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By Andre Gide

Translated from the French by Dorothy Bussy
London: Cassell & Co. Ltd., 1952
250 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
February 2014

The Vatican Cellars is a mixed bag of a novel. On the one hand much of it reads like a Shakespearean comedy with a basically silly plot of bumbling fools and some good laughs. On the other hand, along the way there is some marvelous writing, passages worth copying out and rereading now and again. Some of those passages were so extraordinary that I read many of them over two or three times. I have rarely ever been moved to do that with a novel though I often do it with poetry.

The plot, as much as it is one, follows the males of a three families. Two of the families live in France; another is currently living in Italy. We begin with that family, and when the novel opens it is 1890 and Pope Leo XIII was pope. Anthime Armana-Dubois is an unbeliever and a freemason. He is about 50. He is in Rome in order to work with a scholar in the Vatican and their project is a scientific one to learn a cure for a disease which Anthime has. His wife, Veronica is extremely pious and there is this religious conflict between husband and wife.

Anthime despises religion and is furious with his wife for burning candles for him, so he breaks a piece of the Virgin’s finger from the statue, and then he gets completely cured of his leg ailment. He takes this as a real miracle by him and, rather improbably, recants his atheism and science and freemasonhood. He even agrees to pray.

Veronica’s sister, Marguerite is married to Julius Baraglioul. They are in Paris. Julius Baraglioul’s father is very ill. Julius’ father also hated his son’s latest novel, yet he very much wants his son selected to the “Academy” a literary circle that reminds one of membership in the circle of Nobel Prize winners.

Julius asks his son to visit a young author, Lafcadio Wluiki, without mentioning his father’s name and con him into doing some copy work for him. Reluctantly Julius goes and snoops in the apartment but is observed.

Then Lafcadio discovers who Julius’ father is and decides to go see Julius and pretend to be interested in working for him. Lafcadio had false cards made up for himself as Lafcadio de Baraglioul. He uses this to get into the Count Baraglioul who knows him immediately. It is his bastard son whom he has never met before, but he agrees to give him a generous settlement and was actually expecting him to come soon. The Count tells Lafcadio to tear them up after he leave. Lafcadio honors this wish and I especially loved the way Gide tells us this. As he is walking back home we read:

“He took the packet of cards, spread them out fan-wise and with a single easy movement tore them in half.
“ ‘I never had any confidence in drains,’ murmured he as he threw ‘Lafcadio’ down a grating in the streets; and it was not till two gratings further on that he threw down the ‘de Baraglioul.’ “

Julius already suspects Lefcadio is his bastard brother and worries about losing some of his inheritance to him.

We then move on to the introduction of Amedee Fleurissoire. He is married to the Countess Guy de Saint-Prix is Julius’ younger sister.

Andre Gide is a terrible tease. A priest goes to see the countess and goes on about this secret he wants to confide in her. Finally the reader is ready when the priest is about to reveal the secret, only to have Gide intervene:

“But the secret which Father Salus prepared to confide to the Countess seems to me even now so disconcertingly peculiar that I cannot venture to relate it without further precautions.”

The way Gide now and again interrupts the story to talk with the reader reminds me very much of the novels of Jose Saramago who often times discusses the plot with the reader.

Gide interrupts to tell us:

“Fiction there is – and history. Certain critics of not little discernment have considered that fiction is history which might have taken place, and history fiction which has taken place. We are, indeed, forced to acknowledge that the novelist’s art often compels belief, just as reality sometimes defies it. Alas! There exists an order of minds so skeptical that they deny the possibility of any fact as soon as it diverges from the commonplace. It is not for them that I write.”

This cannon is actually Protos, Lafcadio’s former school mate and sort of mentor. He is tied up with Freemasons and Catholic conflict. He claims that Leo XIII was really Leo when he sided with the Republic vs. the Royalty in an encyclical. However, Protos’ scam is to argue that the REAL Pope is being held in the Castle of St. Angelo which has a secret underground passage to the Vatican. He claims that even some of the cardinals are actually secretly Freemasons and one of them is the Pope’s jailor.

His scam is that they need 200,000 francs and already have 140,000 but need 60,000 more. She immediately promises the money. She hurries to tell her sister, Arnica.

We move then to her husband, Amedee Fleurisosire, who is 47 and on his way to Rome to work on the freeing of the Pope.

In the opening of this chapter there is a long treatment of the bugs he encounters on his trip to Italy. Oh my, how reminiscent this was of hundreds of nights I spent in Haiti in the summers. Back and forth I’d go, to get under the sheets to escape the bugs and nearly suffocate with heat and sweat, or come out from under the covers and spend nearly sleepless nights fighting off bugs.

Protos, the conspirator, hears from Baptistin (porter) of the arrival of Fleurissoire in Rome. He took Fleurissoire to a place under their control and where Carola Ventiequa, known to Lafcadio, and in on the scam. She enters Amedee’s room and has sex with him and leaving him with great guilt.

Fleurissoire meets up with Protos disguised as a priest and sympathetic to the cause. He is calling himself Father Cave. He takes Fleurissoire to meet a fake cardinal. They reveal a version of the swindle to him, but claim that the Jesuits and Freemasons and now some crooks are working against them.

At this stage the plot reminds me very much of the silliness of a Shakespearean comedy.

All this confusion leads Fleurissoire to see that if the Pope isn’t what he seems to be then all collapses:

“‘And, indeed,’ he said to himself, ‘here we have at once the consequence and proof of that initial view – the collapse of the Holy See; everything comes tottering down with that. Whom can one trust if not the Pope?’ “

All the while a sub-plot has lurked in the background. Julius’ not being elected to the Academy is a big deal to the family. He is an author and one of his standing would have been expected to have been named long ago. Further, Julius’ new mode of writing fits Lafcadio’s murder of Fleurissoire.

“I don’t want a motive for the crime – all I want is an explanation of the criminal. Yes! I mean to lead him into committing a crime gratuitously – into wanting to commit a crime without any motive at all.”

Which, of course, is what Lafcadio has just done? But Julius assumes the secret. Fleurissoire told him of it is the motive.

In the end we really don’t know whether Lafcadio will confess or run off with Julius’ daughter, but that will be, Gide tells us, another novel.

Overall I enjoyed the novel, had some great laughs, delighted in some very well-written passages, and enjoyed the silliness of other parts. However, I doubt very much if this is one of Andre Gide’s best works.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett