Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Bernanos Letter

continues from: Bertrand Tavernier's story 1984

from Correspondance de Georges Bernanos collected by Albert Béguin, chosen and presented by Sister Jean Murray, O.P. Tome II, 1934-1938 (pages 732-735)

Letter to Samedi-Soir

It is known that a first screenplay of Diary of a Country Priest, signed by J Aurenche was turned down by Bernanos. The filmmaker having given, after a stormy interview, an inaccurate account of his meeting with Bernanos, the latter answered with the following letter which was published in the weekly on November 8, 1947:

I have only very belatedly taken cognizance of an article which appeared in Samedi-Soir on the 4 October. It provides me the opportunity to cheer myself up at my own expense (which is a most salutary exercise) and, a bit also - let me say it - at the expense of your poorly informed readers, for the minor and private scenario of my meeting with Mr Aurenche appears to be almost as faulty as the book itself.
It does not matter! It is certainly disagreeable, regarding so minor and purely professional in character, to watch as my wife, my daughters and the intimacy of my home are made suspect. But what can I do? These are vexations which it would be necessary to foresee on schedule and even then we would never be free to spare ourselves the unpleasantness.
One of the constraints of the profession of writer, in fact, as elsewhere, sometimes that of doctor, is that neither is performed outdoors nor in a shop nor an office, and both equally do not always have the ability to receive those who please them.
So let us go back to Curé de campagne. After the publication of the article in Samedi-Soir, some readers have well wanted to demonstrate their disapproval of the filming of Journal. They know, at least, from now on, I am still reserving the right to intervene in the case where it appears to me to falsify the very spirit of that book.
I believe that a true novelist, I mean a man who genuinely dreams his book - or who draws the greater part of its situations or characters from a depth of subconscious experience which is certainly for me that of precious, irreplaceable and incommunicable experiences which the crisis of adolescence almost always makes fall back into darkness - will never have the hubris to control the filmmaker as a fastidious writer controls a translator, for example.
Such an idea could come only to a sham novelist who compiles his tales with observations gathered from day to day in a notebook. It is clear to me that the filmmaker must dream anew the dream of the novelist. The rights of the latter on that dream pertain only to its spirit. It is the spirit of my book that I fear I see being cruelly falsified.
Since, much in spite of myself, my refusal of Mr. Aurenche’s work has been made public by him, no one is capable of refusing me the right to say that I have in no way on this occasion yielded to a simple fit of ill-temper.
In order to make judges of this debate the small number of readers of Samedi-Soir who are also mine - and to excuse myself to the rest - I would like to bring as briefly as possible to the cognizance of my friends, sometimes more interested than me in the fate of my books, the beginning and the end of this scenario, which happens to eliminate the curé of Torcy, Doctor Delbende, Doctor Laville, the young Foreign Legion lieutenant, in brief, the greater part of the characters thanks to which I have attempted to give to my novel a significance other than that of The Counterfeiters, for example, and in which the episodic character of Sulpice Mitonnet takes on an unforeseen importance, undoubtedly for the fact that he can be suspected of pederasty.
At beginning of the scenario, on the occasion of their daughter Chantal‘s birthday, the lord and lady of my imaginary town go to genuflect before the altar. Soon after, Chantal 'puts her missal on the prie-Dieu , opens it partway and spits the communion host between the pages'. Yet a little later, having handed the host back to the curé who hastens to consume it, the young girl coldly remarks 'You're swallowing what I swallowed. Doesn't that disgust you?'.
Let us pass now from the beginning to the ending. This ending is provided through the words of one Arsene, mentioned incidentally in the course of the book, but without any place within the context which could give him any particular importance. Before the gravesite of my hero, this unhappy character declares with the solemnity of an imbecile, 'When you are dead, everything is dead, everything is dead'. The filmed version of Diary od a Country Priest concludes with these words of hopelessness.
This is not the place for an appraisal of the habits and character of Mr. Aurenche. As for his talent, the moment would be badly chosen after the success of Diable au corps to place it in doubt. But this success of Diable au corps will perhaps permit me to end this letter, where there has been much too much discussion of myself, with some reflections of a more general character.
The distortion which the cinema puts some works through is not accountable to the filmmakers. In today’s climate of literary opinion, I say that a work distorts itself by itself, as in the mind which conceives it, it is born deformed. It is a great error to compare the public to a bored drinker who each time demands a stronger drink capable of reawakening his palate. The public is not bored, it is depleted.
Nervous fatigue is, today, a universal evil. The major sign of this fatigue is not, as imbeciles believe they can note it, an aggressive sexuality, but on the contrary, a curiously passive one, despite its gluttony, as quickly sated as excited, as that of early adolescence.
Now, Radiguet’s book is exactly, as the example of the early poems of Rimbaud, the erotic dream - and one which can be completely gratuitous - of a schoolboy whose sensual imagination is, happily for us, more difficult to satisfy than one of Mr. Mauriac’s characters.
In their own ways, this goes without saying, the first poems of Rimbaud, like Le Diable au corps are masterpieces of onanism, but Le Diable au corps would be rather a cold onanism which must certainly have escaped the good Dominican fathers of Paris who came and applauded the film.
After all, it certainly is not Mr. Aurenche’s fault, nor any of those whose role it is to serve as intermediary between the artist and the public, if the novelistic literature of today, and most particularly the American novelistic literature with its brand of measured frenzy, its obscenity as diligent, as naively realistic as that of a phallus drawn on the margins of a schoolboy’s notebook, is to be found today under the sign of Onan.
The good Dominicans were not wrong, without doubt, to demonstrate surprise over the scandal made around Mr. Aurenche’s film, if I rely on certain critics, the scandal lies not in what is seen there, but in what it is claimed that one sees there for us.
I’ll explain myself. When a young person, at the Louvre, remains in an ecstatic state before the nudity of a beautiful marble or bronze adolescent, nothing can be said of either the young person or the statue, so long as one does not notice that the regard of the lover of antiquities stays strictly fixed on the place where the modest artist reserved for a fig-leaf.
One can say only that this young person is perverse, he is obsessed. Today’s literature is obsessed. Through conversations, criticism, the obsession of the public finally reacts all the way to ancient works, and we understand, indeed, that it will little by little profoundly modify its character. It is assuredly most simple to find in Diary of a Country Priest the material for one of those “news items” from which Mr. Gide, with his pincers and his cold-packs, knew how in other times to extract some drops of a viscous liquid, bitter and burning.
At the trial of Madame Lafarge, the great Orfila demonstrated as in olden times that you can draw arsenic from a fat cigar. The modern world looks and finds arsenic everywhere, but it does not know how to use it or it uses it only in one sole aim, always the same. The modern world is not perverse, in the sense that the divine marquis could give it this word, and when it boasts of being it, this is in the manner of a child who tears the wings from a fly.
Humanity always wants the bad, but it less and less succeeds in grasping it, more often it makes gestures and grimaces, even when these grimaces are those of a face smeared with blood, and the gestures are deadly. Since, for nervously worn-out modern man, the bad is not a revolt but a flight, a way of distracting oneself - distrahere - to run off outside of himself, of stripping himself of his person, alas, as a snake does his skin, this is why, meanwhile, he less and less knows how to do it without the aid of the machine or of narcotics.
The modern world will soon no longer have enough spiritual reserves to really commit the bad, and already one part of its literature, which terms itself the most advanced in the accursed way and certainly is making its precursors smile in the graves that it has the pretension to exceed, announces, without knowing it, as well an augury, this failure or rather this relaxation, this moral laxity of the conscience of men who do not seek only their moral life, but also the sensory life, alters and decomposes their own imagination.
At the end of its desperate efforts to say it all, a certain literature will say everything, but express nothing. The crisis which threatens it is a crisis of infantilism.

Try as I might, I can not recall any other instance where the reasons for the rejection of a screenplay were aired in public. Rejected screenplays are usually dispatched to the dead letter file. No wonder that Antoine de Baecque never cites this letter in his study ot the composition of A Certain Tendency. No one would have ever thought to search out a document such as this one. I have seen a few times "cruelly falsified" and "dream again..." quoted but never with any citation. I found this letter because one day in the French Library and Cultural Center in Boston I was browsing Michel Esteve's Robert Bresson : la passion du cinématographe and he quotes extensively from the letter.

continues at: Jean Aurenche's story

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