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The Vatican Cellars

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André Gide, The Vatican Cellars [Paris; 1914]

At the exact midpoint between Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and Camus' The Stranger, except tonally it's pitched as an ironic farce, or a black comedy, rather than an existential tract. I kept seeing glimpses of studio auteurs like Hitchcock, Lubitsch, Wilder, or Welles in the poker-faced treatment of existential absurdity, and I wouldn't be surprised if they were all familiar with Gide's novel. Although this Vintage edition was published in 2003, the translation is the same as the one that Knopf published in 1925 under the title The Vatican Cellars, which is a literal rendering of the French title. (I suppose since the circa-1890s conspiracy theory that the Pope was being imprisoned in a castle that communicated with the Vatican by an underground tunnel is no longer a living memory, the title no longer has the same resonance.)

This is supposedly Gide at his most frivolous; his major works, and landmarks in gay literature, are The Immoralist and The Counterfeiters; since there's only a glancing reference to homosexual desire here, it's not as much in the canon, but the themes of impulsive (criminal) behavior, of carrying a secret self around within one, of rapid conversions between blasphemy and piety and back again, are, though treated with a certain ironic distance, still resonant. I laughed out loud several times while reading this novel, which is difficult to get me to do, which is a tribute not only to Gide's masterful handling of situation and character, but also to the translator's judicious treatment of the language: my preference for earlier translations as being closer to the historical spirit of the text paid off here.

October 21, 2017