Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Suicide in the Fiction of Georges Bernanos and Stefan Zweig: The Death of Two Female Adolescents

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Suicide in the Fiction of Georges Bernanos and Stefan Zweig: The Death of Two Female Adolescents

Article excerpt

The Encounter of Georges Bernanos and Stefan Zweig

The most voluntary death is the finest. Life depends upon the pleasure of others; death upon our own.--Montaigne 167

Countless superlatives have been used to describe the literary accomplishments of two European writers of the same generation: the French Georges Bernanos (1888-1948), and the Austrian Stefan Zweig (1881-1942). Both men died at the age of 60. Bernanos succumbed to cancer of the liver in a Paris hospital in 1948; Zweig committed suicide with his second wife, Lotte Altmann, in Petropolis, Brazil, in 1942. No lesser an authority than Andre Malraux called Bernanos "the greatest novelist of his time" (9), (1) while Zweig is said to have been, in his lifetime, "the most widely translated writer of works of fiction, biography, and essays in the world" (Sonnenfeld xi) (2). Little is known about how well, if at all, they knew one another's works. Bernanos is likely to have read some of Zweig's writings because he states in an article in March 1942, shortly after Zweig's death, that he had "great esteem for Mr. Zweig's talent" (Le Chemin de la Croix-des-Ames 344). Stefan Zweig, great Francophile and fluent in French himself, counted Valery, Romain Rolland, Andre Gide, Roger Martin du Gard, and Jean-Richard Bloch among his old and cherished friends (The World of Yesterday 379); there is, however, no documentation to show that Zweig had read any of Bernanos's works. What, therefore, is the link between these two very different writers--one being a Catholic monarchist, the other a nonpracticing Jew--who hardly knew each other? We do know that Bernanos and Zweig had a single yet crucial meeting in Brazil, their chosen country of exile, in late 1941, only weeks before Zweig's death on February 22, 1942. (3) Zweig had asked a mutual friend, Geraldo Franca de Lima, to take him to Bernanos's hacienda in Barbacena. Later, de Lima recalled the visit: "Never have I seen Bernanos receive anyone with such affection and fraternity.... Stephan [sic] Zweig was depressed, sad, demoralized, without hope, full of dark thoughts. Bernanos spoke to him with infinite gentleness, trying to restore hope in him" (Jean-Loup Bernanos 223). De Lima also remembered that Bernanos had then invited Zweig to stay with him for a few days and had offered Zweig his collaboration in doing their share, as artists, to combat Nazism: "[Bernanos] proposed that they unite their efforts to denounce and to condemn, in an appeal to universal consciousness, Hitler's barbarity against the Jews, which he, Bernanos, called a crime against humanity" (Jean-Loup Bernanos 223). However, Zweig did not accept, went back to Petropolis and chose to end his life with his wife. Upon receiving the news, Bernanos wrote in a letter: "Poor devils! I hope that they have now been shown into green pastures" (Combat pour la liberte 446). Furthermore, the French author wrote an article on Stefan Zweig's suicide ("Le suicide de Stefan Zweig") which appeared on March 6, 1942, in O Jornal (Le Chemin 343-45). Without lessening his esteem for the Austrian as a writer or condemning outright his desperate act, Bernanos nevertheless dismissed Zweig's suicide as an act of deception by which Zweig had taken away all hope from his readers. Thus, in Bernanos's eyes, suicide, committed by a well-respected and idolized public man, one who has a responsibility, if not a duty, toward those drawing motivation and hope from his work, becomes unforgivable in its inevitable provocation of despair and hopelessness among his followers: "humanity cannot see, without anguish, the reduction of the number of anonymous, obscure people who, having never known the honours or benefits of glory, refuse to consent to injustice, live on their only possession that they have left: humble and ardent hope." And he added: "Whoever touches upon this sacred possession, whoever might fritter away one of its fragments, disarms the consciousness of the world, and deprives the poor wretches" (Le Chemin 343-44). …

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