Saturday, July 13, 2013

Franz Werfel, The Song of Bernadette


Opening Passage:

François Soubirous gets up in the dark. It is just six. Long ago he lost possession of the silver watch that was a wedding present from his clever sister-in-law Bernarde Casterot. The ticket for it as well as the tickets for other poor little treasures issued by the municipal pawn brokerage had lapsed the autumn before. Souberous knows that it is six even though the chimes of the parish church of Saint Pierre have not yet rung for early Mass. The poor have the time in their bones. Without dial or bell they know what hour has struck, for the poor are always afraid of being late.

Summary: One of the more striking structural features of Franz Werfel's The Song of Bernadette is that the first day of Bernadette's vision is told in present tense, while the rest of the book, despite occurring afterward, is in past tense. This fits with Werfel's constant theme that Bernadette's gift is to make the invisible seem visible, and to make the timeless seem present now. In a sense, everything else in the book, the whole story of Bernadette's life, is an unfolding and explication of that first vision on the first day. It is just one of many ways in which Werfel manages to layer his historical novel (as he puts it, the work is a novel but not a fictive work) in ways that make the historical events, and even more often, historical moods, vivid and clear.

Where Werfel truly excels is in what might be called the sociological background. We get a sense of the entire life of France in miniature in Lourdes. It is a France split between freethinkers and Catholics, between conservative Bonapartists and liberal republicans, between the wealthy and aristocratic and the laboring classes, between Church and state. Werfel, with quiet humor, shows Bernadette's Lady rising to the fore, and changing the world, by outmaneuvering each of these groups in the very points on which they are opposed to each other -- or, rather, he shows that each of these groups in their opposition to the Lady outmaneuver themselves.

The Church in its attempts to outmaneuver the State unintentionally blocks the State's attempts to oppose the Lady; the State in its attempts to outmaneuver the Church unintentionally blocks the Church's attempts to oppose the Lady. The police attempt to put clear obstacles in the way of the increasing fuss, and the result is that it instigates more support: common workmen, temperamentally inclined to agnosticism about whether Bernadette can really see the Lady, can nonetheless see quite clearly that the police are harassing a poor teenage girl who has done nothing actually harmful, apparently just because she's poor, and start to murmur against it; liberal freethinkers, utterly convinced that Bernadette's visions are either frauds or hallucinations, nonetheless can see quite clearly that the police intervention in such a matter is a potentially bad precedent, and some of them end up being the ringleaders in interfering with the police on the matter. The bishop and dean, highly skeptical of the visions, are impeded by their inability to reject the possibility of miracle; the liberal freethinkers, even more skeptical of the visions, have no force against them because they are unable to wrap their minds around the idea that the triumph of their point of view is not inevitable (a point put succinctly in a scene in which one of them, who thinks of himself as representing the spirit of the times, is gazing, speechless for once, as virtually the entire town, led by the mayor, processes by his inn with prayers and hymns on their way to the miraculous spring). Everyone sets out to oppose the Lady, except Bernadette herself, and everyone in doing so trips over their own feet and falls flat on their faces. And each of these is vividly shown, rather than merely talked about: we see their own self-hindering.

There are no villains in Werfel's story. Everyone is reasonable in his or her own way, everyone has faults of his or her own. By its very nature, Werfel's story can have no villains. It is the Song of Bernadette, and Bernadette cares only about the Lady; as far as she is concerned, everyone else's involvement is entirely accident and utterly unimportant. And while people may make themselves enemies of the Lady, the Lady herself is enemy of none of them. One can see the novel as consisting of a quiet timeless core: Bernadette sees the Lady. Everything else is just ripples; it neither affects the core nor can really manage to oppose it. All attempts to oppose it turn out to be harmless; the vision at the center is unaffected by them all. The Lady has a message for the world, but Bernadette is not her prophet, and Bernadette opposes any and every attempt to make her one. She even refuses to identify the Lady with the Virgin Mary for almost the whole book; after all, the Lady never actually gave her name, and Bernadette is not going to put words in her mouth. This more than once approaches the comical, as Bernadette keeps pointing out to people that the Lady looks nothing like their statues and paintings of the Madonna, to their discomfiture. As Werfel points it, Bernadette's Lady is unique; everyone tries to put her in the typical boxes to which they are accustomed, and the boxes are never adequate, because she is not typical at all. For the same reason, Bernadette, late in life, never embroiders the Lady; how could she?

In addition to reading the book, I listened to the 1944 (Radio Hall of Fame) and 1954 (Lux Radio Theater) radio versions; this gives an interesting perspective on the book. These were radio versions of the movie, but they manage to be relatively close to the original book, despite being at a remove and having to fit the story within a particular time. In general, the 1954 version, with Ann Blyth as Bernadette and Charles Bickford as Dean Peyramale, both excellently played (Ann Blyth's voice is a better actor than Jennifer Jones in the movie, despite the latter winning an Oscar and a Golden Globe for the role) is much the better version. The 1954 version captures something of Werfel's quiet humor and avoids the treacly aspect to which the 1944 version sometimes descends (in part by quieter acting and less music). However, it is much more difficult to have a radio play showing opposition between groups without having villains; we do not get things from everyone's perspective. Werfel's narrative voice takes Bernadette at face value but includes no animus against those who oppose her; he goes out of his way to show how reasonable they are being, given the problems they face. When acted, this aspect of the narrative has to be carried not by a general narrative approach but by the acting itself, and, what is more, it has to be carried by the acting in such a way that any ambiguity or suggestion of villainy is ruled out. This is extraordinarily difficult to do, and it does not succeed.

One point on which the 1944 version is superior to the 1954 version is that it makes good use of the narrator. The book has a narrative voice without giving much form to the narrator; this is a luxury books can afford that radio plays cannot, since while a book may get its narrative voice from an indefinite narrator, to have a narrative voice in a radio play you must have a definite narrator actually speaking. Thus the 1944 version, with a definite narrator, is able to capture some more of the multi-faceted aspect of the novel, at the expense of being heavy-handed; whereas the 1954 version, without a definite narrator, loses the ability to capture the facets of the novel that depend on narrative voice.

I was considering leaving the 1943 movie (which won four Oscars and three Golden Globes) to some point in the future, but then I realized that Vital Dutour, the Imperial prosecutor, is played by Vincent Price in the film, and so I had to see it. The radio shows inherit from the movie a much harsher Vital Dutour, although they focus on him less (perhaps in part because Charles Bickford, who plays Dean Peyramale in the radio version, had also played him in the film version, the 1954 version focuses to a very great extent on Peyramale rather than any other opponent). The film also gives Dutour a more dramatic story arc, giving him a conversion story partly borrowed from another character, the poet Lafite. I think one of the serious mistakes the film makes is showing the Lady and letting us hear her; basically the same mistake is repeated by the 1954 radio version, in which we hear the Lady. In both cases it misplaces the audience. We can be told about the Lady and about what Bernadette sees and hears, but we should not be seeing and hearing what she sees and hears. We are not Bernadette. We are the crowd following her around and listening to her story. By showing the Lady, the film loses a major aspect of the novel. A good way to see this is by comparing the events at Massabielle that we actually see compared with the event we are told about when Dozous, the physician played by Lee J. Cobb, tells what he saw when he went. The latter is far more powerful and richer, and, because there is a definite narrator, we get the richness of a narrative voice. The film does handle the dynamic of Bernadette's family life very well, though, and can get a little more of Bernadette's later convent life than the radio plays can; and I also like Aubrey Mather's Lacadé and Price's cynical and calmly sarcastic Dutour.

In the end, however, like Bernadette's Lady, Werfel's The Song of Bernadette is unique; it shows the full power of the literary word, since it goes beyond anything that could be captured by radio or film, however good.

Favorite Passage:

...Let the miracle of Massabielle give the lie to all regnant philosophies, it is hardly the business of a practical man to shed his blood for the universal validity of the laws of nature. The times were incomprehensible, the world a mere mad soap bubble, and A. Lacadé no fool. On that summer evening on which he had secretly thought of testing the power of the spring by his headache the scales had begun to fall from his eyes. Within every human being exists innately the degree and kind of his possible conversation to life in the spirit. Lacadé, too, had been converted in his very own way.

The sudden conviction that had come to the mayor was that a spring of grace was no worse than a spring of medicinal properties and was in some respects unique and more profitable....

Recommendation: This is a genuinely beautiful book, constructed in a way appropriate to its topic and theme. Highly recommended.

Franz Werfel, The Song of Bernadette, Ludwig Lewisohn, tr. Ignatius (San Francisco: 2006).


  1. MrsDarwin6:23 PM

    "Ann Blyth's voice is a better actor than Jennifer Jones in the movie"

    Oh, I wish I'd written that line.

    I had wanted to read along with this one, but had so little leisure time over the past few weeks that sitting with a book was almost impossible. I love your description of all forces falling in confusion before the Lady; there was a quote in the movie to much the same effect, someone paying grudging admiration to how the Lady had outmaneuvered everyone.

  2. branemrys8:48 PM

    I think that's an aspect of the movie that worked very well -- in a book the narrator can draw the lesson as the character goes on his merry, or not so merry, way, whether they themselves are actually any wiser or not; but in a movie the characters generally need to be shown learnomg their own lessons. And the movie's having everyone sit around and ruefully comment on how they were bested works very well. It shows just how much you can do with good actors and a quiet conversation scene.

    It's the sort of book that one really needs an extended space of time to read; I was worried I would end up rushing it, and that would have been a pity, because it's a book that really needs to be read in a leisurely way.

  3. MrsDarwin10:20 AM

    Fortunately, I don't have to move much (either housewise or in person) over the next two weeks, so now is a good time for leisurely reading.

    Good luck with your move, and let us know your new address before Christmas card season. :)

  4. branemrys3:59 PM

    Thanks; I will.


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