The mystery and glamour surrounding the Vatican have always stimulated the imagination of writers as prove countless books which make it on bestselling lists all over the world every year and which without doubt have been, are and will be discussed on a great number of book blogs and other literary websites. Since I don’t have a special liking for thrillers, historical fiction or insiders’ revelations, my literary expedition around Europe inevitably led me to a less common read related to the city of the Holy See: Lafcadio's Adventures by André Gide. Next summer this surrealistic novel of the Nobel Prize laureate in literature 1947, or rather this “sotie” or satirical farce as the author himself called it, will see the centenary of its publication.
The French writer and moralist André Gide was born in Paris, France, in November 1869. His first novel The Notebooks of André Walter (Les Cahiers d’André Walter) was published already in 1891 and sold poorly, but it marked the beginning of a prolific career. André Gide’s writing was symbolist and dealt openly with sexual matters, as from 1914 with homosexuality in particular. Among his most famous and not purely autobiographical works count The Fruits of the Earth (Les nourritures terrestres: 1897), The Immoralist (L'immoraliste: 1902), Strait Is the Gate (La porte étroite: 1909), Lafcadio's Adventures (Les caves du Vatican: 1914; also and more accurately translated as The Vatican Cellars and The Vatican Swindle), and The Counterfeiters (Les faux-monnayeurs: 1925). From the mid-1920s on he wrote against social injustice both in mainland France and the colonies, above all the Congo. In 1947 the writer received the Nobel Prize in Literature. André Gide died in Paris, France, in February 1951. The following year all his works were put on the Index of Prohibited Books of the Roman Catholic Church.
The story of Lafcadio's Adventures revolves around a set of five exaggerated types rather than characters. First of all there is the confirmed atheist Anthime Armand-Dubois who resides in Rome with his pious Catholic wife Veronique. He is the model scientist and freemason making cruel experiments with rats and despising everything religious until he is miraculously cured of his crippling rheumatism. Count Julius de Baraglioul is his brother-in-law, a practicing, though pragmatic Catholic and the writer of mediocre novels who yearns to have a seat in the Académie française. He just brought out the biography of his highly respected and spotless father who was a French diplomat. The old Count feels death approaching and as soon as his son is back to Paris he asks him to discretely make inquiries about a young man called Lafcadio Wluiki. Julius de Baraglioul visits the eighteen-year-old in his cheap lodgings and the youth turns out to be a highly intelligent and charming happy-go-lucky. After the visit Lafacadio immediately goes to the library to find out who his visitor was and what could have been his true motives. Reading the biography of the old Count he gathers – like Julius de Baraglioul before – that he must be the illegitimate son of the honourable diplomat. Lafcadio decides to visit the old man and finds himself well-received. Soon the old Count dies and the young man receives a legacy which allows him to break with the past. At the same time Protos, a former school-mate of Lafcadio, sets up a big swindle about the Freemasons having secretly imprisoned Pope Leo XIII in the Vatican cellars and having replaced him by a false pope. When naïve and devout Amédée Fleurissoire, another brother-in-law of Julius de Baraglioul, hears about this outrageous crime from his wife, he leaves his provincial home for the first time in his life to rescue the Pope in Rome. As fate would have it, this travel leads to a “motiveless murder” on the train to Naples with unexpected aftermaths for everybody involved.
Even though Lafcadio's Adventures bursts with irony and exaggeration, its basic plot is borrowed from true events. In 1892, thus more than twenty years before André Gide brought out his comedy of manners, there had in fact been a rumour that the Freemasons had put a false Pope, one who was sympathetic to the French Republic, in the place of Leo XIII. Quite some Catholics and monarchists were deceived and handed over to the swindlers considerable amounts of money. However, the actual swindle, exposed by the novel’s original French title referring to Vatican cellars which in reality don’t exist, serves the author only as the suitable background for his multilayered character and sociological studies. André Gide raises many different, often existentialist questions regarding human condition. Also his writing style is varied and satirizes the traditional form of novels which use to be realistic or analytical.
My overall impression of Lafcadio's Adventures by André Gide is positive although the read didn’t send me into raptures. I must admit that I had some trouble getting into the story. Maybe this was because I’m not used to reading surrealistic satires in French. Despite all I enjoyed the book and am ready to recommend it to everybody with a taste for the grotesque.