I have always felt a certain affinity for narrative works, both prose and poetry, that are labelled as “songs.” For example, Gary Paulsen’s Dogsong and the French epic The Song of Roland. Although I’m not certain of why, I can’t shake off the deep feeling of magic inherent in the idea of narrative songs. One book that I recently read, The Song of Bernadette by Franz Werfel certainly lives up to the aura of magic I placed around its title.
To begin with, let’s have a little background. Franz Werfel was an Austrian Jew who fled to France after Germany annexed his homeland in 1938. While he was in France, the Nazis overran the country, and he was forced to flee once more. Before escaping into Spain via the Pyrenees, he found physical and spiritual respite at the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes. During his time in Lourdes, Werfel learned the history of the shrine and the extraordinary story of the girl named Bernadette, whose humble life accomplished nothing short of miracles. He wrote later in the preface to The Song of Bernadette,
“I vowed that if I escaped from this desperate situation and reached the saving shores of America, I would put off all other tasks and sing, as best I could, the song of Bernadette.”
The masterpiece that resulted is an elegantly simple story, both true and beautiful, told with candid insight and real understanding of human heart and mind. Perhaps best of all, it is a passionate narrative, but it gives the reader freedom of thought. I mean that Werfel’s narration is both beautiful and compelling, yet he lets his readers decide on their own point of view. His characters all have an aspect of humanity, and they allow the reader to place his sympathies and antipathies wherever he feels they belong. (For contrast, check out Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, which strives to manipulate its reader’s feelings at every turn)
Because The Song of Bernadette is fictionalized, it is not necessarily a 100% accurate retelling of the life of Bernadette Soubirous; however, the important details are historically accurate, and the fictionalization allows much more character development, as well as a more descriptive atmosphere.
At the heart of the story is the idea of contact between the human and the divine, and Werfel approaches this central theme from many viewpoints, through different characters. The one thing that the Song demands of the reader above all else is belief in the reality of Bernadette’s experience, at the very least its reality to her.
One side-effect of the translation from German (translated by Ludwig Lewisohn) is that there are a few phrases scattered throughout that don’t sound quite like English. Not that it bothered me – I found it added novelty to the tone and style.
I highly recommend Franz Werfel’s The Song of Bernadette to everyone, but especially
1. If you enjoy the combination of a narrative style based on a true story,
2. If you like your prose so finely crafted that it resembles poetry at times,
3. If you’re looking for an insightful storyteller who understands humanity well enough to bring you inside the hearts of his characters, but who also ventures beyond the human to the edge of the divine.
© Samuel Birrer and Serendipity, 2014.