The Song of Bernadette

By Franz Werfel

Ignatius. 579 pp. $18.95


Reviewed by Frank Wilson


In June 1940, the German author Franz Werfel and his wife (the composer Gustav Mahler's widow), finding themselves barred from entering Spain, sought shelter in the city of Lourdes.

"We hid for several weeks in the Pyrenean city," Werfel writes in "A Personal Preface" to his novel

The Song of Bernadette

. "It was a time of great dread. The British radio announced that I had been murdered by the National Socialists. Nor did I doubt that such would be my fate were I to fall into the hands of the enemy."

While in Lourdes, Werfel naturally heard much of the recently canonized Bernadette Soubirous, the apparitions she had seen, and the cures that had taken place in what had become - and remains - a place of pilgrimage. "One day in my great distress," he writes, "I made a vow. 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."

Well, he and his wife did escape, Werfel did as he had promised, and

The Song of Bernadette

, published in 1942, topped the New York Times best-seller list for 13 weeks and soon after was turned into an Academy Award-winning film. If all of this seems to rub elbows with the miraculous, well, so does the book itself, which Ignatius Press has reissued to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the events that put Lourdes on the map. Pope Benedict XVI paid his respects in September.

Werfel was not Catholic, but Jewish. Nevertheless, he treats his subject with the utmost conviction. The work is fiction, of course, and Werfel alters and embellishes details and invents characters and incidents. The skeptical aesthete Hyacinthe de Lafite is entirely fictional. Father Peyramale, the dean of the parishes of Lourdes, was not present at Bernadette's passing. And while Antoine Nicolau was indeed a friend of Bernadette's, there is no evidence of any romantic connection between the two.

For the most part, though, Werfel sticks to the facts. The principal fact, while certainly strange, is also relatively straightforward. On Feb. 11, 1858, 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous, along with her younger sister and a friend, went to gather firewood. Arriving at a stream, the sister and the friend quickly waded across, but Bernadette, an asthmatic, hesitated and the other two went ahead on their own. While Bernadette prepared to follow, she suddenly heard what sounded like wind, though none of the nearby tree branches were moving. Then, she looked toward a nearby cave:

. . . in the pointed niche of the cavern there dwells a deep radiance as though the old gold of powerful sunbeams had been left behind. And in this remnant of billowing light stands someone . . . this someone is not at all an unprecise and ghostly or a transparent and airy image, no changeful dream vision, but a very young lady, delicate and dainty, visibly of flesh and blood, short rather than tall. . . . he raiment of the lady was best comparable to that of a distinguished bride. For there is first the loose and precious cloak of veiling that reaches from the head to the ankles. . . . Wavy ringlets of her light brown hair escape from under the veil. A quite broad blue girdle, lightly knotted under the breast falls down over the knee. But what a blue! Lovely to the point of pain.

This is Werfel's lyrical translation of Bernadette's own words. His narrative is grounded in her testimony. This enables him to achieve the kind of sophisticated simplicity that characterizes German Märchen, rendering both innocence and the miraculous both plausible and palpable. For this song of Bernadette is a love song. Werfel grasped intuitively that Bernadette fell completely in love when she saw her beautiful lady, and that she remained faithful to her love for the remainder of her short life. (She died at age 35.) Nothing else mattered, not the initial skepticism of her parents, not the spring she dug open with her own hands, whose waters proved healing, not the Church's investigating commission, not the petty interference of state and local bureaucrats, not the cruel obtuseness of the novice mistress in the convent she entered, not even a long and painful dying: "The passion of the girl of Lourdes was to take not seven days but more than seven years. Seven years are 2,555 days."

Werfel's uncanny imaginative sympathy seems to have come about in direct response to the ghastly events taking place in the world at the time: "Belief in the divine is nothing other than the substantially convinced recognition of the fact that the world is meaningful, that is to say, a spiritual world. Madness is the complete denial of this meaningfulness. . . . Thence it comes that ages which deny the divine meaningfulness of the universe are smitten even to blood by collective madness, however reasonable and enlightened they may be in their own conceit."

Frank Wilson is the former book-review editor of The Inquirer. E-mail him at PresterFrank@gmail.com or visit his blog at http://booksinq.blogspot.com.