Michel Bernanos was the fourth of six children born to Georges Bernanos, the famous French Catholic writer of rural damnation. He was the only one to become a writer, though in the vein of the fantastic and often under pen names, so as not to partake unfairly of his father’s fame. At the age of 41, he committed suicide.
Largely forgotten in France (much less the world over), his most celebrated novel, La Montagne morte de la vie (Éditions Pauvert, 1967), nevertheless exists in an English translation — his only work to do so, although it is the third installment of a tetralogy. It appeared once as The Other Side of the Mountain (Houghton Mifflin, 1968), translated by Elaine P. Halperin, and now in Gio Clairval’s definitive version in the anthology The Weird, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. The book has a cult reputation on both sides of the Atlantic, one the welcome new translation can only broaden. Writers and editors of the weird mention the novel with reverence, from Jeffrey Ford in F&SF (his short appreciation posted on WFR today) to Xavier Legrand-Ferronnière, editor of the French fantastical journal Le Visage Vert, who in his editorial stewardship at Fleuve Noir in the ‘90s reprinted the entire Bernanos cycle in a single-volume omnibus.
A spare, compressed work of roughly one hundred pages, it is divided into two distinct parts: a maritime adventure and the arduous journey that ensues after shipwreck and landfall. Within the first fifteen pages we are treated matter-of-factly to mutiny, murder, and cannibalism. With almost methodical rigor, the author proceeds to exhaust the possibilities of human depravity against the backdrop of the endless sea. Where, then, is he to take us next?
Bernanos ends his survey of these crimes of man on a note of grace: “The frightful scenes we had witnessed were too fresh in my mind. Toine, however, spoke to the sailors in a way that could be described as almost friendly. For a moment this astonished me. But I learned later at great cost that men are as vulnerable to suffering as they are to joy.”
The I in the preceding quote is one of the book’s only two characters to speak of: the nameless narrator, a boy of eighteen when the story begins, and Toine, the grizzled ship’s cook who becomes his friend and mentor. We come to know them only at arm’s length, through their attempts to survive; the other human characters, whom Bernanos does not bother to individuate, are dispensed with in a storm. Abrupt, savage, evincing neither motive nor mercy, nature in The Other Side of the Mountain is of a scale and order as to make man’s cruelty petty and pathetic, the entire system of sin and redemption a desperate and laughably fragile attempt at meaning in an incomprehensible vastness. We soon see, as Toine and the narrator drift ashore clinging to a mast, that for Bernanos, after the terrors of man come the terrors of nature.
The two men find themselves in a world they come increasingly to suspect is not contiguous with theirs at all: a world suffused with red beneath a crimson sun in a scarlet sky. (One thinks of André Pieyre de Mandiargues’ short story “Le pain rouge,” in which a miniaturized English dandy finds a grotesque brothel amidst the cavern-like air pockets of a loaf of bread mysteriously turned to ruby crystal.) Yet the cosmos in Bernanos is precisely not indifferent; it is actively hostile. Its intelligence is alien and can be neither approached nor apprehended. Man is not merely alone; he is hunted. The tetralogy that contains this novel came about as a result of time Bernanos spent in Brazil in the 1940s, as, among other things, an activist for indigenous tribes. In his descriptions of predatory flowers, desert wastes, forests genuflecting at midnight toward a distant throbbing force, it is possible to read the overwhelming and bewilderingly foreign rain forests, or the Atacama salt plains where NASA tests its Mars probes, as they must have been seen for the first time. In the struggles of his crazed protagonists, Bernanos captures the same fear and anguish that director Henri-Georges Clouzot mined in his film Le Salaire de la peur. The reader is reminded of the ideological quicksand on which at least half of the fantastic as a genre stands: the Western experience of first contact with an Other, the febrile record of imaginative displacement.
Toine and the narrator undertake to cross this nightmare landscape and reach “the other side of the mountain.” What they encounter defies comprehension while never veering into abstraction. About these obstacles, the less said the better: Bernanos lends them a sedulous materiality. Their power to compel — and an overall impression of narrative implacability — lies partly in enigma, in refusing transmutation into metaphor. In conveying my impression of the book I resort to the words John Gardner used to describe author Pär Lagerkvist’s The Holy Land (the final book in the pentalogy that begins with Barabbas): “all the complexity and difficulty of modern life is charged, as if by some crushing forces from outerspace — or as if by abandonment by outerspace — into a few stark and massive symbols in which all our experience and all human history are locked.… It is a world in which the traditional logic of events is dead; one goes on with the old gestures because they are all one has and because the mind clings to what it is, and rightly.… All this is of course pure event … pure vision.”
I wonder, too, if Bernanos’ book is not, as Gardner called The Holy Land, “excessively spare, and short.” Unlike The Holy Land, “The Dead Mountain of Life” — as the original French title translates literally — is without obvious reference to an established symbolic or allegorical system. Yet I do not impose the legacy of a Catholic novelist father in saying that the novel is charged with an anguish that can be qualified only as religious. Salsa Bertin, the only biographer of Bernanos fils, describes him as “a creator of parables, haunted by death and the metaphysical void of our world.”
The Other Side of the Mountain is a spellbinding novella of the mineral persuasion, sovereign and concentrated. In Bernanos’ scheme, man is the measure of nothing; he is a millimeter, and his struggles the busy quarrels of ants beside the extent of swift, casual natural destruction. Sin is a desperate act of self-importance. Forgiveness is a matter of supreme impersonality.
This is the first of several columns at WFR.com by Edward Gauvin on translated weird fiction and on the act of translation generally. For more from Gauvin, visit his blog.