The Diary of a Country Priest (1936) by Georges Bernanos is as timely now as ever. It can be appreciated for its powerful Christian vision, its pertinence to today’s social illnesses, and its literary excellence, as shown in narrative technique, style, character portraits, and subtle plot development. I’ve taught it repeatedly. In a summer course once, as a rare gesture I let students choose one novel to be skipped on the final examination. Nearly unanimously, they chose Bernanos’s masterpiece. Yet De Gaulle called it “the greatest French novel,” and André Malraux deemed Bernanos to be “the greatest novelist of his time.”
But The Diary has always gone against modern literary taste. When it was written in 1930s France, the country was torn by political crises. Many writers had turned to left-wing journalism or taken up socialist realism. To be an intellectual in France then, as now, generally meant to be “progressive.” Bernanos didn’t fit the fashion: he was a fervent, activist Catholic and monarchist, both orthodox and atypical by his intellectual and moral independence; sometimes he managed to offend all parties. His wife was Jehanne Talbert d’Arc, an indirect descendant of Saint Joan. From his youth he always opposed progressivism and secularism, while denouncing the capitalist idol of mammon. He served bravely in the Great War. In 1936, he was initially enthusiastic about Franco, but then shortly denounced him for ordering mass executions.
The novel concerns a young, idealistic priest in a dreary northern village, where poverty, sordidness, tedium, and pettiness characterize daily life. Well-meaning but ineffectual, the priest is not welcomed. His friendly overtures fail; his catechism class mocks him. Unwell, he wonders whether his faith is ebbing along with his strength.
He soon becomes embroiled in local intrigues. The count is carrying on an affair with his daughter’s governess. The daughter, Chantal, estranged from her mother, is crushed by her father’s conduct, which she considers a betrayal. Cynical, bitter, and antagonistic, she is close to despair. Meanwhile, her mother, the countess, blames God for having taken the life of her little son. The priest intervenes and manages to reconcile her with God, despite his own self-doubts. Her spirit at peace, the countess dies of a heart attack. Chantal then devises new tortures for the priest, spreading word that he caused her mother’s death.
The novel illustrates Bernanos’s conviction that evil, the demonic, is a real force, always battling good, interwoven with it. To appreciate fully his novel one must accept his premise that the main drama is God working in the world, despite contrary appearances, and through mysterious agency. The novel’s final words are those of St. Thérèse of Lisieux: “Tout est grâce.”
—Catharine Savage Brosman
We are now experiencing a breakdown of normal politics, as Democrats in Congress refuse to accept a legitimately elected Republican because they are unhappy with the Electoral College, and the 1787 Constitution of which it is such a vital part. The framers of that document were trying to steer between the Scylla of arbitrary monarchy and hereditary aristocracy and the Charybdis of untrammeled democracy.
It worked pretty well for almost two centuries (with the exception, of course, of the Civil War and Reconstruction), but things started to fall apart when the culture wars began in the 1960s. How we put things back together is our problem now. The election of Donald Trump is an opportunity to return to at least some of the virtues of the Old Republic.
Gordon Wood is inspirational in this regard. I consider him the greatest living American historian, a winner of the Bancroft and Pulitzer prizes, and no writing—save The Federalist Papers—does a better job explaining the Constitution than Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787 (1969). I have begun to work my way through Wood’s essay collections, including Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different (2006).
This is a collection of brief biographies of eight men (George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Adams, Thomas Paine, and Aaron Burr), all of whom were deeply involved in the American Revolution and its aftermath. Wood’s thesis is twofold. He argues these Founders were essentially aristocratic, but that the Constitutional structure they put in place actually led to populism and the preeminence of public opinion in politics. This was contrary to, and undermined, the noble notions that motivated the Founders.
Wood writes with Olympian detachment and skill, but even so he may have underestimated the continuing power of the framers’ ideas and character, and their virtuous example. Washington’s valor, Franklin’s sagacity, Jefferson’s idealism, Madison and Hamilton’s insights into the foibles of humankind, Paine’s voice for popular sovereignty, and Aaron Burr’s venality reveal timeless truths about what Americans might still become.
Alone among the historians of the early American Republic, Wood has maintained an essentially conservative outlook. In a profession now leaning far to the left, he is himself a check and balance to history. Wood believes that we can never return to the world of the Founders, but by bringing their world to life so elegantly and provocatively, he actually gives his readers hope that he’s wrong.
—Stephen B. Presser