Tuesday, 3 June 2014
Bernanos and Robinson: states of grace
The strange world of Georges Bernanos has enveloped me since I began City Lit Opera in Focus classes on Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites, a work I'm now more convinced than ever is one of the great 20th century masterpieces. It's already prompted the most probing conversations with the students on essential matters of life, terminal illness and faith; I look forward to seeing Robert Carsen's already celebrated production at the Royal Opera next week. The source is rather extraordinary, too, a swansong screenplay written by Bernanos in the last year of his life when he knew the end was near ('is it not high time to die when one is 59?' asks young, naive and yet startlingly assured Sister Constance).
It is, like his best-loved novel The Diary of a Country Priest, about fearing one 'should not know how to die when the time came', and about the fear of fear embodied in terrified Blanche, which takes us back further to the semi-factual novella on which the screenplay is based, Gertrud von Le Fort's The Last on the Scaffold. I found it in a funny religious imprint by The Neumann Press, Long Prairie, Minnesota translated as The Song at the Scaffold (another rather lurid church publication illustrated below).
The 'song' of course is the Salve Regina which the nuns intone as they face the guillotine, the voices cutting off one by one at the swish and thud of the blade in perhaps the most shattering conclusion to any opera. And they did so in truth, along with the Veni, Creator Spiritus, in July 1794, as recorded by Mother Marie of the Incarnation, who happened to be in Paris on business when her sisters at Compiègne were arrested, and who lived on (until 1836) to tell the tale. Blanche, the protagonist, is a fictional creation, the embodiment of that fear which fascinated and to a certain extent afflicted Bernanos all his life.
His approach to it is also foreshadowed in von Le Fort's book, written in 1931 at a time when the author must have sensed another forthcoming cataclysm in her own country (she was persecuted by the Nazis and driven to Oberstdorf on the Austrian border). Into Sister Marie's mouth she puts the rhetorical question: 'Must fear and horror always be evil? Is it not possible that they may be deeper than courage, corresponding much more closely to the reality of things - the terrors of the world and especially our own weakness?' In religious terms, it's paralleled with Christ's agony - hence Blanche's appellation 'of the Agony of Christ', a title we learn the first Prioress also took - and clearly outlined in her assertion that 'there has never been more than one morning, Easter Day and every night is that of the Blessed Agony'.
You think I'm going all Catholic?* Well, all I can say is that Bernanos's grasp of the dark side of human nature is what makes his books so compelling and real. His characters pass through depression, the valley of the shadow of death, spiritual crisis, call it what you will. The nameless country priest is so badly shaken that his dark night of the soul cannot be written about. He lacks confidence, and doesn't realise the good he does simply by talking to the tormented. He knows that 'man is always at enmity with himself- a secret, sly kind of hostility', a hostility which explodes in the slippery nightmare world of Monsieur Ouine, a troubling read as I'm currently experiencing it.
There, in the work he regarded highest of all among his novels, Bernanos throws at us in a slimy, stream-of-consciousness ooze suggestions of awful depravities. The worst in The Diary of a Country Priest is, its protagonist writes,
the sin against hope - the deadliest sin, and perhaps also the most cherished, the most indulged. It takes a long time to become aware of it, and the sadness which precedes and heralds its advent is so delicious! The richest of all the devil's elixirs,his ambrosia.
One of the priest's worst moments is 'a mad rush of thoughts, words, images. In my soul, nothing. God is silent. Silence.' The link with Bergman, and above all with Winter Light, is striking (the wonderful Gunnar Björnstrand pictured below).
No wonder that Robert Bresson, another great filmmaker, was inspired by Bernanos to make Mouchette as well as the Diary (time I saw this again).
These great artists penetrate the darkest corners of the human psyche. By the way, the French film that eventually resulted from Dialogues used very little of Bernanos's script. Still, to judge from the cover of the book illustrated up top, it stars Jeanne Moreau, always worth seeing. Unfortunately the movie doesn't seem to be available on DVD at the moment.
In the cold light of Bernanos's biography - and I picked up an excellent one second-hand by Robert Speaight, whose Shakespeare study is one of my bibles - he shouldn't have anything to offer me. He started his career as a deeply conservative Catholic, anti-semitic and far too allied with the Action Française. Already, in 1926, he was tortured by his own 'grim lucidity': 'I am between the Angel of light and the Angel of darkness, looking at them each in turn with the same enraged hunger for the absolute'. His polemic could be egotistical, his satire overloaded, and that remained true even when, having stuck out the war in exile, he returned to France and railed against its post-1945 compromises. But in an important way he also became free, almost an anarchist at times.
Despair and disgust were never far away; they are partly what make his writing so powerful. His own death was almost as painful as that of the first Prioress in the Dialogues - a scene which would surely have given the Catholic church a few qualms. When Poulenc took up the thread, he gave it an extra dimension, a real spirituality similarly disrupted by doubt and pain. The human condition is at its most intense in both screenplay and opera.
A more poised, sparely-worded compassion for the soul's dark night and the possibility of grace irradiate the extraordinary novels of Marilynne Robinson.
Gilead is the book everyone urges you to read, but I'd insist that it has to be accompanied by the situation seen from a different perspective in Home. I only hope that when the time comes to turn these books into a film, it will be a long two-parter - the first seen from the Rev John Ames's viewpoint as he tries to explain it to his son, the second from Glory Boughton's. It would be invidious to declare which is the greater book; if, simply as a matter of personal taste, I prefer Home, it's because the very nature of Gilead is the narrative of a good but emotionally circumscribed man's attempt to put his deeper feelings into words and grapple with the unfamiliar devil of jealousy, while Home goes to the piercingly human heart of the damaged soul who is the real, and infinitely fascinating, subject of both books, the prodigal Jack Boughton.
Home embodies its piercing truths in dialogue and situation; Gilead gives us a few more excerptable reflections. There are several that bring us full circle to the preoccupations of Bernanos. One is this:
The history of the chuch is very complex, very mingled. I want you to know how aware I am of that fact. These days there are so many people who think loyalty to religion is benighted, if it is not worse than benighted. I am aware of that, and I know the charges that can be brought against churches are powerful. And I know, too, that my own experience of the church has been, in many senses, sheltered and parochial. In every sense, unless it really is a universal and transcendent life, unless the bread is the bread and the cup is the cup everywhere, in all circumstances, and it is a time with the Lord in Gethsemane that comes for everyone, as I deeply believe.
The second is when Jack asks Ames if he believes some people are predestined to perdition. What does he reply to people who ask him about it?
'I tell them there are certain attributes our faith assigns to God: omniscience, omnipotence, justice, and grace. We human beings have such a slight acquaintance with power and knowledge, so little conception of justice, and so slight a capacity for grace, that the workings of these great attributes together is a mystery we cannot hope to penetrate.'
Jack remains unsatisfied with the answers. But moments of grace towards the ends of both novels brought tears to my eyes. As in Bernanos, there are no simple, glib solutions to the agony of life, but some hope remains in the bottom of Pandora's jar.
*On reading which, the diplo-mate wryly pointed me in this horrifying direction.