Why do we behave the way that we do? Psychologists would argue about nature versus nurture, but they rarely go so far as to talk about the ongoing pressures that family and society and law and religion and culture have on us as adults. André Gide’s The Vatican Cellars, originally published in 1914, is an exploration of that very question. The exploration, however, is the subtext to a strange and funny tale of atheists who find faith, pietists flirting with atheism, con men, nihilism, misguided love—and family.
I picked this book up because the description mentioned a pope being kidnapped and farce. I don’t think I read anything else about The Vatican Cellars on the NetGalley cite before I hit the request button. A casual reader wouldn’t expect anything like this from the first chapters of this brief book. According to the note at the end of the book, Gide didn’t consider The Vatican Cellars a novel. He called it a sotie:
A sotie (or sottie) is a short satirical play common in 15th- and 16th-century in France. The word (compare modern sottise) comes from the sots, “fools”, who appeared as characters in the play. (Wikipedia)
In those first chapters, we are introduced to Anthime and his wife, Véronique, his brother-in-law and sister-in-law. Anthime is a staunch, combative atheist. He drives his wife crazy with his cruel experiments on animals and his constant antagonism towards the rest of the family’s faith. One night, after damaging a statue of the Virgin Mary, Anthime has a vision and wakes up cured of the pain in his leg. Anthime immediately converts, becoming so saint-like that it annoys his family even more than his atheism. After these chapters, Gide detours into the tale of the brother-in-law, Julius de Baraglioul, and Julius’ previously unknown illegitimate half-brother, Lafcladio Wluiki. While Julius is very proper and highly conscientious of his family’s reputation, Lafcadio is almost the prototypical nihilist.
As we learn more of Lafcadio’s debauched youth and his lack of empathy to pretty much everyone in his life, the story shifts again to yet another member of Julius’ tangled family. Julius sister, a comtesse, is taken in by a scam artist. The note at the end of the book reports an actual scam that occurred in 1892 that inspired Gide. Con men would dress as priests and target credulous and deeply devout rich people by asking for money to free the pope, who they said had been kidnapped. If word got out, the con men said, Catholicism would collapse. One of Lafcadio’s childhood friends, Protos, is deeply involved in running the con. There are coincidences everywhere in The Vatican Cellars. They are used to great effect to gaslight some of the characters into believing that there really is a vast conspiracy involving the pope.
I get the impression that The Vatican Cellars would make more sense to someone reading in 1914. The antagonisms hinted at between the Catholic Church and the Freemasons. Lafcadio’s character would probably make more sense before the creation of existentialism, when nihilism and the will to power and traditional values did battle for people’s souls. Still, Gide’s subtle, snarky humor had me very entertained, even though many of the characters do completely depraved things. I understand why Gide was such a controversial author in his time.
I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.