One-Minute Book Reviews

October 16, 2011

Georges Bernanos’s Classic Novel, ‘The Diary of a Country Priest’

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A dying priest believes that “the wish to pray is a prayer in itself”

The Diary of a Country Priest. By Georges Bernanos. Translated by Pamela Morris. Introduduction by Rémy Rougeau. Da Capo, 302 pp., $15.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

A young French priest bears the cruelty of his parishioners with sublime patience in this modern classic that works as both a realistic novel and an allegory for the Passion of Christ. Georges Bernanos’s guileless narrator doesn’t know he’s dying of cancer when he takes up his post at a rural Pas-de-Calais church in which the moth-eaten draperies in the sacristy serve as metaphor for the spiritual decay of the congregation.

But the priest realizes that people see his poor health as a sign of weakness, and the harder he works to serve them, the more hostile they become. His triumph lies in avoiding cynicism and retaining the ability to love as he performs his tasks – teaching catechism to children who taunt him, visiting a countess embittered by the death of her son, meeting with jaded or condescending priests who presume to advise him. Like the stories of Flannery O’Connor, The Diary of a Country Priest reflects a perspective at once Catholic and universal in its portrayal of the inseparability of suffering and grace.

Best line: “Faith is not a thing which one ‘loses,’ we merely cease to shape our lives by it.” “I know, of course, that the wish to pray is a prayer in itself, that God can ask no more than that of us.”

Worst line: The translator uses a couple of English double modals such as “must needs” that sound unnatural in context.

Published: 1937 (first English-language edition), 2002 (DaCapo paperback).

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to The Diary of a Country Priest appeared on this site in the post before this one on Oct. 16, 2011.

Furthermore: Diary of a Country Priest won two of the highest literary honors in France: the Prix Femina and Grand Prix du Roman of the Académie Française. Rachel Murphy reviewed the novel from a Catholic perspective. Robert Bresson’s acclaimed film version of the book appeared in 1951. Flannery O’Connor dealt with the action of grace on character in her short story collection Everything That Rises Must Converge, reviewed on this site in May.

You can follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Diary of a Country Priest’ With 10 Discussion Questions

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10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Diary of a Country Priest
By Georges Bernanos
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that want to use the guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

A young French priest bears the cruelty of his parishioners with sublime patience in The Diary of a Country Priest, a modern classic that works as both a realistic novel and an allegory for the Passion of Christ. Its guileless narrator doesn’t know he’s dying of cancer when he becomes pastor of a church in rural Pas-de-Calais in the years between the world wars, and as his health fails, he makes few concessions to his frailty. Through the prism of the fragile priest’s efforts to serve God and his parish, the novel shows the inseparability of suffering and grace.

Discussion Questions

1 Every novelist who writes about faith needs, above all, to tell a story and not turn his or her book into a homily or tract. Did Georges Bernanos succeed? Why or why not?

2 The residents of Ambricourt see little to admire in their new priest. Do you see anything to admire in him? What?

3 Why did the priest’s parishioners dislike him so much? Did their disdain have more to do with them or with him?

4 Even some of the children of Ambricourt seem cruel. What accounts for their hostility?

5 Why does the priest have no name? How might the novel have been different if Bernanos had given him one of the saint’s names that monks tend to assume?

6 Why does the priest tear out diary pages about the death of Dr. Delbende? [Page 107] How do you see the death and its effect on the priest?

7 The priest gets little support from other clergy. His superior, the Dean of Blangermont, lectures him on not getting into debt, and an old friend from seminary turns out to be living with a woman. How does their behavior affect the young priest? Why do you think Bernanos included such unflattering portrayals of the clergy in the novel?

8 French parishes are “being eaten up by boredom,” the narrator says, and the clergy can’t stop it: “Someday perhaps we shall catch it ourselves – become aware of the cancerous growth within us.” [Page 1] Later the priest learns that he has stomach cancer. [Page 273] What do you think Bernanos is doing here? Why does he connect a metaphorical and real form of cancer?

9 The Diary of a Country Priest is a realistic novel that has elements of an allegory for the Passion of Christ or the Stations of the Cross. For example, in the Stations of the Cross, Jesus is condemned to death, takes up his cross, and falls. All of these incidents have parallels in the novel. Did you see any other allegorical elements in the book? What were they?

10 “I believe, in fact I am certain, that many men never give out the whole of themselves, their deepest truth,” the priest says. [Page 108] Does the priest give out the whole of himself, or his “deepest truth”?

Extras
1 The narrator often speaks in pithy phrases or epigrams such as: “Faith is not a thing which one ‘loses,’ we merely cease to shape our lives by it.” [Page 122] And: “There is not only a communion of saints; there is also a communion of sinners.” [Pages 138–139] Did any phrases in The Diary of a Country Priest seem especially memorable?

2 Some critics see The Diary of a Country Priest as a novel about the effects of grace. Some of those effects appear when the embittered countess, after speaking with the young priest, feels “miraculously, ineffably, the peace you’ve given me.” [Page 175] Where else does the novel deal with grace?

3 A challenge of novels about grace is that fictional consequences generally must be “earned” – they can’t result from coincidences or similar devices — while divine grace is by definition unearned. So a novelist must make credible both ordinary actions and occasions of grace. Did Bernanos do this?

4 Flannery O’Connor admired Bernanos and also wrote about the effect of grace on character. If you have read her work, how would you compare it with that of The Diary of a Country Priest?

The page numbers above come from the 1983 Carroll & Graf edition of The Diary of a Country Priest.

Vital statistics
The Diary of a Country Priest. By Georges Bernanos. Translated by Pamela Morris. Introduduction by Rémy Rougeau. Da Capo, 302 pp., $15.95, paperback. Published: 1937 (first English-language edition), 2002 (DaCapo paperback).

The Diary of a Country Priest won two important French literary prizes: the Prix Femina and Grand Prix du Roman, given by the Académie Française. A One-Minute Book Reviews review appeared in the post that followed this guide. The book inspired an acclaimed 1951 film version by Robert Bresson.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are a free alternative to publishers’ guides, which are not unbiased analyses but marketing tools designed to sell books. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the blog.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 9, 2008

Jean-Marie Le Clézio – The Biggest Nobel Surprise Since Dario Fo

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No, you’re not the only one who hasn’t heard of him. After the Swedish Academy announced that the French novelist Jean-Marie Le Clézio had won the 2008 Nobel Prize in literature, Lev Grossman wrote in Time: “The sound of America’s literary journalists searching Wikipedia en masse is deafening” www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1848582,00.html.

Le Clézio’s selection may be the biggest surprise since the Italian playwright Dario Fo won in 1997. Not long after Fo won, the book editor of a major newspaper asked a group of us who were attending a National Book Critics Circle meeting, “Had you heard of him?” No hands went up. If you had asked me two days ago to name a French longshot for the Nobel, I would have said unhesitatingly, “Annie Ernaux,” whose work I reviewed on Feb. 20 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/02/20/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 20, 2008

Annie Ernaux’s Modern French Classics, ‘A Man’s Place’ and ‘A Woman’s Story’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:04 am
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A prize-winning author recalls her parents’ lives in Normandy before and after World War II

A Man’s Place. By Annie Ernaux. Ballantine, 103 pp., varied prices, paperback. A Woman’s Story. By Annie Ernaux. Seven Stories, 96 pp., $8.95, paperback. Both translated from the French by Tanya Leslie.

By Janice Harayda

Annie Ernaux’s spare autobiographical books are remarkable for many things. One of them is their brevity. They typically have fewer than 100 pages, yet are so rich in perception that they have earned the status of modern classics in France.

In the U.S. Ernaux’s reputation rests largely on two books about her parents that are often described as autobiographical novels but resemble high stylized memoirs. Both are partly about how sex roles and social class shaped the lives of residents of a village in Normandy in the decades before and after World War II. They are also about how Ernaux, at once grateful for and alienated from her background, felt “torn between two identities” after she received the university education that her parents lacked.

A Man’s Place is about the life and sudden death of her father, a shopkeeper and café owner whom people called “simple” or “humble” but who had a complexity suggested by a telling incident: “One day he said to me proudly: ‘I have never given you cause for shame.” The sequel, A Woman’s Story, is similarly brief and evocative but, because of its subject, may hold more appeal for Americans.

After her husband’s death, Ernaux’s mother developed the disease the French call la maladie d’Alzheimer and suffered alternately from confusion and a terrified comprehension of her plight. She remembered that she had to turn off the light when she left a room but forgot how to do it, so “she climbed onto a chair and tried to unscrew the bulb.”

Ernaux describes all of this with an austere restraint reminiscent of the best work of Muriel Spark, always providing just enough detail to suggest greater depths. She tells us that her mother, as her Alzheimer’s become worse, wrote to a friend, “Dear Paulette, I am still lost in my world of darkness.”

Best line: From A Woman’s Story: “Books were the only things she handled with care,” Ernaux says of her mother. “She washed her hands before touching them.”

Worst line: Tanya Leslie’s translations capture well the stylistic purity of Ernaux’s prose. But her use of a conspicuously British English at times results in sentences that break the French mood, such as this line from A Man’s Place: “Ah here comes the lass.”

Published: 1993 (Ballantine paperback of A Man’s Place). 2003 (Seven Stories paperback of A Woman’s Story www.sevenstories.com/book/?GCOI=58322100333250).

Furthermore: A Man’s Place won the Prix Renaudot, the French equivalent of the Pulitzer. Ernaux lives in France. A Woman’s Story was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. She would like to expand One-Minute Book Reviews to include podcasts, broadcasts and other services, such as online book discussion groups or forums in “real time,” and is looking for a home for this blog that would make it possible to provide these.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved
www.janiceharayda.com

February 19, 2008

Two Books by Annie Ernaux, One of France’s Greatest Living Writers, Coming Tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews

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Annie Ernaux is one of the greatest living writers in France, where she has been acclaimed for decades for her spare autobiographical novels. She has won the Prix Renaudot, the French equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and could be a dark horse candidate for a Nobel Prize. So why isn’t she better known in the U.S.?

Tomorrow One-Minute Book Reviews will consider two of her books that might especially interest American readers, including book clubs.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 12, 2007

Is Dalkey Archive Press America’s Most ‘Subversive’ Publisher?

A French secretary fantasizes about countering a “No Smoking” sign with one that says, “LET’S OUTLAW THE SALE OF CIGARETTES: PEOPLE SHOULD DIE OF POVERTY, NOT CANCER.”

Everyday Life. By Lydie Salvayre. Translated from the French by Jane Kuntz. Dalkey Archive, 117 pp., $12.50, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

If somebody offered you a million dollars to describe the difference between “a Random House book” and “a Simon and Schuster book,” could you do it? Or would you weep silently into your chai tea and think, “There goes the Lamborghini, the second home and my child’s education”?

If you have no idea how one publishing conglomerate differs from another, you’re not alone. These days the largest houses have little or no brand identity – at least not one that anybody but critics and scholars can define. Many of the smaller firms, don’t either. That makes Dalkey Archive Press a rarity: a publisher with a clear brand identity – although part of that brand identity is that you can’t imagine the staff saying “brand identity” instead of, say, “aesthetic” or “sensibility.” Critics often describe Dalkey Archive as a specialist in “experimental” or “avant-garde” books. Director John O’Brien prefers the term “subversive” because its titles to go against the grain. Many come from other countries, about half of them translation.

An example is Everyday Life by Lydie Salvayre, who grew up in southern France. Peter Mayle was never like this. This brief novel is about the psychological unraveling of a widowed secretary in her 50s who works for a Paris advertising agency and sinks into a paranoid fury when a new co-worker arrives with the same title. One critic has said that you could read it as “a commentary on today’s cubicle culture, where employees are warehoused in such tight quarters that any hiring or firing throws the entire office ecosystem out of whack.” That’s true in the sense that you could read Moby-Dick as a commentary on what happens when you pack a lot of people together on a Nantucket whaler.

Everyday Life, as I read it, is about something larger. It’s a study in the alienation that results not from office conditions but from the isolation that leads people to overinvest emotionally in work. Suzanne is the sort of woman Americans used to call an “office wife.” Faced with a rival, she reacts as many women do to a threat of infidelity, except that her behavior is much more sinister than sifting through pockets and credit-card receipts. She is a hard – maybe impossible – character to like. But Salvayre, writing with a Cartesian spareness, makes you see that part of the problem is that she’s smarter and funnier than others. Suzanne is so enraged when the new secretary posts a “No Smoking” sign that, alone in her apartment, she can’t sleep and composes darkly comic counter-signs. One reads: “LETS OUTLAW THE SALE OF CIGARETTES: PEOPLE SHOULD DIE OF POVERTY, NOT CANCER.” Such humor wouldn’t have raised eyebrows a generation or two ago. By today’s standards, it’s subversive, and just what you would expect from Dalkey Archive.

Best line (tie): No. 1 “Discretion is, in my eyes, the cardinal virtue. I’ll go so far as to say that one ought to be discreet in one’s discretion …” No. 2 “I can’t stand parties, and don’t want to be ridiculed. The energy expended in trying to be frivolous is finally too exhausting.”

Worst line: One page contains only one sentence: “I loathe her, I loathe her, I loathe her.”

Published: November 2006

Caveat lector: This review does not evaluate Jane Kuntz’s translation. It was also based on an advance reading copy. Some material in the on-sale edition may differ.

Furthermore: Everyday Life is not listed on Amazon and possibly other online sites. It available from the publisher www.dalkeyarchive.com. Click on this link www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/11/01/ to read a review of Gail Scott’s My Paris, also from Dalkey Archive. Visit the sites for Random House www.randomhouse.com and Simon and Schuster www.simonsays.com if you want to try to figure out the difference between the two firms.

One-Minute Book Reviews was the seventh-ranked book review site on Google www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/as of Sept. 6, 2007.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

July 26, 2007

Emmanuel Carrère’s ‘The Adversary’: The Best True Crime Book of the Decade?

What makes a man capable of feeding his children cocoa puffs and milk before murdering them?

The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception. By Emmanuel Carrère. Translated by Linda Coverdale. Picador, 191 pp., $13, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Does reading the New York Times Book Review on Sundays feel like a penance to you? Consider switching to the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal. It has a small but superb book review section, distinguished especially by a feature called “Five Best” in which a different expert each week picks and describes the five best books on a subject.

The “experts” aren’t usually the people you might expect, literary critics and English professors. But they do hit the mark week after week. A case in point: On Memorial Day weekend Sen. John McCain chose his five favorite books about “soldiers in wartime.” And who could disagree with his choice of, for example, Erich Maria Remarque’s great anti-war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front?

Last month the Journal listed the five best books about “the criminal mind,” selected by Theodore Dalrymple, the pen name for the astringent British psychiatrist and former prison doctor Anthony Daniels. Again, bingo.

Dalrymple’s choices included perhaps the best true crime book of the decade: Emmanuel Carrère’s The Adversary, the story of a middle-class Frenchman and the “pride of his village” who led a double life. After failing to complete medical school, Jean-Claude Romand married, had two children, and stayed close to his parents, all the while passing himself off as a respected doctor with the World Health Organization, just across the border in Geneva. Romand kept up the pose for more than 17 years, supporting his family by embezzling money from relatives and others. When exposure became certain, he could see no way out except to murder his wife, children, and parents.

Yet this remarkable – and remarkably elegant story – has a depth absent from similar accounts on American news shows. Carrère does not focus on the minutiae of evidence or the grandstanding of lawyers. One question above all interests him: How could a man keep up such a monstrous fiction, including feeding his children cocoa puffs with milk before murdering them in their beds? The answer has social, financial, psychological and religious dimensions, all artfully woven into fewer than 200 pages. And the implications extend far beyond Roman’s village – you could say, all the way to Virginia Tech.

Best line: “The father had been shot in the back, the mother full in the chest. Certainly she – perhaps both of them – had known that they were dying at the hands of their son … The priest promised [at their funeral] that now they saw God. For believers, the moment of death is the moment when one sees God no longer through a glass darkly but face-to-face. Even nonbelievers believe in something of the sort, that in the instant of passing to the other side, the dying see the movie of their whole lives flash by, its meaning clear at last. And this vision that should have brought the elderly Romands the joy of accomplishment had been the triumph of deception and evil. They should have seen God and in his place they had seen, taking on the features of their beloved son, the one the Bible calls Satan, ‘the adversary.’”

Worst line: None

Recommendation? A great book-club book. And Holt has given it an exemplary reading group guide. It’s the only reading group guide I’ve seen that actually suggests other books you might want to read as well … even if they weren’t published by Holt. This is shocking by the standards of the self-absorbed guides of most publishers, who rarely suggest that you buy a book by another firm.

Reading group guide: www.henryholt.com/readingguides/

Published: 2000 (First American edition), January 2002 (Picador paperback).

Furthermore: Dalrymple’s “Five Best” column appeared in the Wall Street Journal (Eastern edition), June 9, 2007, page P8.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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