‘The Vatican Cellars’
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
On May 21, 1913 André Gide writes in his Journals: “First finish my book. Spurn everything that distracts me from it”. The book in question was Les Caves du Vatican, which was published in two parts, on April 15 and 25, 1914.
The enterprising Gallic Books are bringing out a new translation by Julian Evans, The Vatican Cellars, in August to celebrate the centenary. In his short Introduction, Evans writes that his version "deliberately modernises the text in line with Gide's own decision to adopt a more straightforward, vigorous style" than in his earlier, more classically inflected prose. As Evans points out in a concluding "The Vatican Cellars a hundred years on", the book had an influence on Cocteau, Anouilh and Ionesco, even arguably on Sartre and Camus.
Les Caves du Vatican is easily Gide’s most enjoyable book – and reading it again recently confirmed this impression. It’s a world away from the Protestant guilt-wracked narratives of La Symphonie pastorale or La Porte étroite (Strait is the Gate), the solipsistic Immoraliste,or the dark Les Faux-monnayeurs (The Counterfeiters). It’s almost as if the author put all his sense of fun into this one book. Gide called Les Caves a “sotie”, which the Oxford Companion to French Literature defines as “a kind of satirical farce, closely akin to the satirical moralités of the same – later medieval – period”. Other fictional works tended to be characterized as “récits”. In 1925 Gide dedicated his “first [and only] novel”, Les Faux-monnayeurs to his close friend the novelist Roger Martin du Gard.
According to Gide’s biographer Alan Sheridan (whom, coincidentally, Michael Caines mentions in his blog of June 25 as the translator of Agota Kristof), Gide kept press cuttings that he was to use in devising the plot of Les Caves, which includes an attempt to rescue the Pope from kidnap. According to Sheridan, “in 1893 . . . a rumour began to circulate that the Pope, Leo XIII, had been taken prisoner by a group of cardinals, working in concert with a Masonic lodge, and an impostor put in his place”. As Sheridan writes, such events and their fictional potential offered Gide “an escape from self . . . . Gide was quite capable of narrative invention; he was less adept at creating the raw materials out of nothing”.
In the young Lafcadio Gide creates his most dangerously attractive character: rootless, amoral, reckless and insolent. Sheridan writes that “Literary antecedents have been suggested: Stendhal’s Julien Sorel and Fabrice del Dongo, Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov”. And then there’s the small detail of Lafcadio’s place of birth: the Schloss Duino, where Rilke wrote his Duino Elegies. Lafcadio has five pederastic “uncles” and runs rings round the representatives of the haute bourgeoisie who people the book, such as the pompous writer and aspiring member of the Académie française Julius de Baraglioul, who is as fastidious in his conversation – “La manière, encore qu’excessive, dont vous me parlâtes, à Paris . . .” – as he is in his dress.
Then there is poor, feckless and unworldly Amédée Fleurissoire (on the cover of the novel above), who, travelling away from his home in the south-west of France for the first time in his late forties, in order to lend his weight to the papal search, finds himself staying in a Roman brothel, with significant consequences, and becomes victim of Lafcadio’s infamous Nietzschean acte gratuit in a railway compartment on a train between Rome and Naples.
André Gide by Jacques-Emile Blanche, 1912
Sheridan refers to the book as “the novel of the new [liberated] Gide”. In his Journals in 1931 Gide was to say that he wrote Les Caves du Vatican and Les Faux-monnayeurs as “a revolt and a protest” against his “Christian formation”. It’s perhaps no surprise that the Dadaists were drawn to the “light-hearted, frivolous attitude adopted towards the Church” (in Sheridan’s words) in the book. Proust, meanwhile, wrote “In the creation of Lafcadio, no one has been objective with such perversity since Balzac”.
But Sheridan points out that “Les Caves was generally either ignored, condemned or misunderstood. It was, Gide himself said, ‘one of my biggest flops’. The critic of Les Marges made the expected, facile remark that Les Caves should have been called not a sotie, but a sottise (stupidity). Another declared that he would not care to share a railway compartment with M. André Gide”. Who, one wonders, was guilty of a sottise?
Julian Evans’s new translation will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the TLS.