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The novelist and diarist Julien Green described in his diary a conversation he had with a French priest, a Fr. Couturier, about the novelist’s necessary complicity with evil:

If he is a believer, the difficulty begins when he sits down at his table to write, for he is obliged to become each one of his characters and plunge with them into their sins. . . . No novel worthy of the name exists without a complicity between the author and his creatures, and far more than complicity: a complete identification. I think that is why no one has ever heard of a saint writing a novel.

This was a sweeping judgment. Perhaps Green had not read John Henry Newman’s Callista, or did not consider it a novel worthy of the name; but there is Alessandro Manzoni, a great novelist and devout Catholic, and, in Green’s own time, François Mauriac. However, it is undoubtedly true that, for an evil character to come to life in a novelist’s imagination, the novelist must have within himself that character’s potential. What W. H. Auden said of the poet is also true of the novelist: He must

Become the whole of boredom, subject to
Vulgar complaints like love, among the Just
Be just, among the Filthy filthy too,
And in his own weak person, if he can,
Must suffer dully all the wrongs of Man.

When I set out to write my first novel more than fifty years ago, I did not anticipate that it would mean supping with the devil. It was, in any case, a work of juvenilia; the characters did not implicate me. Only when it came to its successor, my second novel, The Junkers, was I taken aback by the way evil characters sprang to life in my imagination. Taken aback, but also in a sense pleased, because my aim was to investigate and attempt to comprehend, through the use of imagination as well as historical research, the evil perpetrated by Germans under Hitler. The Holocaust was not then the ubiquitous preoccupation that it is today, but I had grown up conscious of Germany and its recent history. My mother’s parents both came from a colony of German émigrés in Aberdeen, Scotland. She had studied music in Cologne in the late 1920s under Walter Braunfels, and Braunfels’s daughter, who had become her closest friend, came to live with us in rural North Yorkshire for extended periods in the 1950s. We had a Bavarian cook, and every year a family came to stay for Christmas: The mother, Leonie Cohn, a Jewish student from Konigsberg, had been studying in Rome in 1939 when Mussolini ordered all German Jews to return to Germany. She had been able to escape to England because my father had supported her application for a visa. Her parents and siblings had all been killed in the Holocaust.

How had this happened? How had a people whose blood was in my veins perpetrated such evil? After graduating from university, I went to live in Munich—ostensibly to train as a publisher, but in my mind, to investigate Germany’s unverdaute Vergangenheit, its “undigested past.” I then spent a year in Berlin. It was the early 1960s, less than twenty years after the end of the war. Memories were fresh, but few liked to share them. I went out for a while with the daughter of an SS Brigadeführer and treated her abominably. As so often, when studying the sins of others, one fails to notice one’s own.

“I will never again trust an Englishman,” she said when we broke up. She should have said that she would never again trust a novelist, because what I had always been after was not so much love or sex but material for my novel, and for this she came up trumps, giving me the idea for the heroine of The Junkers. I wrote it back in England, in a cottage on the Yorkshire moors. What I had learned and experienced in Germany was blended with my own childhood. Yorkshire became Pomerania, and I became, with my two brothers, Klaus, Helmuth, and Edward von Rummelsberg, but also the young ­English narrator who, posted to West Berlin in the early 1960s by the Foreign Office, falls in love with a German girl he sees in a café on the Kurfürstendamm. The present-day narrative alternates with passages set before, during, and after World War II, and it was in the depiction of the atrocities perpetrated by my Nazi characters that I shocked myself.

Some scenes, certainly, drew on published accounts, but others were pure invention, for I had discovered in the writing that characters take on a life of their own. Gunter Strepper, who joins the SS, did vile things that I had neither planned nor anticipated. My father, who had himself written a novel of great poetic and innocent charm, The Green Child, was clearly dismayed by the scenes of perverse atrocity. “How can he know such things?” he asked my ­mother. How, indeed.

There was nothing Catholic in The Junkers. With my two brothers, I was educated by Benedictine monks at Ample­forth, and though I turned against the school, leaving at the age of sixteen, I did not doubt, and have never doubted, the truth of the Catholic religion. I never missed Mass on a Sunday, but was more interested in politics than religion, and although never particularly engaged in the proceedings of Vatican II, I was inspired by Gaudium et Spes to espouse a form of liberationism, seeing Fidel Castro and Che Guevara as secular saints.

And yet the novel that followed The Junkers, Monk Dawson, was about a monk: a simple story of a boy from a school not unlike Ampleforth, who on graduation joins the community, then questions its commitment to educating the sons of the rich, and applies his own idiosyncratic “preferential option for the poor,” providing shelter for a homeless family in the school theater. The abbot—not unlike Basil Hume, who was a housemaster when I was at Ampleforth but went on to be abbot of Ampleforth and then archbishop of Westminster—suggests that perhaps Dawson’s vocation is not monastic but secular. He leaves the monastery to become a diocesan priest in London and later leaves the priesthood, is taken up by a rich divorcée, marries unhappily, and ends up a Trappist.

Monk Dawson was written in Lexington, Massachusetts, where I was living with my new wife courtesy of a Harkness Fellowship. The sins it depicted were not those of atrocity but the subtler indulgences and betrayals of London’s haute bourgeoisie which were to be the preoccupations of a number of my later novels. But it was also a treatise in fictional form on the Christian vocation. It rejected liberationism as a path to holiness in favor of prayer and contemplation. This was bizarre—a case where I was surprised in the writing not by evil but the grace of God. I saw myself at the time as a left-wing radical. It was 1968. America was in ferment. In New York, where we had lived on our first arrival in the U.S., I had made acquaintances among black activists and the Students for a Democratic Society, and had cheered on the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination of Sen. Eugene McCarthy. It was a stipulation of the Harkness Fellowship that we should spend three months on the road in a rented Chevrolet, and our itinerary in the summer brought us to Chicago for the Democratic Convention. We were at the heart of the riots in Grant Park against the war in Vietnam, and, when we returned to England, I wrote a novel based on the experiences of that year called The Professor’s Daughter.

Again, as with Monk Dawson, it was a case when my left hand, brandishing the red flag, did not seem to know what my right hand, holding a pen, was doing. I was a leftist, a liberal, a liberationist, yet here was a story that portrayed liberalism, in the form of the Harvard professor Henry Rutledge, as moral disorder, and leftist liberationism, in the professor’s students—one a black activist, one a Jesuit—as a posturing sham. Each represented an aspect of my own moral failings: the arrogant revolutionary who, given the right circumstances, would turn into a callous Robespierre, and the weak, self-indulgent liberal whose progressive views are no more than fashionable designer accessories. The values of both were vain and godless, and their victim was the young professor’s daughter, Louisa, floundering and suffering in the moral chaos of the time.

“What is the point of revolution without general copulation?” asks the Marquis de Sade in Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade, a play very much in vogue at the time. The political objectives of the student revolutionaries of 1968, whether in Paris or Chicago, came to nothing, but there did take place a radical change in the sexual mores of the Western world, and the novels which followed The Professor’s Daughter depict eros as Satan’s weapon of choice. In The Upstart, Hilary Fletcher, the son of a country vicar, who has been humiliated in adolescence by his aristocratic neighbors, takes revenge by seducing and humiliating their daughters as well as destroying their son.

Finally, Hilary is arrested and convicted of a minor crime, and in prison is impressed by the Catholic faith of a loutish Irishman with whom he shares his cell. Looking back over his life, he feels first self-disgust and then remorse. He turns to God. I had sought to prepare the reader for this abrupt conversion with the novel’s epigraph, a quotation, again from Julien Green. “In each one of us there is a sinner and a saint. . . . That is why the sinner who is converted never starts from scratch. He has made some progress during his life of sin.” I wished to show that God’s grace is often arbitrary, incomprehensible, and undeserved. Just as my characters had the ability to draw me into evil, they also could reveal to me the possibilities of grace.

At this point in my career, I took a break from fiction to write Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors. There were no evil characters among the survivors of that terrible plane crash in 1972, but some who were weak and others who were heroic. Almost all were Catholics, and to me there can be little doubt but that their faith and formation, as well as their homogenous background, explain the creditable way they behaved. William Golding was one of the few reviewers who disliked Alive, perhaps because it disproved the hypothesis of his novel, The Lord of the Flies, that in extreme circumstances the young will revert to savagery.

Alive was a bestseller, particularly popular among young male adolescents in the United States. From a professional perspective, I would have been well-advised to follow it with a work of nonfiction of a similar kind. But I still thought of myself principally as a novelist and so wrote Polonaise, a novel whose hero was a sexually perverse Polish intellectual—hardly likely to appeal to admirers of Alive. The character of Stefan Kornowski was suggested by the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, whom I had known in Berlin. Like Gombrowicz, Kornowski comes from the lesser Polish-Lithuanian gentry; like Gombrowicz, he becomes a fashionable writer in Warsaw in the 1930s; like Gombrowicz, he is on a trans-Atlantic liner when war breaks out with Germany and, like Gombrowicz, rather than return to fight for his country, he jumps ship in Buenos Aires. All else came from my imagination.

Kornowski’s evil is largely in his mind. He loses his faith, abandons his Jewish wife and their children with no compunction, and plans a sado-­masochistic experiment on a gullible adolescent girl, Tilly Czarnieka.

Since there is no God, and no after-life, no good, no evil, no Heaven, no hell—then ecstasy is everything. It is what we should pursue—ecstasy prolonged—indefinite ecstasy. Then Heaven would exist on earth for each one. . . . For me: to be God—to provide immortality by fusing perfect pleasure (orgasm) with perfect pain (death).

A theme of the novel is the interplay of thoughts and deeds—of how perverse fantasies are unleashed in the imagination of a man whose consciousness has shed Christian restraint. My own work is in the realm of imagination, and I found that here my authorial voice was also the voice of conscience, warning me of the path I might follow without the lodestar of the Catholic faith.

The narrative of Polonaise vaults over World War II. It resumes in the 1950s when Kornowski returns from Argentina to live with his sister and her son in Paris. The Free Frenchman, written ten years later, has World War II at its core, and considers the behavior of French Catholics at the time. It makes painful reading because, like their German counterparts, they did so little to oppose the deportation of French Jews. The anti-Semitic ministers in the government in Vichy were the ideological progeny of the anti-Dreyfusards, tribal Catholics taking revenge for the persecution of the Church by the Masonic, anti-clerical government of Émile Combes in 1906. Some French Catholics saw Hitler as a bulwark against atheist Bolshevism: The last line of defense as the Red Army advanced on the bunker beneath the Chancellery in Berlin was manned by Frenchmen from the Charlemagne Division of the Waffen SS, who rose from their trenches to meet the Russian tanks with the cry of “Long live Christ the King!”

Were they evil? One of the most unpalatable lessons of history is that evil is often perpetrated by people who think they are doing good as midwives of progress, agents of natural selection, saviors of ­Christendom—whatever. Did not Caiaphas believe that it was better for one man to die than a whole people be destroyed? (John 11:50) The Free Frenchman tells the story of two brothers who choose a different course after the fall of France in World War II, one going to England to fight for General de Gaulle, the other staying to support the government of Marshal Pétain. But there is a moral ambiguity, even when it comes to the supporters of General de Gaulle. Many were Communists, or fellow travelers, and hoped to replace a regime allied to Hitler with one allied to Stalin.

And there was the case of Thierry d’Argenlieu, a Carmelite monk and Catholic priest who, during World War II, shed his habit to return to his former calling as a naval officer, and commanded the naval forces of the Free French. At the end of World War II, General de Gaulle, also a devout Catholic, received a letter from Boa Dia, the emperor of the Annamite Kingdom of Tonkin, written at the request of the leader of the local resistance to the Japanese, Ho Chi Minh. “You have suffered too much,” Boa Dia wrote, “during four deadly years, not to understand that the Vietnamese people, who have a history of twenty centuries and an often glorious past, no longer wish, can no longer support, any foreign domination.” What was de Gaulle’s response? He dispatched ­Thierry d’Argenlieu to re-impose French rule in Tonkin. This set France on a course in Vietnam that led to the first Vietnamese war and, after much slaughter and suffering, to the ignominious defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu.

The sins of imperialism stain the British as well as the French, and if there is a lacuna in my historical fiction, it is the absence of a novel dealing with the kind of cruelties that have been exposed by writers such as William Dalrymple (The Last Mughal) and Ferdinand Mount (The Tears of the Rajas). Why have my historical novels never been set in England, or the British Empire? Largely, I think, because I found English history so dull. While the nations on the Continent had their revolutions and, for good or evil, fought over ideas—whether it be the divine right of kings, liberty, equality, and fraternity, scientific socialism, or racial superiority—we were, as Napoleon and others have said, a nation of shopkeepers. For the British it was always about trade.

Not that my fellow countrymen have escaped my authorial scrutiny: Two-thirds of my novels are not set in the past but deal with the manners and morals of my own milieu in the present day. In A Married Man (1979), the barrister (trial lawyer) John Strickland, after reading Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, feels that his life is becalmed and embarks upon both a love affair and a political career. Selfish and insensitive, he fails to notice that his wife, Clare, suffers from the same mid-life sense of stagnation, and is also tempted by the idea of an adulterous affair: We are back to Satan’s weapon of choice.

Clare is a Catholic, and writes to a priest, a friend of the family, then in Rome.

The ‘tempter’ in this case is an old friend of John’s called Henry Mascall. . . . It’s absurd because Mary—his wife—is my closest friend: in fact we’ve both known them both since we were married, so it’s not a case of a tall, dark and handsome stranger across a crowded room.

The priest warns her that even after Vatican II, adultery is considered a serious sin, and that if she were to sleep with Henry Mascall, she would be breaking one of the Ten Commandments and putting at risk the happiness of her husband and children. “I fear that all this sounds rather prudish and severe,” he writes.

I don’t want you to think that I am unsympathetic. I know that great temptation brings great suffering, but if you can you should feel exhilaration rather than despair. If the Devil tempts you it is because he thinks you have a soul worth having, and if God lets you be tempted it is because He knows you can triumph.

His counsel is to no avail. “I feel I can square everyone except God,” she writes,

and I can’t really bring myself to hold off H. just for someone most people don’t believe in anyway. It seems ridiculous. So I’ve just hung up on Him and I’ve asked Our Lady and St. Joseph to lay off as well. . . . I did try, by the way, to avoid Henry. Not very hard, though. I read a bit of The Imitation of Christ, but found it disgusting—like laying out your own corpse. I can’t believe that goodness is meant to be so morbid and dull. I don’t want to just hang around waiting to die.

Here, then, is a sin that is no atrocity, and indeed in her circle is considered at most a peccadillo; “everyone does it.” Yet even in her sin there is a reluctance, which contains the germ of repentance: She may abandon God, but God does not abandon her. As in Monk Dawson, I was once again exploring the sins of my own class. I have never been able to join in the enthusiasm for “confessional” literature. Confession is a sacrament, not a literary genre. But by writing characters whose weaknesses are my own, even if their sins are not, I have been able to dramatize my own experience of the divine.

Satan,” wrote Georges Bernanos in Under the Sun of Satan, “is the all-powerful Prince of this world. He is king of it, but he has no need to battle with most of us because the common herd rushes to its fate unmolested.” A Catholic may say, every time he goes to Mass, that he has sinned “grievously,” but his penitence is not shared by those outside the Church. As both St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have said, modern man has lost his sense of sin, or rather restricts it to offences against his own species and the physical world. He has a conscience that condemns harm caused to the body but not harm caused to the soul because he is unaware that he has a soul or that there is life after death. He is kind to his children, solicitous toward his friends, and gives to charity (up to a point). He knows, loves, and serves not God but his own species through reading novels and journals, visiting art galleries and museums where altarpieces are admired as artifacts from a superstitious age. He is uninterested in the raging of militant atheists such as Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins. He is not even an agnostic, because he goes through life without ever wondering whether or not there is a God.

It is not because I have tried to make my characters Catholic, but because I have found them to be human, that they have ultimately been unable to see the world this way. I wrote A Season in the West (1988) when there was still an iron curtain across Europe, and was inspired by a visit I made to the “underground university” in Prague and Bruno. How innocent, ­idealistic, and naif the young dissident writers seemed in contrast with the suave authors I knew in London. How would one fare if he escaped to the West? Josef Birek slips out of Communist Poland via Vienna. He comes to London where his books have been translated and published by the Comenius Foundation. He is taken up by the beautiful wife of a banker, Laura Morton, and becomes her lover. ­Everyone does it. But Birek’s innocence and naivete become an embarrassment: London’s literati decide that he is not much of a writer after all. Moreover, ­Birek expresses admiration for Mrs. Thatcher—among the politically correct literati, a mortal sin.

Birek is dumped by Laura Morton, and abandoned by the Comenius Foundation. At the end of the novel, he is saved from suicide by a coincidence—or is it by the grace of God acting through his guardian angel? Clearly, by the 1980s, the latter may be credible for a Catholic but not for the general reader. Thirty years before, most Britons were believing Christians, and no one objected to the miracles in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited or Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. By the 1970s, however, such workings of grace had become implausible. The critic D. J. Taylor wrote of my novel The Upstart that my hero’s repentance “leaves the novel’s architecture in fragments. . . . Within the context of an otherwise realistic novel the solution looks forced and somehow arbitrary.”

Yet Catholics do believe that God responds to prayers, that he intervenes in our lives, that there are miracles—not just miraculous cures at Lourdes but also little miracles in our everyday life. Unless they are to write exclusively for fellow believers, the Catholic author must now offer his readers an alternative explanation for what he might see as an act of God. Thus, in my recent novel The Misogynist (2010), my hero, Jomier, a retired lawyer, still angry with the wife who left him but besotted with his grown-up married daughter Louisa, is driven out of a comfortable indifference as to the existence of God when that daughter falls ill with a fatal blood disorder that her doctors are unable to diagnose. Louisa is a Catholic and asks him to pray for her. “Can fate ever be thwarted?” Jomier asks himself.

Louisa believes so. Louisa believes that there is a deity, a He Who Is who talked to Moses from a burning bush and became homo sapiens as Jesus of Nazareth. She believes that he thwarted fate. That he cured lepers, brought Lazarus back to life and himself rose from the dead. She believes that he is God and could, if he so chose, do something for Louisa. But why should he? Why, out of the many millions who are suffering and dying, should he help Louisa? Because she believes in him? Because she is a Catholic? Don’t Catholics suffer? Don’t Catholics die?

Jomier gets out of bed and goes to his study in his pyjamas. He switches on his computer. He googles God. There are 475 million hits. He googles Jesus. 183 million hits.

He turns to the Bible that he was given as a prize at school and has kept ever since. What is on offer from Jesus? “Repent, or else. Believe, or else. Love, or else. Forgive, or else. . . . Fair enough. Jomier is a lawyer. He can make deals.” Jomier will love, believe, repent and forgive if God saves his daughter.

At a terrible price for Jomier, a diagnosis is made. Louisa is saved. But the reader has no need to believe that the cure is miraculous. Nor does Jomier, but “Jomier has become superstitious. What if, as Pascal postulated, there are truths inaccessible to reason known only to the heart?”

The best the Catholic author can do, then, writing in an overwhelmingly indifferent age, is first sow the seed of doubt in the mind of the skeptic, and secondly, through the use of irony, mock the moral complacency of the politically correct. The reader recognizes himself in the hero, and the other characters, and little by little, as the story progresses, sees mirrored his own moral shortcomings. At the same time, a novel will be weak if the author is not also willing to be surprised by the independent humanity of his characters. It is not just in their capacity for evil, but also in their openness to grace, that my creations have taught me about myself. I have learned through them of my own proneness to sin and capacity for grace. Man is not sufficient unto himself; it is only if there is a God and a devil that his life makes sense.

Piers Paul Read is the author, most recently, of Scarpia.