Paul Louis Georges Bernanos (behr-nah-nohs) spent his childhood in the Artois village of Fressin, surrounded by the idyllic landscape that later provided the background for his eight novels. His education and family life were steeped in an uncompromising Catholicism, which deepened and intensified during his studies in law and letters at the University of Paris. After receiving his degree, he began a career as a political journalist, contributing mostly to such royalist conservative periodicals as Action française and Revue universelle. Bernanos believed that democratic reforms were too closely linked to consumer capitalism and would result in spiritual alienation as well as political and social exploitation.
During World War I, Bernanos served at the front for four years. Afterward, he suffered from periodic bouts of depression. The publication of his first novel, The Star of Satan, brought him considerable notice. In this compelling story, a troubled priest fluctuates between mystical spirituality and the haunting appeal of determinism. Bernanos contributed to the development of the modern theological novel, in which the priest as savior/preserver/destroyer represents the spiritual cleansing of the Church.
The Diary of a Country Priest, for which Bernanos was awarded the Grand Prix du Roman of the French Academy, reinforces the idea that the fate of the priest is connected to that of the parishioners. This agonizing parable—which bears the stamp of Fyodor Dostoevski’s influence—is a powerful study of the solicitations of divine grace. Monsieur Ouine is an innovative Kafkaesque fable that depicts a group of villagers suffering from collective guilt; each character plunges into personal chaos, a world of hallucinations and madness, and zones of darkness and incoherent mystery surround these tormented souls.
During the Spanish Civil War, Bernanos was living on the island of Majorca, where he witnessed atrocities committed by agents of Francisco Franco against Republican sympathizers and supporters. His account, A Diary of My Times, led to a break with “renouveau” Catholics in France. In reaction to the Munich Pact of 1938, Bernanos moved with his wife, Jeanne Talbert d’Arc (a descendent of Joan of Arc’s brother), and their six children to Brazil, where he actively encouraged the Free French led by his former classmate Charles de Gaulle. His Plea for Liberty is a collection of seven articles written for the Dublin Review. In 1945, he returned to France, and the following year he was one of fifty European delegates to the Geneva Peace Conference.
The theme in Bernanos’s writing of sin and death as roads to fulfillment may appear, on the surface, bitter and disconcerting, but an abiding belief in an inward light offers consolation and redemption. This uplifting affirmation is evident in Bernanos’s last work, the libretto for Francis Poulenc’s three-act opera Dialogue des Carmélites (1956).
Although the life of Georges Bernanos, born Paul Louis Georges Bernanos, began and ended in Paris, the word “restless” best describes the many wanderings that led him to towns and cities in France, Spain, South America, and Africa. Possibly of Spanish descent, his father, Émile Bernanos, was an interior decorator of good business ability. The family, which included Bernanos’s sister, Thérèse, spent the summers at Fressin, in Pas-de-Calais, and the north of France was to be the scene for almost all of Bernanos’s novels. Bernanos was influenced both by his mother’s staunch piety and by his father’s anti-Semitism. Although Bernanos was an avid reader, his childhood was marked by frequent changes in schools, for he was not a model student. He formed close ties, however, with some of his teachers—such as Abbé Lagrange at Bourges and later Dom Besse—and always showed great enthusiasm for spiritual pursuits.
In 1906, Bernanos became strongly attracted to Charles Maurras’s militant royalist movement, Action Française, to which he adhered faithfully until the beginning of the 1930’s. From 1906 to 1913, he pursued both a licence in letters and one in law at the Institut Catholique in Paris. In 1913, he moved to Rouen, where he became editor in chief of the local royalist newspaper L’Avant-garde de Normandie. It was there that he met his future wife, Jeanne Talbert d’Arc, a direct descendant of Joan of Arc’s brother. They were married in 1917, while Bernanos was still engaged in military service during World War I. It was to prove a happy and fruitful marriage—six children were born to the couple between 1918 and 1933—although it was marked by many illnesses and financial difficulties.
Bernanos’s first job, as an insurance inspector, was to be of short duration; after 1926, he devoted himself exclusively to writing, following the success of his first novel, Under the Sun of Satan. Although he continued his support of Maurras until 1931, he, like Péguy, was greatly disillusioned to see that his ideal, embodied in the Action Française, was to deteriorate into expediency. Also like Péguy, Bernanos was not without a certain hubris in his loyalty to the movement, as Balthasar notes; he manifested the self-righteousness he so criticized in others. During this period, financial pressures and inner tensions caused Bernanos frequently to uproot his family, and he settled for a time in Majorca in Spain. A motorcycle accident in 1933 left him disabled for life. In 1938, he finally left the Continent for Brazil, where he remained until 1945, returning home at the invitation of Charles de Gaulle. Despite his absence from his native country during World War II, Bernanos remained true to his great passion, France, through his frequent polemics and articles. Yet soon after his return, in 1946, he refused membership in the French Legion of Honor for the third time.
Although Bernanos’s restlessness continued (the following year would see him in Tunisia, doing work on behalf of Action Française), he completed one of his major works at this time, The Fearless Heart. With his own death imminent, the work became his spiritual testament, confronting the fear of death and the fear of loss of honor with sublime courage. Bernanos died at the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a Paris suburb, on July 5, 1948.