As if We were God’s Spies

Through the kind courtesy of Piranha, we are happy to provide the following excerpts from Clement Scholivé’s novel, Comme des Espions de Dieu (As if We were God’s Spies).

The short excerpts that follow have been adapted and translated from the French—avoiding spoilers. Make sure to read our interview with the author.

From the Prologue, 1

London, December 22, late in the afternoon. George Simmel, a professor at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, ENS, and at the SOAL Foundation in Fontainebleau, France, had trouble leaving St Pancras station. A police crime scene tape marked the spot where a bomb had exploded, early that morning, at the first-class coach level. Fortunately, the Eurostar had been delayed. No one thought of thanking the migrants who had lost their way into the Eurotunnel on the French side. They avoided the worst. The damage was trivial. He bypassed the bored police cordon, waved to his driver holding a “SOAL” sign and they sped off to his club, the Club, in St James’s.

The Club was unobtrusively discreet, even though or because it was located at the very heart of deep power. No flag on the façade, unlike others. A greying, Ghanaian bellboy on the porch and three narrow steps leading to a modest-looking glazed door, a trompe-l’oeil given the munificence of the interior—a vast hall with its three floors of interior galleries, served by a monumental staircase, supported by red marble columns and topped by a dome from 1900, under which immense ornamental palm trees, a gift by a Maharaja, had breathed the smoke of cigars for a hundred years, and survived the ordeal. George Simmel went down to the cloakroom, opened his closet bearing a little ivory plate engraved with his name, and collected his evening suit. He went upstairs to his chamber to rest a bit, shower and change. A talk was scheduled for that evening, with Baroness Hathaway, the former head of MI5.

George Simmel was not in his normal state. He was tired due to a series of events that had brought him to London, via Jersey. The averted St Pancras bombing was a further irritation. People here and in Paris would not fail to ask him, “If…,” and “If”—and then, “You are lucky!” As if he had any inside information. Who was the target. “You were at Helen’s talk? Very, very timely! Very strange!” People always rush to assumptions. Instead of thinking, first. And shutting up, second.

In fact, he was deeply distressed by the unexpected death of his oldest friend from high school, whom at Lycée Louis-le-Grand, and afterwards at Ecole Normale Supérieure, everyone called by his family name, Védrin, never Jean, always Védrin. As he struggled with his bow tie, he noticed in the mirror that he was dressed in black, as for a funeral. He sat down on the edge of the bed, and suddenly, just like that, God knows for what reason, reasonable reason that is, he sobbed. Like a child.

For the second time that day.

From Part II. Chapter I, 1

About six months before, in early July, at SOAL-Fontainebleau, George had subjected a prospective student to the ritual of the interview, a seemingly colorless and odorless conversation after a three-hour psychological and behavioral test. The young ENS graduate wore a fashionable Zara short sleeve shirt, but not too flashy, sensible chino rolled up on his ankles. He was manspreading, in rope sandals. Short reddish hair, “Venetian blonde” would have said Adélaïde, George’s mother. And she did.

Claus Bronn had made the tedious journey from Paris to Fontainebleau in sweltering weather, by suburban Transilien train, then by city bus and finally boarding a SOAL shuttle, all the way from the capital’s 5th arrondissement to the Domaine de Beaumont, next to Fontainebleau Forest and the river Seine. On a Sunday.

During the interview, George had tried to avoid looking at a scar the student had on his face. His nose, broken just below the bridge, showed a fierce dent between the eyes. Rugby? A graduate of elite Napoleonic ENS, and a rugby player. Rare combination. Yes, right there on the medical report: “Physical: Top shape. AAA.”

The interview concluded with Claus’ enrollment in the cross-disciplinary doctoral stream of tough-to-get-in Leadership Programme of SOAL-ENS. He agreed with the terms of study and signed the MoU.

The package included a summer internship, assisting George with a project on dematerialized soft power strategies.

“It’s up to you to check that sources are state-of-the-art, to fill in the statistical gaps and data, add tables and graphs; in short to reference fully the article which, for the moment, is just a narrative. I need the quantitative. For revenue journals. You are a mathematician; you know how to do it. But above all, and I know, I know you have declined a choice place at the Ecole Polytechnique. Yes, yes, I know; preferring, I read here, “the humanistic aspect of numbers.” Cute. You will be credited as second author. When I stretch it into a book, or a primer. You’ll get 5% up to five thousand copies sold. Above that, 9%. SOAL will pay you an advance, now. Three thousand euros. That’s our Growing Own Timber project. Are you okay with that?”

“Absolutely.”

“Very well. Sign the codicil. Bonus, Claus: if you like it, I’ll put you up in a place, a nice barn I’ve got in the Pyrenees, all expenses paid, to work in total peace. Deal?”

Hard to refuse.

George had then watched the young man stride confidently across the Lawn, acid green in the summer sun. He had observed how Claus had paused to take in the harmonious line-up of the Foundation buildings, in the deserted silence of that summery Sunday, when the hundred or so students had left for the weekend. George saw how the talented mathematician had sized up the place, reducing it to an equation, surely. Mother will like him.

From Part I. Chapter III, 2

George was sitting outside a café in Rue de Bretagne, in Paris’ Temple district, reading the Iliad in the sun. A young guy was parking his motorcycle, a big, red Ducati, and bumped slightly against his table. Taking off his helmet, the lad immediately apologized:

“I’m sorry, so sorry, Sir.”

“No problem. It shines like hell.”

The young biker repeated, “like hell,” and added:

“Can I buy you a drink, Sir, just to… you are…”

George raised his hand and pointed to a chair:

“SOAL, security guard?”

“Yes, Sir. At the aquarium.”

“Uh huh.”

“Weird, at SOAL, we’ve never spoken to each other.”

“We have. ‘Sir? Right thumb, press hard, for opening.’ Sir.”

Samuel burst out laughing. He became talkative, George recalled. The lad may have had a joint. He belonged to the XYZ+ young proletariat with no future and no past, who are surprised by nothing and are surprised by a nothing. Emotionally wired 24/7. Harmless and a mess. Errant dog, looking for collar.

Who’s paying for that bike? wondered George. Change of tack:

“Does it take you a long time, every night, anyway, to undo your piercings. If you do? Samuel.”

The first name calling took Samuel by surprise.

“Okay,” was his reply.

George ordered a Stella for him and a Perrier for himself. The line was cast. A year later the biker had vanished. And George was summoned at the Club by Sir Avery, president of SOAL, “for a good chat.”

From Part II, Chapter VI, 2

SOAL Chief Compliance Officer Hilb arrived fresh as a clavelito at Buenos Aires’ Ezeiza airport, took a limo to the microcenter of the city, and got dropped off at his favorite café, Confiteria Ideal, set between sellers of thrice-used books, milliners’ shops yellowed by the sun, and a large screen porn cinema. At the Ideal, Hilb sat up against a large brown marble pillar set with gilded sconces. He smoothed the red tablecloth with the back of his hand. The pastries were in the centre of the huge, tiled room, on a monumental, baroque sideboard, on parade. It was ten o’clock, no customers, the low point of the morning. He ordered a cortado and medialunas.

He had an appointment with Newton. Cradle name, Noah. Immigration name, Newton. Abbreviation Newt. Born, like Hilb, in the 9th arrondissement, Rue Cadet, Jewish quarter, Paris. Volunteered together in the Six-Day War. Then, specialists in the use of electric devices.

Newt was now “in the building industry.” He had the mystique of the construction industry. On a previous occasion, when they nearly fell out with each other:

“Do you remember what the rabbi used to tell us at school? ‘In Hebrew, my children, “child” and “builder” are homonyms. Homonyms, you know what that means?”… Guy Chouraqui, the poof, didn’t know where to hide. What a laugh! And the rabbi: ‘Evil spirits that you are, a homonym is a word that resembles another… And you know why they’re homonyms in Hebrew? Because a child, by going to school, by being educated, builds the real house, the building of peace… Ah, Shalom… Peace… What a beautiful noun, my children, it is the combination of sacred numbers…’ He could not switch off. Off his rockers. Needed no electricity to power him. That’s what building is all about.”

Diversion, anyway, all that chatter. Not today, not today.

Holà, Pierre! Holà, Newt!”

Newt managed to squeeze himself into the armchair, pulled up his glasses with his thumb, a twitch that had always annoyed Hilb; it had to do with Hilb’s sister, and remained silent. Newt stared at Hilb with a look that was not very kind. Hilb decided not to talk about past differences—that deal about a SOAL school in Buenos Aires gone south. He went straight to the point.

“Come a little closer and listen. We’re going to have to move fast. Bissel of a shlep. But shekel tango, I promise.”

“Like last time?”

“Listen, no frigging building and all that crap. Listen to me, then you decide. I have not flown in from Paris just to drink coffee, and tell you I love you, hey? You just have to dress like a Brazilian tourist. You take your cut, at source. Toi-même.”

“Tu m’intéresses.”

From Part III. Chapter II, 1

Between Christmas and New Year, the Surveyor had allowed himself time for musing. The operation had “foreclosed,” as it was now trendy to say in the minister’s youngish, inner circle. But, with his head bent over his personal copy of the file, and supported as usual by three fingers of the left hand, thumb, index and middle finger, he meditated.

He mused about the irony of his fate, seated at his usual canteen, Rue des Saussaies, neither too close nor too far from the Interior Ministry, located there since the times of Napoleon’s police HQ. He sat, alone in the dining room, at his familiar banquette, the one with a broken spring. The duck confit had seen better days. A left over from Christmas. Like me, he mused, like me.

He opened a paper clip and unfolded it, then folded it back, then twisted it. He discarded it in the ashtray, symbols of a bygone era: paper clip and cigarette. I’m like a paper clip. Like a paper clip in this useless ashtray. But I have my file.

He looked at two cryptic notes he had jotted down on two purple post-its, stuck on the last sheet, and inscribed: “acc, so true.” He pondered the amusing irony of breaking an iron rule of the service, NPC, No Personal Copy, at a stone’s throw from the Tracfin office, a file foreclosed as the bright sparks say. He discreetly chewed an antacid tablet, so as not to offend Lucien, the patron.

Who would have guessed this high-ranking career police civil servant, nicknamed the Surveyor; Charles Fourcadet had reached the end of his tether. The complex affair of varsity money-laundering, now declared foreclosed, whatever that meant, had taken the best of five long years of careful, and inventive, scoping. Academia is tricky and deceitful, and smart, very smart. Worse than gun runners. He was about to wrap it up, and nab them all, and then remind the minister he was now ready to move on and up, since like a damn fool he had delayed a nice end-of -career promotion to close that juicy file, not to bloody foreclose it! Snuffed before the media would get a whiff of it. And that was surprising since the bright sparks leaked like a used condom.

He, who had led the operation from day one, was made to carry the can for all these years of wasted public money and so-called “scarce human resources,” as if that was ever an issue. He was in charge, until la Dutour, Madame Rector, barged in, George Simmel’s ex—can you believe it—took over, reshuffled the deck, and c’est fini, c’est la vie. Why her? Mind you, academic Mata Hari or not, she had form. If you see what I mean.

Nothing surprised him any longer. Time to take early retirement, in fact. They hinted at it. He took the hint. But how and why he would take it, that was his business. That is why he mused, and not why he had acid reflux.

He meditated on the irony of another fate. That of De Kemp, his penetration agent. That prick, slippery to handle, demanding like a tart, an addict to boot, “for my painful joints’” why yes, of course, your joints. Paid for under the table. For sure he impressed his colleagues at that second-rate university where we gave him a job, with his super frigging SUV. Father is well off. Antwerp. Diamond trade. We had a good laugh. Green grocer in Besançon. Got his comeuppance, though. The hard way. That kid, Victor, tough as nails. Should have followed his tracks. Collateral anyway. But…

The Surveyor picked up the twisted paper clip and was tempted to light a gauloise, just pour emmerder Lucien and his rotten duck confit from Hungary. He pushed aside the file.

For—and the Surveyor looked at the sad leg of confit—in all the driftwood that De Kemp was sending downstream, flotsam and jetsam of information of all sorts, Charles Fourcadet had flagged indicators that a second-level electronic wall of defense, as invisible as it was fierce, seemed to ringfence SOAL, while the front wall was agreeably permeable; not easy, for sure, but it consented to penetration. He had wisely omitted it from his verbal and filed notes and from the final report, of course, the moment he had sensed that the rug was being pulled underneath him by Mata Hari. Something else was cooking.

Now, taking the hint, he had decided to capitalize, and from civil servant to become civilly self-serving. Unlike all those military windbags who retire and lecture the free world on what should be done in the Ukraine or with the Taliban, while they did nothing when they could. He had decided not to take a dump in a think-tank, but to quietly re-invest his skills and expertise. And, in two short months, on March 1st, with full pension rights, and the blue rosette of Merit on his lapel, he was going to walk across to SOAL and join the opposition, whatever that may be.

He stood up, left fifty euros and, with a smile, added the pack of antacids.


The Battle of Sempach

Robert Walser (1878-1956) is regarded as one of the most influential writers of the modern era whose work has had a wide impact. However, during his lifetime he was largely ignored and struggled with poverty all his life, which resulted in a mental breakdown in 1929; he spent the remainder of hus life in insitiutions and anonymity. His work was rediscovered in the 1970s. The Battle of Sempach was published in Berlin, in 1908. It describes the deed of the Swiss legendary hero, Arnold von Winkelried, whose self-less deed brought victory to the Swiss confederates over Austria at the Battle of Sempach.

One day, in the middle of a hot summer, an army column slowly made its way along the dust-covered country road into the Lucerne region. The bright, actually more than bright, sun glared down on the dancing armor, on armor that covered human bodies, on dancing steeds, on helmets and bits of faces, on horses’ heads and tails, on ornaments and plumes and stirrups that were as big as snowshoes.

Meadows with thousands of fruit trees spread out to the right and left of the gleaming procession, up to the hills that waved and looked like softly and carefully painted decorations from the blue-scented, half-blurred distance.

It was an oppressive heat in the morning, a meadow heat, a grass, hay and dust heat, for dust was thrown up like thick clouds that sometimes wanted to envelop pieces and parts of the army. The heavy cavalcade moved forward, sluggishly, ploddingly and carelessly; it at times resembled a long, iridescent snake, at times a lizard of immense size, at times a large piece of cloth, richly embroidered with figures and colorful shapes and solemnly trailed, just as ladies, especially elderly and imperious ones, are accustomed to trailing trains.

In the whole manner of this army, in the stomping and clanking, in this sober, beautiful rattling, there was a single “Because of me” attitude, something cheeky, something very confident, something overpowering, something lazily pushed aside. All these knights conversed with each other, as best they could through their steely mouths, in a cheerful exchange of words; laughter rang out and this sound fitted in perfectly with the bright sound made by the weapons and chains and golden pendants. The morning sun still seemed to caress many a plate and fine metal, the sounds of pipes flew up to the sun; now and then one of the many servants on foot handed his riding master a delicate morsel, stuck on a silver fork, up to the swaying saddle.

Wine was drunk fleetingly, poultry was eaten and non-edible food was spat out, with a light, carefree disposition, for it was not a serious, chivalrous war, it was a matter of punishment, of breeding, of bloody, mocking, theatrical things; so everyone thought; and everyone could already see the mass of severed heads that were to color the meadow bloody. Among the warlords were many a wonderful young nobleman in splendid clothes, sitting on horseback like a manly angel flown down from the blue, uncertain sky. Some of them had made themselves comfortable and handed their helmets to a defiant boy to wear, thus showing the open air a strangely beautiful face marked by innocence and exuberance.

The latest jokes were told and the latest stories of gallant women were discussed. Those who remained serious were considered the best; a thoughtful expression seemed to be considered indecent and unchivalrous that day. The hair of the young men, who had taken off their helmets, shone and smelled of ointments and oil and fragrant water, which they had poured on themselves as if they were riding to a flirtatious lady to sing charming songs to her. The hands, from which the iron gloves had been removed, did not look warlike, but rather well-groomed and pampered, narrow and white like the hands of young girls.

One man alone in the frenzied procession was serious. Even his appearance, a deep black suit of armor interspersed with delicate gold, indicated what the man it covered was thinking. It was the noble Duke Leopold of Austria. This man did not speak a word; he seemed completely absorbed in anxious thoughts. His face looked like that of a man who is being bothered by a pesky fly around his eye. This fly must have been his evil foreboding, for a perpetual contemptuous, sad smile played about his mouth; he kept his head bowed. The whole earth, as cheerful as it looked, seemed to him to roll and thunder angrily. Or was it only the trampling thunder of horses’ hoofs, as they were now passing a wooden bridge over the Reuss? In any case, something ominous wove eerily around the Duke’s figure.


The army stopped near the little town of Sempach; it was now about two o’clock in the afternoon. Perhaps it was even three o’clock; the knights did not care what time it was; for their sake it might have been twenty o’clock: they would have found it all in order. They were already terribly bored, and found every slightest trace of martial measure ridiculous. It was a dull moment; it was like a mock maneuver, the way they now jumped out of their saddles to take up their positions. The laughter no longer wanted to resound; they had already laughed so much, a weariness, a yawn set in. Even the horses seemed to realize that all they could do now was yawn. The serving foot soldiers went after the remains of the food and wine, drinking and guzzling whatever was left to eat and drink. How ridiculous this whole campaign seemed to everyone! This ragtag town that was still defiant—how stupid it was!

Suddenly the call of a horn sounded in the terrible heat and boredom. A peculiar announcement that made a few more attentive ears prick up: What could be there? Listen. Again. There it sounded again. Yes. And you could have generally believed that this time it sounded less far away.

“All good things come in threes,” lisped a cheeky joker. “Sound again, horn!”

A while passed. They had become somewhat thoughtful; and now, all at once, terribly, as if the thing had got wings and was riding along on fiery monsters, flaming and screaming, it began once more, a long cry: “We’re coming!”

It was indeed as if an underworld had suddenly been given the air to break through the hard earth. The sound was like a dark abyss opening up and it seemed as if the sun were now shining down from a dark sky, even more glowing, even brighter, but as if from a hell, not a heaven.

People were still laughing even now; there are moments when people think they should smile while they feel gripped by horror. After all, the mood of an army of many people is not much different from the mood of a single, lonely person. The whole landscape in its brooding, whitish heat now only seemed to make more and more noise; it had become the sound of horns; and now, as if from an opening, the heap of people who had been preceded by the call immediately threw themselves into the sound space. Now the landscape no longer had a contour; sky and summery earth blurred into a solid; the season, which had disappeared, had become a place, a fencing ground, a warlike playground, a battlefield. In a battle, nature always perishes; the cube alone rules—the fabric of weapons, the heap of people and the other heap of people.

The throng of people rushing forward, apparently heated, came closer. And the knightly band was solid; they seemed to have suddenly merged together. Men of iron held out their lances so that one could have ridden a break-carriage over the lance bridge without breaking it; the knights were wedged in so tightly and lance after lance stabbed forward so stupidly, immovable, unshakeable, just something, one would have thought, for a pressing, rushing human breast to impale itself on. Here a stolid wall of lace; there people half covered with shirts. Here the art of war, of the most innate kind; there people seized by impotent rage.

Then one and then the other, boldly, in order to put an end to this disgusting displeasure, rushed into one of the spearheads, mad, crazy, thrown down by anger and rage. Onto the ground, of course, without even having hit the helmeted and feathered lout of iron with his hand weapon, bleeding miserably from the chest, rolling over, his face in the dusty horse droppings left behind by the noble steeds. So it was with all these almost unclothed men, while the lances, already reddened by the blood, seemed to smile mockingly.


No, that was nothing; on the side of man, one felt compelled to use a trick. When confronted with art, art became necessary, or some high thought; and this higher thought, in the shape of a man of high stature, came forward at once, strangely, as if advanced by a supernatural power, and spoke to his countrymen: “Take care of my wife and my children, I will make a lane for you;” and threw himself with lightning speed into four or five lances, so as not to weaken in his desire to sacrifice himself, and pulled down several more, as many as he could grasp while dying, to his chest, as if he could not embrace enough iron spikes and press them against him, so that he could really sink into the throng, and lay on the ground and had become a bridge for people who stepped on his body, on the high thought that just wanted to be stepped on.

Nothing will ever again resemble such a smashing as now the light mountain and valley men, pushed and lifted by the fury, smashed into the clumsy, wicked wall, and tore it apart and beat it to pieces, like tigers tearing apart a defenseless herd of cows. The knights were now almost completely defenseless, as they could hardly move to one side, wedged into their confines. Whoever was on horseback was thrown down like paper, so that it cracked like bags filled with air when they are smashed together between two hands. The weapons of the shepherds now proved terrible and their light clothing just right; the armor was all the more troublesome for the knights. Heads were grazed by blows; only seemed to be grazed but really had been bashed in. There was a constant thrashing; horses were overturned; the fury and strength increased; the Duke was killed; it would have been a miracle if he had not been killed. Those who struck shouted about it, as if it were the right thing to do, as if the killing was still too small a destruction, something only half done.

Heat, steam, the smell of blood, dirt and dust and the screaming and shouting mixed into a wild, hellish turmoil. The dying barely felt their deaths; they died so rapidly. They often suffocated in their boastful iron armor, these aristocratic flails. What good was an opinion now? Everyone would have gladly given a damn, if they could have given a damn at all. About a hundred beautiful noblemen drowned; no, drowned in the nearby Lake Sempach; they drowned because they were thrown into the water like cats and dogs; they tumbled over and rolled over in their elegant beak shoes; it was a real disgrace. The most splendid iron armor could only promise destruction and the realization of this premonition was terribly the right one.

What was the point of having a castle, land and people at home, somewhere in Aargau or Swabia, a beautiful wife, farmhands, maidservants, orchards, fields and forests, taxes and the finest privileges? That only made dying in these puddles, between the tightly drawn knee of a mad shepherd and a piece of ground, even more bitter and miserable. Of course, the magnificent steeds trampled their own masters in a wild flight; many gentlemen, too, in their haste to dismount, got caught in the stirrups with their stupid fashionable shoes, so that they kissed the meadows with the bleeding backs of their heads, while their terrified eyes, before they went out, saw the sky above them burning like a fierce flame. Of course, shepherds also collapsed, but for every naked and bare-chested one there were always ten covered and wrapped up in steel. The Battle of Sempach actually teaches us how terribly stupid it is to wrap oneself up like that. If they could have moved, these puppets—well, they would have moved; some of them did, as they had finally freed themselves from the most unbearable things they had on their bodies. “I fight with slaves, O the shame!” cried a handsome boy with yellowish curls streaming down from his head, and, struck in the dear face by a cruel blow, sank to the ground, where, wounded to death, he bit the grass with his half-shattered mouth. A few shepherds, who had lost their murder weapons from their hands, attacked their opponents from below with their necks and heads like wrestlers on the ring, or, dodging the blows, threw themselves on the necks of the knights and strangled them until they were choked off.


In the meantime, evening had fallen, the dying light glowed in the trees and bushes, while the sun sank between the dark foothills like a dead, beautiful, sad man. The grim battle had come to an end. The snow-white, pale Alps hung down their beautiful, cold foreheads in the background of the world. The dead were now being collected, and for this purpose they went about quietly, picking up the fallen men lying on the ground and carrying them to the mass grave that others had dug. Flags and armor were gathered together until it became a stately pile. Money and valuables, everything, was handed over to a certain place. Most of these simple, strong men had become quiet and good; they looked at the looted jewelry not without wistful contempt; walked around the meadows, looked into the faces of the slain and washed off blood where it tempted them to see what the guilty features might still look like.

Two young men with faces so young and bright, with lips still smiling in death, were found embraced on the ground at the foot of a bush. One of them had had his chest beaten in, the other had his body cut through. They had to work late into the night; then they searched with torches. They found Arnold von Winkelried and shuddered at the sight of his body. As the men buried him, they sang one of their simple songs in dark voices; there was no more pomp. There were no priests; what should one have done with priests? Praying and thanking the Lord God for the victory that had been won—that could be done without any ecclesiastical fuss. Then they went home. And after a few days they were scattered back to their high valleys, working, serving, farming, looking after the stores, doing what was necessary and sometimes saying a word about the battle they had experienced; not much. They were not celebrated (well, perhaps a little, in Lucerne at their entry). The days went by, for the days must have been harsh and rough even then, in 1386, with their manifold worries. A great deed does not erase the arduous succession of days. Life does not stand still for a long time on a battle day; history only takes a short break until it, too, has to hurry forward, urged on by imperious life.


Featured: Winkelried at Sempach, by Konrad Grob (1828-1904); date of the painting unknown.


The Emperor’s Vision

It happened at the time when Augustus was Emperor in Rome and Herod was King in Jerusalem.

It was then that a very great and holy night sank down over the earth. It was the darkest night that any one had ever seen. One could have believed that the whole earth had fallen into a cellar-vault. It was impossible to distinguish water from land, and one could not find one’s way on the most familiar road. And it couldn’t be otherwise, for not a ray of light came from heaven. All the stars stayed at home in their own houses, and the fair moon held her face averted.

The silence and the stillness were as profound as the darkness. The rivers stood still in their courses, the wind did not stir, and even the aspen leaves had ceased to quiver. Had any one walked along the sea-shore, he would have found that the waves no longer dashed upon the sands; and had one wandered in the desert, the sand would not have crunched under one’s feet. Everything was as motionless as if turned to stone, so as not to disturb the holy night. The grass was afraid to grow, the dew could not fall, and the flowers dared not exhale their perfume.

On this night the wild beasts did not seek their prey, the serpents did not sting, and the dogs did not bark. And what was even more glorious, inanimate things would have been unwilling to disturb the night’s sanctity, by lending themselves to an evil deed. No false key could have picked a lock, and no knife could possibly have drawn a drop of blood.

In Rome, during this very night, a small company of people came from the Emperor’s palace at the Palatine and took the path across the Forum which led to the Capitol. During the day just ended the Senators had asked the Emperor if he had any objections to their erecting a temple to him on Rome’s sacred hill. But Augustus had not immediately given his consent. He did not know if it would be agreeable to the gods that he should own a temple next to theirs, and he had replied that first he wished to ascertain their will in the matter by offering a nocturnal sacrifice to his genius. It was he who, accompanied by a few trusted friends, was on his way to perform this sacrifice.

Augustus let them carry him in his litter, for he was old, and it was an effort for him to climb the long stairs leading to the Capitol. He himself held the cage with the doves for the sacrifice. No priests or soldiers or senators accompanied him, only his nearest friends. Torch-bearers walked in front of him in order to light the way in the night darkness and behind him followed the slaves, who carried the tripod, the knives, the charcoal, the sacred fire, and all the other things needed for the sacrifice.

On the way the Emperor chatted gayly with his faithful followers, and therefore none of them noticed the infinite silence and stillness of the night. Only when they had reached the highest point of the Capitol Hill and the vacant spot upon which they contemplated erecting the temple, did it dawn upon them that something unusual was taking place.

It could not be a night like all others, for up on the very edge of the cliff they saw the most remarkable being! At first they thought it was an old, distorted olive-trunk; later they imagined that an ancient stone figure from the temple of Jupiter had wandered out on the cliff. Finally it was apparent to them that it could be only the old sibyl.

Anything so aged, so weather-beaten, and so giantlike in stature they had never seen. This old woman was awe-inspiring! If the Emperor had not been present, they would all have fled to their homes.

“It is she,” they whispered to each other, “who has lived as many years as there are sand-grains on her native shores. Why has she come out from her cave just to-night? What does she foretell for the Emperor and the Empire—she, who writes her prophecies on the leaves of the trees and knows that the wind will carry the words of the oracle to the person for whom they are intended?”

They were so terrified that they would have dropped on their knees with their foreheads pressed against the earth, had the sibyl stirred. But she sat as still as though she were lifeless. Crouching upon the outermost edge of the cliff, and shading her eyes with her hand, she peered out into the night. She sat there as if she had gone up on the hill that she might see more clearly something that was happening far away. She could see things on a night like this!

At that moment the Emperor and all his retinue, marked how profound the darkness was. None of them could see a hand’s breadth in front of him. And what stillness! What silence! Not even the Tiber’s hollow murmur could they hear. The air seemed to suffocate them, cold sweat broke out on their foreheads, and their hands were numb and powerless. They feared that some dreadful disaster was impending.

But no one cared to show that he was afraid, and every one told the Emperor that this was a good omen. All Nature held its breath to greet a new god.

They counseled Augustus to hurry with the sacrifice, and said that the old sibyl had evidently come out of her cave to greet his genius.

But the truth was that the old sibyl was so absorbed in a vision that she did not even know that Augustus had come up to the Capitol. She was transported in spirit to a far-distant land, where she imagined that she was wandering over a great plain. In the darkness she stubbed her foot continually against something, which she believed to be grass-tufts. She stooped down and felt with her hand. No, it was not grass, but sheep. She was walking between great sleeping flocks of sheep.

Then she noticed the shepherds’ fire. It burned in the middle of the field, and she groped her way to it. The shepherds lay asleep by the fire, and beside them were the long, spiked staves with which they defended their flocks from wild beasts. But the little animals with the glittering eyes and the bushy tails that stole up to the fire, were they not jackals? And yet the shepherds did not fling their staves at them, the dogs continued to sleep, the sheep did not flee, and the wild animals lay down to rest beside the human beings.

This the sibyl saw, but she knew nothing of what was being enacted on the hill back of her. She did not know that there they were raising an altar, lighting charcoal and strewing incense, and that the Emperor took one of the doves from the cage to sacrifice it. But his hands were so benumbed that he could not hold the bird. With one stroke of the wing, it freed itself and disappeared in the night darkness.

When this happened, the courtiers glanced suspiciously at the old sibyl. They believed that it was she who caused the misfortune.

Could they know that all the while the sibyl thought herself standing beside the shepherds’ fire, and that she listened to a faint sound which came trembling through the dead-still night? She heard it long before she marked that it did not come from earth, but from the sky. At last she raised her head; then she saw light, shimmering forms glide forward in the darkness. They were little flocks of angels, who, singing joyously, and apparently searching, flew back and forth above the wide plain.

While the sibyl was listening to the angel-song, the Emperor was making preparations for a new sacrifice. He washed his hands, cleansed the altar, and took up the other dove. And, although he exerted his full strength to hold it fast, the dove’s slippery body slid from his hand, and the bird swung itself up into the impenetrable night.

The Emperor was appalled! He fell upon his knees and prayed to his genius. He implored him for strength to avert the disasters which this night seemed to foreshadow.

Nor did the sibyl hear any of this either. She was listening with her whole soul to the angel-song, which grew louder and louder. At last it became so powerful that it wakened the shepherds. They raised themselves on their elbows and saw shining hosts of silver-white angels move in the darkness in long swaying lines, like migratory birds. Some held lutes and cymbals in their hands; others held zithers and harps, and their song rang out as merry as child-laughter, and as carefree as the lark’s thrill. When the shepherds heard this, they rose up to go to the mountain city, where they lived, to tell of the miracle.

They groped their way forward on a narrow, winding path, and the sibyl followed them. Suddenly it grew light up there on the mountain: a big, clear star kindled right over it, and the city on the mountain summit glittered like silver in the starlight. All the fluttering angel throngs hastened thither, shouting for joy, and the shepherds hurried so that they almost ran. When they reached the city, they found that the angels had assembled over a low stable near the city gate. It was a wretched structure, with a roof of straw and the naked cliff for a back wall. Over it hung the Star, and hither flocked more and more angels. Some seated themselves on the straw roof or alighted upon the steep mountain-wall back of the house; others, again, held themselves in the air on outspread wings, and hovered over it. High, high up, the air was illuminated by the shining wings.

The instant the Star kindled over the mountain city, all Nature awoke, and the men who stood upon Capitol Hill could not help seeing it. They felt fresh, but caressing winds which traveled through space; delicious perfumes streamed up about them; trees swayed; the Tiber began to murmur; the stars twinkled, and suddenly the moon stood out in the sky and lit up the world. And out of the clouds the two doves came circling down and lighted upon the Emperor’s shoulders.

When this miracle happened, Augustus rose, proud and happy, but his friends and his slaves fell on their knees.

“Hail, Cæsar!” they cried. “Thy genius hath answered thee. Thou art the god who shall be worshiped on Capitol Hill!”

And this cry of homage, which the men in their transport gave as a tribute to the emperor, was so loud that the old sibyl heard it. It waked her from her visions. She rose from her place on the edge of the cliff, and came down among the people. It was as if a dark cloud had arisen from the abyss and rushed down the mountain height. She was terrifying in her extreme age! Coarse hair hung in matted tangles around her head, her joints were enlarged, and the dark skin, hard as the bark of a tree, covered her body with furrow upon furrow.

Potent and awe-inspiring, she advanced toward the Emperor. With one hand she clutched his wrist, with the other she pointed toward the distant East.

“Look!” she commanded, and the Emperor raised his eyes and saw. The vaulted heavens opened before his eyes, and his glance traveled to the distant Orient. He saw a lowly stable behind a steep rock wall, and in the open doorway a few shepherds kneeling. Within the stable he saw a young mother on her knees before a little child, who lay upon a bundle of straw on the floor.

And the sibyl’s big, knotty fingers pointed toward the poor babe. “Hail, Cæsar!” cried the sibyl, in a burst of scornful laughter. “There is the god who shall be worshiped on Capitol Hill!”

Then Augustus shrank back from her, as from a maniac. But upon the sibyl fell the mighty spirit of prophecy. Her dim eyes began to burn, her hands were stretched toward heaven, her voice was so changed that it seemed not to be her own, but rang out with such resonance and power that it could have been heard over the whole world. And she uttered words which she appeared to be reading among the stars.

“Upon Capitol Hill shall the Redeemer of the world be worshiped—Christ—but not frail mortals.”

When she had said this, she strode past the terror-stricken men, walked slowly down the mountain, and disappeared.

But, on the following day, Augustus strictly forbade the people to raise any temple to him on Capitol Hill. In place of it he built a sanctuary to the new-born GodChild, and called it HEAVEN’S ALTAR—Ara Coeli.


Selma Lagerlöf (1858 – 1940) was a great Swedish writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1909. This story is from her book Christ Legends which was published in 1908.


Featured: Adoration of the Shepherds, by Philippe de Champaigne; painted in 1640.


The Torn Cloak

High in the steeple the bells were conversing. Two of the younger ones were vexed and spoke angrily, “Is it not time we were asleep? It is almost midnight, and twice have we been shaken, twice have we been forced to cry out through the gloom just as though it were day, and we were singing the call for Sunday Mass. There are people moving about in the church; are we going to be tormented again, I wonder? Might they not leave us in peace?”

At this the oldest bell in the steeple said indignantly, in a voice which though cracked had lost none of its solemnity, “Hush, little ones! Are you not ashamed to speak so foolishly? When you went to Rome to be blessed, did you not take an oath, did you not swear to fulfil your duty? Do you not know that in a few minutes it will be Christmas, and that you will then celebrate the birth of Him whose resurrection you have already celebrated?”

“But it is so cold!” whimpered a young bell.

“And do you not think that He was cold, when He came into the world, naked and weak? Would He not have suffered on the heights of Bethlehem had not the ass and the ox warmed Him with their breath? Instead of grumbling and complaining, let your voices be sweet and tender in memory of the canticles with which His mother lulled Him to sleep. Come, hold yourselves in readiness. I can see them lighting the tapers; they have constructed a little manger before the Virgin’s altar; the banner is unfurled; the beadle is bustling about. He has a bad cold, the poor man; how he sneezes! Monsieur le Curé has put on his embroidered alb. I hear the approaching sound of wooden shoes; the peasants are coming to pray. The clock is about to strike the hour—now—Christmas! Christmas! Ring out with all your heart and all your might! Let no man say that he has not been summoned to midnight Mass.”

II.

It had been snowing for three days. The sky was black, the ground white; the north wind howled through the trees; the ponds were frozen; and the little birds were hungry. Women, wrapped in long mantles of brown wool, and men in heavy cloaks slowly made their way into the church. They knelt and with bent brows murmured the answer as the priest said, “And the Lord said unto me, ‘Thou art my Son, whom this day I have begotten.'” The incense was smoking, and blossoms of hellebore, which are the roses of Christmas, lay before the tabernacle in the light of the tapers. Behind one of the pillars, near the door of the church, knelt a child. His feet were bare. He had slipped off his wooden shoes on account of the noise they made. His cap lay on the floor before him and with clasped hands he prayed, “For the soul of my father who is dead, for the life of my mother, and for me, for your little Jacques, who loves you, O my God, I implore you!” And he knelt all through Mass, lost in the fervor of his devotion, and rose only when he heard the words,—

“Ite missa est.”

The people crowded together under the exterior porch. Every man lighted his lantern, and pulled up the collar of his cloak; and the women drew their mantles closely around them. Brrr! how cold it was! A little boy called out to Jacques, “Are you coming with us?”

“No,” said he, “I have not time;” and he started off on a run. He could hear the village people far away singing the favorite carol of olden France as they walked home,—

“He is born, the Heavenly Child.

Ring out, hautbois! ring out, bagpipes!

He is born, the Heavenly Child;

Let all voices sing his advent!”

III.

Jacques reached the thatched cottage at the far end of the hamlet, nestling in a rocky hollow at the foot of the hill. He opened the door carefully, and tiptoed into a room in which there was neither light nor fire.

“Is that you, little one?”

“Yes, mother.”

“I prayed while you were praying. You must be half asleep; go to bed, child. I do not need anything. If I am thirsty, I have the water-jug here where I can reach it.”

In a corner of the room near Marguerite’s bed, Jacques turned over a litter of ferns and dry grasses, stretched himself upon it, drew the ragged end of a blanket over him, and fell asleep. Marguerite, however, did not sleep. She was thinking, and her thoughts wrung tears from her eyes. She was evoking the happy days when her husband was with her, and life seemed so full of hope. She lay still, so as not to waken her boy, her head thrown back on the bolster, the tears trickling off her bony cheeks, her hand pressed to her hot chest.

Marguerite’s husband had been the pride of his village, a hard worker and an upright man. At the call of the Conscription he went to the wagon train, for he was a good driver, kind to his horses, a man who made his own bed only after having prepared their litter. He spoke with pleasure of the time when he had been “in the army of the war,” and would say laughingly, “I carted heaps of glory in the Crimea and in Italy.” His return to the village was a source of rejoicing. He had known Marguerite as a child; he now found her a woman, and married her. They were poor, Marguerite’s trousseau consisting of a three-franc cap, which she bought in order to make a good appearance at the church ceremony. They owned the cottage,—a miserable, dilapidated hut; but they were happy in it because they worked hard and loved each other. The village people said, “Marguerite is no simpleton. She knew what she was about when she married Grand-Pierre. The sun does not find him abed. He is strong, saving too, and no drunkard.”

Yes, Grand-Pierre was a good workman, spry, punctual,—a man of much action and few words. He had resumed his old trade, and drove his teams through the mountains for a man who was quarrying granite. He drove four stout-haunched, wide-chested horses, and excelled in manœuvring the screw-jack, in balancing the heaviest blocks, and driving down the steep declivities that opened into the plain. When he came home after his day’s work, he found the soup and a jug of cider on the table, and Marguerite waiting for him. Everything smiled upon them in the poor little home, where there was soon a willow cradle.

But happiness is short-lived. There is an Arab proverb that says, “As soon as a man paints his house in pink, fate hastens to daub it black.” For eleven years Pierre and Marguerite lived happily together and laid their plans with no fear of the future. Then misfortune came and made its home with them. One raw, foggy winter’s day Grand-Pierre went out to the mountain. He loaded his wagon; and after having left the dangerous passes of the road behind, he sat on the shaft for a rest, and leaned against a great block of granite. He was tired; and lulled by the swaying of the vehicle and the monotonous jingle of the bells, he involuntarily closed his eyes. After a little the left wheel went over a great limb that lay across the road. The shock was violent. Pierre was pitched from his seat; and before he could move, the heavy wheels rolled slowly over him and crushed in his chest.

The horses went their way unconscious of the fact that their driver, their oldest friend, lay dead behind them. They reached the quarriers and stopped at the door.

“Where is Grand-Pierre?”

Inquiries were made at once. Men were sent to the cottage. Marguerite grew anxious. As the light failed, they took torches and went up the mountain, shouting, “Hello there, Grand-Pierre!” but no voice answered. At last they came upon the poor man lying in the middle of the road on his back with outstretched arms. The wheels had cut through the cloak and the edge of the rent was crushed into his chest and black with blood.

All the villagers followed the corpse to the church and the cemetery, and held out their hands to Marguerite, who stood white and immobile, like a statue of wax, muttering mechanically under her breath, “O God, have pity! have pity!” Jacques was then in his tenth year. He could not appreciate the greatness of his mother’s sorrow, and only cried because she did.

Then misfortune had followed misfortune,—poverty, illness, misery. And so through this Christmas night Marguerite lay stifling her sobs as she recalled the past.

IV.

Jacques rose at dawn, shook off the dry grasses that stuck to his hair, and went over to his mother. Her eyes were half closed, her lips very white, and there were warm red spots on her cheeks. When she saw the boy, she made a faint movement with her head.

“Did you sleep, mother? Do you feel well?”

“Yes; but I am very cold. Make a little fire, will you?”

Jacques searched every corner of the hut, looked in the old cupboard, went through the cellar which had formerly contained their supplies, and said,—

“There is no wood left; and there are no roots either.”

“Never mind, then. It is not so very cold, after all.”

Jacques picked up a stone, hammered at the nail that secured the strap of his wooden shoe, slipped his foot into it, pulled his cap down over his ears, and said resolutely,—

“I am going out to the mountain to get some dead wood.”

“Why, you forget that to-day is Christmas, my child!”

“I know; but Monsieur le Curé will forgive me.”

“No, no, you must not go; it has been prohibited.”

“I will see that the rural guard does not catch me. Please let me go; I will be back soon.”

“Well, go, then.”

Jacques put his pruning-knife in his pocket, threw a rope over his shoulder, and opened the door. A gust of wind thick with snow dashed him back and whirled through the room.

“What a storm!”

“Holy angels!” cried Marguerite; “it is the white deluge! Listen, little one: you are not warm enough. Open the old chest where your father’s things are, and get his cloak,—the cloak he had on when they brought him home. Wrap it around you, and see that you do not take cold. One sick person in the house is enough.”

Jacques took the cloak, upon which a twig of blessed box had been laid. It was one of those great black and white cloaks of thick wool and goat-hair, with a small velvet collar and brass clasps. There was a gaping black rent in it, and here and there an ugly dark spot. It was very long for Jacques, so Marguerite pinned the edges up under the collar. When he was halfway out of the door she called out to him,—

“Jacques, if you pass the Trèves do not forget to say a prayer.”

V.

Jacques started off at a brisk pace. There was not a human being to be seen anywhere. The fields were gloomy and desolate. The snow seemed to shoot along horizontally, so violently was it lashed by the north wind. On the high, frosted limb of a poplar a raven was croaking. Jacques stopped every now and again to knock off the snow which gathered and hardened on the soles of his wooden shoes. He was not cold, but he found his cloak very heavy. He had gone a long way and had reached the first undulations of the mountain, the edge of the forest, when he stopped petrified before the rural guard, who appeared suddenly at a turn in the road, imposing with his cocked hat, his sword, and the word “Law” glittering on his belt.

This Father Monhache, who had been a sapper before he became a rural guard, was greatly dreaded in the land. He was the terror of the village boys, for whenever he found any of them stealing apples, shaking the plum-trees, or knocking down nuts, he swore at them terribly, and then led them by the ear to Monsieur le Maire, who sentenced the delinquents to a paternal spanking. Jacques was therefore aghast when he found himself face to face with this merciless representative of the authority.

“Where are you going, Jacques, in this devil of a storm?”

Jacques tried to concoct some story to explain his expedition; and before he had decided which would be the most effective, he caught himself saying simply,—

“I am going to the mountain, Father Monhache, to get some dead wood. We have none at home, and my mother is ill.”

The old guard dropped an oath and said in a voice which was by no means harsh,—

“Ah, so you are going to the mountain for dead wood, are you? Well, if I meet you in the village this evening with your fagot, I will close one eye and wink the other, do you understand? And if you ever tell anybody what I said, I will pull your ears.” And he walked off with a shrug. He had not gone ten feet when he turned and shouted, “There is more dead wood in the copse of the Prévoté than anywhere else.”

VI.

“He is not such a bad man, after all,” thought Jacques.

He was now climbing the mountain, and it was a hard struggle for his little legs. Every now and then he heard what he thought was a moan in the distance,—the breaking of a limb under the weight of the snow. Look as he would through all those branches, he could not see a single blackbird, nor even a jay. Not a little mouse ran along the slope. A few intrepid sparrows alone, black spots on the white ground, hopped about in search of food.

Measuring his steps to the time, Jacques began to sing in a low tone,—

“He is born, the Heavenly Child,—”

and walked along with a great effort, leaning forward. He sunk into hollows where the snow was deep. He knew that he was not far from the copse of the Prévoté, so he took courage, though he stubbed his foot against the hard, concealed ruts, and tumbled into holes. Father Monhache was right; there was surely no lack of dead wood at the copse of the Prévoté.

Over the shivering heather and the crouching brier, lay the fallen branches in their furrows. Jacques fell to work; and how he toiled! He had taken off his cloak, that his movements might be freer. His legs sunk deep in the snow. His hands and his arms were drenched and chilled, while his face was hot and wet with perspiration. He would stop every minute or two to look at his pile of wood, and think of the bright flame it would make in the hut.

When he had all he could carry, he tied it in a fagot, threw his cloak over his shoulders, and started along the shortest cut to the village. His legs trembled. Now and then he was compelled to stop and lean against a tree.

VII.

After a little he came to a cross-road. This was Trèves. In the days of the Romans it had been called Trivium, because of the three roads that met there. On that spot had formerly stood an altar to Mercury, the protector of roads, the god of travellers, and the patron of thieves. Christianity had torn down the Pagan altar and replaced it by a crucifix of granite. On the pedestal, gnawed by lichens, one may still find the date, A. D. 1314. During the Hundred Years’ War the statue was shattered, and the cross-road strewn with its fragments. Then, when the foreign element which sullied our land had been cast out, when “Joan, the good maid of Lorraine,” had returned the kingdom of France to the little king of Bourges, the statue was raised, and from that time it has been the object of special veneration through the country. Every peasant bows before it, and even the veterinary, who delights in laughing at priests, would not dare pass the Trèves without raising his hat.

With his hands nailed to the cross, his brow encircled with thorns, the Christ hangs, as though he were calling the whole world to take refuge in his outstretched arms. He seems enormous. In the folds of the cloth which girds his loins wrens have built nests that have never been disturbed. His face is turned toward the East; and his hollow, suffering gaze is fixed upon the sky, as though he were looking for the star that guided the Magi and led the shepherds to the stable in Bethlehem.

VIII.

Jacques did not forget his mother’s instruction. He laid down his fagot, took off his cap, and there, on his knees, began a prayer, to which the wind moaned a dreary accompaniment. He repeated some prayers which he had learned at the Catechism class; he said others too,—fervent words that rose of themselves from his heart. And as he prayed, he looked up at the Christ, lashed by the storm. Its parted lips and upturned eyes gave it an expression of infinite pain. Two little icicles, like congealed tears, hung on its eyelids, and the emaciated body stretched itself upon the cross in a last spasm of agony. Jacques began to suffer with the suffering embodied there, and he was moved to console the One whom he had come to invoke.

When his prayers were said, he took up his fagot and started on his way; but before he had left the cross-road behind him, he turned and looked back. The Christ’s eyes seemed to follow him. The face was less sombre; the features seemed to have relaxed into an expression of infinite gentleness. A gust of wind shook the snow that had accumulated on its outstretched arms. One might have believed that the statue had shivered. Jacques stopped. “Oh, my poor God,” said he, “how cold you are!” and he went back and stood before the crucifix. Then with a sudden impulse he took off his cloak. He climbed upon the pedestal, then putting his foot upon the projection of the loin-cloth, and reaching about the shoulders, he threw the cloak around the statue.

When he had reached the ground again, “Now, at least, you will not be so cold!” said he; and the two little icicles that had hung on the eyelids of the divine image melted and ran slowly down the granite cheeks like tears of gratitude.

Jacques started off at a rapid pace. The cruel north wind blew through his cotton blouse. He began to run, and the fagot beat against his shoulders and bruised them. At last he reached the foot of a declivity and stopped panting by a ravine sheltered from the snow and the wind by a wall of pines. How tired he was! He descended into the ravine and sat down to rest, only for a minute, thought he,—just a minute more, and he would be up again and on his way to his mother. How tired he was! His head, too, was very hot, and felt heavy. He lay down and leaned his head against the fagot. “I must not go to sleep,” he said. “Oh, no, I will not go to sleep;” and as he said this, his eyelids drooped, and he became suddenly engulfed in a great flood of unconsciousness.

IX.

When Jacques awoke he was greatly surprised. The ravine, the snow, the forest, the mountain, the gray sky, the freezing wind,—all had disappeared. He looked for his fagot, but could find it nowhere. He had never seen or even heard of this new country; and he was unable to define its substance, to circumscribe its immensity, or appreciate its splendors. The air was balmy, saturated with exquisite perfumes, and it exhaled soft harmonies that made his heart quiver with delight.

He rose. The ground beneath his feet was elastic, and seemed to rise to meet his step, so that walking became restful. A luminous halo hovered about him. Instead of the old torn cloak, he wore a mantle strewn with stars, and it was seamless, like the one for which dice were cast on the heights of Calvary. His hands—his poor little hands, tumefied with chilblains, and which the cold had chapped and creviced,—were now white and soft like the tips of a swan’s wings. Jacques was amazed, but no feeling of fear agitated him. He was calm and felt strangely confident. A great burden seemed to have been lifted from his shoulders; he was as light as the air, and aglow with beatitude.

“Where am I?” he asked; and a voice more harmonious than the whispering of the breeze answered,—

“In my Father’s House, which is the home of the Just.”

Then through a veil of azure and light a great granite crucifix arose before him. It was the crucifix of the Trèves. Grand-Pierre’s cloak, with the rent across it, floated from the shoulders of the Christ. The coarse wool had grown as diaphanous as a cloud, and through it the light radiated as from a sun. The thorns on his brow glittered like carbuncles, and a superhuman beauty lighted his countenance. From fields of space which the sight could now explore came aerial chants. Jacques fell upon his knees and prostrated himself.

The Christ said,—

“Rise, little one; you were moved to pity by the sufferings of your God,—you stripped yourself of your cloak to shield him from the cold, and this is why he has given you his cloak in exchange for yours; for of all the virtues the highest and rarest is charity, which surpasses wisdom and knowledge. Hereafter you will be the host of your God.”

Jacques took a few steps toward the dazzling vision and held out his arms in supplication.

“What do you want?” said the Christ.

The child said, “I want my mother.”

“The angels who carried Mary into Egypt will bring her to you.”

There was a great rustle of wings, and a smile shone on the face of the granite Christ.

Jacques was praying, but his prayer was unlike any that he had ever said before. It was a chant of ecstasy, which rose to his lips in words so beautiful that he experienced a sense of ineffable happiness in listening to himself.

Far away, on the brink of the horizon, pure and clear as crystal, he saw Marguerite borne toward him on billows of white. She was no longer pale, worn, and sad. She was radiant, and glowed with that internal light which is the beauty of the soul, and is alone imperishable. The angels laid her at the foot of the crucifix, and she prostrated herself and adored. When she raised her head there were two souls beside her, and their essences blended in one kiss, in one burst of gratitude. The granite Christ wept.

X.

High in the steeple the bells are conversing. The two younger ones are sullen. “The people in this village are mad. Why can they never be quiet? Were not yesterday’s duties sufficiently tiresome?—midnight Mass, Matins, the Mass of the Aurora, the third Mass, High Mass, Vespers, the Angelus, to say nothing of supplementary chimes. There was no end to it! And now to-day we must begin all over again. They pull us, they shake us,—first the toll for the dead, the funeral service next, then the burial. It is really too much! Why will they never leave us in peace on our frames? Our clappers are weary, and our sides are bruised with the repeated strokes. What can be the matter with these peasants? Here they come to church again in their holiday clothes. Father Monhache wears his most forbidding scowl; his beard bristles fiercely; every now and then he brushes something from his eyes with the back of his hand. His cocked hat has a defiant tilt. The boys had better be on their guard this day. Far down the road there, I see two coffins, one large and one small. They are lifting them on the oxcart; see! But what is that to us, and why are we expected to ring?”

The old bell, full of wisdom and experience, reproved them, saying,—

“Be still, and do not shame me with your ignorance. You have no conception of the dignity of your functions. You have been blessed; you are church-bells. To men you say, ‘Keep vigil over your immortal souls!’ and to God, ‘O Father, have pity on human weakness!’ Instead of being proud of your exalted mission, and meditating upon what you see, you chatter like hand-bells and reason like sleigh-bells. Your bright color and your clear voices need not make you vain, for age will tarnish you and the fatigues of your duty will crack your voices. When years have passed; when you shall have proclaimed church festivals, weddings, births, christenings, and funerals; after having raised the alarms for conflagrations, and rung the tocsin at the invasion of the enemy,—you will no longer complain of your fate; you will begin to comprehend the things of this world, and divine the secrets of the other; you will come to understand how tears on earth can become smiles in heaven.

“So ring gently, gently, without sadness or fear. Let your voices sound like the cooing of doves. A torn cloak in this world may be a mantle of eternal blessedness in the next.”


Maxime Du Camp (1822 – 1894) was an inflentual French writer and friend of the more famous Gustave Flaubert.


Featured: Carrying of the Cross, by Raphael; painted ca. 1516.


When the Swallows Homeward Fly

The arrogant sun had stalked away into the evening, trailing behind him banners of gold and crimson, and a swift twilight was streaming over the land. As the sun passed, the eyes of two men on a high hill followed it, and the look of one was like a light in a window to a lost traveller. It had in it the sense of home and the tale of a journey done. Such a journey this man had made as few have ever attempted, and fewer accomplished. To the farthermost regions of snow and ice, where the shoulder of a continent juts out into the northwestern Arctic seas, he had travelled on foot and alone, save for his dogs, and for Indian guides, who now and then shepherded him from point to point. The vast ice-hummocks had been his housing, pemmican, the raw flesh of fish, and even the fat and oil of seals had been his food. Ever and ever through long months the everlasting white glitter of the snow and ice, ever and ever the cold stars, the cloudless sky, the moon at full, or swung like a white sickle in the sky to warn him that his life must be mown like grass. At night to sleep in a bag of fur and wool, by day the steely wind, or the air shaking with a filmy powder of frost; while the illimitably distant sun made the tiny flakes sparkle like silver—a poudre day, when the face and hands are most like to be frozen, and all so still and white and passionless, yet aching with energy. Hundreds upon hundreds of miles that endless trail went winding to the farthest North-west. No human being had ever trod its lengths before, though Indians or a stray Hudson’s Bay Company man had made journeys over part of it during the years that have passed since Prince Rupert sent his adventurers to dot that northern land with posts and forts, and trace fine arteries of civilisation through the wastes.

Where this man had gone none other had been of white men from the Western lands, though from across the wide Pacific, from the Eastern world, adventurers and exiles had once visited what is now known as the Yukon Valley. So this man, browsing in the library of his grandfather, an Eastern scholar, had come to know; and for love of adventure, and because of the tale of a valley of gold and treasure to be had, and because he had been ruined by bad investments, he had made a journey like none ever essayed before. And on his way up to those regions, where the veil before the face of God is very thin and fine, and men’s hearts glow within them, where there was no oasis save the unguessed deposit of a great human dream that his soul could feel, the face of a girl had haunted him. Her voice—so sweet a voice that it rang like muffled silver in his ears, till, in the everlasting theatre of the Pole, the stars seemed to repeat it through millions of echoing hills, growing softer and softer as the frost hushed it to his ears-had said to him late and early, “You must come back with the swallows.” Then she had sung a song which had been like a fire in his heart, not alone because of the words of it, but because of the soul in her voice, and it had lain like a coverlet on his heart to keep it warm:

   “Adieu! The sun goes awearily down,
    The mist creeps up o’er the sleepy town,
    The white sail bends to the shuddering mere,
    And the reapers have reaped and the night is here.

    Adieu! And the years are a broken song,
    The right grows weak in the strife with wrong,
    The lilies of love have a crimson stain,
    And the old days never will come again.

    Adieu! Where the mountains afar are dim
    ‘Neath the tremulous tread of the seraphim,
    Shall not our querulous hearts prevail,
    That have prayed for the peace of the Holy Grail.

    Adieu! Sometime shall the veil between
    The things that are and that might have been
    Be folded back for our eyes to see,
    And the meaning of all shall be clear to me.”

It had been but an acquaintance of five days while he fitted out for his expedition, but in this brief time it had sunk deep into his mind that life was now a thing to cherish, and that he must indeed come back; though he had left England caring little if, in the peril and danger of his quest, he ever returned. He had been indifferent to his fate till he came to the Valley of the Saskatchewan, to the town lying at the foot of the maple hill beside the great northern stream, and saw the girl whose life was knit with the far north, whose mother’s heart was buried in the great wastes where Sir John Franklin’s expedition was lost; for her husband had been one of the ill-fated if not unhappy band of lovers of that civilisation for which they had risked all and lost all save immortality. Hither the two had come after he had been cast away on the icy plains, and as the settlement had crept north, had gone north with it, always on the outer edge of house and field, ever stepping northward. Here, with small income but high hearts and quiet souls, they had lived and laboured. And when this newcomer from the old land set his face northward to an unknown destination, the two women had prayed as the mother did in the old days when the daughter was but a babe at her knee, and it was not yet certain that Franklin and his men had been cast away for ever. Something in him, his great height, his strength of body, his clear, meditative eyes, his brave laugh, reminded her of him—her husband—who, like Sir Humphrey Gilbert, had said that it mattered little where men did their duty, since God was always near to take or leave as it was His will. When Bickersteth went, it was as though one they had known all their lives had passed; and the woman knew also that a new thought had been sown in her daughter’s mind, a new door opened in her heart.

And he had returned. He was now looking down into the valley where the village lay. Far, far over, two days’ march away, he could see the cluster of houses, and the glow of the sun on the tin spire of the little Mission Church where he had heard the girl and her mother sing, till the hearts of all were swept by feeling and ravished by the desire for “the peace of the Holy Grail.” The village was, in truth, but a day’s march away from him, but he was not alone, and the journey could not be hastened. Beside him, his eyes also upon the sunset and the village, was a man in a costume half-trapper, half-Indian, with bushy grey beard and massive frame, and a distant, sorrowful look, like that of one whose soul was tuned to past suffering. As he sat, his head sunk on his breast, his elbow resting on a stump of pine—the token of a progressive civilisation—his chin upon his hand, he looked like the figure of Moses made immortal by Michael Angelo. But his strength was not like that of the man beside him, who was thirty years younger. When he walked, it was as one who had no destination, who had no haven towards which to travel, who journeyed as one to whom the world is a wilderness, and one tent or one hut is the same as another, and none is home.

Like two ships meeting hull to hull on the wide seas, where a few miles of water will hide them from each other, whose ports are thousands of miles apart, whose courses are not the same, they two had met, the elder man, sick and worn, and near to death, in the poor hospitality of an Indian’s tepee. John Bickersteth had nursed the old man back to strength, and had brought him southward with him—a silent companion, who spoke in monosyllables, who had no conversation at all of the past, and little of the present; but who was a woodsman and an Arctic traveller of the most expert kind; who knew by instinct where the best places for shelter and for sleeping might be found; who never complained, and was wonderful with the dogs. Close as their association was, Bickersteth had felt concerning the other that his real self was in some other sphere or place towards which his mind was always turning, as though to bring it back.

Again and again had Bickersteth tried to get the old man to speak about the past, but he had been met by a dumb sort of look, a straining to understand. Once or twice the old man had taken his hands in both of his own, and gazed with painful eagerness into his face, as though trying to remember or to comprehend something that eluded him. Upon these occasions the old man’s eyes dropped tears in an apathetic quiet, which tortured Bickersteth beyond bearing. Just such a look he had seen in the eyes of a favourite dog when he had performed an operation on it to save its life—a reproachful, non-comprehending, loving gaze.

Bickersteth understood a little of the Chinook language, which is familiar to most Indian tribes, and he had learned that the Indians knew nothing exact concerning the old man; but rumours had passed from tribe to tribe that this white man had lived for ever in the farthest north among the Arctic tribes, and that he passed from people to people, disappearing into the untenanted wilderness, but reappearing again among stranger tribes, never resting, and as one always seeking what he could not find.

One thing had helped this old man in all his travels and sojourning. He had, as it seemed to the native people, a gift of the hands; for when they were sick, a few moments’ manipulation of his huge, quiet fingers vanquished pain. A few herbs he gave in tincture, and these also were praised; but it was a legend that when he was persuaded to lay on his hands and close his eyes, and with his fingers to “search for the pain and find it, and kill it,” he always prevailed. They believed that though his body was on earth his soul was with Manitou, and that it was his soul which came into him again, and gave the Great Spirit’s healing to the fingers. This had been the man’s safety through how many years—or how many generations—they did not know; for legends regarding the pilgrim had grown and were fostered by the medicine men who, by giving him great age and supernatural power, could, with more self-respect, apologise for their own incapacity.

So the years—how many it was impossible to tell, since he did not know or would not say—had gone on; and now, after ceaseless wandering, his face was turned towards that civilisation out of which he had come so long ago—or was it so long ago—one generation, or two, or ten? It seemed to Bickersteth at times as though it were ten, so strange, so unworldly was his companion. At first he thought that the man remembered more than he would appear to acknowledge, but he found that after a day or two everything that happened as they journeyed was also forgotten.

It was only visible things, or sounds, that appeared to open the doors of memory of the most recent happenings. These happenings, if not varied, were of critical moment, since, passing down from the land of unchanging ice and snow, they had come into March and April storms, and the perils of the rapids and the swollen floods of May. Now, in June, two years and a month since Bickersteth had gone into the wilds, they looked down upon the goal of one at least—of the younger man who had triumphed in his quest up in these wilds abandoned centuries ago.

With the joyous thought in his heart, that he had discovered anew one of the greatest gold-fields of the world, that a journey unparalleled had been accomplished, he turned towards his ancient companion, and a feeling of pity and human love enlarged within him. He, John Bickersteth, was going into a world again, where—as he believed—a happy fate awaited him; but what of this old man? He had brought him out of the wilds, out of the unknown—was he only taking him into the unknown again? Were there friends, any friends anywhere in the world waiting for him? He called himself by no name, he said he had no name. Whence came he? Of whom? Whither was he wending now? Bickersteth had thought of the problem often, and he had no answer for it save that he must be taken care of, if not by others, then by himself; for the old man had saved him from drowning; had also saved him from an awful death on a March day when he fell into a great hole and was knocked insensible in the drifting snow; had saved him from brooding on himself—the beginning of madness—by compelling him to think for another. And sometimes, as he had looked at the old man, his imagination had caught the spirit of the legend of the Indians, and he had cried out, “O soul, come back and give him memory—give him back his memory, Manitou the mighty!”

Looking on the old man now, an impulse seized him. “Dear old man,” he said, speaking as one speaks to a child that cannot understand, “you shall never want, while I have a penny, or have head or hands to work. But is there no one that you care for or that cares for you, that you remember, or that remembers you?”

The old man shook his head though not with understanding, and he laid a hand on the young man’s shoulder, and whispered:

“Once it was always snow, but now it is green, the land. I have seen it—I have seen it once.” His shaggy eyebrows gathered over, his eyes searched, searched the face of John Bickersteth. “Once, so long ago—I cannot think,” he added helplessly.

“Dear old man,” Bickersteth said gently, knowing he would not wholly comprehend, “I am going to ask her—Alice—to marry me, and if she does, she will help look after you, too. Neither of us would have been here without the other, dear old man, and we shall not be separated. Whoever you are, you are a gentleman, and you might have been my father or hers—or hers.”

He stopped suddenly. A thought had flashed through his mind, a thought which stunned him, which passed like some powerful current through his veins, shocked him, then gave him a palpitating life. It was a wild thought, but yet why not—why not? There was the chance, the faint, far-off chance. He caught the old man by the shoulders, and looked him in the eyes, scanned his features, pushed back the hair from the rugged forehead.

“Dear old man,” he said, his voice shaking, “do you know what I’m thinking? I’m thinking that you may be of those who went out to the Arctic Sea with Sir John Franklin—with Sir John Franklin, you understand. Did you know Sir John Franklin—is it true, dear old boy, is it true? Are you one that has lived to tell the tale? Did you know Sir John Franklin—is it—tell me, is it true?”

He let go the old man’s shoulders, for over the face of the other there had passed a change. It was strained and tense. The hands were outstretched, the eyes were staring straight into the west and the coming night.

“It is—it is—that’s it!” cried Bickersteth. “That’s it—love o’ God, that’s it! Sir John Franklin—Sir John Franklin, and all the brave lads that died up there! You remember the ship—the Arctic Sea—the ice-fields, and Franklin—you remember him? Dear old man, say you remember Franklin?”

The thing had seized him. Conviction was upon him, and he watched the other’s anguished face with anguish and excitement in his own. But—but it might be, it might be her father—the eyes, the forehead are like hers; the hands, the long hands, the pointed fingers. “Come, tell me, did you have a wife and child, and were they both called Alice—do you remember? Franklin—Alice! Do you remember?”

The other got slowly to his feet, his arms outstretched, the look in his face changing, understanding struggling for its place, memory fighting for its own, the soul contending for its mastery.

“Franklin—Alice—the snow,” he said confusedly, and sank down.

“God have mercy!” cried Bickersteth, as he caught the swaying body, and laid it upon the ground. “He was there—almost.”

He settled the old man against the great pine stump and chafed his hands. “Man, dear man, if you belong to her—if you do, can’t you see what it will mean to me? She can’t say no to me then. But if it’s true, you’ll belong to England and to all the world, too, and you’ll have fame everlasting. I’ll have gold for her and for you, and for your Alice, too, poor old boy. Wake up now and remember if you are Luke Allingham who went with Franklin to the silent seas of the Pole. If it’s you, really you, what wonder you lost your memory! You saw them all die, Franklin and all, die there in the snow, with all the white world round them. If you were there, what a travel you have had, what strange things you have seen! Where the world is loneliest, God lives most. If you get close to the heart of things, it’s no marvel you forgot what you were, or where you came from; because it didn’t matter; you knew that you were only one of thousands of millions who have come and gone, that make up the soul of things, that make the pulses of the universe beat. That’s it, dear old man. The universe would die, if it weren’t for the souls that leave this world and fill it with life. Wake up! Wake up, Allingham, and tell us where you’ve been and what you’ve seen.”

He did not labour in vain. Slowly consciousness came back, and the grey eyes opened wide, the lips smiled faintly under the bushy beard; but Bickersteth saw that the look in the face was much the same as it had been before. The struggle had been too great, the fight for the other lost self had exhausted him, mind and body, and only a deep obliquity and a great weariness filled the countenance. He had come back to the verge, he had almost again discovered himself; but the opening door had shut fast suddenly, and he was back again in the night, the incompanionable night of forgetfulness.

Bickersteth saw that the travail and strife had drained life and energy, and that he must not press the mind and vitality of this exile of time and the unknown too far. He felt that when the next test came the old man would either break completely, and sink down into another and everlasting forgetfulness, or tear away forever the veil between himself and his past, and emerge into a long-lost life. His strength must be shepherded, and he must be kept quiet and undisturbed until they came to the town yonder in the valley, over which the night was slowly settling down. There two women waited, the two Alices, from both of whom had gone lovers into the North. The daughter was living over again in her young love the pangs of suspense through which her mother had passed. Two years since Bickersteth had gone, and not a sign!

Yet, if the girl had looked from her bedroom window, this Friday night, she would have seen on the far hill a sign; for there burned a fire beside which sat two travellers who had come from the uttermost limits of snow. But as the fire burned—a beacon to her heart if she had but known it—she went to her bed, the words of a song she had sung at choir—practice with tears in her voice and in her heart ringing in her ears. A concert was to be held after the service on the coming Sunday night, at which there was to be a collection for funds to build another mission-house a hundred miles farther North, and she had been practising music she was to sing. Her mother had been an amateur singer of great power, and she was renewing her mother’s gift in a voice behind which lay a hidden sorrow. As she cried herself to sleep the words of the song which had moved her kept ringing in her ears and echoing in her heart:

   “When the swallows homeward fly,
    And the roses’ bloom is o’er—”

But her mother, looking out into the night, saw on the far hill the fire, burning like a star, where she had never seen a fire set before, and a hope shot into her heart for her daughter—a hope that had flamed up and died down so often during the past year. Yet she had fanned with heartening words every such glimmer of hope when it came, and now she went to bed saying, “Perhaps he will come to-morrow.” In her mind, too, rang the words of the song which had ravished her ears that night, the song she had sung the night before her own husband, Luke Allingham, had gone with Franklin to the Polar seas:

“When the swallows homeward fly—”

As she and her daughter entered the little church on the Sunday evening, two men came over the prairie slowly towards the town, and both raised their heads to the sound of the church-bell calling to prayer. In the eyes of the younger man there was a look which has come to many in this world returning from hard enterprise and great dangers, to the familiar streets, the friendly faces of men of their kin and clan-to the lights of home.

The face of the older man, however, had another look.

It was such a look as is seldom seen in the faces of men, for it showed the struggle of a soul to regain its identity. The words which the old man had uttered in response to Bickersteth’s appeal before he fainted away, “Franklin—Alice—the snow,” had showed that he was on the verge; the bells of the church pealing in the summer air brought him near it once again. How many years had gone since he had heard church-bells? Bickersteth, gazing at him in eager scrutiny, wondered if, after all, he might be mistaken about him. But no, this man had never been born and bred in the far North. His was a type which belonged to the civilisation from which he himself had come. There would soon be the test of it all. Yet he shuddered, too, to think what might happen if it was all true, and discovery or reunion should shake to the centre the very life of the two long-parted ones.

He saw the look of perplexed pain and joy at once in the face of the old man, but he said nothing, and he was almost glad when the bell stopped. The old man turned to him.

“What is it?” he asked. “I remember—” but he stopped suddenly, shaking his head.

An hour later, cleared of the dust of travel, the two walked slowly towards the church from the little tavern where they were lodged. The service was now over, but the concert had begun. The church was full, and there were people in the porch; but these made way for the two strangers; and, as Bickersteth was recognised by two or three present, place was found for them. Inside, the old man stared round him in a confused and troubled way, but his motions were quiet and abstracted and he looked like some old viking, his workaday life done, come to pray ere he went hence forever. They had entered in a pause in the concert, but now two ladies came forward to the chancel steps, and one with her hands clasped before her, began to sing:

   “When the swallows homeward fly,
    And the roses’ bloom is o’er,
    And the nightingale’s sweet song
    In the woods is heard no more—”

It was Alice—Alice the daughter—and presently the mother, the other Alice, joined in the refrain. At sight of them Bickersteth’s eyes had filled, not with tears, but with a cloud of feeling, so that he went blind. There she was, the girl he loved. Her voice was ringing in his ears. In his own joy for one instant he had forgotten the old man beside him, and the great test that was now upon him. He turned quickly, however, as the old man got to his feet. For an instant the lost exile of the North stood as though transfixed. The blood slowly drained from his face, and in his eyes was an agony of struggle and desire. For a moment an awful confusion had the mastery, and then suddenly a clear light broke into his eyes, his face flushed healthily and shone, his arms went up, and there rang in his ears the words:

   “Then I think with bitter pain,
    Shall we ever meet again?
    When the swallows homeward fly—”

“Alice—Alice!” he called, and tottered forward up the aisle, followed by John Bickersteth.

“Alice, I have come back!” he cried again.

1909.

The title of this story comes from a very popular German poem, “Wenn die Schwalben heimwärts ziehn,” from 1830, written by Karl Herlosssohn (1804-1849). The verse was set to music in 1849 by Franz Wilhelm Abt (1819-1885) and immediately became popular in Germany and the English-speaking world. It remains popular in Germany as a folksong.


Sir Gilbert Parker (1862 – 1932) was a Canadian writer and British parliamentarian. His stories are evocative of the early history of Canada, especially that of Quebec.


Featured: Chromolithograph print, from 1907.


50 Years Ago: The Gulag Archipelago, A Revolution from the East

The reception of The Gulag Archipelago (1973) and its author Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), in Europe and the West alike, has been generally benevolent and even enthusiastic, but it has not failed to be reserved, even violently hostile, in certain media and political-intellectual circles. Spain is perhaps one of the countries where the reaction of the mainstream media has been the most execrable and undignified. Let us recall these not-so-distant episodes.

Solzhenitsyn, a victim of hatred

On March 20, 1976, four months after Franco’s death, Alexander Solzhenitsin told Televisión Española: “Do you progressives know what a dictatorship is? If we enjoyed the freedom you enjoy, we would be open-mouthed; such freedom is unknown to us. For sixty years we have been ignorant of these freedoms.” These statements immediately unleashed a campaign of extremely violent slander in most of the national press. Among the adjectives with which he was showered, we may mention, “paranoid,” “clown,” “buffoon,” “fanatic,” “liar,” “comedian,” “enemy of the people,” “fascist agent who wants an anti-Stalinist Stalinism (sic),” “mercenary,” “bad writer,” “megalomaniac,” “author of four ridiculous novels,” and so on and so forth. Referring to his physique as nothing less than “repugnant,” the press described him as “short”, “a small fellah,” “starveling”, “a talking head,” “a sausage,” and so on. To have a more concrete idea of the wave of hatred that he raised, here is an example of the article that could be read on March 27, 1976 in Cuadernos para el Diálogo (a magazine founded and presided over by Ruiz Giménez, former ambassador to the Vatican and minister of Education under Franco, who went into opposition and became the leader of the left-wing Catholics allied with the Communists, and vice-president of the René Cassin Institute for Human Rights, based in Strasbourg). The article was written by Juan Benet:

I firmly believe that as long as there are people like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, concentration camps will and must remain. Perhaps they should be a little better guarded so that people like Solzhenitsyn, until they get a little education, cannot go out on the streets. But once the mistake of letting them out has been made, nothing seems to me more hygienic than for the Soviet entities (whose tastes and criteria regarding subversive Russian writers I often share) to find a way to shake off such a pest.

Not to be outdone, Eduardo Barrenechea, another specimen of a defender of the spirit of the Cheka and at the same time deputy editor of the magazine, insisted: “I don’t know if he would also add in Russian a little ‘Heil Hitler!’”

In France, the evening paper Le Monde, a sort of French equivalent of El Pais (self-proclaimed “newspaper of reference,” but nicknamed, with a sense of humor, L’Immonde (The Repugnant) by President Charles de Gaulle), shamefully entitled an article, dated March 23, “Solzhenitsyn thinks that Spaniards live in the most absolute freedom,” falsely attributing to him a statement he had never uttered. In short, Solzhenitsyn, speaking of what he had been able to observe, concluded only that, in comparison with the repressive Soviet system, the Spanish system was incomparably more liberal.

But the real reason for this deluge of insults in the twilight of Francoism lay elsewhere. The Russian writer’s uncompromising criticism of communism and its socialist-Marxist allies was deemed unacceptable. He had committed an unforgivable crime by asking the fundamental question, a veritable historiographical taboo: is this ideology intrinsically evil? And he answered bluntly: yes, calling for the rejection of any complicity with its representatives. In short, he demonstrated that the Soviet concentration camp system was not the fruit of Stalinist will alone, but that it was already germinating in the Leninist and Marxist beginnings. Obviously, this was too much in the eyes of communists and other nostalgic supporters of the Popular Fronts of the interwar period.

Thirty years later, the Communists and their fellow travelers, more or less well disguised as “lifelong democrats,” would take up the antiphon so dear to them against the “reactionary,” the “tsarist,” the “professional anti-communist.” Even the literary qualities of this highly talented writer were criticized and denigrated by them. On the occasion of Solzhenitsyn’s death in 2008, the Frenchman Jean-Luc Mélenchon, ex-Trotskyite, ex-Socialist minister, senator and future founder of France Insoumise (a kind of Hexagonian Podemos), known for his fanaticism and sectarian blindness, expressed his hatred without the slightest restraint: “The apology of Solzhenitsyn, ‘great thinker of democracy against Stalinism,’ hurts my heart because I think of all those unfortunate people who, from the very first hour, led their struggle without being stuffed with honors, gilded trinkets, residences, protections of all kinds, as Solzhenitsyn was given, simply because he was right-wing,” and again, “Solzhenitsyn was an absurd, pontificating, macho, homophobic, backward-looking dullard, full of nostalgic bigotry for the great feudal and religious Russia. He was a useful parrot of Western propaganda.” We cannot help but paraphrase screenwriter Michel Audiard’s legendary line: “If all the jerks were put into orbit, Mélenchon would not stop spinning.”

In 2023, we are, alas, still there. The prestigious Russian writer, when he is not deliberately forgotten, is constantly reviled by Chekist minds. He is also vilified by a number of liberal and social-democratic journalists and political leaders, who cannot forgive him for his criticism of the decadent West in his Harvard speech (“The Decline of Courage,” 1978), let alone for having been awarded one of the highest official honors by Putin in 2007, and who described by him as a “major historian,” the first to have reported “one of the tragedies of the Soviet period.” Stupidity and sectarianism are certainly diseases that claim more victims than any pandemic!

But despite his many adversaries and enemies, Solzhenitsyn is now universally recognized as one of the greatest writers of his time, and The Gulag Archipelago is considered one of the major works of the 20th century. But who really was Solzhenitsyn, and why did The Archipelago have such an impact in the West?

From Obscure “homo sovieticus” to Most Famous Anti-Totalitarian Dissident

Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn was born on December 11, 1918, in a Caucasian town on the edge of southern Russia. Fatherless from birth, young Alexander was raised alone by his mother. A year earlier, two successive coups d’état (later described as “revolutions”) had swept away the imperial regime in Petrograd, making way for the Bolshevik dictatorship. In 1924, Solzhenitsyn’s mother moved to Rostov-on-Don, on the shores of the Black Sea. It was here that Alexander Isayevich grew up, and in 1936 entered the city’s University of Physics and Mathematics.

Like all young people of his generation, he joined the Communist Youth movement at an early age. His mother had taken him to church from time to time, but it was soon banned and closed. Her son, a victim of Communist propaganda, became a convinced Marxist socialist for almost twenty years. After becoming a secondary school teacher, he was mobilized in 1941 when the USSR, initially allied with National Socialist Germany, was invaded and forced to join the Second World War. Solzhenitsyn was soon commissioned an officer and awarded the Order of the Red Star for his bravery in battle. An unwavering Communist, he experienced first-hand the arbitrary arrests and harsh realities of the Communist concentration camps (1945-1953) before finally opening his eyes.

On February 9, 1945, the young Soviet captain was arrested in his colonel’s office on the Baltic coast, just before the German surrender. The military police had intercepted his correspondence with a childhood friend, in which he had had the misfortune to give his opinion on the country’s destiny, criticizing in veiled words Stalin’s policies.

Thrown into the jails of the Lubyanka, a sinister KGB interrogation center in Moscow, Solzhenitsyn was sentenced on July 27 to eight years in a “labor camp.” After two years of internment, he was transferred to a Sharashka, a prison for scientists, also in Moscow. Alexander Isayevich began to compose works clandestinely. In May 1948, he was sent to a forced-labor camp in Kazakhstan, where he worked as a foundryman and then as a mason. In 1953, he was sent to “perpetual relegation” in a village, again in Kazakhstan, where he resumed his teaching activities. Three years later, thanks to de-Stalinization, he was finally released and rehabilitated.

In October 1962, Solzhenitsyn published A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the story of the simple, humble prisoner, Shukhov, prisoner number CH-854, in a concentration and labor camp. This work, which appeared in the official literary journal Novy Mir the day after Stalin’s death (1962), was a huge success in the USSR For the first time, a literary work openly denounced the crimes of Stalinism. Of course, this book served the internal struggles of the Communist Party, but, much more importantly, it freed the speech of Russian intellectuals for the first time.

Soon, however, Solzhenitsyn was forced to continue his work underground. He gradually developed a more radical critique of the regime. He wanted to awaken consciences, defend human dignity, recall the importance of spiritual realities and unambiguously affirm the primacy of God. Individual happiness, he said, could not be the ultimate criterion of all morality. In October 1964, Solzhenitsyn began composing his best-known and most explosive work: The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956, An Experiment in Literary Investigation. It is a veritable literary monument that he intends to erect “in memory of all those tortured and murdered.”

His work was organized in secret, with the support of a clandestine network of very close friends. For years, Solzhenitsyn defied the Communist authorities. In his letter to the Writers’ Union (1967), he denounced the censorship and persecution to which he was subjected. In response, all means were used to stifle his voice. In 1968, he published The First Circle and Cancer Ward abroad. At the same time, he managed to grant a few interviews to the international press. In 1970, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. It became increasingly difficult to silence him. On August 30, 1973, a typist friend of his was found hanged in her home after having been tortured by the KGB, to whom she had given the hiding place of a copy of the manuscript of The Archipelago. Without further ado, Solzhenitsyn instructed a foreign friend to publish the work as soon as possible in the West. Photographed, microfilmed and smuggled from city to city, the manuscript eventually found its way to the West. The first volume was published in Russian by YMCA-Press in Paris on December 28, 1973, with the other two volumes to follow. They were translated into all the major languages, including French and English in 1974, and Spanish in 1976. No fewer than 10 million copies were sold worldwide.

An Intellectual, Popular and Political Revolution

It is no exaggeration to say that this book, which masterfully dissects the intrinsic mechanics of Soviet repression, made a powerful contribution to changing the course of history. It is a kind of ray of light that illuminates the turpitudes of the Soviet system. In itself, it is an intellectual, popular and political revolution.

On February 13, 1974, after an admirable intellectual resistance, without the slightest compromise or concession, the dissident writer was arrested at his home, stripped of his Soviet nationality and deported by special plane to West Germany. Solzhenitsyn went into exile in Switzerland and then the United States, where he devoted himself to writing The Red Wheel, an enormous 6,600-page fresco analyzing the origins of the Russian drama and unravelling its “knots” from August 1914 to April 1917. The Russian writer was highly critical of the Soviet communist system, but no less so of the West, which he considered cowardly and materialistic. To the astonishment and irritation of many, he was not afraid to debate and contradict the self-proclaimed pseudo-elites of Europe and America. A visionary, he warns Western states that believe they can impose their model on the whole world—they risk generating violent opposition if they do not respect the autonomy of other cultures.

In December 1988, the Russian intelligentsia met to celebrate the writer’s 70th birthday; two months later, they met again to commemorate the 15th anniversary of his expulsion. In June, Mikhail Gorbachev announced that he had authorized the publication of The Gulag Archipelago in the USSR. Its availability in Russian bookshops became a symbol of “glasnost.” The year 1990 was proclaimed “Solzhenitsyn Year” by the editor-in-chief of the Russian magazine Novy Mir. Colloquia were organized on his work, and all his writings were gradually published in Russia. Selected works were recommended for reading in schools.

Solzhenitsyn’s attachment to the “motherland,” to the identity of the Russian people, is a constant. That’s why he fiercely defended the “humiliated” who suffered under President Yeltsin’s savage “liberalization,” and denounced “the pirate state that hides under a democratic banner.” Banished, he never lost the conviction that one day he would return to Russia. This happened in 1994, after the dismantling of the Communist regimes in Europe and the USSR. Symbolically, the former convict chose to land in Magadan, in the far east of the country, on the Pacific coast, a stronghold of the Siberian Gulag. Then, for a month, he traveled from town to town, all the way to Moscow, where he met a Russian population fervent with admiration for the hero.

At the time of its publication in the West, The Gulag Archipelago did not provide the first review of the Soviet concentration and penitentiary system. In the 1920s, the edifying testimonies of many exiles were already known, in particular those of the hundreds of cultural and scientific personalities who were banished, expelled and threatened with being shot if they returned to the USSR at Lenin’s personal instigation. These intellectuals, many of them among the most prominent of the Russian intelligentsia, such as Sergei Bulgakov, Nikolai Berdyaev, Nikolay Lossky, Ivan Ilyin, Georges Florovsky, Semyon Frank or Pitirim Sorokin, were not hostile to the revolution as the GPU (the political police) claimed, but opposed Lenin’s extreme and violent line. In particular, they reproached Lenin, as well as the members of the Committee for Aid to the Hungry, for not having taken the necessary measures to stop the terrible famine of 1921-1922. Slander, defamation, silence or oblivion were the fate of these first victims of the Leninist purges who, no doubt because of their notoriety, escaped death in the concentration and forced labor camps created by Trotsky and Lenin in June and August 1918 to imprison “kulaks, priests, White Guards and other dubious elements.”

Already in 1935, Boris Souvarine had published his biography of Stalin (Stalin: A Critical Survey of Bolshevism), which dismantled “in the name of socialism and communism” the lies of Soviet “pseudo-communism.” In 1936, André Gide denounced in his book, Return from the USSR, the vices and defects of a system he had defended until then. As a consequence, the Friends of the Soviet Union declared him a traitor and agent of the Gestapo. Then, after the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), came the instructive testimonies of former communist political commissars such as Arthur Koestler or former members of the POUM, such as George Orwell. One of the main heads of Soviet military intelligence in Western Europe, Walter G. Krivitsky, who moved to the West in October 1937, also gave a particularly valuable account of the democratic fiction of the various Popular Fronts, of the Comintern’s action in the West and of its relations with the GPU. He was violently attacked by the American and European left in 1939, when he published two books on Stalin’s methods (In Stalin’s Secret Service and I Was Stalin’s Agent, 1940), and finally “committed suicide” (or was killed) in a Washington hotel in 1941. Ukrainian exile Victor Kravchenko’s best-seller, I Chose Freedom (1946), also gave rise in France to one of the most resounding post-war trials in 1949. The testimonies of communists who had fled to the West, and those of former international brigadists who had survived the war in Spain, came at a quick succession; but the reaction of the socialist-Marxist left was always the same: insults, shrugging of shoulders, skepticism and visceral hostility. As for the intellectuals of the non-Communist left, they were conspicuous by their absence. The manipulation of history by the communists and their fellow travelers was almost total for decades.

The manipulation continued, though only in part, when the bombshell that was The Gulag Archipelago exploded. The benevolence, indulgence, connivance and complicity of a large part of Western cultural and media circles towards Marxist socialism and communist abominations, a tradition that was already more than half a century old in the West, was began to crack. In the 1970s, the political-intellectual circumstances in the various Western countries were very different from those in Spain. Western intellectuals, already fairly disenchanted with the experiences of Marxist socialism, probably felt a mixture of guilt and fascination with Solzhenitsyn, who had risked his own life and that of his loved ones in the name of truth. At the same time, the Russian writer’s popular appeal and rapidly-acquired authority made it difficult for them not to relativize not only their historical certainties, but also their relationship with political power and freedom of expression. Solzhenitsyn’s work was clearly helping to demolish the “communist revolutionary catechism;” and for many opportunists it was high time to jump on the bandwagon.

In addition to the relatively favorable social context, it was undoubtedly the form of the book that made it such an immediate success. The strength of the story lies not only in the literary talent of its author, but also in the original form he chose. The Gulag Archipelago is not the umpteenth account of a camp survivor, but a genuine investigation, bringing together 227 testimonies put into perspective.

On the fiftieth anniversary of its publication, let us remember those moving and severe words of its author: “You have forgotten the meaning of freedom… it cannot be dissociated from its purpose, which is precisely the exaltation of man. It was the function of freedom to make possible the emergence of values. Freedom leads to virtue and heroism. You have forgotten this; time has corroded your notion of freedom because the freedom you have is nothing more than a caricature of the great freedom; a freedom without obligation and without responsibility that leads, at most, to the enjoyment of goods. No one is ready to die for it… You are not capable of sacrificing yourselves for this phantom of freedom, you simply compromise yourselves.”


Arnaud Imatz, a Basque-French political scientist and historian, holds a State Doctorate (DrE) in political science and is a correspondent-member of the Royal Academy of History (Spain), and a former international civil servant at OECDHe is a specialist in the Spanish Civil War, European populism, and the political struggles of the Right and the Left—all subjects on which he has written several books. He has also published numerous articles on the political thought of the founder and theoretician of the Falange, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, as well as the Liberal philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, and the Catholic traditionalist, Juan Donoso Cortés.


The Bible and Don Quixote

“God, source of inspiration of Don Quixote; the Bible, model of organizational structure of Don Quixote; and Catalina de Salazar y Palacios, love of the famous Manco and his source of human inspiration, are part of Don Quixote de la Mancha, by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra.”

The Bible, translated into 450 languages in full and more than 2000 in part, written by men and inspired by the majestic and mighty Lord God, is part of Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605 & 1615), which has been translated 1140 times into some 190 languages and dialects. It was written by the brilliant Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616), hero of the Battle of Lepanto (1571), exemplary slave in Algiers (1575-1580), and perpetual reader of the true riches of the Old and New Testaments, for whom Jesus Christ was “God and true man” (Don Quixote, II-XXVII), and for whom the wish about the Bible came true: “It is clear to me that there should be no nation or language where it is not translated” (Quixote, II-II).

Don Quixote contains 181,104 words, of which 22,939 are unique; and the infinite wisdom of the Word of God left traces in the soul of Miguel, who loved God and the Bible, guide of his life, for he evoked the Bible three times in the “Prologue” of the first part of Don Quixote, “the Divine Scripture,” and he made authentic display of his vast biblical knowledge throughout his works; he alluded to thirty biblical characters, dealt with 300 references to the Bible, and included countless allusions and reminiscences of the Holy Scripture.

The Bible, the Book of books, whose principal inspiration is God, and Don Quixote, a human jewel of incalculable magnitude; both books of varied readings—on the absolute truth and undeniable existence of God, the superlative role of God in human thought and life, the direct and indirect communication between God and man, and the transcendence of divine life in the human heart—both books love Humanity and speak to our hearts.

However, it is not my goal to compare the Bible and Don Quixote because man can never equal God, for the Bible is incomparable and unsurpassable, and God clearly proclaims it this way: “I am the first and the last, besides me, there is no God, who is like me? Let him arise and speak. Let him proclaim it and argue against me” (Isaiah, 44: 7).

Even Miguel criticizes the comparison between the human and the divine as follows: “nor has he any reason to preach to anyone, mixing the human with the divine, which is a kind of mixture of which no Christian understanding is to be clothed. He only has to take advantage of imitation in what he writes, and the more perfect it is, the better will be what he writes: (Q, I, “Prologue”).

I still want to make special emphasis, inter alia, that the precious treasure of the Bible and the precious treasure of Don Quixote, both works of inestimable value for Humanity, are concerned with ethics, morality and religion in the behavior of the human being, that is why the phrase: where is your treasure there is your heart, comes here like a ring to the finger.

Cervantes’ thoughts and words, in all his works, are influenced by God through the Holy Spirit, despite the fact that some “academics of excellence” completely reject his knowledge of the Bible, but continue to ask without hitting the mark: how to approach Don Quixote? What to do and where to start? What are the tips for reading Don Quixote? What is the challenge of reading it? Why is it so difficult to understand it? And how to read Don Quixote?

The answer is very simple, but it is essential to leave aside all myths, fantasies, and hypocrisies; that is, before approaching Don Quixote, the works of Cervantes, and those of the geniuses of Spanish Golden Age literature, one must first and unavoidably read the Bible, and then acquire a solid knowledge of the origin of Spanish literature up to the dissemination of the masterpiece of world literature, Don Quixote (1605 & 1615).

This is the only infallible way or the only golden key to easily read and understand Cervantes, Don Quixote, and the best literature in the world, which is Spanish literature—exemplary, majestic and superior to all, in essence, is that of the Golden Age—headed by the brilliant novel of the distinguished leader of universal literature, Miguel, lover of books, who always read, taught and loved the Holy Scripture, par excellence, and with which he identified himself during his life trajectory at all times.

Cervantes is fully aware of the value of the Bible, speaks of the truth in the Sacred Scripture, advises us to read it: “If… he wants to read books of exploits and chivalry, read in Sacred Scripture the ‘Book of Judges,’ and there he will find great truths and deeds as true as brave” (Q, I-XLIX), and confesses that “Holy Scripture… cannot lack an atom in truth” (Q, II-I), and eternalizes his biblical knowledge and the greatness of God’s love in his works.

Certainly, Miguel loved the Bible, book of the history of the world, of poetry, and of wisdom, in which, as an example, the Book of Psalms, the Book of Proverbs and the Song of Songs are sublime, despite the fact that some “scholars of excellence” left Miguel’s knowledge of the Holy Scripture in the dark without any compelling reason manifested in the masterpieces of the genius of universal literature.

In addition to this, I should add that the meritorious historian José Luis Abellán García-González affirms that “Don Quixote is the Spanish Bible” (Visiones del Quijote, 130). The meritorious professor Alfonso Ropero Berzosa writes that it is the “Bible of universal literature, which is illuminated by the Christian Bible, from which Cervantes extracts the idea of justice and freedom so human and so divine” (El Quijote y la Biblia, 10). The extraordinary historian Sabino de Diego Romero, President of the Cervantine Society of Esquivias, says of Catalina, in his magnificent work: Catalina, fuente de inspiración de Cervantes (Punto Rojo, 2015), says through the mouth of Don Quixote, “because blood is inherited, and virtue is acquired, and virtue alone is worth what blood is not worth” (Catalina…, 242). And the excellent writer Eduardo Aguirre Romero declares with greater precision that “in these uncertain times, Miguel de Cervantes still has much light to offer us” (“Si Cervantes levantara la cabeza,” Diario de León, 27-III-2022).

Therefore, the questions arise; should we read the Bible and Don Quixote compulsorily in universities and schools? What are the reasons for reading such works? The answer is, yes. The Bible, God’s wisdom, and Don Quixote, human wisdom, are my daily readings for beauty, wonder, power, wisdom, truth, and virtues, among many.

Indeed, the spirit of both works pierces the soul like the sharp two-edged sword or the sword of Achilles of Troy, and both works are for the people; they speak of love and lovelessness, of good and evil, of the beautiful and the noble; they are concerned with humanity; they penetrate our human hearts; and they teach us to love one another and become better people.

The Bible, the wonderful book, can be read every day; it only needs 11:59 minutes; and if you start it on January 1st, you will finish it on December 31st of the same year. Or, I recommend you to listen to the Bible published by the University of Navarra in audiobook format. Don Quixote, the Bible of Humanity, can be read daily; it only takes 4:43 minutes; and if you start it on January 1st, you will also finish it on December 31st of the same year; or you can listen to it on Cadena SER.

You will not regret reading day after day the glorious Bible and the ingenious nobleman Don Quixote. You will always discover something new. You will feed on the wisdom of God and the wisdom of the famous Manco de Lepanto, and you will be provided with infinite benefits. Read every day the Bible and Don Quixote de la Mancha!

Laus in Excelsis Deo.


Krzysztof Sliwa is a professor, writer for Galatea, a journal of the Sociedad Cervantina de Esquivias, Spain, and a specialist in the life and works of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and the Spanish Golden Age Literature, all subjects on which he has written several books. He has also published numerous articles and reviews in English, German, Spanish and Polish, and is the Corresponding Member of the Royal Academy of Cordoba and Toledo.


Featured: Don Quijote in der Studierstube lesend (Don Quixote in the Study Room, Reading), by Adolf Schrödter; painted in 1834.


Géza Ottlik’s A School at the Frontier: Out of Childhood and into History

Written in 1948, in a shattered Hungary, emerging from the war on the side of the defeated, School at the Frontier was not published until 1959, in a country whose satellization by the Soviets was now complete. Yet there are no references to the dramatic events of recent history in this melancholy work: Géza Ottlik, drawing largely on his own memories, describes the daily life of a group of students entering the first year of a military school in the 1920s. The institution, located near the newly established border separating Hungary and Austria, welcomed the country’s future elite.

In this enclosed, out-of-this-world universe, whose isolation evokes that of the young Hungarian nation in the middle of a continent with which it does not even share the origins of its language, children are preparing to become men. The rigor of instruction, the quasi-Kafkaesque discipline and the constant violence imposed on these still carefree spirits are designed to harden them. If the end of childhood means a break with the sweetness of family life, a break with the carefreeness of rural life and a confrontation with the brutal industrial world of war, it is because Hungary itself has embarked on a transformation that should enable it to catch up with its supposed lag. More than a metaphor for the advent of the twentieth century in a Central Europe brutally roused from its torpor, the fate of these children heralds the disaster to come.

In their own way, each of the young students embodies a figure of the Hungarian, a posture in the face of history and existence. Czako, whose indolence and phlegm in the face of vexations evoke the detachment of the artist or nomad; Medve, combative but naive, recalls the political activist who is revolted by the abuse of power, but whose illusions deprive him of clear-sightedness; Öttzvényi, attached to procedures, rejecting iniquity and concerned with respect for justice, appears as an allegory of the law. The tragic fate that awaits Öttzvényi, guilty of having reported an unjust punishment for the first time in the school’s history, is a reminder that when times get tough, the law can do no more. In this military institution, as in the upcoming dictatorial Hungary, force supersedes law, and authority takes the place of justice.

Told through the memories of a now-adult narrator, this harrowing school year allows us to appreciate, step by step, the slow march of free spirits called upon to see their moral judgment diluted by the strict observance of arbitrary principles. These rules, sometimes tyrannical, often absurd, need no legitimacy. They do not even need rationality. Their existence is their only justification, and is enough to compel compliance: “No one was trying to get us to admit that the aim of the stretching exercises was physical culture; it was simply to get us to start the day, every morning at dawn, with a half-hour bullying session.”

Beyond the Bildungsroman

The precision of the narrative and the meticulous style with which Géza Ottlik, without ever revealing the key to their real meaning, spins out the events that mark this long year, distinguish School at the Frontier from the classic Bildungsroman to which it has often been likened. Psychological developments are rare. Analysis is absent. Only the details of a dull, repetitive daily life allow us, through their subtle and slow alteration over time, to understand the depth of the changes taking place in these young boys. Less masterful than Musil’s The Confusions of Young Törless, more austere than the works of Herman Hesse, School at the Frontier nevertheless manages to depict the fate of this sacrificed European generation with the same cruelty.

Even more so than the fact that introspective reflection is replaced by bare facts, it is the work’s pessimism that sets it radically apart from the Bildungsroman established by the German-language authors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In Musil, Mann and Hesse, leaving childhood involves its share of drama and wounds, which are the price to pay for true freedom. The post-romantic critique of the triumphant rationality of the Enlightenment remains no less reasonable: if the darkness of ignorance cannot be totally dispelled, it remains necessary to confront it and recognize one’s own imperfection, with the aim of surpassing oneself.

In Ottlik’s work, the pain of coming of age is not compensated for. Illusions dispelled and naiveté lost are replaced only by bitterness and resignation. The world for which the military school prepares its pupils is neither more rational nor more beautiful than the school itself. The same absurdity and violence prevail: growing up means accepting one’s chains and one’s condition: “Among the countless things we held dear, some were reduced to nothing more or less quickly, disintegrated or altered,” observes the narrator. As for the “little moments of pleasure” that endure for better or for worse, from a stay in the infirmary where books can be obtained, to a game of soccer played between two exercises, their brevity and uselessness ultimately rob them of all flavor. They are the last childlike respites the condemned man allows himself to live.

A Tragic Sense of History

In fact, as adults, the narrator and his friend Medve look back on their first year with pain. The vexations they endured have left scars perhaps deeper than the war itself. The sense of waste is heightened by the idea that it was all for nothing, and that there was no justice. The most perfidious of their comrades went on to brilliant careers as officers, or became half-robots. The weakest continued to suffer the ravages of life, even after renouncing their military careers. Once again, history imposes itself as a tragedy. Life kept its disappointing promises. The war, for which they had been prepared, took place. Everything that happened was already there, in germ, in the mind of a child and in the destiny of a country.

As the school year progresses, and in the face of the implacability of History, a question as absurd as it is obvious gradually emerges: what is the point of time passing? Another Hungarian writer, László Krasznahorkai, seems to reply in the opening line of Melancholy of Resistance: “It passes without passing. Like adults whose choices are merely repetitions of childhood echoes, like peoples condemned to reproduce the same acts from generation to generation, schoolchildren “grope blindly in a duration that has… lost its true consistency, and sometimes it [seems to them] to be trampling on, sometimes the events of a recent past seem extremely distant.”

Reflecting the cyclical vision of history so dear to Central and Eastern European literature, this pessimism reminds us that the past haunts the present and determines the future, on the scale of human life as well as major events. For the Hungarian society of the 1960s, which soon ranked School at the Frontier among the great classics of its national literature, this was no doubt self-evident. In many ways, the fate of these schoolchildren repeated the dramas of the defunct Kingdom of Hungary, just as much as they foreshadowed the misfortunes of the Communist dictatorship—with which Gézla Ottlik maintained a distance that, in the context of the Kadar years, was enough to pass for disapproval.


Alexis Bétemps is a Parisian Germanophile and deputy editor-in-chief of PHILITT, through whose courtesy this article appears.


Featured: Mátyás Hunyadi Military School in Kőszeg, in 1926. Géza Ottlik is in the back row, second from the left.


The Longer the Wait… Krogold: Triple Celinian Myth

With the publication of La Volonté du Roi Krogold (The Will of Krogold the King), Gallimard has brought Céline’s unpublished works to a close, putting an end to almost ninety years of uncertainty about the adventures of this legendary ruler. This will satisfy Céline aficionados first and foremost, while the uninitiated will find it a little-used gateway. If it is not easy to squeeze through, it nevertheless opens up new and unexpected reading perspectives.

Ecce Krogold! The famous Nordic king that Céline fans have been dreaming of since May 1936, when he made his appearance in Mort à crédit (Death on Credit), the second high point of a prolific body of work that is far more eclectic than the hasty reduction to the author’s regrettable (and condemnable!) ideological blunders generally suggests. Far from being part of the contemporary realist fictions that continue to make Céline so successful, King Krogold is an original figure with a doubly mythical aura, firstly, because the story of which he is the central character draws on a number of legends, episodes and memories, including the Arthurian cycle, the biography of François Villon, the writings of Rabelais and that mythical medieval figure from Breton legend, the Bard with the gouged-out eyes, imprisoned for standing up to Christianization.

The mythical brilliance of Krogold the king, then, manifests itself in the improbability, long persistent, of seizing concretely and in a palpable, “haptic” way an epic which has become, over the decades, as legendary as the collection of a few scraps of narratives that, in spite of everything, have come down to us.

Krogold vs. Gwendor

A reminder: From the moment Céline left his Montmartre apartment for Copenhagen, for fear of paying the price for the political upheaval in France in the wake of Operation Neptune, he never ceased to deplore, with the vehemence often characteristic of his writings since Mea culpa (1936), the theft (or incineration, as the case may be) of what he himself, in a letter to his faithful secretary, Marie Canavaggia, described as “a legend from the operatic Middle Ages.” We need only reread his two great post-war texts, Féerie pour une autre fois (Enchatment for Another Time) and D’un Château l’autre (From one Castle to Another), to be convinced.

The literary merit of Krogold seemed rather light, however: “I was disappointed to read it again. My romance hadn’t stood the test of time,” says the Ferdinand of Mort à credit, and judging by the rejection Céline received from his publisher Robert Denoël in 1933. Yet Denoël had not hesitated to publish L’Église (The Church), a five-act comedy of equally fragile merit, the first version of which had been rejected by Gallimard in 1927, just eleven months after the release of Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night). Literary choice or commercial calculation? In any case, important fragments of the legend were incorporated into the narrative of Mort à crédit, in whose pages King Krogold now runs like a weak, if stubborn, thread. It is as if Céline had sought to tacitly thumb his nose at his publisher.

Despite Ferdinand’s repeated efforts to provide a detailed account, the legend’s developing plot remains rather opaque. However, this has not prevented Celinian scholars, such as the American Erika Ostrovsky, from seeking to unravel the mystery behind it. In 1972, in her contribution to Cahiers de L’Herne, devoted to Céline, Ostrovsky noted that while the legend’s known beginning, the deadly confrontation between King Krogold, “mighty and damned monarch of all the marches of Tierlande” and the felon Gwendor, “grand margrave of the Scythians, Prince of Christiania” (and very secret fiancé of Wanda, Krogold’s only daughter) is “nothing out of the ordinary;” so much so that it “could almost pass for a pastiche of epic novels,” but it is special in that, on a more abstract level, it puts into perspective the defeat of the poetic (of which Gwendor is the embodiment) in the face of the degradation of everyday life, embodied by Krogold; the latter presented by Ostrovsky as an “executioner.”

Royal Magnanimity, Poetic Vagabondage

Although the idea of an antagonism between poetry and daily life is resistant to over-hasty expeditions, the development proposed by Ostrovsky half a century ago now requires nuance and even revision, particularly in the contortionist reading she gives King Krogold. This reassessment is all the more necessary given that, thanks to the recent publication by Gallimard of rediscovered pages, Céline enthusiasts and others can now look at a whole series of scenes and tableaux, differently elaborated, The common theme is the equipment of the legendary King Krogold (there is no need to go back over the incredible circumstances which, in the summer of 2021, saw the reappearance of the famous Céline manuscripts, stolen during the Liberation and thought to be lost forever, as well as the medico-judicial soap opera which has been making keyboards clack ever since).

First observation: the material of Le Roi Krogold gave birth to two distinct texts under Céline’s pen, La Volonté du Roi Krogold (a manuscript found in 1939/40) and La Légende du Roi René (an earlier version based on a typescript dated 1933/34). The former is presented by the collection’s editor, Véronique [Robert-] Chovin, as a rewrite of the latter. The numerous thematic parallels that emerge from one plot to the next support this assertion.

Second observation: the elements on which these two versions are based take off from very different starting points. One is based on the defeat of Prince Gwendor’s army by the victorious troops of King Krogold. Impaled by an enemy spear, Gwendor faces death from which, in a classic dialogue, he vainly seeks to obtain “one day… two days…” of reprieve. When the inhabitants of Christianie learn of the defeat of their protector Gwendor and the imminent arrival of King Krogold, they decide, in order to appease the latter’s a priori devastating grudges, not to prostrate themselves before the victor and offer him the city’s treasures, as might be expected, but instead to meet him by—dancing. This unusual stratagem had once saved the city from the advancing regiments of the Great Turk. Given the historical context of the writing, it is obviously tempting to read the advance of these armed troops as an allusion to the invasions (sometimes camouflaged as annexation) carried out by the Wehrmacht.

Alas! King Krogold is no connoisseur of dance. Indeed, he puts the harmless “dancers of the rigodon” to the sword. And yet, once he has entered the city, he heads straight for the cathedral and, while keeping his foot in the stirrup, throws his sword over a huge, panic-stricken crowd that has taken refuge under the nave’s vaults, “right up to the altar step.” This gesture of almost cinematic royal indulgence is greeted by jubilant singing, thanksgiving and even the appearance of an angel expressly sent down from heaven. Thus closes this first narrative, with its chivalric, popular and Christian overtones.

It is joined by another; this time centered on the wanderings of a trouvère, named Thibaut in René but Tébaut in Krogold. This vagabond poet with not-so-Catholic impulses seeks to join the victorious king (Krogold or René, respectively) in the North, to accompany him on his crusade. His itinerary takes him from Charente to Brittany, and in particular to Rennes, where—depending on the version of the legend—he is either about to be thrown into prison after narrowly escaping lynching by an excited mob (Krogold), or to stop off at the brothel where he casually abuses a prostitute (René). In both versions of the legend, however, he becomes the murderer of Prosecutor Morvan, president of the parliament of Brittany and father of Joad, Thibaut/Tébaut’s traveling companion secretly in love with Wanda, the king’s daughter. It is good to set up these triangles of conflict from the outset.

The Underpinnings of a Work

Make no mistake, however: Krogold, far from being an entertaining fabliau, is probably Céline’s most complicated text; René is a sort of first draft written in a French that is, if not academic, at least linguistically more accessible. In fact, these are pages not finalized by the author, with all that this implies of doubles, repetitions, unfinished business, which all very quickly causes a feeling of saturation, but also fatigue. At the same time, these pages are undoubtedly the most interesting and richest among the bundles of manuscripts found.

On the one hand, because together with the snippets of the legend inserted in Guerre (War) and Londres (London), (Gallimard, 2022), the other two recently exhumed unpublished works, they allow us to measure the important weight that throughout the 1930s, Céline gave to the possibility of giving birth to a medieval fantasy legend. That Krogold the King cannot be reduced to a unifying element of Mort à crédit, that he is much more than a mere vanishing point for Céline’s post-war rantings, constantly raising the specter of spoliation, which we now know were not completely aberrant, The major merit of this collection, published by Gallimard under the full title of La Volonté du Roi Krogold, followed by La Légende du Roi René, is that it does indeed create a coherent whole, the hitherto unexploited underbelly of a work that has been widely commented on for almost ninety years.

One of the things we need to look at is how this legend relates to Céline’s polemical writings. After all, the date chosen for the recovered manuscript is 1939/40. In the chronology of Céline’s publications, this corresponds to the period between the publication of L’École des cadavres (School for Corpses), (November 1938) and the release of Les Beaux Draps (The Fine Sheets), (February 1941). But Bagatelles pour un massacre (Trifles for a Massacre), published in December 1937, already invokes the Middle Ages, presenting ballet librettos populated by legendary characters and deliberately drawing on medieval imaginary.

We should also take a closer look at the legend’s many references to Christianity and its key concepts of blasphemy, sin, repentance, mercy and forgiveness, practices whose density is just as unusual here, as the invocation of a united Christianity is absent from the rest of the work—apart from Mea culpa.

“I am Celt”

On the other hand, it is undoubtedly in the linguistic contributions that the primary interest of the recovered pages lies. The few journalistic accounts published to date have made this clear. In the April 27 issue of La Croix, Fabienne Lemahieu writes of a “medieval Nordic tale with accents of Old French;” Alexis Brocas in the May issue of Lire/Magazine littéraire points to a “cousinly relationship between Céline’s language and that of the medieval Rabelais and Villon;” and David Fontaine in the May 10 issue of Le Canard enchaîné describes the Céline of Krogold as an “alchemist of style, [who] intends to resurrect medieval French.”

A single passage illustrates these observations: “The Queen in her finest attire, followed by her ladies and pages, slowly approached and descended the long marble steps. ‘Sir Knight, what would you have us give you?’ ‘Victory! Victory!’ he shouted ever louder, raising his hand to his chest to show his pure heart. ‘Victory? Victory? That it shall be [quickly]! But is not the King wounded? I had a sad dream… a fearful reverie yester night…’ ‘Nothing betides the King, my lady! Nothing betides the King! Apart from a mere wheal, a niggling scuff that his majesty little heeds.’ ‘You tell me so much, Sir Knight!’…’Excelras has won my wager!’”

While work on language is obviously one of the major constants in Céline’s work, his interest in pre-classical turns of phrase in this excerpt is not only in keeping with his well-known abomination of so-called academic French, but also reflects a more assertive approach to a linguistic (and hence literary) genealogy that emphasizes the Celtic heritage of the French language. At the expense of the Greek and Latin legacies advocated by the codifiers of classical French. It would probably be instructive to reread André Thérive’s Libre histoire de la langue française (Stock, 1954) to grasp the full ideological dimension behind this artistic approach.

“The intoxication of this existence must one day cease…”

Last but not least, Céline devotees will find it hard to pass up this collection which, in addition to the two versions of the legend, includes a rich appendix of all the passages in the work that can be associated, in one way or another, with the legend of Krogold the King: from Mort à crédit to D’un Château l’autre, via Guerre, Londres and Féerie pour une autre fois. A contextualizing essay by archivist and historian Alban Cerisier provides a more concrete account of the forces expressed in these two medievalist narratives. Although we are unaware of the legend’s “incompleteness,” “each scene offers, with the author’s ironic finesse and great humor, a variation on man’s relationship with his finitude.”

The aforementioned mythical dimension of the Krogold legend is further enhanced by the fact that it has remained incomplete and fragmentary, and that its material has somehow resisted literary form. But is not this a guarantee of its “legitimacy?” After all, how many medieval legends have come down to us without gaps?


Maxim Görke teaches in the German Department, at the University of Strasbourg.


Featured: King William I, folio 33 of Liber legum antiquorum regum, British Library, Cotton MS Claudius D. II, 14th century. [This article appears through the kind courtesy of PHILITT.]


The Four Reformers

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), the famed Scottish writer, in his leisure hours also turned out some remarkablle fables. One of them, The Four Reformers, speaks to our own era rather precisely. It is difficult to say when it was written, but likely before 1888. His fables were collected and published postumously, in 1896.

IX. The Four Reformers

Four reformers met under a bramble bush. They were all agreed the world must be changed. “We must abolish property,” said one.

“We must abolish marriage,” said the second.

“We must abolish God,” said the third.

“I wish we could abolish work,” said the fourth.

“Do not let us get beyond practical politics,” said the first. “The first thing is to reduce men to a common level.”

“The first thing,” said the second, “is to give freedom to the sexes.”

“The first thing,” said the third, “is to find out how to do it.”

“The first step,” said the first, “is to abolish the Bible.”

“The first thing,” said the second, “is to abolish the laws.”

“The first thing,” said the third, “is to abolish mankind.”


Featured: Four Men at a Cafe, by Yiannis Tsaroychis; painted in 1927.