Winner of the 1936 Grand prix du roman de l’Académie française, The Diary of a Country Priest, by George Bernanos, is a thought-provoking look at modern man and his struggle with deeper meaning and truth within his contemporary existence. Coming on the heels of World War I, Bernanos felt man seemed to have lost his way, including a loss of love of the concept of man itself, which in turn fueled loneliness and a loss of hope. Even at the time of this work, technology was making the world a smaller place, and seemed to provide a path to distract man towards a loss of his inner self. The young Priest of Ambricourt (the priest whose fictional diary is this book) is the messenger for this powerful, dark story of self-inflection, doubt and the death of spirituality and hope.
The Cure de Torcy tells the Priest of Ambricourt “manufacture life as much as you like…what would it profit you even to create life itself, when you have lost all sense of what life really is?” The people of the priest’s parish, varied in station and situation, all suffer from the same affliction of philosophical and theological negativity. Bernanos explores why this negativity pervades a significant place within us, a place where man’s flawed nature reigns, science unable to fill. Time marches on uncaringly, our impotence against such a powerful force can only be met, as the priest struggles to learn, with belief. However, our priest has the same doubts and struggles as his flock. Through the medium of his diary, we understand his doubts, we see his flaws, we understand he is no different from you and I. We also see how facing his own death, feeling abandoned by God, he discovers that the will to prayer is the answer.
The priest often contemplates man’s insignificance, the problem of poverty and the injustice that pervades society. Man’s attempts to control and direct nature and his destiny, driven by pride, is ultimately his downfall. Bernanos develops an argument that without a spiritual foundation, knowledge is irrational, often used as a tool for injustice and cruelty to humanity. The disappointment that follows from such use of knowledge leads to further societal self-loathing, and the vicious circle continues. It is only through the understanding that grace is everywhere does the priest find peace, breaking his own vicious circle, as he lay on his deathbed.
George Bernanos (1888-1948) was a French author, not nearly as well known in most of the Western World as he should be, but very highly thought of in France. Bernanos fought, and was wounded, in World War 1. That experience, combined with his religious (Catholic) and conservative leanings, deeply influenced his writing, especially The Diary of a Country Priest. His writing emphasizes the dangers modern society foists upon man, especially that of the loss of freedom from government, from technological progress and from a loss of spiritual grounding.
From my description, you may think the book is a religious manifesto. It is not. It is a deeply personal and philosophical exploration of man and how modern society shapes him. Whether one agrees with the religious aspect or not, Bernanos challenges one to explore their inner self, their role in injustice and their reason for being. In short, it is a must read for any thinking person!
Published by the Limited Editions Club (LEC) in 1986, a period that many consider the sweet spot of the Shiff-era LEC when the productions were reaching quality levels never before seen in LEC history, yet were still attainable at somewhat affordable prices, this edition of The Diary of a Country Priest is absolutely beautiful and designed perfectly for the story itself. Bound conservatively in a light tan Belgium linen (such as what once would picture the priest in), with a dark brown Nigerian Oasis Goatskin spine, the book emanates conservative thoughtfulness. The all cotton mould-made letterpress paper, made at Cartiere Enrico Magnani, is a tactile delight to touch, just as it provides a tactile delight to your eyes, being a perfect vehicle for the bite of the 14 point Monotype Walbaum. The wood-engravings by Fritz Eichenberg are similar to what LEC fans have seen is his many works for them. They are thoughtful and narrative based, presenting almost haunting images of the temporal world of the priest. As always, the work of Michael and Winifred Bixler on the type, and that at Wild Carrot Letterpress for the images, is as good as it gets. The fact that one can find this for $200-300+ in fine condition makes it a real bargain.
About the Edition
- Designed by Benjamin Shiff
- Illustrations by woodblocks from Fritz Eichenberg
- Images printed from original wood blocks at Wild Carrot Letterpress
- Introduction by Robert Coles
- All cotton mould-made letterpress paper made at Cartiere Enrico Magnani
- Text set in 14 point didot Monotype Walbaum by Michael and Winifred Bixler
- Printed at Heritage Printers
- Bound in Nigerian Oasis Goatskin and Belgium linen
- Bound at Jovonis Bookbindery
- Limited to 1,000 copies, signed by Fritz Eichenberg
Pictures of the Edition
(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided, under fair use, to highlight and visualize the review/criticism of the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is providing education on the historical and cultural benefits of having a healthy fine press industry and in educating people on the richness that this ‘old school approach’ of book publishing brings to the reading process. Books and Vines has no commercial stake or financial interest in any publisher, retailer or work reviewed on this site and receives no commercial interest or compensation for Books and Vines. Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s or material found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)