George D. Painter
André Gide, pp. 63-74
Atheneum, New York, 1968.
No great event marked the liberation of Gide's now mature genius for a major novel. The past decade of influence and restraint, his renunciation of travel and other liquidations of the past, the writing of The Immoralist and Strait is the Gate, had been preparations; and he wrote The Vatican Swindle when these preparations were completed. He began it in October 1911, and finished on 23 June 1913.
So much of the action takes place in railway trains, that it seems fitting to begin and end our study of the novel with relevant anecdotes of Gide in a railway carriage. In October 1911, on Friday the I3th - 'it had to be that,' he records in his Journal - he 'travelled beside a little whore in spectacles, who kept the whole compartment awake till half-past one in the morning, reading A Woman's Kiss. Too exasperated to sleep, especially as I didn't dare say anything cutting to her on account of the fat protector who dozed opposite.' From this irritation over an affair of electric light in a railway carriage Gide drew an important incident of his novel.
Anthime Armand-Dubois, an atheist, Freemason, and vivisector of rats, has come to Rome to cure his sciatica. 'You would do better to cure your soul,' says his brother-in-law Julius. Anthime's 'free' thought is as superficial and trammelled as Julius's faith. The Madonna appears to him in a dream and heals both his unbelief and his hip joint. He walks without crutches, and is hailed by the Catholic world as a distinguished convert.
Anthime's wife's sister's husband, Count Julius de Baraglioul, a novelist, Catholic and would- be Academician, is ordered by his dying father, a retired ambassador, to investigate the character of a certain Lafcadio Wluiki. Lafcadio's temporary mistress, Carola, lets Julius into her lover's room, where he dutifully reads the young man's journal, and is surprised in the act. Though only nineteen, Lafcadio is already a Nietzschean superman. He is blond, handsome, steel-strong in body and will, and whenever he inadvertently betrays his true feelings, he punishes himself by plunging a penknife into his thigh. His mother was a high- class courtesan, and he has been brought up by her successive lovers. Lafcadio and Julius realize simultaneously that they are half brothers. Lafcadio dismisses Carola and meets Julius's daughter Geneviève, who falls in love with him. The old ambassador dies, leaving his bastard a fortune.
Lafcadio's former school-friend, Protos, disguised as a priest, visits Julius's sister, Comtesse Valentine de Saint-Prix. The Pope, he explains, has been imprisoned by Freemasons, and an impostor reigns in his place. He collects a donation of 60,000 francs towards the crusade to free the Holy Father, and swears the countess to absolute secrecy. She hastens to inform her sister-in-law, Arnica Fleurissoire, younger sister of the wives of Julius and Anthime, who tells her husband Amédée. This good-hearted simpleton is the most practical Christian of the family; for he sets off for Rome to rescue the Pope.
The first night Amédée battles with bugs, the second with fleas, the third with mosquitoes. One of the gang meets his train at Rome, and takes him to a dubious hotel, that turns out to be a brothel where Protos lives with Carola. His fourth night is equally sleepless, for Carola seduces him (though a married man he was still a virgin); and he is overcome by remorse, feeling he is no longer worthy to accomplish his mission. Carola gives him her cuff- links, a keepsake from Lafcadio, and warns Protos not to harm him. Amédée has a letter of introduction to a genuine cardinal in Naples, but Protos takes him to a fellow- impostor, and sends him back to Rome to cash a cheque. There he finds Julius, who has just lost his faith, having interviewed the Pope unsuccessfully on behalf of Anthime, who glories in the Christian poverty to which Freemasons and Church alike have left him. Julius is unconvinced by Amédée's explanation, that the real Pope is not to blame. Some premonition makes Amédée ask Julius to accompany him to Naples; Julius refuses, but helps his doomed brother-in-law to cash his cheque, and lends him his return ticket.
Amédée joins the carriage in which Lafcadio, now a rich man, is on his way to embark for Borneo. The atrocious stripling is on the look-out for the unforeseen, for the chance of an irrational act. Irritated by Fleurissoire's mediocre appearance and his juggling with the electric light, he opens the carriage door and pushes him out, carrying with him, alas, Lafcadio's pride and joy, his new beaver hat, complete with the address of his hatter. Lafcadio is amazed to find Julius's name on Fleurissoire's ticket, still more amazed to read next day that the corpse has been found wearing Carola's cuff-links, and, oddest of all, that someone has cut the hatter's name from the hat. 'The old man was a crossroads,' mutters Lafcadio. He returns to Rome, and finds Julius exalted with an idea for his new novel. He has resolved to explore the psychological profundities of an irrational act, and welcomes a heaven-sent example thereof in the murder of his brother-in law ('this providential adventure,' he calls it, and refers to the murderer as 'my hero') - were it not that the motive was evidently robbery. This is too much for Lafcadio, who points out in the stop-press of his newspaper that Fleurissoire's 6000 francs were found intact in the railway carriage. Julius is incapable of recognizing an irrational act when he sees one. If the motive was not robbery, then Amédée's story was true, and the deceased is a martyr for the Pope. His faith returns accordingly; but feeling that now he knows the appalling secret he is in the same danger, he persuades Lafcadio to bring back the body from Naples in his stead.
On the train a passenger engages Lafcadio in conversation, and speaks of the restraint of social convention, of crime as a release therefrom, and the particular freedom of the bastard! Such is the nightmare of this sinister dialogue, that Lafcadio is positively relieved when his tormentor turns out to be Protos in disguise. He has seen the murder and suppressed the incriminating hat-label, and he tries to intimidate Lafcadio into joining the gang and black mailing Julius. 'Excuse me if I prefer the police to you,' replies Lafcadio.
At the funeral the newly devout Julius tells Anthime the secret of the false pope; and Anthime, enraged to think he has suffered in vain, instantly returns to Freemasonry, and limps again. Protos is denounced by Carola, who believes he is the murderer of her beloved Fleurissoire, and when the police arrive he strangles her. Lafcadio reveals his crime to Julius, who, with mild severity, ad vises him to reform and go to confession. Geneviève overhears, and comes to Lafcadio's room to beg him to escape. He announces that he will give himself up to the police, and overcome by the prospect of losing him, she throws herself into his arms. The novel ends at dawn, when Lafcadio rises to contemplate, not his sleeping beloved, but the wakening city. 'What, is he going to renounce his life?' asks Gide. 'For the esteem of Geneviève, which he values a little less now she loves him a little more, does he still think of giving himself up?'
To understand what The Vatican Swindle is about, we must discover what Gide was thinking and doing when the novel was coming into being. There are two main plots in The Vatican Swindle: the story of Lafcadio and the story of the conspiracy; and they are linked by the relationship of the family on which they both react. The first mention of the novel in Gide's Journal is a note for 20 January 1902 on 'the novel I am dreaming about, concerning the relations between a dozen characters.' Shortly before, on 5 January, he remarked: 'Great crimes have sometimes been committed so easily only because they happened as in a dream. Afterwards the criminal would have liked to wake up, or not to have been taken so seriously.' This thought later occurred to Lafcadio! - and both passages are embedded in a nexus of possible living models for Lafcadio. But whence came the idea of the swindle?
The conspiracy owes much to the nihilist gang of Dostoevsky's The Possessed, just as Protos (1.) recalls the abominable Pyotr Verkhovensky. But the Vatican swindlers are unburdened with the metaphysical and apocalyptic aims of the Possessed; their object is not to destroy, but to make a fool of society. Protos is an artist in crime - he swindles not for trafficking alone, and adorns his snares with all manner of beautiful but useless arabesques of intrigue and irony. Murder is not among his perversions; Verkhovensky killed Shatov, but it is Lafcadio who kills Fleurissoire.
However, there was indeed a Vatican Swindle, which occurred in 1893, the very year in which Gide's novel is set. A crooked lawyer, an unfrocked nun and a scandalous priest conspired at Lyons to spread the rumour that Leo XIII had been imprisoned by Free mason cardinals who had substituted a false Pope in his place, and collected money from the faithful for his release. There is no need, therefore, to doubt the recollection of Paul Laurens, who remembered Gide speaking of his future novel at Biskra in 1893, nearly twenty years before it was written; though Gide, in his Journal for ~5 September 1913, remarks: 'That is further back than I remembered.' For the conversion of Anthime Armand-Dubois Gide used the equally true incident of a Freemason cousin of Emile Zola, who abjured his atheism at a public ceremony in the church of Il Gesù at Rome, just as did poor Anthime. In so far as The Vatican Swindle is a study of man's ever-thwarted relations with God, its subject is not unconnected with the seriocomic contest between Gide's Prometheus and the millionaire-Zeus, and other similar themes in Gide's ideas and works of the 1890S. Gide collected newspaper-cuttings about the swindle in 1893, but postponed his novel for two decades, during which a multitude of further themes congregated about this fantastic but factual nucleus.
The real existence of the 1893 conspiracy is not the only element of topicality in Gide's fiction. Leo XIII, from his strained relations with the crown of Italy, was known as 'the prisoner of the Vatican.' He was a vigorous opponent of the Freemasons, and on I0 January 1890 issued the encyclical Sapientiae Christianae approving the French Republic, of which Protos hypocritically remarks, 'Imagine, madam, how the captive Pontiff must have suffered, to hear this impostor proclaim him a republican!' Possibly, however, a casual remark of Francis Jammes, in a letter of March 1898 to Gide then at Rome, may have started the train of thought that led to his renewed interest in the Swindle. 'Does the Pope know you are in Rome?' Jammes inquired, with a levity that would have horrified him a few years later - 'and is it true that the Great White Chief feeds on nothing but the scent of roses?'
Another parallel is perhaps only an astonishing coincidence. Gide prefixed to the section of the novel that introduces the conspiracy a quotation from Claudel's play, L'Annoncefaite d Marie: 'Of what king speak you, and of what pope? For there are two, and no one knows which is the real one.' (2.) Claudel's play was published in 1914, and written, it is said, in 1912, too late to suggest any fundamental addition to Gide's novel; and the passage does not occur in the earlier versions of his play, those of 1892 and 1900. It is just possible that Claudel's '1912' version was in fact begun earlier, and seen by Gide during Claudel's home leave in 1905. (3.) Certainly Claudel was not himself quoting Gide; he insisted on the withdrawal of the compromising epigraph, attempted again to convert Gide, and broke with him finally.
Claudel's assault on Gide's soul in 1905 was of paramount importance in the novel, and supplied by reaction, if not its subject, much of the energy that went to its creation. Before 1905 Catholic ism was a matter of indifference to Gide: the pursuit of God had appeared in all his writings, the flight from Catholicism in none. After 1905 he saw the Church as an enemy to both pans of the 'Gidian balance': as a menace to his spiritual freedom and a temptation to his love of restraint. How seductive was the temptation is visible in the beauty and sincerity of Anthime's conversion,(4.) so excessive in view of the sudden ease of his apostasy, that the discrepancy may be felt as one of the few flaws in the novel. Against the menace he defended himself by satirical attack. Is not Protos's vast confidence-trick an allegory of the Church? Would not the believer's faith remain identical, Gide implies, if the Pope had always been a usurper? And if the faithful are so easily taken in about the Pope, may they not be equally deceived about the true nature of God?
It would seem that there is no need to seek a source in real life for Lafcadio. He is, very evidently, Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov, crossed with two heroes of Stendhal, Julien Sorel for pride and Fabrice del Dongo for gaiety and resource. Yet we are faced with the presence in Gide's life, during the incubation of his novel, of a positive embarrassment of possible Lafcadios. First there are louche young characters whom Gide met during his period of prowling on the boulevards: Alexandre S., a crook and gigolo, pale, delicately beautiful, and Spanish-looking - Gide met him in 1898, and again in 1902, when he was nineteen, Lafcadio's age; or Emile X., a tailor's son, with whom Gide frequented a public swimming bath - Gide's word-portrait of him recalls the nude photograph that Julius finds on Lafcadio's mantelpiece. And the Journal gives glimpses of other more important and still more shadowy figures later in the decade: M. in 1905, Armand in 1909, and yet others whose only name is a letter of the alphabet. Some where among these is the hidden source of the emotion that created Lafcadio con amore.(5.) Outside Gide's more private life, other personages appear, make some gesture or speech that be longs to Lafcadio, and vanish. In June 1904 the sinister young hero (6.) of Gide's 'Conversation with a German' comes straight from prison to visit him and say: 'Action is what I desire - the most intense action . . . even murder.' And Gide, embarrassed but enthralled, replies: 'No, action interests me less by the sensation it gives me, than by its consequences. I hate to limit what I might do, by what I actually do. I would rather cause an action than perform one.' In May 1905 the violent futurist Marinetti calls, and is 'so polite that I had to leave for the country at once - if I'd seen him again, it would have been all up with me, I might have decided he had genius'. And in the train with Fleurissoire, Lafcadio, longing for 'a nice catastrophe, soaked in horror, when they'll push the printed word to hell overboard', echoes the anti-literary platform of Marinetti's Futurist Manifesto of 1909. As for Lafcadio's antecedents, they strongly resemble those of Guillaume Apollinaire, whom Gide discovered in January 1908. Apollinaire's original surname was Kostrowicki (cf. the Rumanian 'Wluiki') after his mother, a courtesan of noble Polish birth. His unknown father was variously supposed to be a brother of the bishop of Monaco, the bishop himself, or a grandson of the great Napoleon. And finally, but not exhaustively, Lafcadio has elements of Lautréamont, terrible author of the Chants de Maldoror, and of Rimbaud, both of whom Gide was reading in November 1905. Rimbaud on occasion used words very like Lafcadio's 'Let us leave Europe, and print our naked heel on the ground!' Lafcadio sets out for Borneo, and Rimbaud went to Java.
Except for Protos and Carola, all the characters of The Vatican Swindle are members by blood or marriage of one family. In the days when the concept 'family' meant to Gide the repressive and warping power of parents over their children, he had made Ménalque cry, 'Families, I hate you. 'When he became, by seniority and wealth, head of his own family of in-laws, nephews, and nieces, he felt differently. He liked to have what he called 'my people' gathered round him at Cuverville, and became a tutor and second father to his nephews, Jacques and Dominique Drouin, and his nieces Nicole and Francoise Gilbert. The sense of family is one of the chief cohesive forces of his novel, and an important constituent of the emotions from which he created it. If we knew more about the Drouins and Gilberts in the 19OOS, we should perhaps understand more of what the Baragliouls, Fleurissoires, and Armand-Dubois meant to Gide. But it may be significant that the Gilberts, like the Fleurissoires, lived at Pau; that Nicole and Fran¨oise Gilbert had the same comparative ages as Julius's daughters, Geneviève and Véronique; and that the pious Comtesse de Saint-Prix has the same Christian name as Valentine Gilbert. And the widowed Valentine became in 1911, with Francis Jammes's assistance, the first Catholic in the family for over fifty years.
Not the least important among the foundations of family and they dwell, where foundations belong, underground - are incest, fratricide, and illegitimacy. It must not escape notice that Julius, who more than once is on the verge of more than brotherly feeling for Lafcadio, is his half-brother; Fleurissoire, whom he murders, is his brother-in-law; and Geneviève, with whom he sleeps, is his niece. Most important of all, Lafcadio is illegitimate: 'You will never be more than a bastard,' says his dying father.
The bastard is, for Gide, a special and ideal case of the free individual. It is the function of parents to give us morality, to replace in us the unborn personality with the generic social type. Our motives henceforth are conventional and imposed from outside, we are incapable of an act of individual significance. But the bastard, by Gide's ironic but instructive theory, having no parents, inheriting no ready-made motivation, will retain his individuality. He will therefore enjoy what, in Gide's paradox, is the highest and rarest form of freedom: he will be capable of a motiveless act!
Did Gide himself believe in the 'gratuitous act'? Presumably not, for he repeatedly denies its existence, and he discusses it through the mouths of burlesque characters, the philosopher Alexandre in Marshlands, the waiter in Prometheus Misbound, and the ineffable Julius. He believed in it, if at all, not as a fact, but as a fabulous absolute, a moral and aesthetic concept not valid in itself, but showing the way to new discoveries. The gratuitous act is like a pointer on a scientific instrument, indicating some impossibly high figure - it is important not because it is truthful in itself, but because it demands an explanation. Lafcadio shows that Newtonian ethics have broken down.
The gratuitous act is a symbol: philosophically, of freedom; morally, of instantaneous expression of the whole personality; and psychologically, of the break-through of the Id. These three aspects correspond to the adumbrations of gratuity in Bergson, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky respectively; and all three are present in Lafcadio's defenestration of Fleurissoire. But the moment we investigate the gratuitous act not as a fruitful image but as a real entity, it disintegrates into fallacies. If a really motiveless act were possible, as might be with some lesion of the brain, it would be meaningless - to have any significance it must have a significant cause - and so cease to be gratuitous ! And in practical aesthetics, if the novelist is to convince the reader that a gratuitous act has been committed, then he must make it credible by giving it a motive - and once again its gratuity disappears. A gratuitous act is pure only so long as it remains mysterious.
'A gratuitous act,' says the waiter in Prometheus, 'is an act unmotivated by passion or interest, born from itself, a means to no end.' And the Millionaire, who is God Almighty, says: 'I alone, who alone possess an infinite fortune, can act with absolute disinterest - mere Man cannot.' But even the Millionaire-God, whose gratuitous act is the famous slap and banknote, is not quite disinterested: he acts, as he confesses, from love of gambling, to see what mankind will make of it. And the act of Lafcadio, a mere mortal, has its hidden causes. He does not know them, attributing his deed, like Zeus the Millionaire, to curiosity and love of risk, and Gide does not state them; but they are clear enough. Lafcadio's illegitimacy has made him an enemy of society. He has simultaneously found and lost his father; his inheritance of 40,000 francs a year of useless money is only a final mockery. His unconscious need for recognition and parental love - it is irrelevant that he is too far gone to know what to do with them if he had them - has turned to equally unconscious need for revenge. In the mediocre bourgeois image of Fleurissoire he pushes overboard the society that has rejected him. The two great 'free acts' in Dostoevsky, to which Lafcadio's is evidently akin, are in fact no less motivated than his. Raskolnikov murders the old pawnbroker as a proof of his moral superiority (she is also, like Fleurissoire, a symbol of society); and Kirillov in The Possessed kills himself be cause, he says, a motiveless suicide is the supreme act of will that can make man become God: and there, precisely, is his motive. When Gide came later to discuss the suicide of Kirillov in his Dostoevsky, he called it 'gratuitous, but not without motive'; and re-defined 'gratuitous' as 'without motivation from outside.' By thus restoring logicality to the gratuitous act he detracted from its mystical significance; he made it a riddle with an answer, a specimen of mainly psychological interest.
That The Vatican Swindle is, in the fullest Gidian sense, an ironical work, need hardly be stated; and so Gide himself felt, when he wrote and then cancelled in proof preface for it. 'I call The Vatican Swindle a "satirical farce", ' he said, or rather refrained from saying, 'just as I called my three preceding works ''narratives'' (7.) in order to make it clear that they are not novels. So far I have written nothing but ironical, or if you prefer it, critical works, of which no doubt this is the last.' This post factum reclassification of his works has always been a red herring for admirers and a rat-trap for hostile critics. Perhaps in some mystical sense, these last have felt, Gide's earlier novels were not novels at all; then we have only to show that The Coiners is not a novel, and we shall have proved that Gide is not a novelist! In fact, of course, The Immoralist, The Vatican Swindle, and the rest are novels in the accepted sense of the word. Even André Walter, despite its diary form, is as much a novel as, say, Obermann. The real interest of Gide's paradox lies in his enlarged conception of his vocation. After his re-discovery of Dostoevsky and Stendhal a novel no longer meant, to him, something small and perfect like Dominique (8.) or Strait is the Gate, but something complex and enormous like La Chartreuse de Parme or The Possessed; and he wished to ensure that his greatest work should be judged on this level.
The Vatican Swindle marked Gide's farewell to the ironical critical as an art form. But the two elements, of laughter, and counterpoint between apparent and real meaning, remained permanent in his work; and he never ceased to be ironic in the fuller, Socratic sense. By leaving his intentions inexplicit and immanent, he induced the reader not merely to witness, but to explore and experience the inner significance of his works. It is the difference between pouring water on a duck's back, and injecting a medicament into its veins ! Meanwhile, by abandoning his preface, he left The Vatican Swindle to the next generation, and allowed contemporary critics to pretend that he advocated the pushing of inoffensive elderly gentlemen out of railway trains.
The novel had found its central incident, and was to reach a burlesque apotheosis, in a railway carriage. 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.
1. His bantering manner, dandyism, exquisite prose, hand-made slang, practical jokes, and domination of his school-fellow, recall Pierre Louys, who at the time when the novel appeared was already slowly dying of tertiary syphilis. Pierre-Pyotr=Protos.
2. A reference to the Great Schism in the fourteenth century, when there were two claimants to the Papacy.
3. The title Les Caves, which presupposes the conspiracy, first appears in the Journal of 3 September 1905, after Claudel's capture of Jammes, but before his raid on Gide.
4. The Virgin also appeared, much to Gide's amusement, to Émile Baumarm, a Catholic novelist. See Joumal for 7 June 1912.
5. Cocteau, no doubt with good reason, identified their mutual young friend, the mysterious and shady Arthur Cravan, as the model for Lafcadio and for Julius's visit to Lafcadio's room.
6. An entry in the Journal for 18 January 1932 shows that he was Félix-Paul Grève, Gide's German translator.
7. Nevertheless, in the ordinary editions, including the first, both The Immoralist and Strait is the Gate have the sub-title 'a novel'; and while they were in process of composition Gide invariably referred to them as 'my novel.'
8. Strait is the Gate owes nearly as much, in plot, style, and atmosphere, to Fromentin's Dominique as to Gide's own life.