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The Diary of a Country Priest (1936) by Georges Bernanos is as timely now as ever. It can be appreciated for its powerful Christian vision, its pertinence to today’s social illnesses, and its literary excellence, as shown in narrative technique, style, character portraits, and subtle plot development. I’ve taught it repeatedly. In a summer course once, as a rare gesture I let students choose one novel to be skipped on the final examination. Nearly unanimously, they chose Bernanos’s masterpiece. Yet De Gaulle called it “the greatest French novel,” and André Malraux deemed Bernanos to be “the greatest novelist of his time.”

But The Diary has always gone against modern literary taste. When it was written in 1930s France, the country was torn by political crises. Many writers had turned to left-wing journalism or taken up socialist realism. To be an intellectual in France then, as now, generally meant to be “progressive.” Bernanos didn’t fit the fashion: he was a fervent, activist Catholic and monarchist, both orthodox and atypical by his intellectual and moral independence; sometimes he managed to offend all parties. His wife was Jehanne Talbert d’Arc, an indirect descendant of Saint Joan. From his youth he always opposed progressivism and secularism, while denouncing the capitalist idol of mammon. He served bravely in the Great War. In 1936,...

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