Under Satan's Sun

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Category: Classic
Date Published: September 1, 2001 (Originally published in 1926)
Number of Pages: 257
Print Price: $97.95
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Our technological and industrialized world is filled with magicians, wizards, occultism, spiritualism, fortune tellers, spell trafficking, amulets, as well as very Satanic sects. Chased away from the front door, the devil has come in through the back window. Chased away by faith, he has returned by way of superstition.

The temptation of Jesus in the desert can help us to understand all of this. First of all, does Satan exist? That is, does the name “Satan” truly indicate some personal being with intelligence and will, or is it simply a symbol, a manner of speaking that refers to the sum of the world’s moral evil, the collective unconscious, collective alienation, etc.?

Many intellectuals do not believe in Satan in the first place. But it must be noted that many great writers, such as Goethe and Dostoyevsky, took Satan’s existence very seriously. The French poet Baudelaire, who was certainly angel, wrote: “the devil’s greatest trick is to make people believe that he does not exist.”

The prime proof of the existence of Satan is Jesus’ temptation by the devil in the desert. The many saints, who in their lives battled against the prince of darkness, are also proof. They are not like Don Quixote tilting to windmills. On the contrary, they were very down-to-earth, psychologically healthy people.

Under Satan’s Sun, by George Bernanos, is the life story of one so tempted—Father Donissan who became the saint of Lumbres, France. This is a biography as fiction, but through this fiction the author has sought to express eternal and awful truths.

The story is divided into parts, and in the first part the saint himself does not appear. It is Germaine Malworthy—more affectionately known as Mouchette—who holds the center of the narrative. At the outset she seems to be merely a neurotic, willful, small-town girl of sixteen who has been led into an affair that is bearing illegitimate fruit. But after we have watched her reactions to her pregnancy, seen her kill her first lover and fasten her claws upon a helpless second; we begin to realize that the springs of viciousness within her are uncommon. Soon we understand that we are being asked to believe that she is literally possessed by the devil.

Those who have read other novels by Bernanos (Diary of a Country Priest, Monsier Ouine) are familiar with the strength of this author’s faith and the faithful strength of his prose. They are familiar with the bloom of rhetoric with which he writes most naturally. They know that his compassion is joined by an unsparing contempt for all that seems blind and cowardly: a contempt that spends itself most lethally upon those priests of our Church who meet the world merely half-way. In Under Satan’s Sun we encounter a devout novelist whose dramatic intensity matches or exceeds the secular intensity of any other writer.

The book then centers on a challenged priest, Donissan, who believes that God is abandoning his flock, leaving their souls open to the corrupting influence of Satan. As the young priest struggles to find his place in the world, trying in vain to keep him on the devout straight and narrow is Dean Menou-Sengais, an older priest, forging a father/son dialogue throughout this section of the novel. For much of the narrative Donissan is a lonely figure, wandering the spiritual and physical wilderness in search of the meaning he feels his life lacks. Ultimately he is never happy, doomed to quite literally flagellate himself again and again, hoping to drive out impurities.

Across the divide is Mouchette, a seductress who is a lithe poison for her older lovers, one of whom she claims has impregnated her. She is a volatile character, flitting from eye-batting to dangerous rage, and is as troubled as Donissan. Eventually she collides with Donissan, who sets out to save her, but botches his attempt at redemption with disastrous results. He is cast out of his position, and the rest of the book traces his absolution in new pastures. (The approximation to Saint John Vianney, who had three times tried to flee his parish, believing himself unworthy of his mission, is obvious here.) He comes to discover his place in the world, but despite the adulation of his new community, cannot escape the idea that he is a failure.

All this is coupled with the corrosive certainty that God’s influence is seeping out of the world and being replaced by the debasing work of Satan. Father Donissan quickly becomes a battlefield, both metaphysical and matter-of-fact. During a night-long pilgrimage made by the troubled priest, he meets and converses with an enraged figure of Satan (in the form of a horse-handler); somehow, by making this representation so ordinary, Bernanos makes it all the more diabolical. “You are marked now with the sign of my hatred," this stranger says in parting.

This is a novel with deep ideas and extremely interesting characters. The story of harsh faith seen through Bernanos’ perspective is intellectually engaging without being pretentious. Though it deals with theology and rises to a stunning test of faith, Under Satan’s Sun has a thoroughly secular style. That’s one of the many things that make it fascinating. It’s a work of great subtlety, some difficulty and tremendous assurance, one that demands and deserves close attention. There is enough in the narrative to spend days, weeks, and a lifetime thinking about. It’s a novel that insists that we perform some essential spiritual exercise because Satan does exist, and in seeking salvation, we must recognize and avoid his works.


ISBN-13: 978-0803261808
Original Language: French
Book Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.5 x 0.6 inches

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G. E. Schwartz is the author of Only Others Are: Poems, World, and Thinking in Tongues. His blog, REGAIN'D, is a meditation on faith found in deserts, both metaphorical and actual. He lives in Upstate New York.

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