Spiritual decay mirrors the physical decline of an indigent country priest. Stricken with a mysterious malady, facing indifference if not hostility from his parishioners, Beranos’ narrator chronicles his challenges and musings in a diary never intended to be read. The character is remarkably realized, imbued with an empathy and understanding that draws the reader in emotionally. It’s a difficult but compelling novel, where nothing ever happens but every seemingly trivial event sets in motion a spiral of introversion and rumination, philosophical musings and existential questioning.
A young priest, fresh from the seminary, is charged with his first parish. It’s a poor and rural community and the priest sets about his work with excitement and vigor. But the parishioners have little need for him or God, although they send their children to Catechism and greet him as he makes the daily rounds. Mass is poorly attended and he wonders how he can cultivate a strong Catholic community in this backwater. The priest conceives a plan for constructing a youth center, but the only person in town who could hope to fund such an ambitious project represents the local gentry.
So he begins to find himself among the upper crust, crippled with embarrassment over his humble origins and tattered clothes. The squabbles and scandals of the Chateau envelop him as he attempts spiritual counsel with the maid, reconciliation with Madame who has abandoned God after the death of her child, and the surviving daughter who torments him in the village for reasons he cannot comprehend. His lack of understanding of people and his internal struggle to accept them as good while deploring their evil causes great suffering. His neighboring clergy scoff at his methods, questioning his worn clothes and ramshackle home. They, of the stately robes and rings, try to convince him to threaten people with God, loud booming voices, use the fear of mortality. The children of the village mock him in Catechism, spread rumors of his behavior to their parents, deride him in public. Each confrontation leads to despair and hopeless prayer for understanding.
His only friend is a fallen Catholic from school who lives in a nearby city. Although invitations to visit are mentioned in every letter the priest cannot seem to bring himself to make the journey. He admires the town doctor, an avowed and unapologetic atheist who speaks plainly, lives the life of a woodsman and carries on great debates about humankind and nature. The greatest joy the priest has ever known comes from meeting a member of the Legion, a young man riding the back roads on a motorcycle who has seen no evidence of God in the world. The freedom of floating, speeding forward, is tethered by the dark turmoil of losing faith. He finds he can no longer pray, although he lays prostrate through the night seeking guidance. Can there really be any hope for man whose soul is so black, motivations so selfish, capacity for cruelty so great?
Throughout the days the priest’s health is failing. Sharp pains plague his stomach until he can hardly hold his dinner. Each night he suffers, unable to find solace in sleep. His meals are slowly whittled down to dry crusts of bread soaked in cheap farmer’s wine. Pale, weak, often near fainting, his sickness fuels more sharp tongues behind his back. Villagers whisper about his alcoholism, noting his strange and seemingly erratic behavior. Suggestions to go to the city to see a specialist are frequent, but again the priest can never seem to bring himself to go.
Beranos has crafted a heartbreakingly human tragedy that speaks with a genuine voice. The writing mimics a diary well, full of rants, diversions, suspicions and recounting. In some ways it reminded me of “Walden”, inasmuch as the major threads can be broken into events of the day or the thoughts of the writer. The retellings of meetings the priest has with his parishioners do read a little too neat at times, although the inner dialogue which guides them is ultimately credible. The general milieu of musings, spiritual crises and pondering often slow the pace down, but the depth of emotional turmoil achieved carries its own plodding cadence.
Although Catholicism plays a major role in the story it yields easily to any spiritual examination. There is no overwhelming papal influence, just people who have been charged by their greater deity to nourish the lives of their parishioners. What’s curious to me, beyond the priest finding common ground with only those who have no need for religion in their lives, is the amount of arrogance that the narrator exhibits in his assumed role. His abject poverty, his suffering for mankind, his exhibitions of humility before all often comes off as deeply contrived. He wouldn’t be the only person with a Jesus complex, but rarely does someone openly share their thought processes which place them on such a pedestal. However the priest’s intentions are pure, despite delusions of grandeur. His ideas of self are ultimately human failures, similar to those which afflict the people around him who he finds incomprehensible. His very human nature in the end is his salvation.
The author was similarly committed to the church throughout his life, once considering the priesthood; the closest he got was marrying a distant descendent of Joan d’Arc. Initially a royalist his politics deviated from the extreme conservative as he fought in the trenches of Verdun and into the post-war years as a clerk. His writing career began late when Bernanos was nearly forty. His first books examined religion and spiritual crises, then grew into socially conscious and political novels attacking the middle class and royalists alike. By the late 1930’s he emigrated, disabled and financially unstable, to Brazil where he stayed throughout the war. From afar he mocked the Vichy Regime and supported De Gualle and the French Resistance, the latter of which eventually lured him back to the Republic after the end of combat. He died a few years later, respected by his peers but unknown to many outside the literary world.
Image of Georges Beranos uncredited. My copy of The Diary of a Country Priest was published by Carroll & Graf in 1983. The book was originally published in 1936. Robert Bresson directed both an adaptation of this book, a movie which I think worthy of owning, as well as Nouvelle histoire de Mouchette.