Literary Miscellanea: The Diary of a Country Priest Book-to-Movie

Image result for journal d'un cure de campagne filmThe Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos was my favorite book of 2016. Unfortunately, it seems like the English translation is not very good. I have noticed that, in general, French does not translate well into English. If you can read French, I highly recommend you read this novel.

There is, however, a 1951 film adaptation of the novel. The director is Robert Bresson. Although it is a French film, you can watch it with English subtitles. Journal d’un curé de campagne (film) is a black-and-white, slow-moving drama about an unnamed country priest who tries to minister to a wealthy family in the village. He is pious and somewhat of an idealist. The people he tries to help are not interested in religion. The curé’s spiritual director and the other parishioners are convinced that our country priest is a womanizer and a drunk.

Because the roman is a series of diary entries, there are numerous voice-over segments in the film. I didn’t mind the voice-overs. So much of what the priest experiences cannot be shown on screen. There were scenes in the book I wish were more emphasized in the film. For example, the curé’s spiritual crisis is pretty underwhelming.

Perhaps, the most irritating aspect of the film is the presentation of the country priest. He doesn’t have a personality. His facial expression remains the same throughout the film. Even a suffering man experiences different emotions from time-to-time. The country priest is pitiable but not very memorable. I prefer the priest in the book.

The cinematography is exquisite. A black-and-white film is perfect for the story because Journal d’un curé de campagne is a character-study. I prefer character-centered and philosophical films in black-and-white.

Overall, Journal d’un curé de campagne (film) is a beautiful production in its own right, even though I personally prefer the book.

Don Quixote and Aristotle

In Chapter III of the Second Part of Don Quixote, Bachelor Sansón Carrasco, Don Quixote, and Sancho Panza discuss the First Part of Cervantes’ work. One of the questions addressed is the difference between poetry and history.

“Even so,” responded the bachelor, “some people who have read the history say they would have been pleased if its authors had forgotten about some of the infinite beatings given to Señor Don Quixote in various encounters.”

“That’s where the truth of the history comes in,” said Sancho.

“They also could have kept quiet about them for the sake of fairness,” said Don Quixote, “because the actions that do not change or alter the truth of the history do not need to be written if they belittle the hero. By my faith, Aeneas was not as pious as Virgil depicts him, or Ulysses as prudent as Homer describes him.”

“That is true,” replied Sansón, “but it is one thing to write as a poet and another to write as a historian: the poet can recount or sing about things not as they were, but as they should have been, and the historian must write about them not as they should have been, but as they were, without adding or subtracting anything from the truth.”

The debate that these three men are having centers on an Aristotelian question, treated heavily by 16th and 17th century humanists. In chapter 9 of his Poetics, Aristotle writes:

But it is evident from what has been said that it is not the province of a poet to relate things which have happened, but such as might have happened, and such things as are possible according to probability, or which would necessarily have happened. For a historian and a poet do not differ from each other because the one writes in verse and the other in prose; for the history of Herodotus might be written in verse, and yet it would be no less a history with meter than without meter. But they differ in this, that the one speaks of things which have happened, and the other of such as might have happened.

The poet’s job is to relate what might have happened while the historian’s job is to give an account of what actually happened. But what does Aristotle mean? During the Renaissance, writers try to systematically describe a verisimilitudinous play (i.e. a play that presents events as they might have happened). The 17th century humanist Nicolas Boileau even applies Aristotle to non-theatrical poetry in his Art Poétique (Art of Poetry). The debate concerning the difference between a poet and a historian is also a debate about the role of the public. What does the public expect from a poet vs. from a historian?

Don Quixote, as part meta-fiction, is not only a satire on courtly romance but also a commentary on Renaissance values such as verisimilitude. What does the public expect from a history of Don Quixote? If the story is about a knight errant, should it follow tropes found in the courtly romances that Don Quixote‘s audience know so well? How should Don Quxote act? Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are at once ignorant and self-aware. They behave irrationally, but they know what readers of courtly romance expect. They try to realize in their own lives what a knight or a squire never did historically but might have done poetically. What is ironic about the above conversation is that Don Quixote seems to know that the heroes in his favorite stories were idealized and mythologized, yet he attempts to imitate them anyway. Sancho Panza definitely knows what the public (i.e. Don Quixote) expects because he frequently lies about events to fool and please his master.

Augustine and the Bizarre Creatures

I’m currently listening to Augustine’s City of God. It definitely shows its age. His Confessions is much more timeless. LibriVox is a great resource (there is even an app for that). I don’t have the patience to read the work. I listen to it in the background while I’m cleaning. Some passages are brilliant, but most are either outdated, irrelevant, or superfluous. It’s not necessarily Augustine’s fault. He lived in the 4th century and wrote City of God in the early 5th after the sack of Rome by Alaric. If you are interested (as I am) in medieval history you should read it because it was highly cited by theologians, philosophers, and especially political leaders beginning in the Carolingian Empire.

In Chapter 8 of Book XVI, Augustine describes what is taught in the secular histories of his day. These things were believed by people until the modern era. Too funny!

It is also asked whether we are to believe that certain monstrous races of men, spoken of in secular history, have sprung from Noah’s sons, or rather, I should say, from that one man from whom they themselves were descended.  For it is reported that some have one eye in the middle of the forehead; some, feet turned backwards from the heel; some, a double sex, the right breast like a man, the left like a woman, and that they alternately beget and bring forth:  others are said to have no mouth, and to breathe only through the nostrils; others are but a cubit high, and are therefore called by the Greeks “Pigmies:”they say that in some places the women conceive in their fifth year, and do not live beyond their eighth.  So, too, they tell of a race who have two feet but only one leg, and are of marvellous swiftness, though they do not bend the knee:  they are called Skiopodes, because in the hot weather they lie down on their backs and shade themselves with their feet.  Others are said to have no head, and their eyes in their shoulders; and other human or quasi-human races are depicted in mosaic in the harbor esplanade of Carthage, on the faith of histories of rarities.  What shall I say of the Cynocephali, whose dog-like head and barking proclaim them beasts rather than men?  But we are not bound to believe all we hear of these monstrosities.

With beliefs such as these it is no wonder that xenophobia reigned supreme.

Literary Miscellanea: Gulliver’s Travels Book-to-Movie

Last week I did a Literary Miscellanea post on a book-to-movie adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. The adaptation I am focusing on today is actually a mini-series (1996) and is deliberately unfaithful to the book in some important ways. Yet, I really liked the adaptation. Spoilers are included.

Gulliver’s Travels

As you may know if you have been following my blog for some time, Gulliver’s Travels is one of my favorite books of all time. I wrote a spoiler-free review and a spoiler-y reflection post for it. Swift was a master satirist.

The 1996 mini-series is directed by Rob Letterman, and Lemuel Gulliver is played by Ted Danson. Unlike the book, the story of Gulliver’s travels are told by the protagonist not in a written memoir but in a psychiatric ward. He is considered unfit for society by Dr. Bates who tries to destroy the relationship between Lemuel and his wife Mary. Dr. Bates wants Mary for himself. As expected, Gulliver’s travels are told in the mini-series through a series of flashbacks.

What I enjoy about the mini-series is the focus on perspective. Gulliver believes that all of his trips were real, but he is having a hard time convincing others of his sanity. Even his wife and child think he’s delusional. A lot is at stake. If Gulliver does not convince the people around him that his adventures were real he loses forever the people he loves.

Like the mini-series, Swift’s work is all about perspective. Gulliver’s identity is defined and redefined by the creatures he meets in his travels. He needs their affirmation. But whereas Swift focuses on the evolution of Gulliver’s character, the mini-series focuses on the unchanging society to which Gulliver has returned. In the book, Gulliver doesn’t realize that he has changed. In the mini-series his oddity is lost on no one. Gulliver was rejected by the Houyhnhnms, but he cannot afford to be rejected by his family.

The mini-series is not very long (a little over 3 hours), so it can be viewed in one sitting. Even if you do not like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, you might still enjoy the adaptation. But if you did like the book, I think you will find this new perspective delightful.

Literary Miscellanea: The Secret Garden Book-to-Movie

Note: Literary Flashback has been renamed to Literary Miscellanea because the older name no longer makes sense. Literary Miscellanea is the section of my blog dedicated to “non-book-review stuff” (reflection posts, essays by famous authors, passages from favorite works, etc.). 

For the next few weeks I will briefly discuss some book-to-movie adaptations that I enjoy. Spoilers will be included. You have been warned.

The Secret Garden

Today I will focus on The Secret Garden by  Frances Hodgson Burnett and the 1993 film adaptation directed by Agnieszka Holland (Maggie Smith plays Mrs. Medlock).

You can read my review of Burnett’s The Secret Garden here. As I wrote in my review, I mostly enjoyed the book, but I found the philosophy a bit off-putting. I am quite open-minded when it comes to other peoples’ religious or philosophical views, but Christian Science’s belief in praying away sickness just doesn’t sit well with me. Colin is a hypochondriac, so his sickness was imaginary anyway, but Burnett implies in a few places in the book that good thoughts can help legitimately sick people be cured. Still, the book is a celebration of childhood. Friendship helps overcome personal and family challenges.

The 1993 film adaptation is the first Maggie Smith movie I ever saw. The film itself is (in my opinion) far superior to the book. The philosophy that I found so problematic in the book is mostly absent from the movie. Magical realism replaces positive thinking. The focus is entirely on the power of friendship.

The garden is stunning. I think we can all agree that English moors and gardens look better on the screen than on paper. Roses and Empress of India lilies grow everywhere, and Dickens’ robin is a charming character. We never meet Martha’s family, but Martha’s character makes up for the lack.

But the most compelling character in the movie is Lord Archibald Craven. When his wife dies he locks up the garden and runs from the world. Mrs. Medlock never questions Lord Craven’s belief that Colin is dying. He has cast a spell on the whole manor, and only Mary knows the truth. She has to convince Colin and his father that their fears are imaginary, but this is a tall order. As expected, innocence is restored when Lord Craven returns to his garden.

The 1993 Secret Garden film may not be a masterpiece of cinematography, but it is still very good. Some critics fault it for not being optimistic enough, but the darkness underscores Lord Craven’s neurosis. His fears and sorrows have crippled (in more than one way) not only himself but his 10 year old son who has never even experienced sunlight. If you have read and enjoyed Burnett’s book, I highly recommend the 1993 film adaptation.

Literary Miscellanea: The West’s Debt to the Middle Ages

Johannes Fried, professor emeritus of Frankfurt University, authored a massive introduction to the Middle Ages called (unsurprisingly) The Middle Ages. It was translated into English by Peter Lewis in 2015 and published by Harvard University Press. If you are interested in medieval European history this is the book for you. His thesis is that the Middle Ages has been unjustly characterized as “The Dark Ages”. In truth, technological developments, new political theories, and religious and philosophical movements paved the way for the Renaissance.

The passage I am sharing with you today is about the West’s debt to the court of Charlemagne (Charles I), the son of Pepin the Short and the most celebrated leader of the Carolingian Empire. In the book blogging world we often overlook scribes and translators despite the enormous contributions they have made to preserving culture and nourishing reform movements.

In the late 8th century, there was a crisis in literary knowledge. Fried explains why and describes how Charlemagne addressed this crisis:

Officially, the comprehensive educational program of antiquity was never abandoned; nevertheless, the efficiency of the “private” education system, which was not in “public” hands – not least because of Christian misgivings about its pagan orientation – had declined sharply in the dark centuries of the Early Middle Ages, when sources were few and far between. Certainly, the Merovingian kings must have had a comparatively good literary education; the entire system had not collapsed by any means. And yet, there was no denying that knowledge and skills had dwindled and atrophied. Only under the Carolingian king Pepin and above all his illustrious son did a decisive move in the opposite direction begin. Here and there, ancient manuscripts with pertinent texts were still to be found, but it was a laborious task tracking them down, and then they required patient copying work to save them and once more disseminate the learning they contained. Despite the claims of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, Roman antiquity is only visible to us nowadays through the lens of this early medieval interest, and the efforts of these Carolingian conservators.

As a rule, the material from which these old volumes were made was the comparatively cheap but less durable papyrus. Following the slump of scribal activity and papyrus production, the consequences were catastrophic. Even by the Early Middle Ages, the stocks of papyrus were in decline; in the late eleventh century, only the papal chancellery still had quantities of this writing material. The rest of the Western world had to make a virtue of necessity and switch over to the more expensive but more durable vellum. Apart from a very few exceptions, virtually no papyrus roll with a scholarly text has survived down the ages. Fire, water, rot, and mice took a heavy toll on the vital transfer of knowledge. The results can be quantified in terms of sheer numbers: of the sometimes enormous ancient libraries containing as many as an estimated one million books, absolutely nothing survives. If the contemporaries of the Carolingians had not undertaken a systematic search for ancient texts and manuscripts with an eye to copying them, and if they hadn’t used durable vellum in the process, most of the works of ancient, especially Latin, scholarship and literature would have been lost forever. No Cicero, no Quintilian, no Virgil, no Horace, no Ars amatoria, no Gallic Wars would have survived, let alone any of the ancient Christian authors. Charlemagne’s thirst for knowledge effectively saved these texts, indeed the whole of the Latin educational program of the Liberal Arts and their handbooks of the Mechanical Arts, as well as the unique splendor of Roman literature. In the absence of this, the late medieval Renaissance is unthinkable (52-53).

If there has ever been a reason to support humanistic studies, this is it!

Literary Miscellanea: La Princesse de Clèves

This week’s Literary Miscellanea is the continuation of a discussion started last week about the role of the novel on literary criticism. Willa Cather in her 1933 speech said that “The novel is the child of democracy and of the coming years”, thus framing discussions about the rise and popularity of the novel in the context of increased democratization. Today, I will be using an example from French literary history (the debate surrounding La Princesse de Clève) to illustrate her point. My information comes from chapter two of Joan deJean’s How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City.

The debate surrounding Marie de La Fayette’s romance novel La Princesse de Clèves must be viewed against the backdrop of the Culture Wars and the Battle of the Books (between the Ancients and the Moderns) at the end of the 17th century. Boileau, who represented the side of the Ancients, decried the replacement of the play (the dominant literary form of much of the 17th century) with the novel. The Ancients praised the classical authors for having mastered all the genres of literature. Why stray from the well-worn path? The Moderns, such as Charles Perrault in his poem Le Siècle de Louis le Grand, put individual taste and judgement over tradition. The “I” replaced the “we”.

Boileau’s criticism of La Princesse de Clèves centered on his fear that the public was replacing the “experts” in literary criticism. Often, when we think of literary history we consider how the politics of a time period influenced a particular work. We do not, however, consider the effect of the book industry on intellectual movements. The novel (as Cather indicated in the speech I discussed last week) democratized literary criticism. In the case of La Princesse de Clèves, the newspaper Le Mercure galant had a column dedicated to readers’ reactions to the novel. Jean Donneau de Visé, the editor of the newspaper, came up with discussion questions for La Princesse de Clèves and encouraged readers of the novel to meet in groups and send him answers to his reflection questions. The reactions of the readers were then published in Le Mercure galant. Donneau de Visé, thus, guided the discussions but allowed the ordinary reader to contribute to literary criticism. By publishing contradictory views about the novel, Donneau de Visé gave the impression that there was a vibrant debate surrounding the novel. By choosing La Princesse de Clèves, Donneau de Visé made that book the center of a controversy surrounding the novel as a new literary form.