Clerical Errors

A Novel

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About The Book

Aside from his blatant lack of piety -- and the fact that he's Jewish -- Father Edmond Music could have been a model priest. Now, entrenched at an English estate with a vast library, he would rather pursue a decades-old liaison with his housekeeper than crack down on his assistant's dial-a-confession phone ministry, or, more important, investigate the whereabouts of a rare Shakespeare text gone missing on his watch.
Then, out of nowhere, penance comes due. His car is found totaled (possibly by Vatican hit men), his annoying archrival of the cloth is looking to nail him as a thief, and the once-passionate housekeeper is lapsing into religious fervor. With his forty-year idyll falling apart, Edmond can no longer ignore the danger of the present, or the echoes of his buried past.
National Jewish Book Award-winning author Alan Isler delivers a hilarious and touching literary homily, confirming his unique gift for mingling comedy and tragedy in this deeply moving exploration of faith, love, and identity.

Excerpt

Part One

Sipping a Calvados in a bar in the rue de Malengin and reading an English newspaper left on the seat by its previous occupant, I discovered to my surprise that I had just died. It appeared that I had driven my car, a modest Morris Minor of a certain age, into the famous Stuart Oak of the Beale estate, the oak so named because planted to commemorate the death of the unfortunate James II. The Stuart Oak had sustained little damage; the Morris Minor was now a twisted, tortured tangle of metal, from which had been extracted a pulped human body supposed to be mine. Our local constable, Timothy "Tubby" Whiting, had identified the car and its owner. Tubby has a palate for local ale and bitter than which there is surely none more refined. He is, moreover, as am I, a Catholic, he rather more persuasively than I. But he is no Sherlock Holmes, or, for that matter, Father Brown.

First I phoned Maude back at the Hall. She, foolish soul, supposed, or pretended to suppose, I was phoning from the Other Side.

"God be praised! Deo gratias! Oh, sweet Jesus! Oh! Oh! Oh!"

"Maude, my love, I'm all right."

"All right, is it? Of course you're all right, there with the Holy Virgin and the blessed angels. Is that the heavenly choir I hear?"

From the jukebox at the back of the bar the late Edith Piaf sang "Milord."

"I mean that I'm not dead."

"Not dead, is it? Of course you're not dead! Everlasting life, that's what He promised us, that's why He bled upon the Cross. Oh, I must tell Father Bastien immediately. Oh, Edmond, I miss you so. Be patient, my love. I'll be with you as soon as I'm allowed." And she hung up.

The silly old woman! It's extraordinary how any sort of excitement brings back the brogue she otherwise abandoned with her youth. She was jesting, surely. Her relief must have found its outlet in hysteria. And, no doubt, mother's ruin has played its part, too. Yes, gin has long been her favorite tipple, and lots of it -- but in a pinch she will make do with whatever's on offer. She likes to pretend that I am the one who has "a little drinking problem"; as for her, why, she drinks merely to be sociable or because she finds herself without company, or because she feels cheerful or because she is bored, or because she is worried or because she's not. We don't talk about it.

Ah, but to remember what she was like when first I knew her, Maude Moriarty, the keeper of my house and my flesh, lo these many years! Ah, the swish of her hips, the rustle of her skirts, the slender shape of her arched above me! And yet to see and hear what she has become as Time's wingèd chariot rattles behind us, nearer and nearer! Gone -- or, at any rate, usually hidden nowadays -- are the wit and the sharp intelligence. She has played an Irish washerwoman for so long, she has at last become one. Too much television, perhaps.

O she had not these ways

When all the wild summer was in her gaze.

Next I phoned Tubby, assuring him that I was as good as on my way home. His shock at hearing my voice was somewhat mitigated by his acceptance of the glad tidings: I was still alive. "But who was it, then, Father," he said almost accusingly, "we squeezed and scraped out of the car? He must've been doing a hundred down the drive." The drive is curved and dangerously steep as it plunges toward the Stuart Oak.

"D'you suppose it was poor Trevor? As I remember, I'd asked him to pick up the car over the weekend. The hand brake had given out, and the foot brake was sluggish." Trevor Stuffins was our local odd-job man, a fellow of my own age and girth.

"Hmmm," said Tubby noncommittally.

"We must pray for his soul."

"He was a Protestant, Father."

"All the more reason."

"If it was Trevor." Tubby was capable of learning from his mistakes.

"Do me a favor, Tubby, go and have a word with Maude. Explain to her I'm still alive -- alive, that is, in the this-worldly sense. Do it gently."

Before leaving the rue de Malengin, I ordered another Calvados and sipped it slowly. My trip to Paris had been a failure, but I felt somehow like one recalled to life.

Could it be that Castignac was right? He had telephoned me a month before, getting to a phone who-knew-how, and warned that Vatican assassins were after me. "Watch out, Edmond, pay attention! They want you dead!" This was followed by a mad cackle. "They will stop at nothing! Nothing!" And then the line went suddenly silent.

But poor Castignac is a lunatic. Why should I have paid attention?

Well, perhaps because of the historical record. Parva, as we say, componere magnis, to compare small things with big, the popes themselves have not been safe from their coreligionists, even as their coreligionists have not been safe from the popes. In the tenth century fully one in three popes died in (nudge-nudge) "suspicious circumstances." Pope Stephen VI was deposed and strangled in prison. And as for murderous corruption, poisonous intrigue, and the savage pursuit of power, why, everyone knows that the popes of the High Renaissance -- the Borgias and their like -- wrote the book, created the template. To step a little closer to our own time, what of John Paul I, who died in 1978 after only thirty-four days on the throne, eh? I point only to the fact, nothing more. Dear me, no. But if so magnificent a beast as a lion may be cruelly slain in his lair, what hope for compassion has a mere flea?

Still, a sense of proportion is a wonderful thing. I cannot truly believe that what I might call the upper hierarchy is after my blood, much as they would like to see me out of a job. No, but rather lower down, though. Father Fred Twombly, say, chairman of the Department of English at Holyrood College, Joliet, Illinois, my undoubted enemy since we were graduate students together in Paris, the wretch who wants my job, the fact that I have it and that he does not gnawing at his vitals like a poisonous mineral. He, I think, if all else failed him, could interfere with the brakes of my car.

But all else has not yet failed him. He thinks he has me by the hip, and it may be that he has. I shall tell you about him anon, and about his latest letter to me, the occasion of my trip to Paris.

Perhaps I should pray.

Perhaps not.

At what moment, I wonder, did I lose my faith? It is a question that has no answer, a semantic dilemma. Have you stopped beating your wife? To lose something -- virginity, say, or a gold watch -- one must first have possessed it. But I put it on, this faith, because it was offered me, it suited me, it was a habit, in both senses of the word. It was at once an ecclesiastical vestment, an outward sign of belief, and a way of life to which I became comfortably -- well, perhaps that word needs modification, but, for the moment, let it stand -- comfortably accustomed.

Which brings the young Castignac's joke to mind. He rose to the exalted rank of papal nuncio, traveled the world -- Guatemala, Lebanon, Hawaii, wherever the Holy See had need of him -- a spy, after his fashion, yes, one of God's spies, gazing into the mystery of things. But he also learned at firsthand the intricacies of the Vatican's inner workings, what the Protestant Milton calls its secret conclaves. And where is he now? As I have said, stark staring mad, terminally bonkers, or so designated, and in the merciful hands of the Sisters of the Five Wounds, a hospice in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Well, he always liked America, did Castignac.

But why do I mention him? Ah, yes, the joke. We were seminarians then, you see, the old Adam not quite squeezed out of us. Not out of Castignac, in particular. What a rogue he was! He possessed the blue-black, curly hair, black eyes, and olive skin of the true Corsican, a young Napoleon, but well endowed, hugely endowed. In the dormitory, he slapped away at it. "Down, wicked fellow, down!" and thus revealed himself, grandly tumescent, to our secret envy. "Look," he said one early morning, pointing through the window grille to the courtyard, where an ancient van idled and out of which stepped a young woman. She opened the van's back door and took out a basket. "That's Véronique," he said. "She's the laundress. Every fortnight, she picks up the monks' dirty habits." He looked at us slyly, and then he roared with laughter. And so we understood we had been told a joke.

But to get back to the question of faith. In those early days, I gloried in the words of Tertullian. Certum est quia absurdum est. Those words had -- to use the modern idiom -- a certain in-your-face quality that appealed to the adolescent that I was. To believe in something because it is absurd! Oh, yes. Yes, indeed. But I had in any case reasons enough to be grateful to them, to the Church, I mean. (Notice that "them." What an astonishing irruption after all these years!) I was taken in, given shelter, occasionally shown kindness. Those were terrifying times, quite terrifying. The saintly fathers saved my life, and -- so they believed -- my immortal soul.

Still, I had an early taste for it, I must admit, the incense, the chanting, one's breath during Mass of a winter's morning rising like mist to the cathedral's vault. I enjoyed, not piety, but the spectacle of piety and, to the burgeoning visionary imagination, myself as pious. I could see myself on my knees, dragging myself over the cruel stones, to throw my broken body, bloodied, prostrate before the Cross. Of course, I never did any such thing. Self-flagellation, outside of the visionary imagination, was not my style. Perhaps I felt a little of what moved Edward Gibbon (who was to show with devastating irony in his Decline and Fall the utter nonsense and demonstrable cruelty of Christianity) to embrace Roman Catholicism in his impressionable youth:

The marvellous tales that are so boldly attested by the Basils and Chrysostoms, the Austins and Jeromes, compelled me to embrace the superior merits of celibacy, the institutions of the monastic life, the use of the sign of the Cross, of holy oil, and even of images, the invocation of saints, the worship of relics, the rudiments of purgatory in prayers for the dead, and the tremendous mystery of the sacrifice and the body and blood of Christ, which insensibly swelled into the prodigy of Transubstantiation.

Thus Gibbon in his Autobiography, writing of the follies of his youth. Well, I was not (and am not) a Gibbon, but it is clear enough to me now that what I possessed as a youth was a painterly inner eye, if not a painter's ability. I saw, as it were, a Catholicism as it might exist in a Platonic realm of Ideas, and to that I responded, a victory of frosty sensuality over pulsating reason.

But to return to Tertullian, to know, intellectually, that the whole rigamarole was absurdum and therefore to believe...well, really. Suppose I had put it to the faithful as follows: "Know that the world and all that inhabits it -- all of you, my dear little brothers and sisters, and even I myself -- we are actually resident in the mind of a monstrous carp swimming languidly in the warm waters of Eternity. Certum est quia absurdum est." You see what I mean. It is not for nothing that the phrase "hocus-pocus" derives from the words of consecration in the Mass, "Hoc est enim corpus meum," and in turn gives birth to the word "hoax."

And yet here I am in black suit and dog collar, and, of course, my color-coordinated black-and-white trainers (my bunions, you see), back home from Paris, mission unaccomplished, awaiting a courtesy call from the German ambassador. The pious, thankfully few in number in my neck of the woods, bow and scrape before me -- or would, perhaps, if I spent more time among them. Bastien appeared at my side. "Our Côte de Gherlaine is quite used up, Father, but we have an untroubled Coeur de Languedoc, 1963, a gift of Colonel Fulke-Greville, grateful for your kindness on his recent visit. May I tempt you?" "Retro me, Satana," I said sternly. But then I saw his crestfallen face: "But of course, my dear Bastien. What luck! A Coeur de Languedoc! The colonel is too kind. You will not only convey to him my gratitude, noting that nothing we were able to do for him could match his generosity, but you will pour a glass of it for yourself."

It is so easy to be gracious.

Bastien, the donkey, has been with me, appropriately, for donkey's years. He has grown old in my service, my factotum. How would I get on without him? Slippered indoors and out, curved like a question mark, wisps of white hair attached untidily to an almost bald pate, he stands in his stained cassock, knees bent and splayed, bouncing gently as if he were an exhausted spring. He is another to whom Time has not been kind. Odd he has long been, for reasons I shall no doubt divulge, but he also possesses a kind of peasant shrewdness and a honed intelligence that show themselves when least expected. That I keep him on in so privileged a position rather than arrange for his retirement is regarded as a unique sign of my inviolable charity. But I have known him since our schooldays. We were orphans together. He would be lost without me -- I say it in all modesty -- and I suspect that I would be lost without him.

His joy at my recent resurrection was unfeigned. He spared not a tear for poor Trevor -- yes, Trevor it was who had died in my place -- or for Trevor's distraught sister-in-law from Wigan, now conferring with her solicitors, for, as Tubby told me lugubriously, using language appropriate to a sexually distraught maiden aunt, it was likely that the brakes, hand and foot, "had been interfered with." I, he was happy to report, was "not in the frame." But somebody had been out to get Trevor. I did not tell Tubby that I was myself a likelier target.

Bastien placed two glasses on the table beside me. I was in my study, the Music Room, on my cushioned chair, my poor feet on a yielding stool. He retired momentarily but returned with the bottle of Coeur de Languedoc. Around his neck, where his Cross should be, hung a corkscrew on a string. Bouncing gently, he held the bottle before my eyes, label toward me; and, as if in the hands of a drunken sommelier, the bottle bounced with him. I could not have read it if I would.

"That's it," I said, "the very thing. No cork-sniffing, Bastien, no preliminaries. Let's to it."

I held the filled glass up to the light. "Stand off a little," I said, waving with my free hand. He has in these his last years acquired an unpleasant smell, has Father Bastien, not strong, to be sure, not unwholesome, but rather like the aroma of turned-over compost that, on a damp day, reaches one from a distance. "I want to see the famous Coeur de Languedoc ruby." What I saw, in fact, were his greasy finger smudges on the glass. But no matter. Bastien was now at a safe distance, bouncing after his fashion, his wine in danger of slopping over the glass's rim. He would not, honest fellow, drink before his master. I sipped. "Aah!" I smacked my lips. I sipped again. This was his signal to drink.

Why, you may wonder, do I keep him on? In part, as I have said, because his continuing presence here is a visible earnest of my charitable disposition. All to the good, that, all to the good. Besides, there is no more discreet man than he. Pincers to his tongue would not draw from him my secrets. And oh, I have a secret or two. In some, we are complicit, he and I.

"A short nap, I think, before the arrival of the German ambassador. We'll offer him one of our sherries, good Bastien." I wink at him. "He need not know we have a Coeur de Languedoc, 1963."

"Sale boche!" he grumbled.

I reproved him gently, as was my fashion. "Love is the lesson that the Lord us taught."

How on earth did I get myself into such a pickle? Are the agents of the Vatican after me in England, now, virtually at the end of the millennium, simply because almost six decades earlier the Wehrmacht marched triumphantly into Paris, that time, you may remember, when Hitler gave his little hop of delight? It's hard to believe. History, even personal history, has its problems. Leopold von Ranke blithely advises us to write history "wie es eigentlich gewesen ist," as it actually was. But how was it, actually? However much I try to re-create the past, I necessarily view it through the unreliable eyes of the present. No, Croce had it right: "All history is contemporary history." Nor was Hobbes far off the mark: "Imagination and memory are but one thing." And further complicating my difficulty, I have always felt a certain sympathy with what is essentially a Marxist stance vis-à-vis the role of accident, chance, and contingency in history -- as compared, I mean, with the role of underlying, ineluctable social patterns. For example, I believe it unlikely European history would have been much different in the thirties and forties had Hitler died in 1928. But I find myself, for all that, increasingly of the opinion that accident, chance, and contingency rule individual lives, mine in particular.

I really ought to explain what two Frenchmen, Bastien and I, are doing here in England in the first place. Before that, I ought to reveal that I am in fact a Jew -- well, that I arrived in this world a Jew. My parents were born not in France but in Hungary, in Dunaharaszti, to be exact, a townlet south of Budapest, and went to Paris, a young married couple, in 1923, a mere five years before my birth.

Curiously (and coincidentally), Dunaharaszti was also the birthplace of Solomon Reuben Hayyim Falsch, 1720(?)-1796, kabbalist, sorcerer, scallywag, and sometime adventurer, who, reformed (or, perhaps like Shakespeare's Prince Hal, choosing the moment to reveal to the world his true self), became known to his disciples as, the Pish, a word formed from the acronym of his supposed attributes: -- roughly, Exalted and Prudent Adviser and Giver of Judgment. Falsch in his time blossomed into the Ba'al Shem of Ludlow. Now here is a figure who, for all sorts of reasons, appeals to me. I shall have rather more to say of him anon.

My father, Konrad Music, was something of a schlimazel, a born loser, a fact that may have saved his life. He was a sallow man, inclined to embonpoint, and he usually wore, apart from a thick serge suit and a shirt with celluloid collars, a meaningless scowl. In the Marais, he opened a small shop, dark, dank, selling buttons of various sorts, threads, needles, and, on occasion, Jewish artifacts, prayer shawls, decorative yarmulkes, the odd Hanukkah dreidel, that sort of thing. I do not remember that the shop was much peopled by customers. Nevertheless, from this unlikely enterprise, he eked out a living. Beyond this, or perhaps allied with this, my father fidgeted a lot, was never still. Even when seated in an easy chair, he would twitch a leg and twirl a small pillow between his hands. You'd have thought that so much nervous activity would have whittled him down. Not at all. We lived in a small flat immediately above the shop.

I look nothing like him, my father, I might add, and have often doubted my paternity. On the other hand, honesty compels me to say that in old age I look rather anomalous in my priestly costume. The truth is, I look like an old Jew of Middle European origin, which of course I am, unmistakable to those who know. Not the stereotype promulgated by the Nazis and those who think like them, not quite, but unquestionably Jewish, just the same. (Yet, in what does this "Jewishness" reside? I wonder. The particular rounding of the back, what in middle-aged Jewish women is known as "Hadassah hump"? The sudden assertive fullness of the nose? Could that be it? The lengthening ears? The wholly unexpected but sudden omnipresence of the shrug? In all these, at least, I resemble my father in his final years.) Damn it all, I do begin to sound like one of the anti-Semites! Still, nowadays, as I look at myself in the mirror and view my rotund priestly self, I seem to see a species of mountebank, at the very least an actor in the Yiddish theater, a Jew dressed up to represent the enemy.

But where was I? Ah, yes, my parents. My mother was a beauty, that needs saying. I have photographs of her that corroborate memory. How to describe her? She was taller than my father, and slim, wonderfully shapely, with the kind of tubular, pliant figure so admired in the thirties. Her beauty was that of the eternally pure American film star Claudette Colbert, but crossed with that of the more recent, passionately earthy, French Jeanne Moreau, but Jeanne Moreau in her prime. How extraordinary that she should have been married to my father! But I suppose that, of all her suitors in Dunaharaszti, it was he alone who promised to take her to Paris. Paris was where she belonged. Her French name was Hélène, née Shayna Blum. When my father called her "la belle Hélène," which he was wont to do, she would reward him with a bored and weary smile. I adored her. Alas, I am not sure that she cared much for me. I don't really know.

On the other hand, I shared her bed until my tenth year. By then my hapless father had long accepted the notion of satisfying his bestial passions elsewhere. (Whether he did satisfy them elsewhere is a matter for pointless and distasteful conjecture. He slept on a pallet that he arranged nightly on the shop's countertop. As a small child, I imagined him below bravely protecting us from villains.) My mother's ruse of having me in her bed should not be understood to mean that she herself was not of a passionate nature. She was, and she entertained her lovers in the afternoons. Her chief occupation was the cosmetic preservation of her complexion, and she sought to maintain her beauty sleep unbroken by lying through the long mornings absolutely motionless in the bed. My earliest memories are of lying beside her, already knowing I must not say a word.

It was one of her lovers who betrayed her in the end, the butch-bitch Madeleine Dormeuil, whose brother was a flic in the local gendarmerie. We had fled as a family to Orléans at the beginning of the war. "Why Orléans?" you ask. I have no idea. Perhaps my parents had friends there; perhaps my father had heard of work. It was a move that for me had the most serious consequences. Paris, in any case, was in panic. The important thing, it seemed to my parents, was to save l'enfant from the bombardment Paris was certain to suffer, the falling buildings, the poison gas, and so on. My father was mobilized, to be sure -- I remember him in uniform -- but it was not the fate of the French army to require his services for long. In 1941 he made his first secret foray into the ZNO, the Unoccupied Zone.

Orléans was no safer for us than Paris. Jews, for example, were required to register qua Jews with the police, a terrifying requirement my parents were able to ignore by assuring one another that their proper place of registration was not Orléans but Paris. The plan was for Papa to find work and shelter somewhere south of the Massif Central and then send for Maman and me. Whenever Papa slipped south, Maman slipped north -- to Paris, ostensibly to keep an eye on the shop and the flat above it but actually to lie in the arms of her adored Madeleine. While she was gone I was to be obedient to "Tante" Louise, our elderly, austerely Catholic landlady, who, for an extra few francs, agreed to keep a motherly eye on a refugee child.

On July 16, 1942, a scribbled note from my father was delivered into the hands of Tante Louise, once more acting in loco matris: he was in St-Pons, not far from Béziers, in the Hérault department, whither we should make our way with cautious haste. But also on July 16, 1942, with the kind of symmetrical neatness that almost makes one believe in a purposeful deity, my mother was arrested, betrayed, rounded up with thousands of her coreligionists by the police of Paris and their eager helpers and dumped in the Vel d'Hiv, where she spent a week in conditions that Dante himself might have balked at describing. This intelligence came to Tante Louise in yet another scribbled note. This time my tante de convenance was acting in loco patris. From the Vel d'Hiv my mother was sent to Drancy, where she languished in misery for five months, managing, my beautiful mother, to bribe a policeman -- one dare not decently ask how, for she had no money -- to deliver to us (via Tante Louise) her letters. From Drancy she was dispatched to Auschwitz, from which she was dispatched. As for Madeleine Dormeuil, may she burn forever in the deepest circle of Hell -- were there only such a place! Du calme, du calme. I get ahead of myself.

Beale Hall is situated atop a long and gentle rise in the Corve Dales and thus commands magnificent views over its own park and woodlands. On the northern boundary of the estate, a tributary to the river Corve itself meanders by; to the distant south may just be seen, when in winter months a stand of beech has shed all foliage, a portion of Ludlow Castle's ruined keep. The Hall was designed by Sir John Vanbrugh for Sir Peregrine Beale in 1693, a jeu d'esprit in whose magnificence one can easily read in piccolo, as it were, the lineaments of the yet undreamed-of Castle Howard. What caused this successful playwright to undertake architectural design -- we say nothing at the moment of his unexpected architectural genius -- may never be known. We do know, however, that Sir Peregrine and he were boozing and wenching companions and that both took fencing lessons under Gaston Lefeu in his academy in Piddle Lane. Perhaps that is explanation enough. The surprise of Vanbrugh's contemporaries in his new venture is preserved in an execrable couplet ascribed by tradition to none other than Jonathan Swift:

'Tis claim'd in Town that quondam Scribbler Van

Has quit the Stage and turn'd a Buildings Man!

If some of the above sounds to you like the effusions of a guidebook, take heart: you have an ear for prose. Most of it comes from Beale Hall, A History and a Guide, an illustrated pamphlet for visitors that sold when it first appeared in 1957 for fourpence, Old Style, and now may be had for ninety pence, New Style, unchanged in content if not in appearance -- we now print on glossy paper. I have not used inverted commas for my quotations because -- yes, laugh if you must -- I myself am the author of Beale Hall, A History and a Guide, and so there is no question of plagiarism. But if you have, as I posited at the beginning of this paragraph, an ear for prose, then I trust you have recognized that even in 1957 my English was sufficiently fluent to parody guidebook-ese, if I may so term it. By now, of course, I use the language as if it were my first, the instrument of all my thoughts, even of my dreams. I am far more comfortable with it than I am with my native French, whose finer points of grammar and more arcane vocabulary tend little by little to slip from me. On my recent visit to Paris, a taxi driver actually answered me in English, a sure sign that he thought me a foreigner, one probably from across the Channel!

Of course, my spoken English is still marked by a slight French accent, one which fifty years ago seems to have pleased the ear (and other parts) of the female Anglophone. The young Kiki, for example, described it as "sexy"; the young Maude said that it had from the first "dampened her knickers." Well, well, I have no wish to boast. In any case, these pages will either reveal my command of the language or my ignorance of it. As for the pamphlet, I shall certainly quote from it again, but you should understand why. It is in Beale Hall that Bastien and I live and, thanks to Kiki, have lived for almost half a century now.

There is so much to tell and perhaps only a little time. Where to begin? I emancipated two gnomes this morning. Is that relevant? I got the idea from the French, of all people. The young over there are so much better than they were in my day. At any rate, a group of them are in secret -- they wear bright balaclavas for their photographs, their flashing eyes and perfect teeth alone visible, gnomes under protective arms -- removing the fairy folk from bourgeois gardens and setting them free in the forests, "their natural habitat." This morning, moments before sunrise, I liberated two of them from the front garden of Benghazi, Major Catchpole's cottage -- one gnome, couchant, with a languidly held fishing pole and another sitting, finger along his nose, on a pseudo-toadstool -- and let them loose in Tetley Wood.

Tetley Wood, once part of the Beale estate, now borders it. The woods had been sold off by the last of Sir Peregrine's descendants, Squadron Leader Sir Ferdinando Beale, to help pay the death duties imposed on his inheritance by the victorious, postwar Labor government. He died without issue in 1955, hanging himself from the lower branches of the Stuart Oak, a homosexual victim of blackmailers. His heir was Lady Violet Devlin, my very own Kiki, and she, already into New Age living avant la lettre, albeit, in that far-off time, Catholic in hue, had no interest in the property. She gave it to the Church, specifically to the Vatican, but with certain provisos: Beale Hall, its accommodations, peerless library, and grounds were to become a scholarly Catholic retreat, maintained by the Devlin Trust, to be created for the purpose. Its first director general was to be Father Edmond Music, yours truly, whose tenure was for life, unless at some point, having given due notice to the trust, he chose to retire, or it came to the attention of the trust, buttressed by irrefutable medical evidence, that his health seriously impaired the fulfillment of his duties. The director general, short of selling the estate, had absolute control over Beale Hall and its grounds. Not bad, eh?

That was Kiki, my well-loved Kiki, responding magnificently to my plea to her in 1956 that if I had to suffer another parish I would perish, that I could bear no longer to cast artificial pearls before real swine. She was then in Big Sur, California. An alert surfer having spotted the Blessed Virgin Mary rising Venus-like from a large half-shell, thousands of the faithful had duly assembled on the wonder-working beach, Kiki among them. But she took time out from her BVM vigil to arrange my future. (By 1960 Kiki, inspired by Aldous Huxley, had moved on to the sacred mushroom and other natural psychedelic routes to mystical truths; in 1975, having lived by then for some years in Sausalito, she had overdosed on a powerful cocktail of mind-bending pills. In Beale Hall, I conducted a special Mass. For me, she was fidelitas ipse, Loyalty writ large. Ever since her death, the Church has been trying to oust me.)

The road through the estate begins at the massive iron gates, now permanently open, that pierce the high park wall along the southern perimeter. It passes the gatekeeper's cottage, thatched and built in late Victorian days of the local stone, unoccupied now but for our local lads and lasses, who use it for their amorous pursuits, and begins immediately to curve around a lake that is pinched in its center as if to accommodate its balustraded bridge. Duck and moorhen dabble among the reeds. The road begins to rise now, and quite sharply, past the Stuart Oak, where once Sir Ferdinando and latterly poor old Trevor met their deaths, and under arching trees, ancient oak and chestnut, through which one catches occasional glimpses in the distance of the column erected by Sir Humphrey Beale to celebrate Nelson's famous victory at Trafalgar. Now the road divides, one arm branching off to the stable block on the right, with its central archway and clock tower, converted under my direction more than thirty years ago into administrative office, kitchen, refectory, all-purpose lounge, and small bed-sitters for our visiting scholars. The presence of so many dog collars, Jesuits for the most part, in Beale Hall itself and at all hours, I soon found irksome. The conversion of the stable block was the obvious answer. Of course, I can't keep them out of the library or the chapel, but I can and do restrict library hours and I have Bastien put them on some sort of a rota for taking services. In fact, they are greeted by slippered Bastien upon arrival, feted by slippered Bastien during their stay, and fare-thee-welled by slippered Bastien upon departure. I seldom see any of them anymore. (The seculars are another matter. I vet the list of applicants myself and limit admissions to those who seem interesting.)

The other branch of the road now widens and soon Beale Hall itself, this magnificent baroque mansion, comes into sight. One notices first -- but I can't burble on like this! If you're interested in such matters, I urge you to read Beale Hall, A History and a Guide. Find out there, for example, about the Great Hall, its extraordinary chimneypiece, the even more extraordinary painting by Giovanni Malocchio in its dome: Aphrodite, Britomartis, and Ellen Scrim-Pitt of Drury Lane, all largely starkers, all ascending to the empyrean while winged amoretti, puffy-cheeked, blow trumpets, and all offering a most unexpected view of their rotund beauties, a masterpiece of erotic perspective. In my History and a Guide, which bears the Nihil Obstat, I identify the ladies, discreetly, as Faith, Hope, and Charity and suggest that they are descending from, not ascending to, heaven. Whether the greatest of these ladies is Charity (i.e., Ellen Scrim-Pitt) is bound to be a matter of taste. She certainly has the greatest bum and is, of the three, the one upon whom my gaze has always lingered. At any rate, I shall speak of the Library, the Tapestry Room, the Long Galleries, the splendid collection of pictures and furniture, the paintings by Rubens, Domenico Feti, Holbein, Van Dyck, Lely, Kneller, Hogarth, Stubbs, Turner, and so on, only as and if they come up. So too with the chapel, altered in 1875 by Charles Ogilvie Beale, who had deserted Rome for Canterbury (until he lay dying), that boasts a bas-relief by Mantovani and stained glass by Morris and Burne-Jones. But the Music Room is another matter. I have made the Music Room my own, my private domain, where I have spent most of my waking hours (and not a few hours in slumber) for almost fifty years. With this room I was beguiled from the first, by its beauties, its elegant proportions, and, of course, by its name. It once was and now again is the Music Room.

Major William Clive ("Call me 'W.C.,' old boy!") Catchpole, O.B.E., had been a Desert Rat who had served with distinction under Montgomery in North Africa. What he had seen there of human suffering, folly, wickedness, and, yes, heroism had caused him to lose his faith. He had entered the war a Roman Catholic, "idiotically devout, old chap"; he had emerged a confirmed atheist. No priest, not even His Holiness -- "your master, not mine, old son" -- could fob him off with pietistic apologia for ubiquitous, gratuitous evil. He had been sprayed with the blood and brains, pierced by the splintered bones, of comrades blown up before his eyes; he had heard the screams of men burning alive in their tanks, smelled the rank odor of the spilled guts their shocked owners strove in vain to stuff back into gurgling cavities. And he knew that whatever murderous evil the Germans were wreaking on English lads, English lads were striving to wreak on them. "Where was your God while all that was going on, that tiny part, I mean, of a far greater atrocity stretching back through time beyond the Crucifixion -- although doctrinally, perhaps, the Crucifixion is far back enough -- and from there forward to today? Where, Father, was your gentle Jesus then?"

No Contest.

For Catchpole, though, once that card had been removed, the whole house of cards fell apart. His former faith lay in ruins about him. He became, if I may so term it, a crusading atheist. He put on the glistening armor of Truth and took up the razor-sharp weapons of Reason. Put less fancifully, Catholicism-bashing became his avocation. And since we are neighbors -- indeed, have been neighbors for almost half a century now -- and I am conveniently to hand, I have long been the recipient of his anti-Catholic attacks.

Let me say at once that I like the major, I like him very much indeed, and he, I think, likes me. We are, and have long been, friends. It is in this context that my theft of his garden gnomes must be seen. It is a move in a long-standing contest. The contest is normally verbal, and he has all the best lines. The theft will, I hope, shift our ongoing, friendly arguments to less familiar territory.

We play chess once a week, alternating between the Music Room at Beale Hall and the parlor of Benghazi, the major's cottage on the edge of Tetley Wood, once the gamekeeper's cottage on the original estate. We are not very good at chess, but we are, at least, equally bad. Of course, chess is merely an excuse for regular meetings. At Beale Hall, Maude has for decades brought to the chess players their refreshments -- sandwiches, seed cake or lemon tart, a pot of tea. The major has long known -- I am sure of it -- that Maude and I share a bed, but he has pretended otherwise. He would not use that knowledge in his attack on Catholic hypocrisy; he was and is a gentleman.

Of course, I have never spoken to him of his stream of cousins, nieces, and housekeepers, a stream, of late, drying up. But then, how could I? He had married shortly after the war a woman whose postnatal depression could be traced back, seemingly, to her birth. Imogen carried about with her an unfailing suggestion of bleakness, of a gray overcast made filthier with stains of yellow and black. "She cast me down, old chap. Not her fault, poor soul, but she cast me down." She had seemed always on the point of tears, the tip of her nose red, as if with a perpetual cold. He was Patience on a monument, and she was Grief; only, he could not smile.

They lived together for twelve miserable years. "Bit of luck at that point. Her doctor-chappie, probably sick and tired of her whinging on, suggested a month or two in Brighton, bracing sea air, do her the world of good, take her out of herself, that sort of thing. Well, in Brighton she met this Spanish dancer, Blasco Mendoza, ever heard of him? No matter. Not Spanish, actually. Came from Brooklyn, New York. They fell in love, perfect mesh of temperaments, for all I know. Ran off with him, don't know where -- don't care, to be honest. Perhaps Brooklyn."

I have heard this story many times. The major, bless him, has long forgotten that I was a witness to the events.

This evening the major came to Beale Hall -- it was my turn to be host at chess -- and he congratulated me on my "miraculous" -- he loved to use such words -- "resurrection." W.C. is now eighty and somewhat feeble. His current lady is -- he no longer pretends otherwise -- a private nurse. But he bubbled with excitement. Inwardly, I groaned. He had a new argument. I was going to have to defend once more, God help me, not only the existence but also the integrity of the triune God. I tried to arrange my face in an expression of eager anticipation.

Casually, as if to increase his pleasure by deferring the moment of triumph, he picked up a leatherbound book that lay on my desk. "What have we here?" he said, turning to the title page.

"As you see, a Coleridge first edition, 1816. 'Christabel,' 'Kubla Khan,' 'The Pains of Sleep.' What's particularly noteworthy, though, is the fact that Scott's 'Field of Waterloo' is bound in at the end. Here, let me show you."

"Yes, yes, most interesting."

But, of course, he wasn't in the least interested. It is a beautiful little volume, and it is one of those that I keep in here as my private stock, so to speak. Nor was he interested in the skull, the memento mori, that sat on my desk beside it. The skull presumably belonged to the Pish, the Ba'al Shem of Ludlow, although I can find no reference to it in his papers. Still, inscribed across the crown are the Hebrew characters, Yorick, a reliable clue, as perhaps I shall later reveal, to the Pish.

W.C. could contain himself no longer. He sat down on his side of the chess table, carefully pinched his trouser legs above his knees in what has become since the advent of blue jeans a charmingly old-fashioned gesture, and pulled on his left earlobe. It was, he said, possible to prove the presence in the world of gratuitous, and therefore God-denying, evil by a mathematical formula, by Bayes's Theorem. "Look at this," he said, and he removed from his breast pocket a folded piece of paper. I opened it:

P(H/e&k) = P(H?K) X P(E/H&K) / P(E/K)

This was the moment that Maude chose to knock. Is it possible to know a person by the knock? I would, I swear, be able to distinguish Maude's knock from no matter how many others. (Of course, who else but Maude might have knocked at that moment? I want to be fair about this. Is not the truth the truth? asks Falstaff.)

"Come," I said, using an English verbal expression that for Maude and me had a salacious meaning going back to the days of our earliest sexual raptures.

No wonder she blushed when she entered, bearing a tray on which were sandwich fingers (smoked salmon, ham and cheese, tomato and cucumber), slices of chocolate cake, plates and cutlery, a pot of tea, a jug of milk, and cups and saucers.

"A feast, Maude! Splendid. You are far too kind," said Catchpole. "What d'you say to our friend here's rising from the dead? Non nobis, eh what? Still, we're grateful, aren't we?"

Maude has become quite stout as she inches toward seventy -- limps, I should say, for her left hip pains her dreadfully. Her face has a myriad of crosshatches now, but when she smiles -- and Catchpole was granted a smile -- all her heart-stopping beauty still shines forth. Her green eyes beckon still. When she smiles, ah...

No spring nor summer beauties have such grace

As I have seen in one autumnal face.

Her hair is still red, too, perhaps even redder than it was when she was young, but for this small miracle thanks are perhaps due to Angie Mackletwist, proud proprietrix of Snippety-Snip in Ludlow, who comes as friend and "professional" and spends an hour or two with Maude on alternate Thursday evenings.

Like me, Maude has a soft spot for W.C. She arranged her offerings before us with practiced efficiency. "I admit it's good to have the rascal back," she said. "But to speak true, I thought him in a better place."

"If you ever get a car again," said W.C., a mischievous twinkle in his eye, "I do hope you'll do the sensible thing and take it first to Copacabana in Bolivia."

It would have been cruel not to ask the question. Besides, I wondered what he was on about. "Why would I do that?"

"Why, to get it blessed of course. People drive up there from all over South America, all the way up to Lake Titicaca. They jam the central plaza, especially on so-called holy days. Your Church, old man, has six Franciscan priests -- count 'em: six! -- all happy to sprinkle your car with holy water and say the appropriate mumbo jumbo."

"Come now, Major."

"It's true, I give you my word. Far, far better than ordinary motor insurance, you see. The priests will protect you and your car from earthquakes, drink-drivers, broken axles, misleading directions, bad brakes, petrol shortages, you name it. Why, man, the economy of the town depends upon it. The very banks stay open on Sundays to accommodate the pilgrims. The Church and the banks are in collusion, you see. And yet your Savior, you may recall, threw the money changers out of the Temple. You can buy from the Indian women all the paraphernalia you need to decorate your car for its blessing."

"It's a miracle," said Maude.

pard

"It's a scandal!" said W.C.

"Franciscan priests, you say?" said Maude.

"Yes. Six of 'em."

"Well, that's all right, then."

"Strength in numbers, eh?" said W.C., winking at me. "Your pope is not slow to learn from example, I'll say that for him. He's actually invoked protection for an underground parking garage, the new one at the Vatican. The building, the motorcars, and all the people who park there will be perfectly safe from now on. What a blessing, so to speak. The Church has formally entered the Automotive Age, with special attention to parking garages. How maddening for the Yanks that His Holiness didn't recognize this needful new arena for his expertise in time to save the New York World Trade Center."

Maude's sense of humor tends to desert her in matters pertaining to faith. The major's sarcasm distressed her, much as she liked the man himself. "Who's to say what a papal blessing might have achieved?" she said sharply. But then she softened her tone: "I've always wanted to go to New York, never had the chance. There's cousins there on my mother's side, the Dowds. They've a pub in a place called Queens." She turned to me. "Did you know, Father, no sooner had word come of your horrible death than the major dashed over to comfort me? He was more in need of comfort than I, poor damned pagan that he is, sighing and blubbering and beating his poor heart with his fist."

She made for the door, leaving behind her a vacuum that men who are ashamed of their emotions abhor. To fill the silence, I refolded the paper he had given me and then with rustling deliberation reopened it, thrusting out my lip pensively as I gazed at the formula. "Hmm."

"Got you this time, what?" said the major eagerly. He has a way of twitching the corners of his mouth as if to suggest that he is much amused by your folly, is, indeed, on the point of laughing at it, but is making a valiant and polite effort to restrain himself. "We begin as always with God, who is by definition omnipotent, omniscient, and, of course, good." The major twitched rapidly, momentarily covering his mouth with his hand. "Now, suffering is assuredly not good. You with me so far?"

I shook my head at him, smiling the while, as who should say, "Ah, W.C., you jolly rogue, there you go again!" Aloud, I said, "What of these sandwiches, which will begin to curl if we're not careful? And shall we not have some of Maude's excellent tea?"

The twitches at the corners of the major's mouth accelerated. "You be mother, Father." This is one of his favorite jokes and I regularly set it up for him.

I poured. "One lump or two?"

"'Two for me, and three for you,'" he sang, and then intoned:

You the Trinity illustrate

Drinking orange pekoe tea --

With three lumps the Arian frustrate,

While the Devil smiles at me.

"Sound man, Browning. Knew hypocrisy when he saw it." This too was a favorite joke, seldom missing from our sessions. He bit into a sandwich. "Someone's nicked my garden gnomes."

"I can't believe it," I said. "Your garden gnomes? What kind of degenerate would do something like that? The Devil himself must be in it."

"The Devil, eh? If so, I'm grateful to him. Couldn't stand the bloody things, myself. Imogen put them there. Betrayed her origins more than anything else about her, I'd say. Meant to get rid of them for yonks. Bloody inertia."

I sighed.

W.C. took another sandwich and waved it at the paper in my hand. "You see the point?" he said eventually. "Gratuitous suffering is evil. That's self-evident. If God permits it, he's not good; if not good, he's not God. That's where the theorem comes in."

I tossed his piece of paper onto the table. "Come now, Major. You can do better than this."

"You know it, then?" No twitching now.

"I try to keep up, do the best I can, you know. I can't claim to be much of a philosopher anymore. Still, I'll have a whack. It's probability theory, right? A way of testing a hypothesis?"

"Well, yes. If you'll grant that your so-called New Testament is improbability theory. But can you answer it?"

"I think so. Still, I may've forgotten the elements in the equation. You may have to remind me. H is the hypothesis, of course; e is...evidence; k, let me see, yes, k is background knowledge or justified beliefs. Not bad, not bad. Well, W.C., what now?"

He had been masking his disappointment by staring intently at the chess pieces ranged between us. Now he noisily sipped his tea. "Suppose H, my hypothesis, is that there is no point to certain instances or patterns of suffering; e equals the statement that even after careful reflection we see no point to that suffering; and k equals whatever justified background beliefs we have."

"But we can only test your hypothesis by putting it alongside its opposite, the theist's belief: there is a reason for that suffering, but the reason is beyond our ken. Let's call my hypothesis T." And beneath his equation, I scribbled my own:

P(T/e&k) = P(T/k) x P(e/T&k) / P(e/k)

Now it was my turn to sip my tea noisily. "Now, is it more reasonable to accept H or T on e and k? The answer to that is which of the right sides of the two equations is the greater, you agree? Surely P(e/T and k) is greater than P(e/H and k). If there is a reason for the suffering, but the reason is beyond our ken, then of course we won't know that reason, even after the most careful reflection."

"So you say," he said grumpily.

"I'll go further. Even if we found a reason, that reason might be wrong, a mere illusion, since my hypothesis states that the reason is beyond our ken."

W.C. concentrated on the chess pieces.

"Any religion that's worth its salt should challenge its adherent to an uphill battle of belief. Come, come, old friend. I have not convinced you, and you have not convinced me. We scarcely needed Bayes's Theorem to end up where we began."

"True, true."

And with that, we turned to our game.

If it were still possible to believe in Freud, another God That Failed, I would say that W.C. is desperate to believe once more, that more than anything else he wishes he could prostrate himself before the Cross.

How can any rational creature believe the absurdities of Christianity? How can he not see in the story of Christ the pattern of countless pagan myths, the universal romance of the sacrificial god, his apotheosis, and his rebirth? How can contemporary man give credence to the accretions of early, of medieval, of subsequent superstitions? It is a puzzle. It is not modesty but obvious, simple honesty for me to acknowledge that there have been throughout Catholic history and also today believing men and women of far, far greater intellectual reach and mental acumen than I can lay claim to. The Bishop of Hippo or Thomas Aquinas or Thomas More or, perhaps more appropriately for my argument, one of the newest saints, the Holocaust martyr Edith Stein, could rip my poor objections to shreds. And as for the major, even I can overcome his weak triumphs.

Can it be that belief and doubt are genetically determined? Is there a switch that at conception or in the developing fetus may be turned on or off? I don't profess to know. Proofs for religious truth are full of holes; proofs against are useless. Some seem predisposed to believe, and others not. I only know that what is plainly nonsense to me is an incontrovertible article of faith to another.

The Pish, as I have told you, became known as the Ba'al Shem of Ludlow. Ba'al Shem means something like "Master of the Divine Name," a title once given to those who possessed the secret knowledge of the tetragrammaton and the other "Holy Names" of God and who could work miracles by the names' power. I have long felt an affinity with this Falsch and have devoted many an idle hour to finding out what I could about him. (Well, the word "idle" is a bit disingenuous. My research reacquainted me with Hebrew and broadened and deepened my knowledge of it. I found myself delving into the Talmud, into kabbalistic texts, into rabbinical and magical works. I became, albeit modestly, something of an Hebraist.) Luckily for my interest in the Pish, there is material aplenty on him here at Beale Hall. He and Sir Percival, the Beale of Falsch's day, were very thick, very thick indeed.

In fact, I once thought to write Falsch's biography, and over the years I have written quite a lot of it, more than 350 pages, but I doubt that I shall finish it now. This is a pity since all that the world today knows of the Pish is to be found in Lester Bradley's foreword to Horace Winstanley's collection, Tales of the Ba'al Shem of Ludlow (1936). Bradley, a devout member of a Hasidic sect, innocently supposed that the biographical details appearing in the tales were authentic. Winstanley, for his part, seems unaware that the tales themselves were mere adaptions of and variations on the earliest legends of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1700-1760), the Ba'al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. It is clear that these tales of the Pish are attempts by succeeding generations of the devout to make the life of their first teacher, the Ba'al Shem of Ludlow, conform to an acceptable pattern of rabbinical heroism, the wonder-workings of a first-rank Hebrew sage. But while events taking place in Zornisziza or Chechelnik or Polonnoye or, indeed, anywhere within the Pale of Settlement in the eighteenth century may be granted a certain credence if only because of the strange music these faraway place-names create, they become little short of ludicrous when the "holy community" is Wigan or Chepstow or Harrogate or Tunbridge Wells, a fact to which Winstanley seems quite oblivious.

Here, for example, is an excerpt from a letter that appears in full as an appendix to the Tales. It is somewhat grandly called "The Annunciation" and purports to be written by Jaime Pardo, one of a circle of mystically inclined students drawn to Rabbi Falsch. It was addressed to Daniel Ruback, a wealthy businessman living in Amsterdam, learned himself and a patron of learning. Why Pardo chose Ruback to be the conduit to European Jewry of Falsch's interactions with a divine spirit is unclear.

From His great storehouse of treasures, the Holy One, blessed be He, has endowed us with one of His richest jewels, His most brilliant gems. I mean that holy lamp and man of G-d, my noble master, my incomparable teacher, his honor Rabbi Solomon Reuben Hayyim Falsch. A great and powerful angel, a maggid, has revealed himself to this holy man, and for two years and more has been discovering to him supernal mysteries.

Let me speak now of wonders. The angel speaks out of Rabbi Falsch's mouth, but we, his disciples, hear nothing! And yet the angel is revealing to the rabbi sacred mysteries! The rabbi's mouth moves; he seems to be addressing us, his disciples, but silently. Meanwhile, his saintly body expands as if filled with air, grows round like the blown-up bladder of the unclean beast that rough gentile boys (and men, too!) kick through the town of a winter's day. At first, we feared our rabbi would burst, but as we approached him, he rose slowly into the air and, leaning forward as if bowing before the Ark, bounced gently on the ceiling. All the while, he spoke to us silently. To our joy, we are now accustomed to these holy visitations and are no longer alarmed by them.

The angel has discovered unto our teacher many mysteries of the Torah. Even now, my master knows the incarnations of all men and the healing tasks, the tikkunim, they are allotted. He knows the hidden medicinal virtues of all plants and the languages of the beasts. The science of reading the lines in the faces and hands of men is as open to him as the Aleph-Bet. He can look at the skies by night or by day and find written thereon what is to befall us, the Jews, whether good, God willing, or bad, God forbid. He knows all the events of the past and the causes and roots of all things. In short, the maggid has revealed everything to him.

But what must you think of me, your honor! I have left our rabbi bouncing on the ceiling, God forbid! I shall tell you now what follows upon the maggid's visit. There is a loud noise -- barrr-aakk! barrr-aakk! -- like the passing of wind. And as the angelic afflatus leaves, my master is returned slowly to his proper size and to his chair. In the air there lingers for a short while the delightful aroma of burnt sugar.

Well, I daresay these Tales have a certain charm. The truth is, I rather like them. A few of them are even useful, like the parables in the Gospels. Yet the actual life of the man who became the Pish was far more interesting than the travesty of a life Bradley and Winstanley have given us. But this is my hobbyhorse, and I should dismount.

As, in the spring of 1942, the time of Passover approached, my father began to get itchy. We had not as a family much pursued our Judaism in Paris. To be sure, we had lived among Jews, my father's business had brought us in daily contact with Jews, and we had observed in however desultory a fashion the feasts, the fasts, and the doctrinal dates that punctuate the Jewish year. But we were not devout, not in the least. As for me, I had from age six been sent to a nearby cheder, where I had learned to read and write and eventually speak biblical Hebrew and Aramaic and where grooming had begun for an expected bar mitzvah. Needless to say, these studies were in addition to those undertaken in the normal way at local schools. My father had been impelled by some atavistic imperative to insist I attend cheder; my mother had not much cared. I remember he called me his kaddishl, the son who would say kaddish, the mourner's prayer, for him when he died. My mother thought him ghoulish.

But now we were in Orléans, in Occupied France, and while we made no secret of our Jewish origins to our landlady, we lived among Christians under the constant threat of exposure and could not, especially with so strong a German presence in the city, live as Jews. My father's Judaism was, so to speak, a viral infection that had lain quiescent during most of his married life but that flared up in Orléans in the absence of any palliative whenever an occasion in the Jewish calendar rolled round. "There'll be no matzos," he said, "no charoset. We don't even have a Haggadah. Edmond will forget the Four Questions."

"No, I won't, Papa. I still know them."

"Well, I'll forget the four answers."

"For God's sake, stop the nonsense, Konrad," said my mother in disgust. "Is that all you can worry about, the Four Questions? Sentimental rubbish! Here's a question for you. Pay attention. Are you going to find work today? Here's another, even better. How long d'you think our few francs will last? You want questions? I've got questions. All the questions you can use."

My once plump father had become quite gaunt. The stubble on his face grew dark where his cheeks caved in. His trousers, held up by braces, flapped around his middle like the costume of a clown. He was not responding well to this crisis in our lives. True, he went out every morning, ostensibly to look for work, achieving thereby the appearance, at least, of responsibility. How he filled his days, I cannot say. Once, out on some errand or other, I saw him sitting on the rim of the fountain in the Place de la Victoire, idly swinging his legs, for his feet did not reach the step. The fountain was not playing, but he contrived to get soaked anyway: the rain was pelting down. Shocked, I turned from the sight and ran down the rue des Capuchins. No, he was not coping well. He had developed certain new mannerisms that made him appear if not quite mad then not quite sane. For example, if he met with disagreement of whatever degree, he would lower his bristly chin onto his chest, look up with hungry eyes, and enunciate deliberately, "Tee-hee-hee." Crushed by my mother's response, he did this now. "Tee-hee-hee."

My mother turned from him abruptly. Terrified by our plight, longing, no doubt, to be with her beloved Madeleine, she took out her frustration on me. "Edmond, what are you staring at? Do your homework."

"I've finished it, Maman."

"Do some more. There's always more. Study your Latin declensions, your Greek verbs. You want to grow up like him?" She jerked a thumb behind her, where stood her hapless husband.

"But it's Sunday, Maman."

"Your day of rest?" she said sarcastically. But then she bethought herself and turned to my father. "Edmond must become a Christian."

My conversion, temporary, of course, was becoming an ever more frequent topic of conversation between them. They believed that at worst the Nazis would have no reason to bother a Christian boy whose Jewish origins were hidden from them and that at best they would spare the Jewish parents of a Christian boy, should his origins become known. I cannot say if my parents at this time knew what fate the Nazis proposed for them, for all of us, and in the case of my beautiful mother would actually achieve. They knew that the Germans had instituted in France as elsewhere in Europe a new Reign of Terror and that many French descendants of the earlier reign stood ready to assist them in its implementation.

"I said, Konrad, that we must get him converted."

"Yes, yes, we must, no question."

"I mean now. We can't put it off any longer. We must have a word with Madame Goupil." Madame Goupil was our landlady, my so-called Tante Louise. "She'll speak to her priest, set up an appointment."

We were living in a seedy, working-class area on the outskirts of Orléans, an area long blighted by unemployment -- gray, slimily cobbled, decorated with broken glass, rusted tin, and other rubbish, the flotsam and jetsam of the poor; peopled with desperate men who drunkenly fought one another to uphold their honor and, losing it, clobbered their wives and women. Here, Madame Goupil was something of an anomaly. She was the widow of a railroad signalman who had died pour la patrie in 1917; she was living on a small pension and the income from renting the larger of the two bedrooms in her neatly kept house. Poor she certainly was; her cleanliness was a habit of mind, a companion of her godliness, and a prerequisite, as she saw it, in the entertaining for tea and biscuits of a succession of priests, incumbents at the long-neglected, ever-damp, always cold church a mere five minutes' walk from her home.

"But Edmond is almost fourteen," said my father. "This is the time he should have his bar mitzvah."

"So what? We're talking about survival, not about life as it should be."

"Well, all right, but still, don't you think he should be bar mitzvah before he's converted? A matter of precedent. Of protocol, you might say."

"You think that before they spritz him with holy water he should read his portion in a synagogue?"

"Right, right, you've got it. That's it."

"Here in Orléans, where we haven't even bothered to register, where we're outlaws?"

"Well, for a bar mitzvah, for a simcha like that, we could go back to Paris."

"Are you crazy?"

My father pressed his stubbled chin into his chest. He looked up at Mother with bloodshot eyes. "Tee-hee-hee," he said.

W.C.'s casual picking up of the Coleridge first edition on my desk the other evening has reminded me of my enemy Twombly and his recent letter. I must do something about him, and quickly. In two short months he will descend upon Beale Hall for his annual six-week stint in the library. He has the goods on me this time, he thinks. I suspect he's right. My recent trip to Paris had proved useless. Aristide Popescu was in Budapest, according to his wretched son. No, there was no knowing when he'd be back. Was Aristide in Budapest? I doubt it. I think he is avoiding me.

I first met Twombly when we were both graduate students, as I have said. Why we should have been sent to Paris, of all places, to study English literature -- he from a working-class parish in Philadelphia and I from South Kensington, where my parishioners had been, for the most part, members of the French diplomatic corps and their families -- is a question that only the Church in its abiding wisdom can answer. It may be that some lowly, priestly clerk "cut our orders," to use a military expression for an obvious cock-up, an expression that also has a charmingly churchly aroma ("orders," I mean, not "cock-up"), out of incompetence or boredom or spite -- or all three. We wanted out, after all; we wanted the ivied academic life, with its meerschaum pipes, its wit at high table, and its many manly pleasures. Perhaps he, my imaginary clerk, envied us.

We priestly students formed a coterie of our own, excluded by our calling from easy integration with the "civilians" and their heterosexual jollity. As for the intellectuals among them, they were all communists and sneered openly at us. We used to meet in a student hangout, La Grenouille Farcie, sitting at our table like a congery of crows, beer or cheap wine before us. Castignac, my old seminary friend, was of our number, although he was reading not English but political philosophy; Bastien, too, whom I had first met at the orphanage in Orléans, whither the Church had sent me after Tante Louise's consultation with her priest, my father never returning from St-Pons (Bastien, in fact, was not himself a student. He ran a soup kitchen for the indigent out of a lean-to in a rubbish-strewn alley not five minutes' walk from where we all met); Twombly, of course; and I. We formed the hard core, the regulars. Others drifted in from time to time, only to drop from sight.

We strove as best we could to match the high spirits, the laughter and bravado, of the other tables, the civilian tables. Castignac was particularly good at telling anticlerical jokes, insider jokes -- he had an inexhaustible fund of them -- "allowed," so to speak, because a cleric was telling them to clerics. He caused the few genuine roars of laughter that emanated from our table. Twombly, though, never managed more than a tight-lipped, reluctant smile, and not because he failed to understand them, at least not in the linguistic sense: his French, if vilely accented, was utterly fluent. No, he wanted to register sophisticated amusement, but he seemed instead to be making mental notes, taking evidence.

It was at one such occasion at La Grenouille Farcie that he became my enemy, although to this day I don't understand why. Bastien and I were entertaining the company with tales of our orphanage experience, the cruelty we suffered at the hands of the nuns. It's true, "cruelty" is the word, or "sadism." These were bitter old women, viciously punishing helpless children for the barren wasteland of their own lost lives. They thrashed us mercilessly, humiliated us before our fellows, kept us thirsty lest we wet our beds and inadequately clad lest we forget the sufferings of Our Savior. At any rate, Bastien and I were going on about this, not complainingly, truly, but as if vying with one another in a television game of "Can You Top This?" or like retired soldiers of the Foreign Legion recalling in retrospective amusement their sufferings under a particularly brutal sergeant major.

"They would come into the dormitory at night," said Bastien. "If they found you asleep with your hands anywhere but crossed on your chest, they would thrash you awake. Then they would thrash your hands. Sister Angélique, in particular, she of the wen and the drooping eye, she used a meter length of bamboo. She'd not stop until your hands bled."

Twombly, slim and pale, not yet bald but already possessing a natural tonsure, pursed his lips and showed us momentarily his perfect American teeth. "At least," he said, "you learned early to keep your hands off your genitals."

"Perhaps," I said. "But that didn't keep Father Damien's hands off our genitals."

That was all I said, and it was greeted by general, knowing laughter at the table. But the expression on Twombly's face was one of murderous hatred. He rose to his feet, his jaw clenched, large veins visibly throbbing at his temples. He said not a word but turned from us and strode away.

Now, why should what I said have earned his lifelong enmity? You tell me.

Copyright © 2001 by Alan Isler

Reading Group Guide

A Scribner Paperback Fiction
Reading Group Guide
Clerical Errors
From the highly acclaimed author of The Prince of West End Avenue comes Clerical Errors, a wickedly funny and genuinely moving novel about faith, love, and transgression. Despite a severe lack of piety and the inconvenient fact of his Jewish birth, Edmond Music chooses the priesthood as a career. Thanks to the generosity of a former lover, he is now entrenched at an English estate with a fabulous library, much to the Vatican's chagrin. There he plays chess with his friend W. C. Catchpole -- who lost his faith during wartime and now rails against Catholicism -- and carries on a clandestine affair with his longtime housekeeper, Maude Moriarty. He would rather immerse himself in studying an eighteenth-century Jewish mystic known as "the Pish" than contend with the growing interest in a Shakespeare folio gone missing on his watch. The arrival of his nemesis, the American priest Twombly, and Maude's religious revival force Edmond to reexamine his identity and confront his past.
Discussion Points
1. Consider the epigraph of the novel -- a poem called "The End of the World," by Archibald MacLeish, in which a lively circus is interrupted by a more imposing spectacle. How does Isler's narrative echo MacLeish's poem?
2. "Sipping a Calvados in a bar in the rue de Malengin...I discovered to my surprise that I had just died" [p. 11]. At the outset of Clerical Errors, Father Edmond Music relates how a fatal automobile accident has resulted in the misapprehension that Music himself has been killed. How does this set the tone of the novel and hint at the themes that follow?
3. Throughout the novel, Edmond seems to be speaking directly to the reader as he narrates his tale. Although his language is sophisticated, his tone is conversational: "But where was I? Ah, yes, my parents" [p. 21]. What effect does this intimate voice have on our experience of Edmond's story?
4.Consider the humor in Clerical Errors. What makes it funny? In what ways does the humor serve the author's more serious purposes?
5. Edmond periodically gets together with his good friend W. C. Catchpole, who lost his faith in the Church when he was a major stationed in North Africa during the war. What do you think is Catchpole's role in the novel? Does it change over time?
6. Father Music spends a good deal of his time studying the Jewish mystic Solomon Falsch, also known as "the Pish." Why does Edmond feel such an affinity for Falsch? What are the parallels between their lives, and how do these unfold over the course of the novel?
7. The narrator speaks of his upbringing only briefly, and often with a matter-of-fact tone. But increasingly we sense the significance of his traumatic family history. How does Edmond's visit to Israel -- when he locates his father and finds his mother's name on a Holocaust memorial -- affect him, both immediately and in the long term?
8. Father Fred Twombly is Edmond's arch enemy, and though he is surely a comic character, at times he poses a genuine threat. But what other roles does he play in the story? Does he ever seem a sympathetic character?
9. The missing Shakespeare folio occupies a central place in the plot, though it is only near the end that questions about its authenticity come to the fore. How does the debate over the manuscript echo the central themes of Edmond's life?
10. For much of the novel, Father Music's lack of piety and his casual attitudes on faith and sin are a source of humor. But when Maude undergoes a kind of religious revival, his skepticism and waywardness take on a different tenor. Why and how does Maude force Edmond to question both his behavior and his beliefs?
Copyright © 2001 by Alan Isler

About The Author

Photo Credit: Jerry Bauer

Alan Isler was born in London in 1934. He taught English literature in New York City for twenty-five years. His first novel, The Prince of West End Avenue, won the 1994 National Jewish Book Award and was one of five fiction finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is also the author of Kraven Images and The Bacon Fancier: Four Tales. He died in 2010.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Touchstone (December 3, 2002)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743210614

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Raves and Reviews

The New Yorker Gleefully blasphemous and unerringly comic.

Tahl Raz San Francisco Chronicle An oddly affecting comic gambol through faith, felony, and the limits of human love...The wit (and ire) is often pitch perfect...By novel's end, few things escape unscathed save one's faith in a good read.

Donna Rifkind The Washington Post Wonderfully antic...Rich and strange and not easily forgotten.

Noah Isackson Chicago Tribune A sophisticated comedy of faith...Isler guides an entertaining story through the sacred and profane.

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