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The Song of Bernadette (German: Das Lied von Bernadette) is a 1941 novel that tells the story of Saint Bernadette Soubirous, who, from February to July 1858 reported eighteen visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Lourdes, France. The novel was written by Franz Werfel and translated into English by Lewis Lewisohn in 1942. It was extremely popular, spending more than a year on the New York Times Best Seller list and 13 weeks in first place.
Franz Werfel was a German-speaking Jew born in Prague in 1890. He became well known as a playwright. In the 1930s in Vienna, he began writing popular satirical plays lampooning the Nazi regime until the Anschluss, when the Third Reich under Adolf Hitler annexed Austria in 1938. Werfel and his wife Alma (Gustav Mahler’s widow) fled to Paris until the Germans invaded France in 1940.
In his Personal Preface to The Song of Bernadette, Franz Werfel takes up the story:
Hunted by the Gestapo, the Werfels experienced anxiety for their hosts as well as themselves. A number of families took turns in giving them shelter. These people told the Werfels the story of Bernadette. Werfel vowed that, if he and his wife escaped, he would put off all tasks and write Bernadette's story into a novel.
The story of Bernadette Soubirous and Our Lady of Lourdes is told by Werfel with many embellishments, such as the chapter in which Bernadette is invited to board at the home of a rich woman who thinks Bernadette's visionary "lady" might be her deceased daughter. In side-stories and back story, the history of the town of Lourdes, the contemporary political situation in France, and the responses of believers and detractors are delineated. Werfel describes Bernadette as a religious peasant girl who would have preferred to continue on with an ordinary life, but takes the veil as a nun after she is told that because "Heaven chose her", she must choose Heaven. Bernadette's service as a sacristan, artist-embroiderer, and nurse in the convent are depicted, along with her spiritual growth. After her death, her body as well as her life are scrutinized for indications that she is a saint, and at last she is canonized.
The novel is laid out in five sections of ten chapters each, in a deliberate nod to the Catholic Rosary.
Unusual for a novel, the entire first part, which describes the events on the day that Bernadette first saw the Virgin Mary, is told in the present tense, as if it were happening at the moment. The rest of the novel is in the past tense.
Werfel presents Bernadette as a young girl of artless simplicity and sincere piety who is regarded as stupid by those who do not know her well. He also depicts her as strong-willed and determined to carry out the wishes of the "Lady of Massabielle" whom she alone can see. Her fight, to have the Lady's existence and requests acknowledged and fulfilled, is played out against the larger canvas of French politics and the contemporary social climate. Explanatory digressions illustrate what Werfel perceives as an ongoing conflict between a human need to believe in the supernatural or in anomalous phenomena; a true religion, which should not address such "popular" manifestations; and the ideas of the Enlightenment and of atheism.
Apparently, Werfel obtained accounts of Bernadette from Lourdes families whose older members had known her. It is possible that a great deal of folklore and legend had been added to the plain facts by the time Werfel heard the tale.
Lourdes pilgrims often want to know more about Bernadette and do not realize that far from being a simple-minded shepherdess, she was a strong-willed young woman who stood by her story in the face of tough church and government inquiry. Werfel was able to work this aspect of her personality into his narration.
However, Werfel was not above fictionalization to fill in details or romanticize her story. He included a number of characters who did not exist,[who?] embellished the anti-religious feeling of the prosecutor, Vital Dutour (who, according to one source, altered Bernadette's answers to his questions to make her sound more visionary), and transformed the relationship between Bernadette and Antoine Nicolau from one of friendship to one of unrequited love on Nicolau's part; when she leaves Lourdes to become a nun, he vows never to wed.
Werfel's work also features a highly dramatic and fictionalized death scene. In the book, Bernadette cries out in a loud, strong voice, "J'aime (I love)" followed by a whispered "Now and in the hour..." before her voice fails; the point of view characters are a) Sister Marie Thérèse Vauzous, Bernadette's former teacher, who, by the power of Bernadette's cry of love and transfigured expression, is converted from skepticism to belief that Bernadette's Lady is present in the room and b) Father Marie Dominique Peyramale, who is revitalized physically and spiritually by Bernadette's death.
In real life, however, Bernadette was in torment during the last day of her life, asking the other nuns to pray for her soul, and her last words—said twice—were "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for me, a poor sinner." Following this, according to Sister Nathalie Portat, she made the sign of the cross, drank a few drops of water and died.
However, in the preface, Werfel states that readers will justifiably ask "What is true and what is invented?" Werfel answers that the most important events of the story are all true,[which?] and that it was easy[how?] to verify them because roughly only eighty years had passed between the events and the writing of the book. He declares: "The Song of Bernadette is a novel but not a fictive work".
It seems to have been inspired in part by Émile Zola's Lourdes, a blistering denunciation of the industry that sprang up in Lourdes around the allegedly miraculous spring. Apparently Werfel believed the book might serve as a counterpoint to Zola's best-selling vitriol. One of his characters, Hyacinthe de Lafite, a member of the freethinkers' club that hangs around the town cafe, is a thinly disguised portrayal of Zola himself, re-imagined as a failed journalist/author who smugly casts Bernadette's experience in terms of the pagan history of the area: "The shepherd girl out of the antique world who, in the year 1858, sees the guardian nymph of the spring and redeems her from two thousand years of boredom[.]" By the end of the book, Lafite, the lady's "proudest foe", believing himself to be dying of cancer, is "lying on his knees" before the image of Bernadette's lady in the grotto, and crying out, "Bernadette Soubirous, pray for me!"
Werfel goes into great detail about the cures at the Lourdes Spring, and has Dr. Dozous, the town physician, show Hyacinthe through the wards of the hospital, particularly a dormitory of women with a particularly virulent form of Lupus vulgaris in which the face rots and falls off. Werfel provides medical details and claims that some such women have been completely cured after washing in water from the spring, and reports that many more healings take place during the Blessing of the Eucharist ceremony which is held daily at the grotto. Most of these details seem to have been paraphrased from Zola's novel or from the research he did to write it.