By Neville Bray brooke
EXCEPT on the Continent, and there mainly in Germany and Austria, Gertrud von le Fort has never caught the popular imagination: even the award of the Gottfried Keller prize at the end of 1952 did little more than to evoke both the most cursory and pedestrian comment in the English and American Press.
Yet this cannot be put down to any lack of trying on the part of her American and English admirers. A translation of her books was begun in the Thirties, but was abandoned, and, on the strength of the four volumes that were brought out, the failure to win through in another tongue can scarcely be attributed to her excellent translators. Nor at the time was the critics' reception niggardly: on the contrary, at a period when praise was far harder come by than it is now, her first historical novel, The Pope from the Ghetto (1930)*, was greeted by The Times Literary Supplement as "a piece of historical fiction of outstanding importance"—a judgment subsequently endorsed on both sides of the Atlantic.
Her failure, therefore, to win through to a new public seems only to be accounted for in terms of geo
graphical temperament. For, revered by a few, she has had the same fate in France, Italy and Spain, as she has had elsewhere in the West.
Of Hilgenot descent, Gcrtrud von le Fort was born in Minden in 1876. She went to Heidelberg University to study history and philosophy, where she was taught by the late Ernst Troeltsch, whose theological writings she edited in 1925.
The year previously she had published her Hymns to the Church and was herself received into the Church a few months later. Then in 1928 appeared her first novel, The Veil of Veronica. and two years later The Pope from tlw Ghetto.
Long before Bemanos and Mauriac had been translated into German, or Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene had come to grips with the problem of Grace, she had already stated many of their themes, so that her more recent writing has merely been an enlargement upon her early poetry and fiction. Yet on the universal level she has been quite dwarfed by Waugh and Greene. Bernanos and Mauriac, and it may be pertinent to ask why?
One reason, I have suggested, is geographical temperament. Her writing reminiscent of Klopstock, Meyer and Nietzsche, follows in a tradition which, apart from those of a philosophical and mystical disposition, has never had much popularity away from its fatherland.
But another and no less important reason is the fact that she is a woman : as far as Grace is concerned, differences of sex do not effect the supernatural findings of novelists, hut they do lead to different approaches to the problem and to different emphases. Ideally a novelist should be able to write as a man and a woman, and, though nearly all who practice the art attempt to do this by getting right inside their characters, the inevitable consequence of a fallen nature leads to a certain natural disproportion in their efforts. Aware of this. men will often write more carefully of their women characters, and vice versa.
Again, often the novelist (who is also a Christian) when a man, will attempt to show the workings of Grace by something concrete—a medal, for instance — whereas a woman is inclined to accentuate the years this side of twelve; to concentrate on childhood and its after effects. However, these are tendencies, not hard-and-fast assertions, and they come to mind reading through the Gertrud von le Fort canon. As a creative writer they underline both her power and weakness. For the natural feminine attraction which Gertrud von le Fort has for the childhood of her characters is increased further by her nationality.
At their best the Germans have always written with an eye on children: but at its worst this approach has led to some of them treating their readers as children so that sooner or later they have begun to look down upon them, to pity them; and from pity of this calibre to the doctrine of the superman is not a great step.
In the events occurring around her, Gertrud von le Fort saw plenty of such evidence in her own native country. Consequently it is not surprising to discover that in casting back for historical themes she should have chosen those which lent themselves to conversion—personal, religious and political; and in turn the outcome of those conversions is seen from a personal, religious and political angle.
Her stories run from the War of Investiture and the Reformation to the Thirty Years' War and the French Revolution : in the latter in The Song at the Scaffold (1931) the lives of a community of Carmelite nuns of Compiegne is examined, ending with their death at the guillotine in 1794t. and in The Pope front the Ghetto the author, speaking in the voice of a city-scribe, ecclesiastical letter-writer and recorder of Jewish tradition, examines the effect of the rich Jew Pierleonc's conversion ta Rome, the misery caused to Roman Jewry thereby, which, however, is later avenged by the raising of his son to be anti-Pope—Anacletus II.
The book concludes with Pierleone returning to the faith of Israel, while Anacletus brings about schism in the Church. Indeed so strongly in this central plot is the accent laid •on Pierleone's wife, her belief in the Jewish faith and Israel's God of Vengeance, that beside her the other figures in the twelfth-century canvas pale--the Frangipani and the Popes, Paschal, Urban, Honorius and Innocent.
The same kind of disproportion mars Die magdeburgisrhe If ochzeit (1939). Yet where this is a weakness in her historical pieces (her research
into detail is minute), paradoxically enough it strengthens her ordinary novels; but, here again, at another cost. Without a historical narrative to give her books a definite drive, the author in attempting to get inside each of her characters frequently brings their actions to a standstill : the result is a series of full-scale por traits whose interplay of motives is seen working all the time on the supernatural plane, but whose human relationships with each other remain static for long spells: the effect is jumpy.
In The Veil of Veronica—whose
sequel, Der Kranz der Engel, appeared in post-war Germany — attitudes towards the Church in the contemporary world are examined.
There is the grandmother, living in exile, near the Vatican whose memory of Germany is kept alive by her reading of the fatherland's poets; she is the good pagan. There is in the same household Jeanette, the trusting Catholic, with her firm belief that though God does not go against Nature, often He goes far beyond Nature, "and where His Grace is, there is always to be seen the working of a great miracle." There is Enzio, the budding Nazi, drunk with the past glories of Imperial Rome. who finds his own mystique in the streets behind the Pantheon with their dark shadows like forests and their heavy ornate baroque buildings.
Finally there is Veronica herself. Spiegelchen (little mirror), as she is nicknamed, reflects the lives of others, living in her own soul their dilemmas and quandaries and telling therefore not only the stories of their lives and souls. but also that other story which both individual and universal, exists in all men—the story of the soul and God.
Every author has one symbol
which he brings to the fore, just as every author to some extent tends to rewrite one book. With Gertrud von lc Fort in her prose and poetry, as well as in her essays—Die ewige Frau, Die Frau in der Zeit. Die zeitlose
Frau (1934)—that particular symbol is the idea of Grace as a Fountain. As she writes in a passage representative of her neo-classical style, with its strong insistence on symbolism : Sometimes [the fountain] sounded kindly and mysterious, . like the near assurance of some sovereign beatitude; at others it was darkly harassing, like a desire held hopelessly captive; or it sounded hollow, as from a great weariness, and almost as if it were at cross-purposes with itself; and there were times when it would frighten me with its violence.
Continually that Fountain plays. giving both a melody—sometimes gay, sometimes sad—and a pattern to all her words as proclaimers of the Word. As she sings out boldly in one of her hymns: "I have been without grace to you because of grace, and out of compassion I have been pitiless For where your inmost thirst would take you, the fountains of earth have ceased to flow. . . ."
• I only use English titles in the cases of books translated; in all other cases I keep to the original German.
-t In the winter of 1947-48 Bernimos freely adapted this novel into a film script. "Dialogues des Carmelites." It was published last rear in England under the title of "The Fearless Heart."