With this post I continue my reviews of stories written by non-English speaking Catholics which may be unfamiliar to an Anglophone audience. Here I review Georges Bernanos’ novel Sous le soleil de Satan, which was translated from French into English as Under Satan’s Sun (some translations use Under the Sun of Satan). It was Bernanos’ first novel, and published in 1926.
Most of the translated versions of Bernanos’ work are out of print, and will not be found at your local library or bookstore. Unless you want to buy a used copy for $100 on Amazon, you may need to make use of the “interlibrary loan” process, in which you can ask your local lending library to request his books from a university library. This is a free service, and I have found it to work quite well.
In Under Satan’s Sun, Bernanos explores what a real saint might think and experience. This is not a dry, matter of fact or even reverent biography of a saint we have probably all read at one time or another. Rather, Bernanos tries to imagine the interior suffering and day to day experience of a saint, their flaws and even their mistakes. The role of the saint in the world and Church was an endlessly fascinating subject for Bernanos, and the topic of several long essays.
The protagonist of the book is Father Donissan, a priest living in the French countryside. No dates are given, but the events of the book roughly overlap the late 19th century and early 20th century. Donissan is of peasant background, and somewhat rough around the edges in appearance and personality. He struggled in the seminary, and is having difficulty in his first assignment. Bernanos very loosely based him on John Vianney and, to a lesser extent, Therese of Lisieux, who along with Joan of Arc, were probably Bernanos’ three favorite saints.
However, Donissan is not present in the book’s first act, which instead tells the story of Germaine Malorthy, later nicknamed “Mouchette” (meaning “little fly”). “Malorthy” appears to be a made-up last name, perhaps suggesting both “sick” (Mal in French) and “straight” (from the Greek Orth). Bernanos may have intended to allude to the concept of original sin with this name.
Mouchette is both antagonist and victim. As antagonist, Bernanos illustrates the banality of evil, and how a series of mistakes, misunderstandings, and emotional turbulence can lead one to a very dark place. It is intended to be a compassionate portrait, and it is Bernanos speaking when he later has Donissan tell her that her great crime was no sin in God’s eyes, because her freedom had been compromised by Satan.
But she is also a victim of Satan, the clown prince of the world, and a real presence in the book. Bernanos accepted that the devil was real, and an omnipresent foe of humanity. The idea may seem strange to the contemporary reader, but the suffering of Donissan, much less the mystery of evil in the world, doesn’t make much sense without this. If I may borrow from the language of software, Satan is a bug, not a feature. Bernanos’ Satan primarily manifests as a mental presence weighing the soul down at every turn. This is not The Exorcist, and Bernanos’ Satan wages a campaign of interior, spiritual warfare to lead his enemy, us, into doubt, despair and self-hate. Satan is eager to intervene during Mouchette’s confrontation with Donissan:
But then help – a help never sought in vain – came to her from a master who grows more attentive and harder with every day that passes; a dream she could scarcely distinguish from other dreams, a scarcely more bitter desire, a companion and tormentor now real and living, in turn plaintive and languid, the source of tears, more pressing, brutal, and eager to compel, and then, at the decisive moment, cruel and ferocious, fully present in a laugh full of pain, bitter, once a servant and now a master.
Mouchette is sixteen, and sort of an infernal version of the Virgin Mary. She is a savage child, striking out at everyone in her spiritual revolt. Bernanos describes her as a “bride of hell” in the making, and I will simply say it is a photo finish as to whether she consummated her nuptials with God or the Devil.
But the key spiritual struggle is between Donissan and Satan, which is begun during the second act of the book, titled “The Temptation of Despair.” The two have an encounter of sorts during a long walk Donissan makes on a cold and miserable night to a remote parish. If you have ever had one of those sleeps where you wake up ten or more times, and seem to drift from one dream fragment to the next in a night that does not end … well that’s what happens to Donissan in a way.
Donissan has been gifted with the supernatural charism known as cardiognosis, or the reading of people’s hearts. St. John Vianney apparently had this, and became a famed confessor because of it. Because of his gift, Donissan is subjected, or allows himself to be subjected, to a particular temptation: despair. The weight of seeing so many people’s sins and their lack of repentance torments him. He makes a wager of sorts, offering his happiness and even salvation in an effort to save souls. Donissan is also overly scrupulous and prone to unnecessary acts of mortification and penance. His opponent plays on this and his combative nature to draw Donissan away from reliance on God’s mercy into a cycle of self-hate, despair and doubt. Thus an interior tug of war begins that will last his whole life:
What he was about to turn against so foolishly, however, was the mysterious joy still awake in his mind, a small, clear flame scarcely flickering in the wind. His arid soul, which had never known any other consolation than a mute and resigned sadness, was first astonished, then frightened, and finally irritated by the inexplicable sweetness. At the first stage of ascension, vertigo strikes, and the fledgling mystic struggles with all his might to break out of the passive contemplation and inner silence, disturbed by its apparent idleness … The Other, who had interposed himself between Donissan and God, concealed himself with utmost skill, advancing, withdrawing, advancing again, carefully, sagaciously, and attentively leading him on.
Donissan is not a follower of Therese’s “Little Way.” He chooses to meet his foe head on.
If you yourself have tendencies to scrupulousness, you might see yourself in him, and have a new insight as to where these feelings come from … not somewhere good. For self-hate is really another form of pride, an unwillingness to humbly accept whatever flaws or limitations God has allowed us to endure. There was much of the young Bernanos in this book and character, and the older man later reflected on overcoming this in his usual, very quotable way:
The hard thing is not loving your neighbor as yourself. It’s loving yourself enough so that the literal observance of the precept will not do harm to your neighbor.
The third act, titled “The Saint of Lumbres”, takes place some years after the conclusion of the second act. Donissan has been placed in charge of a small parish in a rural part of France, and is no longer a young man. Like John Vianney, he has acquired a reputation as a gifted confessor and miracle worker. Bernanos uses this part to illustrate how a saint must walk much the same the same path that Jesus did while on earth. Donissan is besieged by parishioners and visitors, like Jesus was surrounded by crowds. He is looked at with skepticism and suspicion by the Church, much like Jesus was doubted and questioned by the religious authorities of the day. Donissan, tired and worn down by the unending demands and sins of others, undergoes one last, severe crisis of faith near the end of the book, like Christ on the Cross asking if God had abandoned him.
In terms of style, I find that Bernanos writes in a way very different from contemporary authors. There are long, discursive paragraphs of dialogue or a character’s thoughts. I think much of it is quite beautiful, but one may find him, justifiably, long-winded at times.
In later years, Bernanos referred to the novel as the “fireworks display” of a young man. While this book portrayed the saint as a hero, his later works presented the saint as a more ordinary sort of fellow who is fully cooperative with God’s grace. The confrontation between good and evil is less dramatic, and more in line with the normal day-to-day choices and temptations of the typical person.
The novel was adapted into a movie by Director Maurice Pialat, and won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1987. Gerard Depardieu played Father Donissan. It was well reviewed, but I have to admit feeling a bit disappointed with the film. But I usually am with adaptations of books I like. The director clearly had a respect for the source, and the adaptation is reasonably faithful to the plot. However, given that half the book or more is about what’s going on inside people’s heads, I found it somewhat fragmentary. The actress who played Mouchette, who was 20, also seemed too old for the part of a sixteen year old girl.
If you read it and like it, a far more insightful and in-depth of treatment of the book is given in Bernanos: An Ecclesial Life, in which Hans Urs Von Balthasar reviews and analyzes the spiritual themes of his entire bibliography.