Monday, August 12, 2013

1942: The Song of Bernadette by Franz Werfel

The Author:

Franz Werfel (1890-1945) was born in Prague, Austria-Hungary, to a family of wealthy Jewish merchants. From a young age, he was immersed in several different religious cultures (most notably Jewish and Catholic), which informed much of his work. He attended a Catholic school and later served in the Austrio-Hungarian Empire’s army in World War One, eventually becoming a member of the Military Press Bureau.

Werfel was a well established member of the Austrian literary world, successful as a poet, novelist, and playwright. After the first world war ended, Werfel began an affair with Alma Mahler, widow of the Austrian composer Gustave Mahler, and was at the time married to the influential German architect, Walter Gropius. She divorced Gropius in 1920, eventually marrying Werfel in 1929.

In 1930, after touring the Near East, Werfel fought to bring the world’s attention to the Armenian genocide.

Werfel’s career continued to grow in Europe, but the rise of anti-Semitism led Werfel and Mahler to flee to France in 1938. In 1940, they snuck into Spain and made their way to the United States, settling in Los Angeles. In 1942, Werfel published The Song of Bernadette. He died of a heart attack in Los Angeles in 1945.

The Book:

The Song of Bernadette is about Saint Bernadette Soubirous, a French peasant girl from the town of Lourdes who, in 1858, claimed to witness numerous apparitions of the Virgin Mary. It's the story of her conviction in her faith in the face of doubt, and the events that led to Lourdes becoming a major pilgrimage site.

The story of what led Werfel to write this novel is fascinating and may also have bearing on decisions he made about the story and characters.

"In the last days of June 1940, in flight after the collapse of wife and I, had hoped to elude our mortal enemies in time to cross the Spanish frontier to Portugal...but had to flee back to the interior of France on the very night German troops occupied the frontier town of Hendaye. It was in this manner that Providence brought me to Lourdes... We hid for several weeks in the Pyrenean city. It was a time of great dread...

"It was, I repeat, a time of great dread. But it was also a time of great significance for me, for I became acquainted with the wondrous history of the girl Bernadette Soubirous and also with the wondrous facts concerning the healings of Lourdes. One day in my distress I made a vow. I vowed that if I escaped from this desperate situation and reached the saving shores of America, I would put off all other tasks and sing, as best I could, the song of Bernadette."

I can't help but be underwhelmed with The Song of Bernadette.  Because Werfel wanted to paint an undoubtedly positive image of Bernadette, what we get is a character that is guileless and ingenuous and beyond any negative qualities.  She is, literally, a saint.  Since Bernadette starts out practically perfect (spiritually, at least), and there is no fall from grace, she ends up being a pretty static character.  Unless you already have an emotional involvement in the story of Saint Bernadette, or see this book as an affirmation or your religious philosophies, it comes across as largely uninteresting.

Yet The Song of Bernadette falls between two more very religious novels on my list, 1941's The Keys of the Kingdom and 1943's The Robe. At a time when the U.S. was gearing up for another war and still recovering from a major economic disaster, an attempt to seek out solace and inspiration from religion makes a lot of sense.  It's interesting to note that of the these three novels, one is by a Scot, one by a German, and one by an American.      

Like The Keys of the Kingdom and The Robe, The Song of Bernadette had a major movie adaptation.

Also like the above-mentioned, Bernadette remains notable primarily in the genre of religious fiction, it's mainstream appeal having diminished in the intervening decades.   

If you're interested in the story of Saint Bernadette or in modern religious history, you'd like The Song of Bernadette.

Also published in 1942:

Albert Camus - L'√Čtranger
C. S. Lewis - The Screwtape Letters   
Edith Hamilton - Mythology


Verlag, S. Fischer. Franz Werfel: A Life in Prague, Vienna, and Hollywood. New York: Grove
             Weidenfeld. 1987. Translated from German by Anselm Hollo.

Werfel, Franz. The Song of Bernadette. New York: Viking Press. 1941. Print. Translated by
              Ludwig Lewisohn



  1. While married to walt she'd met werfel,
    And he too was caught in her net.
    He married her, but he was carefell,
    'cause alma was no bernadette.