|Publisher:||UNP - Bison Books|
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About the Author
Georges Bernanos (1888–1948), one of the twentieth century’s most powerful and idiosyncratic writers, was also the most original Roman Catholic writer of his time. Singularly ambiguous, mysterious, and highly paradoxical, Monsieur Ouine was first published in 1943. Of Bernanos’s eight novels, it was the one that he himself dubbed his “great novel.” This is the first English translation of the definitive 1955 French edition. William S. Bush is a professor emeritus of French at the University of Western Ontario and is known internationally for his volumes in both French and English on Georges Bernanos.
Read an Excerpt
Between her two long hands those long, gentle hands shetook his little face, gazing with calm boldness right intoSteeny's eyes. How pale his eyes were! You'd say they were in retreat,disappearing bit by bit ... growing paler still, turning bluishgray, barely animate, with a golden fleck dancing in them.
"No! No!" shrieked Steeny. "No!"
He suddenly jerked backward, his teeth clenched, his prettyface taut with anguish, as if about to vomit. Oh my!
From the other side of the closed shutters, a nearby voicecalled uneasily, "What's going on? What is it, Steeny? Is that you,Miss?"
But, in a fury, she had already violently pushed him away andstood in the doorway, completely indifferent.
"Why, Steeny! You bad boy!"
He shrugged his shoulders and cast a hard look in the directionof the door, the look of a man.
"I thought I heard you cry out," the voice replied, already indifferent."If you go out, look out for the sun, my darling. Whatheat!"
Indeed, what heat! The air vibrated between the wooden strips.With his nose pressed against the shutter, Steeny could smell it,breathe it in, feel it penetrate that magic place down at the bottomof his lungs where all the joys and terrors of the world are felt ...
Again! Once again! It smelled of paint and putty, a smellstronger than alcohol, bizarrely mixedwith the ever muggy breathof the great lindens along the driveway. But sleep had alreadytreacherously caught him by the neck like an assassin, even beforehe closed his eyes. Slowly the narrow window shivered,moved, then stretched unduly lengthwise, as though blown fromabove. The whole room accompanied it; the four walls seemedcaught by the wind and suddenly billowed like sails ...
* * *
The shutters banged, light came pouring into the room.
"What madness to choose such a place to sleep! We could hearyou from the other side of the lawn. Isn't that right, Miss?"
"It's just that Monsieur Steeny should not take midday naps;the doctor has forbidden it."
She placed her hand on his forehead, or rather, pressing herpalm against his temples, she slipped her mysterious, ever freshfingers into his tousled hair and moved them slowly, carefully.
"If madame will allow me ..."
But madame nodded her head as if consenting to everythingwhatdifference did it make!so long as night came quickly.Night! She vainly tried to suppress the shiver of pleasure movinglike a ripple across her pretty face.
"Steeny will come with me. I'm going to take the dog for awalk."
Maman, in a gesture of defense, stepped back, propping hershoulder against the wall and folding an arm over her breast.Though that "no" had been articulated in an rather low voice, itcut the air like a bullet. Had it really come from that little boy?But already she was facing the situation, holding her chin up, uncoveringher chattering teeth. With all the strength and courageof her young life she confronted the familiar but invisible presence,the presence of him who had disappeared and been swallowedup, that eternally absent but ever present one whose voiceshe had just recognized.
"I don't like for people to say no, Steeny. And remember, neversay no to a lady, ever. A gentleman doesn't do that."
Miss blushed with surprised emotion in a sort of deliciousseizure. Her golden gaze enveloped her mistress.
"If madame will allow me, I'll go alone. Right, Steeny?"
From the outside she suddenly seized him by the waist, astreacherous and supple as an animal with her immense head offlaming hair, brutally jerking him back into the full sunlight, atthe risk of hitting his chest against the ledge. For a long time now,he had known her calculated, tricky violence, these ferocious caresses,overwhelming him with curiosity, terror, and a sort of indescribablenausea. No, no! Let that secret be theirs alone. Desperatelyhe avoided her gaze, clenching his teeth so as not to cryout. Maman smiled.
"Let him go, Miss."
She did let him go. He felt her cruel arms go limp around hisshoulders. He felt her embrace relax as quickly as it had engulfedhim under the distracted eyes of Maman who, somehow, seemedvaguely compliant. Then they went off together, turning theirbacks on him, closely pressed one against the other, keeping in thenarrow strip of shade as much as possible. Softly he stammeredafter her, for himself alone, "You liar! You liar!" But why "liar?"
Maman was an unfathomable, sensitive woman, that is to say,admirably protected against the strong disappointments of life.She said that across the years, and as far back as she could remember,her memory only offered her a monotonous successionof futile happenings, similar to the crashing of the sea against asolid slope: the flow caressed it without using it up. To the formerpriest of Fenouille, courteously surprised to find her so resignedand docile before the will of a Providence that, be it understood,she feigned not to know (not out of malice, to be sure, but perhapsout of some sort of stubborn mistrustvery feminine, alas!of aspiritualist philosophy that, one must admit, often proves exacting!)she had answered simply, "Gentleness always wins out.""Dear lady," the worthy man had cried, "you have just spoken likea saint!" And it was true that nothing had ever resisted that gentleness.Never. Ever. By always calling upon that irrefutable witness("gentleness, my gentleness") she seemed to have got herselfcaught in her own game, like a child who has drawn an imaginarytiger on the wall. For so many poor devils gentleness is only a negativequality, a pure abstraction, nothing but an absence, an absenceof malice or wickedness. But for her it had proven itself prudentin its aims, strong in its conquests, vigilant in its protection.How not think of it as some species of familiar animal? Betweenherself and life, this industrious rodent multiplied its dikes, digging,hollowing out, clearing up, watching the level of the treacherouswater day and night. Gentleness, gentleness, gentleness! Atthe slightest suspect shadow on the tranquil mirror, the littlebeast raised its slender snout, left the shore, swam to the obstacle,using its tail and paws, and began to gnaw silently, assiduously, indefatigably.Imperceptibly the black spot would then diminish,disappearing even before the eye had perceived anything otherthan a thin silver ripple. Sometimes after dinner, in the lamplight,when a slight lassitude invited her to dreams and regrets, shewould sigh, letting her chin drop between her hands. She thoughtabout her strength and how too kind a fate had never allowed herto give her full measure her profound experience of beings andtheir weaknesses, of their secret fragility an experience scarcelycontrolled by the mind and hardly distinguishable from the obscurepremonitions of instinct, which she was certainly incapableof passing on to anyone else. "I've never understood anythingabout life," she would say, "except that it has always carried me tothe goal I wanted to achieve." And, for the edification of the priestof Fenouille, she added, not without coquetry, "When I was just alittle thing, I had a terrible fear of men. Then, one day I understoodthat things that gesticulate aren't dangerous." But where didthat supple genius come from, that insect's patience, that inexorableclairvoyance that allowed her, sure of her position, to awaitthe adversary's lassitude, his first weak or forgetful movement?From her father, perhaps, who had died very young and whosepale face with its blue-circled eyes and nervous, restless mouth,made for lies and caresses, she also possessed, even as she possessedhis gesture of imperceptibly drawing up her upper body atthe slightest appearance of contradiction.
"Your grandfather," she said to Steeny, "was the most deliciousman, seductive like a woman; your grandmother adored him."
Indeed, she had adored him to the point of flattering the onlyvice he was capable of having: laziness, which very quickly becamemonstrous and all-devouring. And once his modest job hadbeen lost and his inheritance dissipated, the unfortunate womantried, according to that terrible expression (one of the most admirablein bourgeois vocabulary), to "profit from her education"by going out to tutor. To her family's supplications she respondedwith the prodigious assurance of sacrificial beings, "Lucien is moreill than you think," terrible words to which the unfortunate man,devoured by boredom, offered only a powerless resistance. In fact,surrounded by helplessness and sarcasms from those nearest him,he finally died, after an interminable agony, from a death thatdragged on for months and got on with it as slowly as his life haddone. Michelle was then eight. She would always remember thatblack December, the smell of guaiacol and tea, the rain resoundingagainst the windows, and those terrifying silences. All nightlong her exhausted mother trotted from bedroom to kitchen. Thefloor squeaked, the water whistled in the kettle, the glasses clinked;the little girl would fall into an uneasy sleep until the light wasturned on again in the corridor, glaring through the cracks aroundthe door. Should she call? ... But she feared even more seeingthat burning, unbearable gaze appear in the doorway, lost in a halfsleep resembling a sort of hallucination, the gaze of her who hadbeen, as it were, metamorphosed by awaiting misfortune, a gazethat almost made her feel an outsider. What could she do againstthose two threatening beings bound together by some unknownpact, partners in a sinister game? So she buried her head in thehollow of her pillow, gathered together her childish strength, andforced herself to smile awkwardly, in secret, for herself alone.Gentleness, gentleness, gentleness ... A sure instinct warned herthat any revolt she might make to achieve a bit of relief wouldonly subject her more completely to those two companions engagedin a frightening adventure. It was just a question of closingher heart, of breaking contact that rapid little tricky heartwhose beat she listened to with her finger on her temple hervery life, her little life, her life to be protected, to be defended!"Look out for the heart!" the doctor repeated every evening, fromthe depths of the dark vestibule. "Take care of the heart; theheart can give out." Day after day she believed that her own fatewas tied to that failing heart, and she was ready to detest that gray,taciturn man who thus pulled her into the dark, into death, butshe finally understood that there was no connection and that evenonce the other heart was immobile, her own would go on with itstask like a mouse nibbling away. It was just that the habit hadbeen established of looking out for that too fragile little servant.Gentleness, gentleness ... "Michelle is an angel!" Maman cried."Poor darling, she seems to understand everything, she does understandeverything!" And it was true that she vaguely understoodthat the end was approaching but, indeed O wonder! thatdreaded day was just like other days, neither better nor worse:the half-closed curtains, the table laid, the white tablecloth, thewhispering voices, a mellow silence ... Toward evening her miserablemother, at the end of her strength, as proud and as red aswhen, at Candlemas, she tossed steaming pancakes in the pan,threw herself on her daughter, "Oh, my darling ..." Fortunately,almost immediately, she put her back down: "Don't take so muchon yourself, my love. You frighten me!" Or else, "You've been sostrong, so patient. Three months now I've left you, my goodness!Ah, Mimi, we'll never be separated again."
* * *
In fact, they never were separated again. Maman died much later,six months after the marriage of Michelle in Béthune at Philippe'shome one of those horrid brick cubes with a tiny porch. Underthe windows, in a cloud of golden haze, the absurd crowd of anorthern-French Sunday passed by. The papers that evening announcedthe mobilization of the Russian army. "Be careful withher," sighed the dying woman one last time in the ear of her son-in-law."Ah, yes! Philippe, be careful with her, try to understandher!" Alas, alas, it was already too late. That big youth with thetough profile belonged to the enemy race, to the voracious race ofthose who never measure their impulses and throw themselves onthe beloved woman as upon a prey. For a moment she had seenMichelle weaken. Between those powerful hands, that girl whowas so solid and so good suddenly appeared another being, unrecognizable,with her face hollowed and sorrowful, with longpouts and sharp, strident laughs cutting through the thickness ofthe walls, causing the old lady to tremble in her chair: "You'd sayit was the cry of a wild goose at night when the wind is down." Fora few weeks the brick house resounded with furious scenes, then,by degrees, the echoes grew calmer and silence fell around thegreedy man as ingenious gentleness began once more to spin itswebs. "He's a poet," sighed Michelle, "a big child. He snatchesyou up but five minutes later doesn't know what to do with youand looks for a dark corner to put you down in." He disappearedduring a counterattack on 28 December 1916. "In addition to thevarious pieces of information gathered, and notably from the veryprecise statement of Lieutenant Deboulov, it is unfortunately certainthat in the territory between Saint-Jean-du-Loup and Hill 193none of the wounded could have survived because of the thicklayer of gas remaining in the hollows that made it impossible tohold our position the morning of the 29th."
Steeny was only a made-up name, a nickname borrowedby Michelle from her favorite English novel. Steeny's name wasPhilippe, like his father's he who had disappeared, had beenswallowed up. He didn't like that nickname too much, to be sure,but his real name frightened him. As a game, perhaps or perhapswith some other motivation? Miss sometimes called him byit. And it was she alone who dared pronounce the two funerealsyllables of "Papa," usually on the spur of the moment, andSteeny would shiver in spite of himself ... The portrait of thedead man was on his little worktable between the two old volumesof Quicherat; sure of finding it there every morning, he scarcelylooked at it. For years that father he had never seen had remainedfor him a legendary character, just barely distinguishable fromother heroes, from those stupid, sordid, and wordy war heroeswhose stories were told in the Young People's Journal until theday he had crawled on hands and knees into the depths of one ofthose immense wardrobes in the attic that Michelle called, forsome reason, "purgatory," which served as a second linen room,where he had suddenly picked up a strange odor, a strangely aliveodor; and almost immediately he recognized but from where?from when? tobacco, pepper, sandalwood, that sandalwoodMichelle hated. Oh my! Snatched from his hiding place as thoughby an enraged hand, he found himself sitting on the floor, automaticallycrushing to his breast a stiff, cold, corduroy jacket heimmediately threw back into the shadows. Since then the name ofPhilippe frightened him. Poor Philippe! Twenty times, a hundredtimes, he had made himself promise, he had sworn to himself togo back up there, on an afternoon like this one when everyonewas asleep. Being caught by Michelle would be ridiculous. Hewould grab as many of those relics as he could by the armload, bythe great armload, just as he would have carried the other's bleedingbody under fire ... And that funereal odor would float aboutfor a long time until evening when Michelle, leaning her head andwiggling her nose, would say, "Ugh! How awful!" Fortunately thebooty would already be in his wardrobe and he'd have the key inhis pocket. "Steeny, you've been smoking! Yes! You've been smoking,I swear it! Your whole room reeks of tobacco, it's disgusting!"
* * *
But today as yesterday, as always, it was only a dream: that enterpriseto introduce a dead man into the heart of a life already sofull. For ten years, except for brief holidays, Philippe had seennothing of the world except the house surrounded by pines withits old-fashioned garden, its vegetable plot, and its little tree-coveredpromenade. Beyond lay the tiny village and the thinblond road twining around itself like a viper, going nowhere.Michelle had wanted this solitude. "I shall not make Steeny intoone of those horrid grimacing little men, one of those littleschoolboy monkeys." Besides, the only school to be consideredwas at Boulogne and run by priests of the diocese, former assistantpriests without a parish who smelled of grime and ink. "I metthe superior once an old woman, a real old woman, soft andround-faced with enormous hips. 'Madame, you give us a childand we give you back a man.' 'A man, monsieur, I know what thatis! He has lots of time to become that.'" And no doubt she lovedher son passionately, yet she had put off for as long as she couldthat inevitable, fatal hour when she would behold before her thatenemy of all rest, that tyrant: another Philippe ... AnotherPhilippe?
Excerpted from Monsieur Ouine by Georges Bernanos. Copyright © 1993 by Librarie Plon.
Translation copyright © 2000 University of Nebraska Press.Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.