Sunday, June 23, 2013

Fortnightly Book, June 23

In May of 1940 the Nazis invaded France. The collapse was swift, and France was defeated within the month. An accomplished Jewish author and his wife, who had already had to flee Austria, found that they had to flee again. They hoped to cross the Pyrenees, to reach Portugal through Spain, but they were turned back at the border, which was at that point overwhelmed. A friendly family told them that there might be room at Lourdes. And there they had to wait for weeks, fearing that things might suddenly turn very badly. But while in Lourdes, they heard the local stories of St. Bernadette Soubirous, who had died about seventy years before, and one day, at a time of great stress, the Jewish author made a vow that if he ever made it to America, he would sing the song of Bernadette to the best of his ability. And that is the origin of the next fortnightly book, The Song of Bernadette by Franz Werfel, which became a bestseller.

Franz Werfel (1890-1945) was born in Prague and died in Los Angeles; his wife's name was Alma. Much of his early literary output was as a playwright, but with The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, a tale of the Armenian genocide that is often considered his greatest novel, made him renowned the world over. The Song of Bernadette was equally popular; an abridged translation was published in 1942 and adapted into a big-budget film in 1943. (Catholic story by Jewish author written in Protestant America: that's pretty much Golden Age Hollywood already.) Lux Radio Theater did radio versions of the film in 1949 and 1954.

The life of Bernadette Soubirous occurred during a very troubled period of France's history, but since there was no part of nineteenth-century France that wasn't troubled, that is perhaps not surprising. She was from a merchant family that had fallen into poverty. Between February and July of 1858, at the age of fourteen, she had visions of a lady in a cave-grotto; these are the famous Lourdes apparitions. Bernadette's claims divided the town and became a major controversy. They came to be increasingly accepted, though, in part because of Bernadette's own behavior, which was very restrained, being rather quiet and refusing to embellish her story in any way. Eventually, of course, the Lourdes apparitions were accepted as worthy of belief by the Catholic Church -- which, I should perhaps point out, in theological terms means not that a Catholic has to believe them (no private revelations, even those approved by the Church, have that force) but that the message and events of the apparition are highly consistent with Catholic doctrine and devotion, and that the belief and devotion of those who do accept it must be respected. Bernadette was beatified in 1925 and canonized in 1933.

I have family coming into town this week, so it's likely that this 'fortnight' will in reality be three weeks. Since I like radio drama, one thing I might do if I have the time is also listen to the 1954 radio version (which seems easiest to obtain) and compare it with the book. I might do it with the movie, too, but the order of priority goes book - radio - movie.

Here is a Jennifer Warnes song, named after the book, co-written by Jennifer Warnes, Bill Elliott, and Leonard Cohen. Warnes was given the name Bernadette at birth, but this was changed to Jennifer shortly afterward; near Lourdes while touring the south of France with Leonard Cohen, she started writing an exchange between the Bernadette she might have been and the Jennifer she was, and that eventually morphed into this song.

The song has been sung by quite a few others since Warnes first recorded it in the 1980s, including Judy Collins (which is quite excellent, and I think far and away the best version), Bette Midler (which is very BetteMidler-ish, take that how you will), Carmel Conway (also good, and certainly the most prettied-up version).

1 comment:

  1. branemrys10:20 AM

    Which is probably a good argument for not remaking it today!


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