Book Notes: "The Innocents" by Gertrud von le Fort

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Newly translated into English for the first time, The Innocents presents four novellas by twentieth century German writer and Catholic convert Gertrud von le Fort. A prolific author of poetry, novels, and short stories, von le Fort was once nominated for a Nobel Prize, and received numerous other accolades both during her life and after her death. She is perhaps best known for The Song at the Scaffold, which inspired Francis Poulenc’s opera Dialgoues des Carmélites, and for her 1934 book The Eternal Woman that countered many modern feminist narratives. Von le Fort’s works are enjoying a well-deserved revival among English-speaking Catholics, as Ignatius is not the only U.S. publisher to release a new edition of her work this year.

The Innocents is both haunting and haunted, its pages bedeviled by apparitions as well as the ghosts of the characters’ sins. Stylistically, it takes me back to the Gothic short stories of the early nineteenth century, to the days when a mysterious noise in the attic might be either a ghoul or a mad old relative, it did not matter which, as long rattle of the chains chilled the reader’s spine. But unlike those old melodramatic tales, von le Fort uses her Gothic backdrops to probe the depths of human suffering and Christian redemption.

The Innocents

The first, eponymous story, is The Innocents, set in Germany shortly after World War II. The narrator is a young boy named Heini whose father, Karl, was killed in the war. His mother is now being courted by her brother-in-law, Eberhard, an unloving man from whom Heini wants to save her at all costs. The truth of both Karl’s and Eberhard’s actions in the war threatens to tear the family apart, even while more mysterious threats surround them.

The trope of the innocent narrator, the child who filters the horrors of his society to the reader through naïve eyes, has been used effectively by countless authors such as Harper Lee and Flannery O’Connor, but for me, it did not quite work here. Heini is meant to be twelve years old, but his narrative voice feels much younger. There is also a very jarring switch in the narration near the end. Still, there is real depth in the way von le Fort approaches her characters, the brokenness of the mother and grandmother trying to hold the pieces of their lives together in a world shattered by evil—and where perhaps only evil can save them.

The Ostracized Woman begins in the town of Golzow in days before World War I, where Hussar troops are performing maneuvers as a picnic spectacle and no one is thinking of war. However, the bulk of the story centers on the narrator’s mysterious ancestor who was widowed in 1675, who has been erased from family records except for an empty picture frame still hanging in the ancient homestead, and her ghost that is said to sometimes appear. I had to do some digging to place the “ostracized woman’s” story during the Scanian War. The narrator carries that story with her through the years of trial of two World Wars. As her once-proud Prussian family is reduced to impoverished refugees, the story of her ancestor takes on new and unexpected shades of meaning. Here, unfettered by the childish narrator, von le Fort shows the power of her prose and gives a wonderful reflection on mercy.

Both The Last Meeting and The Tower of Constance are fictional depictions of the real mistresses of the kings of France. The Last Meeting imagines an interview between the Marquise de Montespan and Louise de La Vallière, who is now a Carmelite nun. Both women had been mistresses to the Sun King, Louis XIV, with the marquise having replaced de la Vallière. Herself now cast off, Montespan comes to La Vallière seeking to torment her rival, but also perhaps to win forgiveness for far more terrible crimes than stealing the king’s affections. The Tower of Constance follows the Prince of Beauvau, husband of Louis XV’s mistress “Reinette” (better known to history as Madame de Pompadour). The Prince is governor of the district of Aigues-Mortes, where he goes to view a tower filled with women imprisoned for their Huguenot heresies. Overwhelmed by the squalid conditions, the decades that many of these women have served with no hope of release, and especially by their steadfast determination to cling to their faith despite all punishments, he releases them all—and then must appeal to the king to authorize the deed, which far exceeded his authority.  It is, in my opinion, the finest story in this volume, a rich portrait of a man for whom the horrors of the tower serve to clarify and eventually correct the more “civilized” sins upon which he has built his sham of a life.

The Innocents is a fine addition to the English-language canon of Catholic literature, and Ignatius Press must be commended for bringing these worthy works to a new audience. However, it would have been a service to their readers to include a few paragraphs about the historical context of each story. With the exception of the aftermath of World War II, these are not periods of history which most Americans have studied in any depth, and I had to do a fair amount of research just to write this review. In the case of the last two stories, which use real historical figures as characters, a few notes about how much of the story is truth would have also been in order. In the case of the Marquise de Montespan, certain of the actions von le Fort ascribes to her might well be considered libel if they have no basis in fact. Still, the volume stands on its own, an excellent Gothic romp for October with deeply Catholic themes.

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Copyright 2019 Karen Ullo

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About Author

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned (2015) and Cinder Allia (2017). She is also the managing editor of the Catholic literary journal Dappled Things, as well as a wife and mother of two. Find out more at KarenUllo.com.

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