Poet and author of fantasy and detective novels, Michel Bernanos, born on January 20th 1923 in FRESSIN (Pas-de-Calais) is an adventurer. Fascinated by Brazil, where his family had decided to live while he was still a teenager, he will make many of his novelistic characters evolve there.

From his eighth year onwards, as his parents moved house after house, Michel traveled a lot, which prevented him from attending school regularly.1

So, he lived near Hyères, at the BAYORRE, from July 1931 to October 1934.2

©Michel Bernanos, 6 ans

Summer 1931, during a visit in Les ALLEUX at the home of family friends (near Avallon), Marie Vallery-Radot, who was eighteen years old at the time, taught this little boy to read :

It was 1931. I will always see this delicious blond boy – a tiny freckle on the tip of his nose – all saturated with sun […]. His suitcase was, if not full of sand and salty air, filled with little shirts and multicolored shorts, unusual in our severe, wild and traditional Morvan. This is what happened to Michel. He was eight years old – I was eighteen – lively, joyful, affectionate, dreamy, endearing. And that laugh! The Bernanos laugh, bursting and irresistible.3

In 1934, the family moved to Májorca where the civil war broke out in Spain. Revolted by Franco’s repression, his father Georges, decided to return to France. This is how they left PALMA DE MALLORCA on March 27th, 1937.

        In 1938, Michel, who was now 15 years old, embarked in MARSEILLE to reach PARAGUAY (South America), a country where his father wished to create a farm with his wife and their six children. After a stopover in DAKAR, then in RIO, and finally in BUENOS AIRES where they stayed for a week before joining ASUNCION in Paraguay, they returned to BRAZIL a few days later.4

©Michel Bernanos et son cheval, Napoléon Bidet Bonaparte

BRAZIL becomes the land of his heart. It is from this moment that he begins to write his first poems. He will never stop writing.

The Bernanos family settled successively in RIO DE JANEIRO, in ITAIPAVA and JUIZ DE FORA. From 1939 to July 1945, the holding of three fazendas followed one another (VASSOURAS, then PIRAPORA and finally BARBACENA in the state of MINAS GERAIS). The family raises horses, zebus and also tries the culture.5

When the young Michel came back from the big city, schooled at the time in the French high school of RIO DE JANEIRO, he led there, in these great spaces, between sky and earth, a life of rider specialized in the breaking-in of foals, learning to ride like the gauchos without saddle nor spurs. The half-bloods from the beards were bred for the army, the young ones being reserved for the cowherds. Thus, in a ten-hour day, our rider could ride one hundred and fifty kilometers on animals that were ridden only every three days to avoid exhausting them completely. These mounts were only used for three months a year, which required twenty horses per shepherd in a year, and in a country where mares are never ridden.6

        September 1942, in the middle of World War II, Michel was 19 years old. The civil majority being fixed at 21 years for the time, he decides to forge his identity card and presents himself to the Committee of Free France in order to engage voluntarily in the Free French Naval Forces.789

His sister Claude describes the context of his involvement as follows :

[…] A month later he left without saying anything to anyone. I was inconsolable and alone. I received a letter from him, from Argentina. He was arrested because he was too young. He wanted to join the Resistance in England, but he could only continue his journey with his father’s permission. And Dad gave it. I did not see him again until we returned to France. […]10

Michel embarks on a submarine hunter which sails in waters of “La Manche” until the end of 1944. He took part in the landing operations and was then appointed as Admiral Muselier’s bodyguard before being assigned to the military mission for German affairs from the beginning of 1945 until his demobilization in March 1946.111213

©Le chasseur Q12 – BENODET

Via BUENOS-AIRES and CAP-TOWN, he reached PORTSMOUTH in the famous civilian convoy of the Blue Star Line which was so savagely attacked between CAP-TOWN and England, “It seemed like hell” he said. He found himself on mixed tankers. Some of them were burning as they sank, spreading their slick of fire over the sea. Thus, the convoy made its way through the flames for endless hours.

Once in London, he was supposed to be admitted to the Free French Naval School, but he will be immediately assigned to the submarine fighters, he embarked on the Benodet registered N°Q12. The rest of the crew was made up of men from the Île de Sein. His work consisted of patrolling in waters of “La Manche” . He also often went to the Norwegian Fjords to convoy Russian ships. For a period, he does a replacement on the submarine Rubis and then, after sailing under the command of Admiral Muselier to Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon, he landed in Normandy.

He was a member of the fusiliers marins during the landing and immediately after the battle of Caen, he was appointed by General de Gaulle to be the bodyguard of Admiral Muselier.

In 1946, at the age of 23, Michel returned to BRAZIL. There he found a job in MANAUS (Amazonas State) in the exploitation of rubber trees mainly intended for rubber extraction.

The rubber balls bound by the Amazonian Indians

He controlled the rubber bales brought back by the Indians on a determined sector for a particularly comfortable salary acting as a risk premium. It is important to specify that this job was particularly feared because the one who got too seriously involved in the entrusted task as many were found dead one fine morning. Michel negotiated with the Indians, whom he knew to be largely underpaid for the work they did, an additional percentage on each bullet brought in untampered. He thus transformed his sector into the area where the least rigged bullets in the Amazon are found.

Always on the side of the minorities, Michel did not hesitate to defend the Indians who were in his team at the slightest situation that seemed unfair to him. . Furthermore, his various expeditions in the Amazonian forest are easily found when reading the Murmur of the Gods.14

        In April 1948, he returned to France at the request of his father, who had fallen seriously ill and died on 5 July 1948.

He worked for two years in Algiers in an oil company (from 1948 to 1950).

        However, in order to stay by his mother’s side, to whom he is very attached, Michel decides to settle permanently in PARIS.15

Then, Michel worked in various jobs.

He collaborates with his friend Robert Laffont in the launching of the dictionary of works until the end of 1956. Then he became a manager at the Société d’Édition Photographique et Technique (SEPT), which he left after its dissolution.

©Michel Bernanos et Jean-Louis Rabate

At the same time, he participated as an actor in a short film by Jean-Louis Rabate and Pierre Jacquemin, “La répétition”, and was an extra in “Un condamné à mort s’est échappé” by Robert Bresson.

From 1959 to 1960, he was charged by the Office of Documentation by Film with contacting administrative and official circles in order to seek out services interested in the production and distribution of information films.

Michel worked at the Worms travel agency from December 15th, 1960 to June 1st, 1963 as a canvasser alongside his friend at the time, Dominique de Roux, a French writer and publisher.16

        On August 6th, 1960, Michel must face the death of his mother. A poem will be dedicated to her : “Solitude”.

“The Murmur of Gods” was completed at the end of the same year and was dedicated to his mother and his wife.

        Wishing to distinguish himself from his illustrious father, Georges Bernanos, all his writings are published under the pseudonyms DROWIN and TALBERT. When asked why, Michel replies :

For example, I see a book by Dostoyevsky, I don’t have to remember that his first name is Fedor. The good guy who would take my book and find himself face to face with an anaconda instead of a country priest, he would not be happy.17

Michel had a deep respect for his father. Like his father, he felt that he loved writing, that it was part of him and his life. His poems are revealing in this respect, it will even become necessary for his survival.

©Michel et Georges Bernanos

Writing was his outlet, but in the eyes of the society that saw him as “the son of”, the recognition of his literary identity was often challenged. To succeed in making a name for himself, his name, could be a difficult, delicate and courageous mission.

Michel was of a whole and spontaneous character as his father had given the fascinating example of it to his childhood, he lived in his universe. However, judged to be in poor health when he returned from the war, he began to show two different sides: the good-natured joker, but also that of a man in constant search of himself and terribly alone. Loneliness in front of which the hands stretched out by his entourage, even the closest one, turned out to be powerless.181920

        It is in this context and in only four years that Michel writes all of his novels :

  • The spur’s reverse side (L’envers de l’éperon), begun in December 1960, was completed in May 1961,
  • The Manor of La Grande Bauche (La grande Bauche), his first detective novel, was completed in the spring of 1962,
  • Les nuits de Rochemaure, his second detective novel, was completed in the summer of 1962,
  • They have hurt him (On lui a fait mal), is completed in February 1963, but will remain unpublished until 1996, his publisher judging it too black series for the collection for which it was intended,
  • The other side of the mountain (La montagne morte de la vie), the second fantasy novel, considered one of the greatest masterpieces of fantasy literature, was written in only 19 days (May 1963),
  • The dead man watches (Le mort veille), a new detective novel, was completed in June 1963,
  • The killing snow (La neige qui tue) is written in July 1963. This detective novel was selected among the 10th best for the Quai des Orfèvres prize in 1964. This text had to be reworked by Michel in order to present it a second time because, wanting to denounce the corruption within the police force, it was judged too committed by the jury of that time.21
©Michel Bernanos

He also wrote various short stories, including They have destroyed his image (Ils ont déchiré son image) and The complicit forest (La forêt complice), the last short story to be published and which he had the opportunity to discover the day before his departure in the magazine Marie-Claire.22

        On July 27th, 1964, Michel was only 41 years old, he left his home, a large empty travel bag under his arm. He was found in the forest of Fontainebleau. He ended his life.

This voluntary departure dismayed his friends and surprised those who saw in him only the young man, the joyful companion whose facetiousness, hoaxes, enthusiasms and indignities they shared for years.23

Most of his works will be published posthumously by the work of his wife, Sylviane, who was convinced, and rightly so, of her husband’s literary genius.

Notes et références
  1. chronological landmarks Michel Bernanos, personal archives, Sylviane Bernanos, p.1 []
  2. Georges Bernanos, Jean-Loup Bernanos, Paris, Plon, 1988. Iconographie, pp. 82 à 87 []
  3. La jeunesse de Michel, Marie Brusset-Vallery-Radot, Les Cahiers Bleus n°46, Hiver 1988-1989 – 1er Trim. 1989, pp.11 à 13 []
  4. Georges Bernanos, Jean-Loup Bernanos, Paris, Plon, 1988. Iconographie, pp.109 à 121 []
  5. Georges Bernanos à la merci des passants, Jean-Loup Bernanos, Plon, 1986,  pp.305 à 408 []
  6. Testimony of sylviane bernanos, Points de repère, personal archives, Sylviane Bernanos, p.1 []
  7. Services historiques de la Défense (SHD) – administrative files of resistance fighters []
  8. List of FNFL sailors, mise à jour du 29 novembre 2011, Michel Bernanos – matelot canonnier – Date of rallying : sept. 1942 – date of enlistment 11 mars 1943 – Matricule 779 FN42, rank : matelot canonnier – Caserne Surcouf, Caserne Bir-Hakeim, maison de convalescence Beaconsfield, chasseurs. []
  9. Musée de l’Ordre de la Libération – Hôtel National des Invalides – Paris 7ème – Display case dedicated to Michel Bernanos, including his enlistment certificate in the Free French Forces dated March 11, 1943 []
  10. Testimony of Claude Bernanos about her brother Michel, La jeunesse de Michel, Marie Brusset-Vallery-Radot, Les Cahiers Bleus n°46, Hiver 1988-1989 – 1er Trim. 1989, pp.11 à 13 []
  11. Certificate of good conduct of the admiral Muselier1er avril 1946, archives personnelles []
  12. La grande aventure de la France Libre, Jean Livet, Les Cahiers Bleus n°46, Hiver 1988-1989 – 1er Trim. 1989, pp.21 à 24 []
  13. Established by decree on November 18, 1944 and placed under the authority of General Koeltz, the Military Mission for German Affairs – MMAA – was in charge of coordinating measures concerning French interests in occupied Germany. []
  14. Michel Bernanos, L’insurgé, Salsa Bertin, Préface by Michel Estève, Editions de Paris, 241 p. []
  15. Le Cycle de la Montagne Morte de la Vie, Fleuve Noir, « Super-Poche », 1996, p.674 []
  16. Le Cycle de la Montagne Morte de la Vie, Fleuve Noir, « Super-Poche », 1996, p.673 []
  17. Interview with michel Michel Bernanos, France-soir, publication du 7 mai 1964 []
  18. Les Cahiers Bleus n°46, Hiver 1988-1989 – 1er Trim. 1989, « Depuis nous le cherchons », Jacqueline de Roux-Brusset, pp.16 à 18 []
  19. Les Cahiers Bleus n°46, Hiver 1988-1989 – 1er Trim. 1989, « La grande aventure de la France Libre », Jean Livet, pp.21 à 24 []
  20. La Montagne Morte de la Vie, Jean-Jacques Pauvert Editeur, 1972 – 2ème trim., Dormez, vous serez heureux, Postface de Dominique de Roux, pp.153 à 162 []
  21. Le Cycle de la Montagne Morte de la Vie, Fleuve Noir, « Super-Poche », 1996, pp.674 à 675 []
  22. Ils ont déchiré son image, Marie-Claire, août 1964, n°18, 3 illustrations de G.Pascalini, pp.104, 154-158 []
  23. Personal archives, Study of Michel Bernanos’ poems by Pierrette SARTIN, poet and psychosociologist []