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The Song of Bernadette

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Trying to recreate a review tragically lost during my recent website transfer. This is The Song of Bernadette by Franz Werfel.

When distances between men are shortened and their wealth of words increased, then will superstition, fanaticism, war, and tyranny disappear and it may be that the next generation or, at latest, the next century will witness the coming of the Golden Age…

Before I jump into the review, I want to apologize for the long break between posts. I actually already wrote a review of The Song of Bernadette, but I transferred my website and it was one of the posts that I lost (actually the only one I’m certain I lost). And I’ve yet to go back and manually add the photos that used to accompany the majority of my posts. I’ve actually read two more books for the project, but I’ve held off on those reviews until I could try to get something together for this book, which was actually great and deserves to be reviewed.

How I got the book: Purchased from a used bookseller via Biblio.com. I got the unabridged, softcover Pocket Book edition, complete with the original owner’s name and address penned on the inside front cover. I love used books. I wonder what Mildred on Cliff Street made of the story.

The writer: Franz Werfel. Click on his name to read the full Wikipedia article. Werfel, a Jewish writer born in Prague, was fleeing from the Nazis in 1940 with his wife when they arrived in Lourdes. He vowed that if he escaped he would write the story of Bernadette that he might “magnify the divine mystery and the holiness of man.” By May of the following year, safely ensconced in Los Angeles, he had done just that.

The book: A gorgeous tribute to the mysterious events that took place in the late 1850s in Lourdes. The Song of Bernadette would probably be classified as historical fiction that hews closely to the events that took place in 19th-century France: that starting in February 1858, fourteen-year-old Bernadette Soubirous, a poor and rather dull girl, claimed the first of several visions of a “beautiful lady,” later determined by the Catholic Church to be a true evocation of the Virgin Mary.

Like the other books from 1942, the pacing of this novel is slower than what it might be if written today. However, unlike the last two, I found myself unable to stop reading, thinking, and talking about it. Werfel handles the entire chain of events with such delicacy that it doesn’t seem to matter whether the reader believes in Bernadette or not. Despite its religious nature, this is not The Robe. Werfel does not try to convince you. He simply tells the story.

And it’s a fascinating story. Werfel doesn’t shy away, either, from the political elements of the story. Bernadette was, in fact, an embarrassment and a problem for the powerful men of Lourdes, who worried that the rest of France was laughing at their gullible peasantry as the crowds come to witness Bernadette’s ecstasy swelled into the tens of thousands. Their machinations are as intriguing as the question of whether Bernadette saw what she claimed to see. Bernadette’s thwarting of her detractors is delightful, as when “the State” sends a psychiatrist, with “both charm and a red beard,” to examine Bernadette for evidence of madness. She answers all queries with a simple manner and no sign of duplicity. Watching a teenager run circles around authority with such ease adds much levity to an overall quite serious work.

Werfel also uses some scenes to highlight the barbarism of the age in which he lived in a subtle but excruciating way. The quote above, regarding a Golden Age of man, takes much of its poignancy from our knowledge of what Werfel escaped in departing Europe, and its very innocence remains no less obvious or heartbreakingly sad in our own era.

In all, this book is the first in the project that I wholeheartedly endorse and urge you to read.

Next up is Drivin’ Woman by Elizabeth Pickett Chevalier, a novel set in the aftermath of the Civil War. After that I’ll be jumping forward into 1952, reading first My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier.