Andre Gide: His Life and Art, pp. 68-75
The Macmillan Company, New York, 1965.
From Gide's Journal, we learn that he completed the writing of Les Caves du Vatican on June 24, 1913. He noted at that time that he would probably make changes in the manuscript after he had read it to his friend Jacques Copeau. The book is dedicated to Copeau, in its publication in the summer of 1914, after it had appeared in four installments in La Nouvelle Revue Francaise (January, February, March, April, 1914). In the dedicatory letter Gide mentions the long time he had been carrying the idea of the book in his head, and the period of time, with its many interruptions and moments of discouragement, during which he had composed the book. Les Caves was indeed a very old project, and goes back to the time when Gide was writing Paludes, about 1893. He worked quite intensively on the book especially during 1912. During a sojourn in Italy that year, Valery Larbaud visited him and the two friends discussed the book. In May, Gide served as juror at the Cour d'Assises in Rouen, and then spent some time in Cuverville where he found it difficult to work on Les Caves. A good deal of time was spent that year on studying English.
Many questions have been raised about the sources of Les Caves du Vatican. Gide was practically accused of plagiarizing a book by Jean de Pauly, published in 1895, on an elaborate swindle connected with the imprisonment of the true pope in Rome and the extortion of money from pious Catholics in order to restore the true pope and expel the false pope who occupied the papal throne. Gide claimed never to have seen the book of de Pauly, but he did know, by newspaper clippings, of the alleged swindle of 1892 when it was believed that Leo XIII was imprisoned.
Although Les Caves has some traits in common with Paludes and Promethee mal enchatne, it is unique in the literary career of Gide. Its strong comic vein, its tone of an irreverent hoax, places it in a very special lineage with Rabelais, Boccaccio, Defoe and Voltaire. It stands apart from the central tradition of European fiction, which from Prevost to Stendhal, from Tolstoi to Proust. is characterized by extreme seriousness. Gide takes great care not to call his book a novel. In the letter to Copeau he explains that he calls it a sotie and his three preceding books recits, in order to make it clear that they are not novels.
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, a sotie was a parody or satirical play put on by law students and clerks of the Paris law courts. One of the themes was the election of a Pope of fools. In Les Caves du Vatican, Gide will mock the Roman clergy and pious believers as vigorously as he will mock the materialists among the freethinkers and freemasons. A newspaper article became the pretext for one of Gide's most skillful and elaborately devised compositions. 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 led by fools. In Les Caves, likewise, several serious problems are grafted on the complicated plot: the freethinker Anthime and his ludicrous conversion, for example, and especially the problem of the gratuitous act and human freedom as exemplified in Protos the chief fool and bandit, and his pupil Lafcadio.
Disguised as a priest, Protos, the principal philosopher crook, convinces the Countess de Saint-Prix that the pope has been abducted and is kept confined in the Vatican cellars, while an impostor is on the papal throne. The check she makes out to found a crusade that will rescue the pope is given to a friend whose husband is Amedee Fleurissoire. This gentleman has a series of hilarious misadventures, especially in a Roman brothel. In an express train, between Rome and Naples, he is occupying the same compartment with young Lafcadio. This is the famous scene of the gratuitous act when Lafcadio, without any evident motivation, pushes Amedee out of the fast-moving train, and thereby kills him.
By the early critics of the book, Gide was again accused of plagiarism, of stealing the episode from Crime and Punishment, where Raskolnikov murders an old woman. There are too many differences to call this plagiarism. Raskolnikov commits the murder as the result of an intellectual obsession, to prove that he is an exceptional being. Much of Dostoevski's novel is given over to the suffering of remorse and the effort to do penance for the crime. By definition, an acte gratuit is a disinterested act, pure of any motivation. Lafcadio does what he does in the train because he feels like doing it.
Who is this hero, this new kind of jester and criminal? From his mother, Lafcadio inherited his fine looks and his lack of scruples, his total lack of inhibitions. From his father, the old Count of Baraglioul, he inherited his elegance of manners and speech and dress. He has the charm and seductiveness of an adventurer who is only nineteen. He speaks several languages, has lived in many places and is rootless. Lafcadio explains himself by saying that he is without logic: je suis un etre d'inconsequence. His vigor is matched by his sensuality. And yet he has also the self control of a young aristocrat who is detached from the usual systems of living. Whenever he does something in contradiction to his nature, an act which might endanger his freedom of choice, he stabs his thigh with a knife. The familiar Gidian pattern of alternating moods: of wild impulse (reminiscent of Michel) and of self-control (reminiscent of Alissa) is in Lafcadio. He has traits of the earliest Gidian hero, Narcisse, in his eagerness for self-knowledge.
One of the guiding characteristics of Lafcadio's life, which will be especially applauded by the surrealists, is the flamboyant way in which chance (le hasard) governs his conduct. In the train scene, he decides that if he can count to twelve before a light appears on the landscape, then he will assassinate Fleurissoire. In a far more blatant and humorous and seductive way, he incarnates the disponibilite of Gide's heroes, the antilogical point of view that protects individualism. Despite the fact that Gide claimed Lafcadio as an imaginary character, Jean Cocteau claimed that he was inspired by the surrealist hero Arthur Cravan, the gigantic boxer who became a legendary figure for the early surrealists, and who published his own paper called Maintenant as early as 1913. In the July, 1918, issue, Cravan published a violent attack on Gide.
A brief notation in his Journal of December 3, 1909, in which Gide refers to the story of Lafcadio, announces the striking thesis that there is no essential difference between a gentleman and a knave. (Gide uses the terms honnete homme and gredin.) For Gide, it is an undeniable truth that a gentleman can become a knave. Protos is the master knave of the book, the leading rascal who indoctrinates Lafcadio. If, in a histrionic sense, Lafcadio recalls Voltaire's Candide, he is far closer, in a psychological sense, to Stendhal's Julien Sorel. When, in the final scene, he announces to his half-brother Julius de Baraglioul that he has just murdered the brother-in-law of Julius, he then seduces the daughter of Julius and departs. The reader finds it difficult to blame Lafcadio. His very impishness has its charm.
The harshest act of Lafcadio is his gratuitous act, perpetrated in the train between Rome and Naples, when he pushes Amedee Fleurissoire out the door to his death. It is a surprising act, not in the least premeditated until a few moments before it is carried out, during which Lafcadio observes Amedee sitting opposite him in the train compartment. The act is consummated almost haphazardly. It illustrates more dramatically than any other episode in Les Caves the temperament of Lafcadio, freed from the conventional laws of behavior. Whether the act was totally gratuitous is impossible to ascertain. Gide him self said in a letter of 1929, many years after the publication of the book, that a purely gratuitous act is impossible to imagine. He claims that there must be some motivation in everything. What he meant by "gratuitous act," in the case of his hero Lafcadio, is one whose motivation is not apparent, one which seems disinterested, but one in which the real self of the perpetrator is revealed (un acte dans Iequel ce que l'individu a de plus particulier se revele, se trahit (Pleiade, p. 1571).
If therefore the so-called gratuitous act will always seem equivocal, it is a daring effort on the part of Gide the moralist to resolve the eternal conflict between man's basic freedom and determinism, all those forces outside of him which form and determine his behavior and his character. This kind of act would be sufficient unto itself. It would have the minimum of relationship with the past or with the future. It is known that Gide had wanted at one time to write a play on the subject of a pimp who was totally disinterested, who practiced his profession without wishing any lucrative gain. The gratuitous act is discussed in some detail in the conversation between Julius and Lafcadio, which follows the train scene. It is a brilliant dialogue in which the two men create an imaginary criminal, and the brio of the scene is in the fact that Julius does not realize he has before him, in Lafcadio, the man who has actually carried out the crime he is building up in his imagination. "Think of it," Julius says, "a crime not motivated by either passion or need." (Songez donc: un crime que ni la passion, ni le besoin ne motive.)
In his analysis of the Dostoevski characters, Gide emphasizes the contradictory sentiments that inhabit them. Freud might call this the ambivalence of sentiments. Gide was fully aware at all times of the belief that a scientific ally trained person would doubtless articulate: there is no such thing as a gratuitous free act, one without con sequences and one that is purely unmotivated. Les Caves du Vatican is not so much the novel of the gratuitous act as it is a parody of the novel of adventure, a caricature of the novels of Eugene Sue, and a work reminiscent of the famous Fantomas stories of the first decade of the twentieth century, that were adopted as models by the surrealists. The example of Lafcadio will continue to be felt in the works of the surrealists and in novelists as different as Jean Cocteau and Jules Romains.
Lafcadio is portrayed as being the only free character in Les Caves. The others, in their comic traits, are all shut off from the rest of humanity because of their personal manias. They are partly parrots or puppets. In this combined social satire and mechanization of character, Gide follows in the steps of Moliere, applies theories of Bergson and announces comic characterizations in the plays of Anouilh and Ionesco. The background of the book is both historical: the papacy under Leo XIII and the organization of the Mafia; and the sociological-psychological study of the manias, the narrow viewpoint and the limitations of most men.
In his satire, Gide does not limit himself to one world. There is first, Anthime Armand-Dubois, a freemason, a freethinker, a scientist carrying out experiments on rats and who has a pious wife Veronica. The French call him a libre-penseur or an anticlerical. Then there is his cousin Julius de Baraglioul, a fashionable novelist, a believer who has announced his candidacy more than once for the Academie Fran¨aise. The French would call him a bien pensant. These are the two outstanding types of characters who live in accord with a very definite system. But for Gide they are close to the sots of a sotie in whom the real self has been dispossessed by manias.
Protos and Lafcadio belong to the other world of free dom. They had met in school, where Protos had excelled as a student. Protos is the indoctrinator, the leader of the criminal organization of Mille-Pattes, the creator of the false pope. We see him in Pau, disguised as a priest and taking from the Countess de Saint-Prix a large sum of money for the purpose of restoring the true pope to his throne. He is able to disappear with the ingenuousness of the master crook, and thus emulates the sea-god Proteus, on whom his name is based, and who was able to take at will any form he wished.
Lafcadio is the supremely free, disengaged being who has learned about the ways of life and the manners of freedom from his "uncles," the long succession of his mother's lovers, each of whom taught the youth something concerning the method of remaining intact. Lafcadio has chosen to live freely rather than to be right, rather than to choose a side that claims it represents what is right. He believes that men belong to one of two categories: the first, les crustaces (the crustacea or shellfish) over whom conventions and prejudices form a hell, men like Julius, who tries to become the ideal candidate for the Academie Fran¨aise; and second, les subtils, those who are subtle and who appear eternally different according to the circumstances and the company, whose face is a series of masks adopted for some inner preservation of purity.
If Lafcadio is the incarnation of an attitude toward life and the resilient life force that Gide admires, Amedee Fleurissoire, in the sotie as such, comes closer to being the real hero. (This point is made and brilliantly sustained by Mlle Germaine Bree in her book: Andre Gide, I'insaisissable Protee.) Although he is a comic figure, he has the integrity of the hero, the ideals and the sublime goal. He undergoes trials and adventures, all of which are burlesque, but which relate him to the lineage of heroes: his fight with bedbugs (punaises), with fleas (puces), with mosquitoes (moustiques), and the culminating scene in the brothel, which he thinks to be a hotel, and where he is seduced by Carola. Amedee recalls Don Quixote and, at times, Candide, although he has none of the personal charm of Candide. In the train compartment, before plunging him to his death, Lafcadio looks upon Amedee as ludicrous and grotesque. A tapir, he calls him. But then, later, when it is gradually revealed to Lafcadio, in his conversation with Julius, who Amedee Fleurissoire is: the half-brother of Julius, and the man to whom Carola gave the cuff links (which he had once given to her), he states that the old man he killed was a crossroads (ce vieillard est un carrefour). Chance encounters, an adventure in life that was particularly significant to the surrealists, form in reality a new structure of the world. The jewel that Lafcadio gave to his mistress Carola, before leaving her, she gave to Amedee after seducing him. She also warns him against the evil machinations of Protos who has succeeded in subjugating her. Like an elaborate detective story, like a parody on a fantastic adventure story, Les Caves du Vatican unfolds in an atmosphere where chance seems to dominate, and yet where chance seems to be devised by the mastermind of the novelist.
Little wonder that there have been several projects to adapt Les Caves du Vatican into a film. At one point, a Russian company was very serious about this project, but when Gide learned that they intended changing the band of crooks (les Mille-Pattes) into real priests of the Catholic Church, he refused permission, probably because he was weary of quarrels with his Catholic friends and enemies, and felt this would be the last straw. Gide himself made an adaptation for the stage that was first performed in Lausanne in 1933. Not long before his death, this version, somewhat revised, was performed at the Comedie Francaise, in December, 1950.
The book is skillfully composed to show the humor of situations that are only half-understood and half-known. Amedee Fleurissoire fervently believes in the pope, and undertakes what for him is a prodigious adventure to help liberate the man he believes is the captive pope. He meets his death by a chance encounter with Lafcadio who has no interest in the pope and who hardly knows there is a pope. Between these two characters, the one ridiculously heroic who will be tormented in several half-comic half trite ways before being annihilated by pure chance, and the other, joyously free and Protean in his ability to disengage himself from all tenacious snares, the other characters move back and forth in efforts to pierce the mystery of human action. Fleurissoire and Lafcadio both represent extreme traits of character in Gide himself. Fleurissoire's seriousness of mission is not without its parallel in Alissa's drama in La Porte etroite. And Lafcadio's freedom of spirit and rootlessness are part of Michel's adventure in L'lmmoraliste. Gide's character contains simultaneously a bed rock seriousness of purpose and a scathing mockery of seriousness when it imprisons the human spirit.