Part 1





 “Converts are a bother”, said Bernanos.


It is for this reason, and a few others, that I put off for so long the writing of this story. It is indeed hard to speak of one’s conversion without speaking of oneself, and even harder to speak of oneself without sounding complacent or falling into what was once properly called “irony”, that underhand way of shortchanging the reader’s judgment by making oneself out to be rather more full of faults than is strictly truthful. This would not matter were it not for the fact that the witness I bear is inseparable from the witness that I am, the credit of each dependent on that of the other, with the risk that the two may be jointly discounted.


Even so, I have come to the conclusion that a witness, however unworthy, who happens to learn the truth about some matter under trial, owes it to himself to speak that truth in the hope that it will win on its own merits the hearing that he cannot hope for on his own.



Now by an amazing chance it so happens that, in respect of the most stubborn of disputes, the most ancient of controversies, I know the truth. God exists.

I have met Him.


The meeting was unexpected – I could say it happened by chance were it not that chance has no part in events of this kind. It created the sort of astonishment a man might feel if he went round the corner of a road in Paris and saw before him, not the familiar square or crossroads but an unexpected and boundless ocean lapping at the doorsteps of the houses.


It was a moment of utter astonishment which is still with me. I have never got used to the existence of God.


At ten past five I went into a chapel in the Latin Quarter, looking for a friend. At a quarter past five I came out with a friendship that was not of this world.


I went in there as a sceptic and atheist of the extreme left, and with something more than scepticism, something more than atheism, namely, an indifference and an immersion in so much that had so little to do with God that I no longer even bothered to deny His existence. It seemed to me absolutely one of those things that had long since been relegated to the profit and loss account of man’s insecurity and ignorance.  I came out a few minutes later “Catholic, apostolic, Roman”, carried, uplifted, caught and borne forward on a tidal wave of inexhaustible joy.


I went in as a man of twenty. I came out as a child ready for baptism, staring wide-eyed at this inhabited heaven, this city that did not realize it was suspended in mid-air, these beings who in the full light of the sun appeared to walk in darkness, without noticing the colossal rent that had just been torn in the fabric of this world. My feelings, the inner landscape of my mind, the intellectual constructs within which I had hitherto felt so at ease no longer existed; even my habits had vanished and my tastes were transformed.


I have to concede that a conversion of this kind must, by its sheer unexpectedness, have something about it both shocking and unacceptable for contemporary minds that would much prefer the explorations of reason to any mystical thunderbolt and feel less and less inclined to bother with divine interventions in daily life. But however much I might like to put myself on easy terms with the spirit of the age, I cannot mark out the stages of a measured investigation when there was in fact an abrupt change. I cannot provide psychological reasons either immediate or remote for that change, since those reasons do not exist. I am unable to describe the path which led me to faith because I was on an entirely different path and thinking of something completely different when I fell into a sort of ambush. This book is not the story of how I found my way to Catholicism but of how I was going in a quite different direction and suddenly found myself there. This is not the story of an intellectual evolution but the account of a happening, something like a witness statement made after an accident.  If I think it necessary to give a moderately lengthy account of my childhood, it is not – I beg you to believe – because I want to set a particular value on my personal history but simply to establish that nothing prepared me for what actually happened. The divine charity can act gratuitously. And if I have to resign myself to speaking a great deal in the first person, it is because it is as clear to me as I hope it will be soon for you that I played no part in my own conversion.

But it is not enough to say all this, I have still to prove it. Here are the facts. 

My father’s village was the only one in France to have a synagogue but no church.

After Belfort you have a countryside of short cropped grass and fog, one of those territories of the East that are slow to welcome the sun; pale ghosts of past invasions lurk behind each clump of trees. The houses have tiled roofs like Alsatian caps pulled down over the eyes; they lean into the hillside to resist the wind.

Here and there can be seen the odd block of grey stone sunk into the clay of the fields; they are posts marking the old German frontier or perhaps a soldier’s grave. Here lies an Austrian officer with his helmet fastened to the granite, there Pegoud the airman, his metal dragonfly crushed at the edge of this little wood after a brief trajectory of glory and of flames.

Foussemagne, with four hundred inhabitants and the black lances of a patrol of pinetrees on the horizon, a claypit and a tile factory whose two uneven chimneys, a yearly rendezvous for storks, stood like two red lines on a stark Brueghel landscape.


Attracted by the liberal attitudes of the local lords of the manor, the counts of Reinach-Foussemagne, a considerable Jewish colony had, at the end of the Middle Ages, settled at the heart of the village.

This explained the presence, not far from the mairie, of a synagogue in pink sandstone, not much frequented in the intervals between great festivals, a vast building of indeterminate style with arched windows displaying glasswork of the kind appropriate to a bourgeois staircase.  It was haunted by the threadbare figure of the rabbi, unobtrusive, poor and married late in life to a lady even later, like humbly plaintive sparrows perched on the menorah, their penury a subject of their congregation’s affectionate and smiling comment, “ Rabbi, that’s no job for a Jew!”

Were our Jews practicing? Their religion seemed to be made up more of juridical and moral observances than of works of piety. The Sabbath rest was there to be observed and they observed it, together with the Mosaic prescriptions as to fasting and the preparation of food. They faithfully celebrated Passover, a mysterious feast whose ritual involved biscuits of unleavened bread, wonderfully white and, as it were, dotted with bubbles lightly browned in the heat of the oven. Once a year, clad in sheepskin, they would attend the synagogue to prepare for the fast of Yom Kippur by a night of prayers or religious standing about, a fast which on the following day occasionally brought us a furtive and famished visitor whom we would watch with amusement as they fiddled as if distracted with raisins or sugar lumps while chatting with unusual intensity about the weather. Were they believers? Certainly. For a Jew, to be a believer and to be a Jew are one and the same thing and he could not deny his God without denying his own self. But they never breathed a word about religion with us, red republicans of the deepest dye.

The two communities lived side by side without dissension, never encroaching on each other, and I must as a child have spent a large proportion of my holidays in this strangely assorted village without learning that there was, in the opinion of some, “a Jewish problem”.  The Christians had their feastdays which they would go off to celebrate in neighbouring villages, ones that had churches, and the Jews had theirs which fell on different dates.  The Christians rested on Sundays, the Jews on Saturdays, an arrangement that in principle ensured for everybody the advantages of an English working week. The Christians had their cemetery and the Jews had theirs, near Belfort; my grandmother is buried there.


There did exist a mental frontier dividing people but it was created by politics, not by religion. There were the “blacks”, regarded by the “reds” as the politically incorrect survivors of a bygone age. Black in the way of the countryside’s uniform for marriages and funerals, black like the soutanes of their priests, black like the night of the past from which somehow they had escaped; they voted right wing in the interests of big money, even though they themselves were for the most part as financially humble as ourselves.

 Full of respect for the order of society, they never dreamed of changing it, not even to make it better; they were content to obey and to defer. At least that is the impression they conveyed to us.

The first among the “reds” was my grand-father, a saddler by trade, who gave himself out to be a radical republican.  At that time and in that place to which socialism had not yet penetrated it was impossible to state more clearly that one was a revolutionary.  In the evening his workshop was the meeting place for republican peasants and workers in the tile factory; they would talk politics while he under the lamp went on cutting and stitching. Talking politics meant talking poverty.  The workers earned five to ten sous per hour and this earned some jealousy among peasants who found it hard to live off their few acres of difficult soil.  No social legislation protected the former, working ten or twelve hours a day without hope of escaping destitution; the latter depended on the fickleness of the seasons and could expect no help from anybody. This was the “Belle Epoque”.  The lord of the manor was no longer the Count of Reinach-Foussemagne whose properties had long since been broken up and sold off, but the owner of the tile works. He lived near his factory in a large detached house, built of brick and rather ugly

but which we village children thought as rich and imposing as Versailles.  We would imagine it full of enormous toys, laughter and light; nobody could possibly be unhappy there. But however bold we might normally be, we never dared get too close to it, and we would make our way quickly past its pointed wrought iron gates. It might be the house of happiness or it might be the house of the ogre, fatal to any left-wing Tom Thumb, and I was in dread of hearing, as I went by, the traditional invitation of grown-ups trying to be friendly: “Come in, we won’t eat you!”  


I never knew my grand-father.  Ever since his death my grand-mother reigned over our modest house of cob with the abrupt authority of a woman who had never lost her head save once when she fell in love, as a young lady from a Jewish family in easy circumstances, with the blue eyes of the simple home worker that my grandfather then was.  This union of a young heiress, however small her fortune, and a proletarian of Catholic origin, however remote his Catholicism, was a source of amazement to local Jews and Christians, for whom friendly relations never went as far as marriage.

On the severe countenance of the woman who, dressed invariably in black, ruled us

inflexibly and never expressed any tenderness save in the discretely roundabout form of

irony, there was nothing to recall that story of love. There was a propensity to mock that was characteristic of our family and perhaps of the region; the mockery was sometimes gentle, sometimes cynical or punitive. Thanks to it we lived with our feelings in a state of hibernation, any emotional impulse frozen before it got anywhere.

We were a very united family but, come the morning, we hardly dared to wish each other good day; the first one up, not wishing to hurt the late riser, would pretend not to notice his appearing, so that when we actually embraced each other, it was normally done without a word spoken, as if by chance or as if bumping into each other in a doorway. I used to look at my uncle huddled over his workbench in the shop that smelled so pleasantly of new leather, or at my aunt in the kitchen, kneading her pastry, and being quite unable to express our affection for each other, we ended up by not speaking at all. Since we never spoke, we had less and less to say; we lived in a state of secrecy devoid  of secrets.


After dinner, in winter, a few neighbours would come round to talk politics or to play a new game of cards. Its arrival must have been one of the great novelties of the post-war period, on a level with that of electricity in the countryside; I refer to belote, a democratic game in which the knave ranks above the king and queen who go to the last rank of the court cards. In belote the knave can trump the ace and the ten; his promotion was a preliminary assault, indirect but all the same significant, on the established social hierarchy.  We played with dog-eared cards which ended up smelling like damp cardboard. The butcher, a handsome man with a handle-bar moustache, would slam down his winning cards with a fist like a crusader’s, making the table jump. The cattle dealer, sitting astride his chair, would wedge his great belly against the back and send the spit from his everlasting quid of tobacco into a bucket of sawdust prudently pushed to beside him. His waistcoat and the distinction of his gilt watch chain gave one to understand that he was rich but in our village a man was rich if he wore a tie on weekdays without being a civil servant. In between deals he would offer analysis, correction, blame and advice, being one of those players who pay more attention to their partner’s game than to their own. During these utterances, gravely delivered and ignored by all, my uncle would roll a cigarette with grey tobacco, pass the edge of the paper beneath his lordly moustache, lodge the finished product behind his right ear like a clerk’s pencil and cut matters short by re-dealing the cards.  Beneath its florid china shade the lamp supposed to do the work of forty candles cast a pitiless light on the players, the workshop, the sheets of leather, the tangle of reins, the empty oval of the horse-collars, all those familiar persons and objects deprived by electricity of the indefinable extra character once added to them by the paraffin lamp, namely, their shadows. 

   The children (I had two cousins of my own age) watched proceedings with varying degrees of interest. The youngest had a feminine prettiness and would soon be off to the kitchen.  His elder brother would stick it out a bit longer and then we would be off upstairs to sleep in our Spartan bedroom; little icicles used sometimes to float on the water jug. I would slide quickly between sheets heavy with the cold, beneath the airy weight of the eiderdown puffed up like a vast feathery soufflé, concealing most of the room and half the ceiling. When I was by myself, I only felt truly at ease in pitch darkness; I could see nothing, of course, but then nobody could see me. It was at such moments that, with all lights out, the strangeness of the universe would sometimes call out to me from beyond the dark window, as the start not of a nightmare but of an adventure. Night would bring the return of the infinite and I would use it to escape from the solid outline of things and to wander I know not where, between earth and moon, my every sense alert, hoping to light upon some secret, who knows what, some dialogue between the blade of grass and the nebula.  I felt certain that all these worlds, mysteriously ordered, somehow complicit with each other, would at long last utter for me a word which would give me the key to the riddle. I moved in silence on my quest for a truth that was always just on the point of being revealed at the very moment when sleep would abruptly wipe away the symbols that night had written on its blackboard.


Winter appealed to me more than summer.  Work in the fields was suspended, nightfall and the cold would bring us back early to the fireside and give our snow-bound house the look of an inner life made up of damp wood, fine soup, quiet thoughts around the cast-iron stove to which we held out our frozen hands. It was also the time of festivals one after the other, the strangest of the year, the return of St Nicholas whom they called Santa Claus at the upper end of the village towards the old frontier; every year he would take on the role of paternal justice, his job being to reward the good and punish the wrongdoer (there never were any).   We knew about him from almanacs and postcards with a sparkle of hoarfrost on his coat that would leave specks on our fingers.

  On Christmas Eve, long after nightfall, the “blacks” in their Sunday best would go off to their funny rituals – that is the way we used to talk but it was without malice – carrying lanterns, talking more loudly than usual and appearing to be happy. We had no more understanding of those rituals than we did of Jewish religious observances, despite our family connections. We thought that both lots were wasting a great deal of time on singing to no purpose.

  The following day the far-off bells of villages round about would cast, as it were, a veil of ceremony over the dead countryside. The bells created no echo in us. But we with nowhere to go would likewise put on our Sunday best. My uncle would present us with things he had made, pretty little whips with a white lash, belts, satchels of green canvas reinforced with leather and designed to be worn on one’s back; as we ran on our way to school they made us look like miniature infantrymen in pursuit of knowledge as it fled.

  My aunt, a stalwart woman of Alsace with a gentle turn of mockery, would bake one cake after another in her super-heated kitchen stove. We would dine in the big room that was shut most of the time, and on the white table cloth reserved for grand occasions. But neither the sweet Alsatian wine nor the beer nor the raspberry liqueur could make the family more talkative. The meal was richer than usual and there was a pine tree draped with silver tinsel but they commemorated nothing. It was a Christmas with amnesia; it carried no religious memories and it celebrated nobody.


God did not exist. His image or rather the images that call to mind His existence or that of what might be called His offspring in history, the saints, the prophets, the great figures of the Bible, had no presence whatsoever in our house. Nobody spoke to us of Him. The fully committed Jews never said a word to us about their faith. Jews do not go in for propaganda; their religion is a family affair that is no concern of outsiders, even if they happen to be half-Jewish. But on the other hand our religious indifference made us tolerant and constituted for them a sort of guarantee: while we were “of the left” by virtue of our atheism, they “voted left” so as to enjoy their piety in peace whenever they felt inclined to it. They entered into our convictions in order the better to preserve their own, living the mysterious life of their community scattered for two thousand years but still retaining its identity, apportioned among the nations like a leaven which a heavy German dough would shortly try to smother once and for all, unchanged yet peculiarly adapted to change, faithful even in unbelief (for there were some open unbelievers who showed themselves stricter than others for the observances and promises of the Scriptures), capable of standing up to every sort of trial and, what is rarer, to every sort of success,

capable, in short, of understanding everything save what it is to be a Jew; but as to that, who can say what it means?   


As for the Christians of the village, who would have been able to instruct us, they too stayed silent, doubtless for reasons of discretion, perhaps to spare themselves our sarcasm. Their piety had no visible effects and apart from the extra supply of cakes that featured in the festivals saluted by bells in the misty distance, we had not the least idea of what it gave them.  Their every-day morality was more or less the same as ours, with the addition of one or two unusual virtues such as obedience and humility, which we considered grave defects; it differed also in this, that their actions seemed to be with a view to future reward or from fear of a future punishment, a mercenary mindset that we could not much respect. They did not know, as we had known ever since Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that original sin had been abolished by decree of philosophers and that man was naturally good.

They looked, rather, as if they thought man naturally bad. The Christians of those days had not yet discovered nature, the promises of science, the benevolent influence of liberty.  They moved cautiously through a thicket of prohibitions without daring to take stock of things and get in touch with the world. They gave us the impression of being afraid of life, frightened they might misuse it.

That left nature which under its other name, “creation”, might have been able to suggest to us the idea of a creator. But nature with its law that every life-form must feed on or feed another, nature driving the little fish into the maw of the big fish and the antelope into the claws of the lion, nature did not seem to obey the Gospel; moreover the kind of suspicion in which it was held by Catholics placed it firmly in our camp. Nature was unbelieving and as such our ally against believers.  If these had their “revealed truth” – as I was to learn much later – nature with its immense range of experiences and of scientific advances was our “revealable truth”.  We who were enfolded in it, all subject to the same risks and the same inequalities, we would save it together with ourselves by science and by progress which would one day manage to control its excesses and humanize its laws. If a God had, to our knowledge, existed, nature would nevertheless have kept us away from Him and drawn us to itself.   

But, as I have said, there was no God. The heavens were empty, the earth an assemblage of chemical elements combined into fantastic forms by the interplay of natural attractions and repulsions. The earth would soon be surrendering to us its ultimate secrets, one of which was the non-existence of God.

We were perfect atheists, numbered among those who no longer even ask themselves questions about their atheism. The last surviving militant anti-clericals who still preached against religion at public meetings seemed to us oddly touching, slightly ridiculous, somewhat as would historians laboriously challenging the historicity of “Little Red Riding Hood”. Their zeal had no other effect than to give a further inconsequential lease of life to a debate that reason had long since brought to a close.

The perfect atheist is not so much the person who denies the existence of God as the person for whom the question of God’s existence does not even arise.


Village life had two grand sources of entertainment, the first being the annual festivity that covered the muddy grass of the common with planks, paper decorations, an orchestra for public dancing and three stalls designed to fleece the simple-minded; the second was politics.  Election campaigns would put some warmth into the locality, a little excitement in left wing households (right wing households regarded politics as a kind of vice, admittedly enjoying by way of exception a dispensation granted by the hierarchy but nonetheless not the sort of thing to speak of in the presence of the children).  The men would disappear on Sundays and return home from the neighbouring villages very late, exhausted but full of themselves, just for the once in sparkling form and voluble with details of the ways in which they had done down the other side.

The right wing candidates had to put up with holding their public meetings at the mairie in the so-called “festival hall” that never saw a festival apart from the spectacle that they willy-nilly provided. Everyone of the left made it their business to prevent them speaking. My uncle and his cousin the blacksmith made a somewhat theatrical point by attending the meetings wearing their aprons of thick canvas or leather, thus giving the intruder to understand that the harsh conditions of a worker’s life made it impossible for them to change clothes, that they had snatched a brief moment from work, sacrificed their dinner time, not in order to listen to his speech but to hurl back the onslaught of reaction, a task performed occasionally without mercy. The most surprising candidate I ever saw confronting the opposition of this unwelcoming locality was called Tardieu, a notable personality of the Third Republic and a gifted speaker if allowed to speak. With his back to an iron pillar and surrounded by boisterous left-wingers who had crowded his supporters into one corner of the hall and who were calling down on him the lay equivalent of curses, he stood firm against the storm, of necessity silent but with a smile of bravado, fiddling distractedly with an over-long cigarette-holder which made him look like a sardonic Saint Sebastian smoking one of his arrows.  After thirty minutes he made

off, pursued by cat-calls, uninjured and pleased with himself; even if he had not been able to get in a single word, he had at least made his presence felt, which was the most that any right-wing candidate could hope for at Foussemagne.

Left-wing candidates did not often go to the mairie. They preferred the café with its noise and clouds of tobacco smoke, a symbolic evocation of industrial labour and the intangible future promised by ideology.  The right never attempted to prevent them from speaking; the right was already on the defensive. Tomorrow did not belong to the right; it represented tradition, reverence for ancestors, the past, all of them territories abandoned to the right by the left without resistance but from which thereafter any attempt to emerge was shouted down.


Once the elections were over and the left most often defeated, time resumed its march day by day, presided over by local virtues of which the most remarkable was fidelity. People of the East are faithful in the same way as one is either light-haired or dark.  Faithful in the first place to their countryside in which they can see all sorts of good features invisible to travelers anxious to get away from the draughts in this well-known

cross-roads of invasions.  Who was it who said that love is blind? Love alone has keen


eyes; it can see beauties where others can see nothing. The gaze of one who loves is invariably a gaze of wonder. That is how the man of Belfort comes to love his flat landscape.  A few small trees leaning over a river churned up by a storm, and he revels in all the joys of nature, all but ready to abandon that watchful control he normally keeps over his emotions. But he never does actually abandon it. He is of the race of that monumental lion carved by Bartholdi in the towering pink sandstone of its fortifications and, from the three German assaults it has withstood, he has taken on the mentality of a man perpetually under siege. His town is impregnable; so is he. There must exist in psychology  a Vauban complex.

  His fidelity to his land is in proportion to its bleakness. He is similarly faithful to his family, his friends, his trade, his house. He turns his habits into regulations and every element in his life takes on the character of an institution. To change location is a grave matter; to change an opinion is a military defeat.  The revolutionary milieu in which I grew up was seriously intent on changing the world but nobody would have dreamed of altering the position of a clock.  After the war, the house had to be rebuilt. A small shell had made short work of its ancient beams and cob walls.  My uncle insisted that it should be rebuilt exactly as before, with all the awkward features that had lasted nearly a hundred years. It would have hurt him a great deal to make good the defects of his house. It would have made him feel he was moving, a step all but inconceivable, analogous to a soldier abandoning his post. Intellectually, morally and, so far as possible, physically a man of the frontier does not change his garrison.  What looks like his rigidity is simply a rock-solid attachment to what destiny has allotted to him, and it is easy to understand that he gives little of himself since he never takes it back. And like most of my fellow-countrymen I would probably have kept till death all the ideas acquired in my youth if I had not been one day, as will be seen, brutally refuted by evidence.

While parents conducted their war against reaction, it was the Trojan war that engrossed the children.  At the age of nine I discovered the Iliad among those few books in the house that were not about politics. It became the enchanted dwelling of my childhood. I lived in it for years. It was a magic book, made of ivory and blue mosaic, in which the unchanging words drew strange light-filled power from their repetition in the space created by poetry; it was as if they were painted in some unknown substance.  For years and years I tried to put my hand on the secret of those works that retain a freshness untouched by the passing of centuries until at last I realized, probably long after everybody else, that time could not touch them because time had never entered into them.

There is no time in the Iliad or more precisely it is utterly subservient to the story. Between the moment when the spear leaves the hero’s hand and the moment when it pierces the enemy, there is room for a speech, a reply, a conference of interested divinities and an Olympian adjudication. Poetry has an absolute power over the movement of the stars, and the sun sets only when there is nothing more to be looked at on earth. When personages from Olympus intruded, my youthful unbelief was in no way taken aback. On the contrary, these intrusions were effected so naturally that there was no longer anything supernatural about them.  Moreover the obstinate attempt by these gods to conquer simple mortals had something pathetic about it, they wanted to make themselves human and for the most part succeeded only in becoming a bull or half a horse.

I disliked the gods who favoured the Trojans; they were bourgeois gods, like Ares the patron of military men or Aphrodite, a woman of the world with no good works to her name and thus doubly suspect.  Furthermore, their beauty created around itself every kind of sickness. Ares created rage, Phoebus spread the plague and Aphrodite I was not quite sure what. 

There was only one worker on all Olympus, Hephaestos, and he was on the side of the Greeks. That was enough to ensure that a child of the International would be too, and in any case I was in love with Athene who was not suggested by anyone to have had an affair with anybody. I would watch out for her interventions from one page to the next, disappointed if they were too long in coming. But by dint of reading and re-reading, I came to know my text so thoroughly that it was no problem to create a rendezvous.

My passion for Homer’s heroes I communicated to my two cousins and to a childhood friend, a person of loyalty and goodness whom I was one day lucky not to lose in the great massacre of Jews that cost him his father and his young sister. The countryside echoed with the sound of our wooden swords beating on our cardboard shields.  I cannot imagine why our families, who never let us dress up in uniform or play with toy soldiers, did not absolutely forbid our warlike games. It is true that we were all Greeks and in socialist mythology Greeks are of the left. Perhaps things would have been different if we had been Trojans.

I hardly need to say that I was not christened. As was customary in progressive circles, my parents jointly decided that I could at the age of twenty choose my religion for myself, assuming that contrary to every reasonable expectation I decided to have one. The decision was disinterested and gave every outward appearance of impartiality.  At the age of twenty a lad on the threshold of his majority is beginning to become his own man, to settle down in his ideas. It is in the spirit of democratic legality that he should be granted the right to work out his own philosophy.  Does he want to become a believer? Then let him believe.  But in truth the impatience and turbulence of this age is such that those who have been reared in the faith manage nowadays to lose it, before recovering it thirty or forty years later like a childhood sweetheart, all but forgotten, with whom one tries to remake one’s life.  Those who have not received it from the cradle have small hope of finding it on entering the barracks, but at all events such was the custom, and it has to be admitted that my parents, even if they had been better disposed towards religion, would have found it difficult to provide me with a belief that did not offend at least some of those around me. Would they have taken me to the church, the synagogue or the temple?

To the church in memory of a radical grandfather who had forgotten the way there if indeed he had every known it?  To the synagogue in order to please my grandmother Schwob? Or to the temple out of respect for the parents of my mother?  Because if on my father’s side one was of Jewish or of vaguely Catholic origin, on my mother’s side one was Protestant.

My mother’s home village had no church either. The only spire was that of the school, black and pointed in the Franche-Comte style, lifted up towards the clouds by the hill on which it stood, a hill with white stones showing here and there through the grass like the

grain of watercolour paper.  The waters of a trout stream, of a poplar-lined canal, of a broad river in which shimmered the reflection of an ancient tower in ruins, gave an extra dimension to the countryside and justified the charm of its official nomenclature: Colombier-Chatelot, in the district of Baume-les-Dames and the valley of the Doubs that in earlier times was written Doux.

That is where I was born. I should have come into the world at Belfort where my parents had settled but whereas nowadays women travel to the city when due to give birth, in those days they still took themselves off to the country so as to perform this natural operation as closely as possible to nature. Thus it happened that I was born on the banks of the trout-stream in a large square house surrounded by bee-hives and fruit trees, at the entrance to this village much better adapted than the other to children.  Small-scale local industry provided plenty to amuse them; a whining sawmill that from morning to nightfall churned out logs and turned beech trees into planks; a mill with little dams that held shoals of tiny fish, manoeuvring with the precision of English grenadiers but breaking their admirable formations at the slightest alarm; a sabot factory full of curls of white wood beautifully shaped, curved up at the end like a gondola for elegant ladies or the prow of a barge transporting goods across the countryside: the huge millstone of a cider-press under a lime tree twenty-five metres tall that had once been a Tree of Liberty, even though there is nothing less free than a tree and less exciting than a lime. 


Most of the village inhabitants were pietists with a minority of Lutherans and a few indifferentists whom Lutherans and pietists jointly regarded as pagans. Pietism is a sect without clergy or sacraments. If one of the initiates feels himself called to officiate, he will say the prayers and read the Scriptures to the community, assembled in a shed or barn. These believers, always ready with a scriptural reference and hardened to endure the unpopularity they earn with a rigorism of exceptional harshness, have sometimes seemed to me reproduced in American westerns, in the form of those Puritan pioneers lavish with Biblical quotations and invariably eager to obstruct the hero in a hurry with their chapter and verse that might look final but is never what the situation requires.  Our village masters of quotation were always ready to dispense their biblical allusions at the wrong moment, with a tone so confidently inappropriate that they too might have been thought post-synchronised.  Their preference was for the Old Testament, the testament of the strong, and their wives were often called Ruth or Esther. By dint of returning to the sources they had passed over the Gospels and headed for the origin of time, making their way through a sinful world that their taste for historical analogies peopled with Midianites and Philistines. The Lutherans did not much like them, by reason both of their numerical superiority and of the uncomfortable way they made the Lutherans feel themselves to be only half-reformed.

If at Foussemagne one was not rich, at Colombier-Chatelot one was poor. My grandparents, driven by lack of money from the square house at the water’s edge, occupied two rooms on the first floor of a terrace house stuck in the middle of a row of wattle and daub. The ground floor with its damp flagstones was home to an aged aunt, so wrapped up in bits and pieces of cloth that only her nose and the tips of her fingers were visible. She lived on water, the few vegetables she grew in her garden, and the crumbs from upstairs.  An open-work staircase, steep as a gangway, led to the principal room of our lodging; this was furnished with a wood-burning stove, a stoneware kitchen sink with no water, either hot or cold, a table covered with a stained oilcloth and a glass-fronted cupboard that I think I was never tempted to break into; its vast hold never contained more than a minute cargo of spices.

We slept in the other room, my grandfather in a bed with tall sides over which he would tumble every morning to perform the regulation gymnastics of his old profession as a gendarme: bending, stretching, rotating, shadow boxing, thanks to which he kept to the end of his life the upright figure of a young man. My grandmother used to sleep under the loft staircase, with myself at her feet, on a good woollen mattress.

I was sure to be the last one to get up but it always seemed pretty early to me when I heard from the nearby courtyard the clatter of scythes collected by the girls on their way to mow – there were as yet no expensive machines – and the click of reins being fastened to the horse collar, the short and hopeless attempt of the horse to escape the shafts.  I would run to the kitchen to drink a bowl of milk, then to the stream to splash a little water to my left eye and then my right.   I would then return home to sit on the broad window sill and watch the day, like a slow-paced lady in blue, passing by, touching nothing.



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