Going to the Margins with Georges Bernanos in Mouchette

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This installment in my ongoing review of Georges Bernanos bibliography is about his novel Mouchette, published in 1937. In the French publication it is titled as Nouvelle Histoire de Mouchette. Bernanos decided to reuse the name of a female character from his first novel, Under the Sun of Satan, for the title of this book and its main character. Unlike much of the Bernanos bibliography, Mouchette is in print and available through bookstores.

I will introduce the review with following Bible passage:

If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.

1 John 3:20

One of the expressions that Pope Francis is known for is “Going to the margins” of society. That is, we must reach out and help the poor, the mentally ill, the imprisoned as part of our love of neighbor. Those most difficult to reach should deserve special attention. Another popular expression of the Pope’s is that the Church must “accompany” those in particularly difficult situations.

The story begins with Mouchette at school, and her discomfort  with singing along with the rest of her class. They are singing the lines from a French poem, Three Days of Christopher Columbus. The first two lines, translated to English:

“Hope! … No more Hope!”

Three Days, Columbus told them, and I give you a world.

The lines apparently describe a conversation with Columbus and his despairing crew. I think Bernanos was alluding to the three days in the tomb and the Resurrection.

Mouchette has no such attention or accompaniment in her life. She is a fourteen year old girl in rural France. She is poor, and the daughter of an alcoholic father and terminally ill mother. She wears her older brother’s oversized wooden clogs everywhere, and the clopping sound they make might as well be the nails going into her very own Cross. She has no friends, and really, by the end of the novel, no hope. She can’t wait three more days. Again, deliberately, I think Bernanos chose to break up this novel of 127 pages into only three chapters.

Overall, it is a meditation on the pity of God for those on the margins, those whom God does not seem to help out of respect for our free will in ordering the affairs of the world.  Bernanos deliberately gives the reader a God’s eye view, and invites us to accompany this person on the margin of society.

A brief except to give you a flavor of Bernanos’ style in this book:

Her attention was so absorbed and so tender that it seems to be an extension of her own life. It did not occur to her to find Arsene’s face handsome. It was simply that it was made for her, and seemed as easy and natural in her gaze as the handle of her old knife in her hand, the old knife which she had found on the road one evening, and had shown to no one, and which was the only thing in the world which she possessed. She would have liked to touch his face, but its golden color, as warm as that of bread, was enough to make her happy.

 

This is a particularly good book if you are (like I hope I am not anymore) a little too quick to judge people based on the worst day of their life or after the biggest mistake they might ever make.  We don’t really know how they got there. Only God does. My local newspaper has gone mostly electronic, and its home page is steadily updated throughout the day with an endless list of crimes, deaths and various misadventures.  The people who comment on these stories are often rather cruel, criticizing the person or their family for what happened. It is far better to say a prayer for these strangers you never knew in this life … you might be the only one who does.

So you can accompany those on the margins through prayer, if nothing else is possible.

The novel was adapted into a film by the highly regarded French director Robert Bresson in 1967. The screenplay is largely faithful to the plot, though the story has been shifted forward a few decades to post-WW2 France. Bresson uses his familiar, minimalist style and relied on locals and unknowns to fill out the cast. Most of the bad stuff is not directly shown, but still, it’s not for children. It is available with subtitles. I don’t believe it won any major awards, but it was well regarded enough that the Critetion Collection decided to restore and reissue it in 2007.

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