In the territory of saints
By TIM McCARTHY
Jerome Strozzi is a renegade priest who roams the seamier side of Paris resurrecting the dead. No wonder he barges in and takes over Jean Sulivans novel, Eternity, My Beloved, which was supposed to be about a retired whore called Elizabeth. But Elizabeth talked about Strozzi -- a character apparently based upon an older priest the author knew -- so much that Sulivan became determined, even obsessed, to find out what made such a man tick.
Strozzi and Sulivan had some things in common. Sulivan was himself something of a renegade. His third novel, The Sea Remains, created such a splash in 1964 that his bishop released him from pastoral duties so he could devote himself to writing. Would that the church had more bishops like that, because Sulivan did not by any means turn out to be a dutiful son of the institution. Yet he went on writing and publishing prolifically until he died in a car crash in 1980.
So what was Strozzis secret? He performed his resurrections among the living dead, of course, in Paris bawdy Pigalle precinct, knowing all along that most of us are among the living dead and that sometimes only a brush with eternity can reignite lifes spark. But how did he do it? Part of the answer is simple, even obvious: with love. Tough love. Not the kind of tough love that we use nowadays to bash someone into submission, but the kind of love that is unconditional. You want tough? Try that sometime.
That kind of love is the territory of saints. Is Strozzi a saint, pastoring his makeshift parish of whores and pimps, thieves and thugs, taking his beatings when they come? Or is he merely a nutcase, or a fool? Such questions gnaw at the narrator, Sulivan, as he searches Strozzi out, admitting more than once that the mans serenity -- an inner peace invulnerable, it seems, to war, betrayal, lust, loss -- gets on his nerves. Its not normal. Human love has conditions. Period. It takes a burst of eternity to make it something else. So maybe eternity is what Strozzi is faking. If he is faking. To live in eternity before you die. Is that what freedom really is? That is hard to believe, even harder to do. So the narrator tracks his quarry, exploring every footprint for the feel of clay.
Blood, tears, love and religion. Oh what a melodrama it might have made. The narrator knows: I could have made up scenes, livened everything up; it would have filled hundreds of pages. My publisher would have been delighted -- a sure bestseller. Strozzi, we could have made something out of all that craziness.
But no. The war, the Nazi occupation, lust, conversions, a scene here, a scene there, nothing developed much, all of it zigzagging through time, everything compressed in the hope of cracking eternity and slipping the border into the beyond. We are broken beings, and so our stories must be broken. Sulivan is after bigger game. He is Ahab without a ship. What he hopes to harpoon is the ineffable -- a tough task for any writer.
Strozzi leads. For the most part his ministry among the whores is simply to be there. Strozzi is. He tells them he loves them. Thats all. And sometimes they believe him because of what he is. Why among prostitutes? Because we are all prostitutes. Those who take it to the streets are simply more honest about it, wretched in their way of life and therefore more capable of humility: On the other hand, theres no end to the prostitution of the highly placed; they go on pretending, issuing statements, organizing justice, charity, morality, even the love of God, for their own profit.
Sulivan: burster of balloons.
Strozzi wants to rent an apartment. But he has no salary, no Social Security, nothing. Monsieur, the court clerk pronounces, in the eyes of the law you dont exist.
Back on the street, Strozzi is overjoyed: I have nothing. I am nothing. I hardly exist. Im free.
Free from what? Possessions, to be sure. But that is the easy part. Far harder to shed are the mental yokes -- calcified values, principles, virtues or vices, religious convictions. All are idols. And they must be smashed if we are ever to feel that spirit, that ineffable beyond, burning like a sun at the heart of life.
Sulivan writes it. Strozzi lives what Sulivan writes. Saint or no saint, that can get on your nerves. Sulivan is, as they say, only human. That said, is Eternity, My Beloved a good read? Not in any conventional sense. It ends up more a meditation than a novel. But it stabs at the deepest stuff of life and it might, if only in those flashes when eternity cracks and you slip the border into that buried beyond, let you see again that it is all possible, all right here waiting to be lived. Because Strozzi is. Because Strozzi bears witness that eternity is now and resurrections can happen on any corner.
Tim McCarthy is a fiction writer and journalist living in Littleton, N.H.
National Catholic Reporter, November 5, 1999