Originally published in the summer of 1914, this year is the 100th anniversary of André Gide’s Les Caves du Vatican otherwise known as The Vatican Cellars and sometimes as Lafcadio’s Adventures in English.
André Gide had quite a reputation and was adored and detested in equal measure in the French literary community during his time. He was a provocative writer, not sensationalist by today’s standards, but he rocked the foundations of robust entities in the early 1900’s and tested some of his friendships with his provocative, satirical works, that challenged the solemnity of the novelistic form and bourgeois attitudes of the time.
He declared the book not to be a novel, but a sotie, a medieval farce in which the players freely mock the powers that be, more often than not, the Church.
“Even in the authentic soties of the Middle Ages there was the attempt to demonstrate the madness of the real world by showing it capsized and lead by fools.” Wallace Fowlie, Andre Gide: His Life and Art
He did this to stand apart from that tradition of European fiction, characterised by its extreme seriousness. Many chose to judge it at face value, or to apply an interpretation that wasn’t his own and cause him to be ostracized by some.
He wasn’t looking for recognition or accolades, but he was a writer who wasn’t afraid to take on a subject and look at it through a symbolic, metaphorical lens even if it did court contempt in some quarters. Though still highly controversial in France, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1947, he died in 1951 and a year later his works were placed on the Vatican’s list of banned books.
That act was certainly provocative and no doubt helped to heighten the author’s popularity as negative publicity tends to do. So when this book arrived unsolicited in my mailbox, I was curious to find out more, not just about the story, but André Gide, a writer previously unknown to me. In a strange coincidence, this week I see that Papal controversy – or is it just rumour, continue, when I read this headline in The Independent.
The basic premise of The Vatican Cellars centres around the members of one family, whose connections are slowly revealed, whether by blood or marriage, the first three books (more like parts as the book is only 300 pages) are portrayed from each of the main characters point of view and running throughout the narrative is the effect of a rumoured plot that a gang has kidnapped the Pope and placed him in the Vatican cellars, an imposter installed in his place. The fourth book introduces us to the gang, referred to as The Millipede and the final book is dedicated to the young man Lafcadio and brings all the characters to Rome.
Book One introduces us to Anthime Armand-Dubois, a crippled freemason devoted to scientific research, an atheist who leaves France to settle in Rome to be near a specialist in rheumatic diseases. His departure causes his brother-in-law Julius De Baraglioul great sorrow and his wife Véronique small joy.
“As one of those people who fill their flat disappointed lives with countless small devotions, in her sterility she offered up to the Lord every attention that a baby would have demanded from her. Sadly she entertained almost no hope of leading her Anthime back to Him. She had known for a long time how much stubbornness that broad brow, knitted in perpetual denial, was capable of. Father Flons had warned her.”
Julius, his wife (Véronique’s sister) and their 9-year-old daughter Julie visit, during which Anthime experiences an apparition of the Virgin Mary and the miraculous healing of his affliction. He converts, but loses his freemason and lucrative research contacts and must move to Milan to await compensation promised by the Vatican.
Book Two is Julius De Baraglioul, a novelist who arriving back in Paris receives a letter from his father, who is on his deathbed and wishes him to anonymously make the acquaintance of a certain Lafcadio Wluiki to check out his ambitions and character. Julius visits the Lafcadio’s lodgings, meets Carola Venitequa and snoops around his things reading a private notebook since the room is unlocked and uninhabited. He eventually meets him and gives him a copy of his latest novel, one that has been panned by critics. Recognising the book is based on the author’s father, Lafcadio eyes the dying man as a potential new “Uncle” and goes to see him.
In Book Three we meet Amédée Fleurissoire, debated by some to be the true hero of this story; within these pages the entire plot to kidnap the Pope is unveiled. A priest calls on the widow Countess de Guy de Saint-Prix, Julius’s younger sister just after her return from her father’s funeral in Paris and regales her with the extraordinary tale of the Pope’s demise. And here there is an author interjection, a sidestep of the story plot to tell of the factual plot, as the story was inspired by real events that occurred in 1893 by a gang of fraudsters, taking advantage of the Pope’s sympathies toward the French Revolution.
“Whether God’s representative on earth could have been abducted from the Holy See and, by the intervention of the Quirinal, stolen from all of Christendom as it were, is an excessively thorny problem which I do not have the temerity to raise in these pages. But it is a historical fact that, around the end of 1893, rumours were circulating to that effect. It goes without saying that numerous devoted souls became deeply agitated. A pamphlet on the subject appeared in Saint-Malo and was suppressed. …There is no doubt that countless pious souls made financial sacrifices, but it was dubious whether all those who received donations were genuine campaigners, or whether some were perhaps fraudsters.”
The priest wishes the Countess to make a significant donation, so she rushes off to see Madame Fleurissoire, the younger sister of Véronique and Marguerite and wife of our genuine hero Monsieur Amédée Fleurissoire. Hearing about all the fuss Fleurissoire decides he must leave Pau and travel to Rome himself to see what can be done.
Book Four is The Millipede (the centipede) which continues to follow the travels of Amédée, the presence of the gang undetected. He is intercepted at the station and brought to slovenly rooms, where we again meet Carola and he is taken on a bit of a wild goose chase to Naples and back, bumping into Julius who has also appeared in Rome.
Then Book Five brings us back to Lafcadio, raised by his mother and five uncles, across different European countries, he is at home everywhere, but belongs nowhere. After his encounter with Julius’s dying father, he too decides to take the train south, but he is heading for adventure, his destination Borneo. He is the anti-hero, the free spirit, parentless, he lives without obligation or restraint, he can do as he pleases, provided he has the means. His charm takes care of that.
And what happens when they all find themselves in Rome? For that you’ll need to read the book.
As the literary critic Albert Guerard said:
“Perhaps only the maligned casual reader sees that les Caves du Vatican is above all a very funny book.”
It is a book that Gide had in the back of his mind for 20 years before writing it and many of the scenes were inspired from aspects of his own life or those close to him. For example, Anthime’s conversion is said to be based on Emile Zola’s Freemason cousin, who abjured his atheism in a public ceremony at a church in Rome.
The Vatican Cellars is an entertaining, easy read and can be intellectually stimulating if you are interested to analyse it further. I enjoyed it very much and all the more for having read around it, dipping into some of the published literary essays to understand the intentions of the author and the responses of the critics.
He was a humble author with a fascinating intellect who refused to accept literary prizes and acknowledgement at home, until it came to the Nobel, which he felt would have gone to Paul Valéry, if not for his untimely death and accepted it without reserve, though he was too ill to receive it in person.
In an open letter to several leading Swedish newspapers which had sought interviews, Gide confessed that he had received the Nobel Prize:
“with deep emotion, with tears in my eyes, like a schoolboy who has won a prize.”
I leave you with this very funny anecdote that I picked up from an essay by the critic George D.Painter.
“On 7 January 1930 Gide was returning by train from Toulon to Paris with Jacques de Lacretelle. At the opposite table, which was covered with flowers, sat a honeymoon couple, the husband engrossed in The Vatican Swindle. It was the first time Gide had ever seen a stranger reading himself. ‘Here’s your chance,’ said Lacretelle, ‘Tell him who you are – write him a dedication!’ But to do this, Gide would have had to feel sure that the unknown liked the book. Suddenly the young man pulled out a penknife. Good heavens, was he about, like Lafcadio, to plunge it in his thigh? But no, worse still, he seemed to intend to cut the book itself in pieces, and Lacretelle was seized with a fou rire. With great care the bridegroom cut the threads of the binding, detached the part he had read, handed it to his young wife; and both buried themselves in their reading.”
Note: Thank you most kindly to Gallic Books for sending me a copy of the book.