Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Diary of a Country Priest

The Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos is a deceptively quiet book which starts off very slowly. Though I knew it had to be going somewhere, it is easy to see why some readers miss its depths—I stopped and started it several times myself. Lacking a clearly discernable plot, especially in the opening pages, I couldn't get into it.

I had even decided to put it on a backburner when a Goodreads friend, Fred, from Deep Furrows, commented on my update, 'Better to read sooner than later. Not a ponderous classic, but eavesdropping on great dialogue.' Well that was clear enough for me. I reopened 'Diary' and finished it in less than a week...with much appreciation.

The gist of the story is an inexperienced, young priest arrives at his first parish, a little place out in the country and begins to keep a diary. We also learn he is poor, devout, idealistic and ascetic. None of these traits particularly endear him to his parishioners. He seems to have but one fellow cleric friend, a worldly priest, de Torcy, who would have him ‘toughen up’ and stand up for himself. Sometimes, I confess I felt a little exasperated with our curĂ© myself. Other times, his self-effacing meekness brought out my motherly instincts and I wanted to help this young clergyman—who so many seemed to despise or take advantage of. What makes the saga so compelling is the gentle, uncomplaining way the new priest tells about his many failures and humiliations. As his audience we see his kindnesses misunderstood and his simple mistakes turned against him. And yet he is determined to go out and visit all within his parish despite mounting health problems.

Most of the ‘action’ – if it can even be called that – in this novel occurs in the brilliantly constructed conversations between the curate and another character: a confused little girl, an atheist doctor, a long-grieving countess, her malicious teenage daughter, and a soldier of fortune to name a few. It is in these epic dialogues George Bernanos' reason for writing this testimony to faith is truly revealed.

It isn’t an action book. It’s much, much better than that! I can see why some – used to reading a different sort of literature – have discounted this book. It has to be read carefully, slowly and perceptively. Also, some background on the author, George Bernanos, and the French movement, positivism, would be extremely beneficial. The best review I've read on the book was this one written by Amy Welborn.

Highly recommended! One of the most faith-affirming books I’ve read this year! Thanks so much Fred for the gentle nudge.

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