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André Gide: Les caves du Vatican (US: The Vatican Swindle; Lafcadio’s Adventures; UK: The Vatican Cellars)

The book opens with Anthime Armand-Dubois, atheist, freemason and scientist who is in Rome carrying out experiments on rats. He suffers from very painful sciatica. His wife and in-laws are Catholics and do not approve of his views. His young niece, however, on a visit, briefly moves him and he is so annoyed with himself at his reaction, that he throws his crutches at a statue of the Virgin Mary and damages the arm of the statue. The Virgin Mary appears to him in a dream that night and cures him. He, of course, abandons his previous way of life and becomes very pious. Meanwhile, his wife’s sister’s husband, Julius, a novelist, has just completed a not very well received (even by his father) biography of his father, the Count. His father, who is now dying, tells him to go and meet Lafcadio Wluiki who turns out to be his illegitimate brother. Lafcadio has been brought up by his mother, a rich courtesan, and her various lovers and is now a totally self-contained young man, strong in body and mind, but following only his own impulses. When the Count dies, he inherits a fortune and sets off on an adventure.

Amédée Fleurissoire, husband of the younger sister of the wives of Julius and Anthime, sets off to Rome when he learns of a plot against the Pope, with the real Pope having been replaced by an impostor. He is on a train in Italy when he meets Lafcadio, now rich, who takes an instant dislike to him and throws him out of the train for no reason. Julius, who had funded Anthime’s journey but has given up his faith as a result of Anthime’s poverty, since his conversion, is inspired to write a novel about the gratuitous act of his brother-in-law’s murder. Things get even more complicated when it turns out that Lafcadio’s schoolfriend, who set up Amédée in the first place, had seen the murder. Julius, meanwhile, having now realised that Amédée may well have been a martyr for the Pope, regains his faith. However, he tells Anthime of the plot. Anthime is so disgusted that he might have been beholden to a false Pope that he gives up his faith and regains his sciatica. Lafcadio plans to turn himself in.

Here we have the independent freethinker in Lafcadio who, of course, recalls Michel in L’immoraliste (The Immoralist). This is a perennial theme in French literature and we will see it with the acte gratuit of Camus and Sartre. That much of the action takes place within one (extended) family is indicative of Gide’s ambiguous view of the family. This is a fascinating novel, both tongue-in-cheek, at times, but also a serious look at religion and the acte gratuit.

Publishing history

First published 1914 by NRF
First published in English 1925 by Knopf