Greg's Reviews > The Passionate Heart

The Passionate Heart by Beatrix Beck
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's review
Jun 25, 11

bookshelves: fiction, au-bon-roman, girls-girls-girls
Read from June 22 to 23, 2011

Beatrix Beck is another author I never heard of until I read A Novel Bookstore, which is the English translation of the French novel Au Bon Roman. In that work many authors are mentioned, predominately French authors, whom are considered as writing 'good' novels. My interest in authors who are supposed to be good and who I never heard of, was of course piqued and I set out to find some of them in my local library system. Sadly, many of the authors either aren't translated into English or only have a book or two translated, or just happen to have a book or two available in the Queens Library system. This book happens to be one of the ones that was available (although to be totally honest this isn't one of the actual novels mentioned in the book by Beck, but it was the only one available).

The Passionate Heart is a crappy title. The original French title is Leon Morin, pretre, which is the same title of the movie directed by Jean-Pierre Melville and soon to be released as a part of the Criterion Collection. The title takes it's name from the priest who plays a major part in the novel, and while there may be some passionate hearts in the book that title makes the book sound like a romance or something. It's not. Rather it's about two of my favorite subjects (which love isn't one of them): Nazi's and religion.

It's set in a small town in Occupied France. The narrator is a widow who had been married to a Jewish man and still has his last name. She also has a daughter that she has hidden away out in the country because of her father's religion. The narrator isn't an active member of The Resistance, but she does help to hide Jewish families and forge documents to help people. The start of the story is a picture of everyday life under the Nazi's and her manner of dealing with the way that life goes on under the ever present eye of the German invaders would have made a great book in itself but she soon the book shifts to add a wonderful crisis of dis-belief into the narrative mix.

In an immature scene (the widower is young, the age is never given but my guess is she's in her twenties) the narrator visits a Catholic Church in order to shock a priest. She is like many a young person with 'radical' beliefs and thinks that her sloganeering is more shocking than it really is. It's a scene that reminded me of teenage vegetarians who think that they are going to rock your whole world view by pointing out that the hamburger you're eating is actually made of a cow. Maybe that kind of snarky observation works on angering their parents who are at their wits end with dealing with their little brat of a teenager but most people will just roll their eyes and continue munching own on ground up Bessie. In the book she goes into a confessional booth and when the priest says whatever it is that priests say to start of confession she tells him that, "religion is the opium of the masses', and (man, why did I return this book already to the library, I'd like to have his actual response here, it's really good) he the priest replies something like, than religion needs to change. She wasn't expecting to be one-upped by the priest nor to be invited by him to come visit him at the rectory to talk more about her dis-blief.

The rest of the novel centers around her relationship with the titular priest, who turns out to be an unorthodox logician whose view of religion forces her to reexamine her atheistic convictions. Many of the points brought up by the priest in this book were very interesting to me, not that it got me wanting to start going to church or anything, but it's the kind of rigorous thinking about the possibilities contained in religion that I like to mull over in my head. The priest was a sort of Dietrich Bonhoffer type, the sort of priest who can be thought of as a heroic and not make you ashamed to admit admiration for even if you disagree with the general basis of his beliefs. It's also the kind of religion that if it were actually practiced by a majority of people would make it a benefit to humanity instead of being myopic and dividing with it's underlying and ever present message of it's us versus them and we better fucking destroy them so our sense of self won't be threatened.

I thought that I might go on and on about some of the actual points in this novel that I found interesting from a theological point of view, but I think I would just make a muddle of things and my writing skills have been in rapid decline lately so I'm not going to try to bore people with too much more of my barely literate ramblings. I'd recommend people go read this book, but I don't know if it's too readily available, the edition I read came out in the 1950's and from my scant research it doesn't look like it's been re-issued since. Instead, why don't you watch the movie? I haven't seen it yet, but it's being re-released by Criterion and it has a good director and I have a feeling it's going to be at least slightly Robert Bresson-ish, at least in it's subject matter.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Greg I wrote a French Leave review, but it was for another site and I don't think they are going to use it. Maybe I'll post it here eventually.

message 2: by Kelly (last edited Jun 25, 2011 08:30AM) (new) - added it

Kelly This sounds fascinating. I have to say that some of the smartest people I've ever spoken to are Jesuits- most of them have about a bazillion degrees and many of them spend their days fighting bratty teenagers and then each other about philosophy and religion. One time, one of them told me that by the time Jesuits finish all their education, ALL of them have doubted or still do that God exists (I was raised Catholic, he told me this when I went to talk to him about my own doubts during the confirmation process). Yeah, nothing you can say most of these guys haven't thought about.

PS- I love that you have an au-bon-roman shelf. :)

message 3: by Kelly (new) - added it

Kelly Well I was lucky in that we had a really good Jesuit college in my town that local churches borrowed priests from to help out, and also that the Church rarely sends fire-and-brimstone guys to the Northeast (or at least my corner of it). The one time they tried it at my church with a visiting preacher, it was ugly. I think you're probably right about other orders, though.

Anyway, I don't want to divert discussion from Greg's review though. I just think in general there are too few of the kind of priests that you talk about that people can admire even if they disagree with them. There used to be all sorts of crazy interesting Catholic socialist/mystical/philosophical schools at the beginning of the century. I guess there are more career options for those of a scholarly bent these days that don't come with dogmatic restrictions.

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