less concerned with the religious issues that he tried to popularize, Bernanos’ prose, and certainly his ponderous expository organization, might make for difficult reading. Of more relevance to a society secured in the turbulent world of actual, rather than spiritual, strife, his later account of the Spanish Civil War, Les Grands Cimetieres sous la lune (1938; A Diary of My Times, 1938), might well be regarded as his real masterpiece, and his compassion for the suffering of the common man his true Christian morality.