A brief biography of my Great Uncle Marc Bernard
Moi, je vois autrement. Je n’ai guère de souci et de beauté et de perfection. Je me moque des grands siècles. Je n’ai souci que de vie, de lutte, de fièvre.
Me, I see differently. I am little concerned with beauty or perfection. I don’t care for the great centuries. All I care about is life, struggle, intensity.
- Emile Zola
Although I consider myself 100% American, 50% of my ethnic makeup is French. My mother’s uncle was the French novelist, critic, and journalist Marc Bernard (1900-1983), the recipient of the 1934 Prix Interallié for his novel Anny, and also the recipient of the more prestigious 1942 Prix Goncourt for his novel Pareils à des enfants.
He and my grandfather—who was Marc’s senior by 12 years—were born in Nimes, the sons of a drunken, skirt-chasing French-Spanish rogue named Juan-Baptiste Bernat (or Bernard, the alternate, French spelling of the name; my grandfather retained the Spanish Bernat moniker, which has passed down to his progeny in America, while Marc always went by Bernard). Juan-Baptiste was a native of Stoller, Majorca in the Spanish Balearic Islands who, in about 1907, abandoned his wife and young son Marc in Nimes and emigrated to America, eventually working the coal mines of Alabama. He died in America around 1911 and never returned to France or his family.
My grandfather, Jean Leonard Bernat, or “Pepe” as he was known in our family, emigrated to the United States with my grandmother, Marie Josephine Liotaud, known as “Meme” in our family, in 1912 and eventually settled in Evansville, Indiana. Sadly, Pepe and Meme never had the chance to return to France before they died, nor would they ever see Marc again. However, they and their children—son Charles or “Chuck” as he was known, daughters Louise, Marie, and my mother, Therese, or “Tess” as she was known—stayed in contact with Uncle Marc for many years. The Bernat clan in America remains to this day very proud of our famous French uncle.
Marc’s novel Pareils à des enfants (Such a Child) is an account of his childhood struggles in turn-of-the-century Nimes. It is a work of fiction, but is based on how he, his other siblings, and his mother survived on the meager income she earned as a clothes washer. This harsh poverty didn’t dampen the spirit of the novel’s protagonist, Leonard, but it did present far too many obstacles and tragedies for him to surmount, which he did with great joie de vivre and humor. Being dirt poor and the son of an absent rake of a father did not prevent Leonard from living a rich life filled with hope and promise, and of course the real-life model of Leonard—Marc himself—proved by his life’s accomplishments that even someone from the humblest background can do great things and be a major influence on society. Pareils à des enfants remains, even in modern times, a masterpiece of social criticism and a lesson in liberty, freedom, and the power of the human spirit.
Although Marc was a celebrated novelist, member of the Resistance during World War II, and literary critic and journalist for Le Figaro and Monde (which was a socialist weekly journal from the 1930s, not the current French newspaper called le Monde), he considered his greatest achievement to be his marriage. He met his wife, Else Rechiman, an Austrian-Jewish refugee, at the Louvre in 1938, and their lifelong romance brought Marc great joy until her untimely death in 1972 of cancer. His account of her death and his subsequent grief over losing her, the book La mort de la bien-aimée, is both beautiful and tragic in how it details his inability to overcome her death. Many French critics consider this book a masterpiece.
The saddest aspect of this tragedy is that my mother, Marc’s niece, also lost her beloved husband–my father–to cancer about the same time. When my brother and I found this brilliant book in Paris in 2001, as my brother translated it to me, we both started feeling a great sense of sadness and remorse, not only for our famous uncle, but also for our mother, who also suffered tremendous grief over the death of her beloved. We were touched by Marc’s deep love for Else and how he could articulate this feeling so beautifully in his writing:
Bientôt je serais le seul dépositaire de nos souvenirs, de nos secrets, d’une langage que nous n’étions que deux à connaître, avec des références à des faits connus de nous seuls, de tout ce qui lie secrètement deux êtres qui se comprennent avant même d’avoir parlé.
Soon I would be the sole possessor of our memories, of our secrets, of a language spoken only by the two of us, with references and things known only to us, of everything secretly binding two beings who understand one another before anything is spoken.
In the introduction of Marc’s book Vacances, the French writer Roger Grenier describes Marc’s life from when he was orphaned at the age of 11 up until he was discovered and had his first novel published in 1928. My brother has graciously translated from French to English the gist of Grenier’s brief biography of Marc’s life prior to his fame as a writer:
Vacances begins with a wonderful introduction by the French author, Roger Grenier, which describes the career of Marc Bernard from orphan at age 11, to the factory worker and self-taught intellectual who wrote his first novel during a bout of unemployment. He was holed up in a hotel and a maid noticed that he seemed to work night and day. She asked him whether or not he ever stopped writing to eat. “It’s just that I don’t have much to eat.” She made sure from then on that he ate with the others in the hotel.
He had a friend present his manuscript for his first novel, Zig-zag, to a Paris publisher who immediately accepted it. Marc Bernard soon went to the office of his publisher, Jean Paulhan, to thank him. There in the office Paulhan asked my uncle if he had read anything by André Gide. Marc Bernard said that he had and that he liked his work. Paulhan then introduced him to Gide, who happened to be sitting directly across from them in the office at the time. Paulhan presented my uncle to Gide saying that he was a factory worker who wrote and who had also read Gide’s work. Gide asked him if any other workers at the factory read his stuff. “Non. Je suis le seul.” I’m sure that Gide was disappointed to learn that he wasn’t popular among the factory workers of France in the 1920s. They became friends after that and Gide remained an admirer and promoter of Bernard’s work.
At this time Marc also began writing for Monde, an extreme left-wing weekly run by the writer and poet Henri Barbusse, a staunch social reformer, anti-fascist, and pacifist who started the paper to rally kindred intellectuals for a “proletarian emancipation.” Marc was raised in extreme poverty and had been a worker since he was a child, plus he watched his poor mother work herself to death for very little gain, so his class consciousness was tainted with anger, vitriol, and disgust for the status quo of French society at the time. The Bolshevik revolution in Russia appealed to his working class ideals and sense of social justice, and he began his journalism career writing vicious attacks against the French bourgeoisie. He became a very effective messenger for the communist cause in France through his literary criticism, which often masked his deeper ideological feelings about society in general as he attacked the art, artists, and ideas of his time.
Marc’s essays in Monde were the work of a brilliant and talented, self-taught journalist, and his critique of French bourgeois writers could get vicious and polemical, but he could also, even as a committed communist intellectual, break free from the Soviet orthodoxy of thought and praise writers not officially touted by the Soviet masters in Moscow. Moreover, although during this Monde period Marc and his friend and mentor, André Gide, were singing praises of the 1917 Russian revolution, it was an opinion that both would change quickly in the upcoming years when Gide visited the USSR in 1936 and repudiated communism due to Stalin’s wanton brutality.
A recent critic of Marc’s early 1930s work in Monde praises his obvious talent as a writer and journalist, but also criticizes Marc’s somewhat Manichean logic and Marxist ideological myopia that even the older and wiser version of Marc would have criticized as being perhaps a bit too youthful, naive, and overly zealous. After his years at Monde, Marc would never again be bound by the strict convention of ideological orthodoxy, and would instead assert his ideas as a free man outside convention and dogma. But it was certainly an auspicious start for a rising intellectual and man of letters who would hold a conversation with the French public for the next fifty years. Marc’s rise from humble origins to become a respected and widely read author was remarkable for his time.
In 1932 Marc was the founding member of the Proletarian Group of writers, Le groupe des écrivains prolétariens, many of whom were either socialists or communists. They set out to create proletarian art forms that brought their ideas to the French working class in order to ignite the proletarian emancipation that Monde’s founder had envisioned in the 1920s. However, several significant events unfolded in Europe that altered Marc’s views greatly and caused him to change his ideological course away from his extreme Marxism. But he remained dedicated to his proletarian ideals even as his communist zeal began to wane. He expressed these ideas in his art with great effectiveness, even if, as we shall see, it rubbed his closest comrades the wrong way at times.
What happened next was even more fascinating, and actually caused a stir with some of his friends at Monde: Marc Bernard became a prize-winning novelist. It began in 1933 when Marc quit Monde and went to Spain to research two articles he wrote on agrarian reform. In 1934 his novel Anny was published, and after it won the Prix Interallié, many of his fellow communists at Monde complained publicly that this achievement was far too “middle class” for their taste: “What we should remember is that the proletarian writer Marc Bernard has resolutely followed suit with all the writers who proved to be the most bourgeois,” sneered fellow Monde writer Gerard Walter in a call to banish Marc’s new award-winning novel from the works of “respectable” proletarian writers.
Marc’s novel Anny created a stir with his old comrades for a few reasons. To his communist pals, Marc Bernard, the most vicious anti-establishment member of the group, the most fire-breathing hater of bourgeois art, had become a bourgeois sellout by writing–GASP–a touchy-feelie love story! Not only that, but it won some bourgeois award that his old pals simply did not approve of at all. Even worse to them was the fact Marc’s novel violated the very Proletarian Group literary convention he himself had set down just a few months earlier in the pages of Monde! In fact, his new novel was written with a form and content that was the exact opposite of what he had been so vehemently touting! Marc was such a radical he wasn’t even following the rules and convention that he himself, the guy who created the movement, had established and had criticized others for violating!
Had Anny failed Marc Bernard would have been called a hypocrite and fraud by the literary movement he created, but because he succeeded he was an artist to be reckoned with in the French literary scene of his day. And what a novel Marc wrote by breaking his own rules! Imagine if Punk rocker Johnny Rotten had, in 1977 at the height of the Punk movement, made an album of Barry Manilow-like sappy pop songs, and not only did it not suck, it was brilliant in its artistry and won wide critical acclaim and a Grammy.
But Anny was more than just pretty piffle; it was one of the first great works of French socialist realism and would set the tone for what would follow from the Proletarian Group. Unlike the bland Soviet socialist realism of the era (the “girl meets tractor” proletarian ridiculousness of Soviet novels), Marc’s novels would resonate with honesty and depth and feeling, and in places would also be quite funny. Marc was a serious man with serious ideas, but he also had a sharp wit and sense of irony. Plus he was a hopeless romantic who believed in the power of love. And when Marc wrote about love, it was the one subject for which he had expertise above all else after he met Else Reichman.
I think what Marc did in writing Anny was prove that even the poorly-schooled son of a drunken immigrant womanizer from dirt-poor Nimes could write a great novel. After all, in France every writer of note since the advent of literature had come from the elite, high-born class or had been well educated in French universities. Prior to Marc and the Proletarian Group, there had been no great French literature written by authors from extremely humble backgrounds like the Thomas Hardys, Jack Londons, or Maxim Gorkys in their respective countries. Marc didn’t write Anny in the very strict proletarian style that he and Henri Poulaille and others had set down when they created the group, and while this outraged his friends and fellow proletarians, in the end they all benefitted from his bold deviation from convention. Marc proved that French proletarians could be serious artists in their own right, not just rabble-rousers and reformers.
And to a socialist reformer like Marc, that was exactly why French society had to change to help the working class and poor rise above their miserable situation. They were people too, with dreams and talent and brilliance just as vital and necessary as the leisure classes. They deserved the chance to write great novels and paint brilliant pictures, or simply have the time and means to just enjoy the world around them instead of toiling long hours in horrible conditions for lousy pay, living in poorly-sanitized slums littered with human waste and appalling filth, and all the while being denied the right to rise above their miserable place in the social pecking order. That, I think, was the essence of Marc’s philosophy.
Marc was becoming more of an artist and less of a critic. He’d spent all those years at Monde criticizing the literature and art of his day, sometimes rather viciously, but now he was on the other side. Anny was his entry into the French literary elite of his generation, whether he was an iconoclastic Marxist or not, because he had genuine talent as an artist and storyteller, and therefore his art was worthy of the praise and acclaim once reserved for members of the French elite. Moreover, his novels would have a much greater impact on French society than his essays in Monde.
Great works of fiction stir imagination and thought in ways that even essays cannot reach. French writers dating back to Moliere and Voltaire used fiction and theater to help shape the very tenets of the Enlightenment, stirring popular imagination to dream of a better life and a more just society, so why couldn’t the socialists do the same with their art? Marc would always remain a journalist and critic, but from now on Marc Bernard the novelist would also present his proletarian ideas in his works of fiction, culminating with his seminal work Pareils à des enfants, which in 1942 won the even more bourgeois French literary award (in the eyes of his cohorts in the Proletarian Group), in fact the biggest literary award of them all: the Prix Goncourt.
Pareils à des enfants, while chronicling his impoverished childhood, is a spirited, humorous, and uplifting story, very much devoid of the depressing cynicism that was common in the populist writings of his era. There’s a delightful optimism to the book despite its bleak setting in dirt poor Nimes at the turn of the 20th century. Marc was a socialist and social critic, but he also possessed a fine sense of humor, which was not in great supply in the leftist literature of his day. Rarely has a leftist writer expressed such joie de vivre and hope as Uncle Marc did in this masterpiece.
Uncle Marc’s novel is also the story of my family; how many of us have an award-winning novel chronicling the lives of our ancestors we’ve never met? Instead of having to search relentlessly through old public records and genealogical archives to learn about our family history—which obviously only describes a very small part of their lives, if at all—my family has Uncle Marc’s brilliant narrative to pass down to our progeny. Pareils à des enfants is a work of fiction, but it is based heavily on his childhood experiences, and we learn about his life from this novel as if he were sitting around the dinner table with us waxing nostalgic about the good old days in the old country. It is a tremendous gift he’s passed down to us, much more valuable than if he’d left us a billion French francs..
Marc worked as a journalist covering the Spanish Civil War in the mid-1930s. During his frequent trips to Spain, both for work and pleasure, he was exposed to the crazy violence and mayhem and warfare in that country prior the advent of World War II. In Spain he witnessed the very same madness that would soon grip the entire continent and plunge it into a living hell.
My brother translated parts of Marc’s book Vacances, and in one part Marc tells of a harrowing experience he had in Spain:
He tells a story in the book about a trip he took to Majorca in 1937. He was passing through Barcelona on his way there. He was walking along the beach, smoking a cigar that he describes as being as big as a walking stick (a fondness for puros, or Cuban cigars is another similarity between the two of us) when he was approached by an armed soldier. This was during the Spanish Civil War and my uncle, being a worker, unionist, and communist, was obviously a Republican (they were the good guys). He was taken in for questioning on the suspicion of being a German spy for the fascist nationalists. He was asked about the stamp he had on his passport (French) for Majorca two years previous when he took another trip there to explore his roots. He was put in a car with an armed escort and driven into the countryside. After a while he realized that he probably wasn’t going to be executed, because they would not have wasted so much gasoline if that was their intention. He was released when someone who spoke French verified that his accent was indeed French. He was then driven back to Barcelona’s Ramblas and bid farewell in the Spanish custom of effusive hugs and handshakes.
This was well before his own country was occupied by the fascist Nazis who, unlike the Republican leftists or Nationalist fascists in Spain, had more than ideological agenda in their conquering ethos. When the Nazis invaded and occupied France, Marc’s world was completely altered for quite a few reasons.
Firstly, by the time the Nazis occupied France, Marc was a famous and award-winning left-wing novelist and journalist. Secondly, he was married to a Jewish intellectual and writer of great talent in her own right, Else Reichman, who fled Austria and was heading to America in 1938 when she and Marc met and fell in love at the Louvre. Thirdly, Marc and Else were members of the French Underground. They were surrounded by the vicious, anti-Semitic, barbarian Nazi occupiers, who not only murdered Jews and Jewish sympathizers with impunity, but also killed quite a few leftist intellectuals and French resisters. With these three strikes against them, the mere fact Else and Marc survived the occupation is amazing. Marc’s war experience also proves to sneering right-wing Americans that not all French citizens during the occupation were anti-Semitic, boot-licking Nazi lackeys. Uncle Marc was nothing of the sort.
Marc also seems to have been the only Proletarian Group writer after the war to continue writing with a proletarian idealism, such as in his work Sarcellopolis, which told the story of what it was like to live in post-war council estates, the massive new housing units built after 1954 to improve France’s housing shortage. The newspaper le Figaro, where Marc worked as a literary critic, commissioned Marc to live in and write about the new council estate called the Sarcelles, which was built near Le Bourget airport and had a population of 40,000. Marc found the homes to be very nice, yet he also found the community had no secondary schools or cultural centers, creating a cultural vacuum that sucked the joy out of people. This rapid, post-war urbanization program in France, which Marc referred to as “artificial urbanity,” created a new kind of psychological depression, called sarcellitis, the effects of which Marc chronicles in his book he wrote about the experience.
Marc’s tireless work as a public intellectual, socialist advocate, critic, and reformer for over fifty years helped shape, in his small humble way, the social, intellectual, and political direction of modern France. That, more than any of his awards and accolades, makes me the proudest.
If Marc were to envision an ideal state in which a citizen should live, I am quite sure the current French state would satisfy his vision greatly. In his early works for Monde when he was a communist firebrand, he often railed against the cruel indifference of the elite class and Catholic Church towards the poor and working class. He longed for a future French state “free of religion, and a society without walls.” (Etat sans religion, d’une société sans cloisons.) In other words, a secular state with a level playing field for all citizens. Moreover, no matter how famous he became, he never once forgot his humble roots or the many people from his class who were not as fortunate or talented as he. In modern France, hardly anyone suffers from the harsh poverty Marc experienced as a child, and this tremendous social progress has not come about at the expense of the personal freedom and liberty of French citizens, so of course Marc would approve. And of course he would still write about the many injustices that exist even today.
Marc also wrote an excellent biography of Emile Zola, who is my favorite French writer after Uncle Marc and Voltaire. In many ways Zola was merely expanding and re-defining the sense of social justice set down by Voltaire, and Marc Bernard was further expanding the work of Zola. Toward the end of Marc’s career, he paid homage to his hero by writing his biography.
In 1970 Marc was awarded the first Grand Prix Poncetton, which is given to a French writer for his or her entire body of work, in effect a lifetime literary achievement award. The city of Nimes, Marc’s hometown, also named a library after him. Marc has been gone for 25 years but will never be forgotten. I am honored to share blood with this great man. I am also sad that neither I nor any other member of the extended Bernat clan in America ever got to meet him. Luckily, we have his entire body of work to remind us of his brilliant gifts and uplifting human spirit.
My brother and I are both writers, and we take great pride in following and further expanding the proletarian vision of our famous great-uncle. Despite being born and raised in America, holding American citizenship, serving in the American military, and being staunch American patriots, my brother and I will always be French writers at heart. It is a family tradition. And who are we to argue with tradition? Perhaps he and I can embody the Proletarian Group spirit for the future and inspire others as Uncle Marc has inspired us. If we are even luckier, our work will affect change in our country with as great an impact as Marc’s work had in France.
As with all great stories, this one has an amazing twist of fate to it worth discussing here. My sister Ann married a fine gentleman from Iowa named John “Jack” Bernard (obviously no relation to us!), and when they had a daughter in 1986 they named her “Tess” after our mother, Tess Scheck, who is the niece of Marc Bernard. So now our family has a Tess Bernard. And true to the Bernard name on both sides of her family, Tess has turned out to be, like her great-great uncle with the same last name, a shining star of our family. This fall she begins dancing ballet professionally in Providence, Rhode Island.
1. Le Figaro, Le cercle des amis disparus by Bernard Morlino, October 15, 2007.
2. Marc Villemain, Relire Marc Bernard , October 17, 2007.
3. Eurozine, Artificial Urbanity, October 10, 2006.
4. Chronicart.com, Marc Bernard A l’attaque! by Bernard Quiriny.
5. leftbanker.com, A Rainy Day in Paris, December 3, 2002.
6. leftbanker.com, Vacations and Memories December 10, 2007.
7. Blog du Bernard Gensane, Note de lecture 2, September 10, 2007.
8. Wikipedia, ““Le groupe des écrivains prolétariens.”
Je suis auteur français Copyright ©2008 Matthew C. Scheck. All rights reserved.