“The Beauty of the Fictional”: Excerpts from The Devil and Pierre Gernet by David Bentley Hart

Theologian David Bentley Hart has turned his brilliant mind and imagination to narrative fiction in his latest volume, The Devil and Pierre Gernet, a thought-provoking collection of four short stories and one novella.

In this post, we offer three brief excerpts that communicate the style and content of this book: one from editor Mary Hietbrink’s in-house editorial summary, another from the author’s preface, and the last from the title novella itself. Enjoy!

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Mary Hietbrink
Mary Hietbrink

From Editor Mary Hietbrink

I know what you’re thinking — short stories from David Bentley Hart? The writer of such  philosophically and theologically challenging volumes as The Beauty of the Infinite and In the Aftermath? Hart anticipated that question, and in his preface he explains that fiction is a much more natural medium for him, and that he believes that “God is no more likely (and probably a good deal less likely) to be found in theology than in poetry or fiction.” . . .

When I read these stories, I found them occasionally flabbergasting, often bedazzling, sometimes heartbreaking, and ultimately mesmerizing. And it dawned on me that, even though these stories are very different from each other, they’re united by a common thread of haunting religious and philosophical questions about this life and the afterlife. So here is a powerful collection that will engage both the mind and the heart — what I call “the beauty of the fictional.”

David Bentley Hart
David Bentley Hart

From the “Author’s Apologia”

A soft but insistent voice within me tells me I should offer some apology for visiting these stories on the world. It is an irrational impulse, I know, since the world is not likely to be inconvenienced by them in the least, or even to take any notice of them. I suppose, though, that I am afraid of trying the patience of readers of my previous books, because those books all dealt with matters of theology and philosophy and cultural criticism, and their literary pretensions were for the most part decently hidden behind veils of argument and exposition. Here those pretensions are wantonly on display. In my defense, though, fiction is a much more natural idiom for me. I have written stories and poems all my life, or at least since fairly early childhood, whereas I conceived an interest in philosophical theology only when, as a young man, I went searching for God; and then, as things turned out, I came to conclude that God is no more likely (and probably a good deal less likely) to be found in theology than in poetry or fiction. I am also conscious of the oddity of the particular pieces I have brought together here. I had originally intended to make the subtitle of this volume Elaborately Artificial Stories, since I have chosen five tales that are willfully extravagant in form and content rather than any of the drier, more “realistic” stories I have also written. After all, one likes this sort of thing if it is the sort of thing one likes, but otherwise it can easily prove a little too much of a muchness. These tales seem to me to constitute a natural set, however, if for no other reason than that they all fall into the dismaying category of “fiction of ideas” rather than into the much more respectable category of “ripping yarns.” And, for what it is worth, purely at the level of ideas I have never written a more serious book. That, though, is not an aesthetic criterion, and thus cannot be adduced as evidence for how these stories ought to be judged as stories. So I shall simply say that this is the only book I have written with which I am truly satisfied.

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The Devil and Pierre Gernet
* * * The Devil and Pierre Gernet

From “The Devil and Pierre Gernet”

My friend — who was a fallen angel who had walked the earth for ages, wearing countless guises and called by a multitude of names — was in the habit of inviting me to his club, The Typhon, for postprandial drinks whenever he had a Friday night free. He enjoyed the extraordinary privilege of reserving a sitting room of almost Borgian magnificence for his private use, and it was here that we usually spent our evenings together, hidden amid a forest of pale marble, polished brass, and glistening silver, encircled by remote prospects of mahogany wainscoting, our voices vanishing into the vault of the dark coffered ceiling high above. We would sit to either side of an immense window that looked out over a terraced garden and wooded park and westward towards the skyline of the distant city — set upon the horizon somewhat to our right — I with my cognac or whiskey, he sipping some nameless ruby cordial from a tiny, tulip-shaped glass, which he held lightly by its stem between the tips of his forefinger and thumb and which, though never replenished, was never empty. “It’s not a bibulous drink at all,” he once told me, in his plush baritone; “It’s a sort of tonic, one of my own concoction. In fact, it induces a deeper sobriety in the drinker. It’s a depressant, I suppose; it certainly dampens enthusiasm and cools the temper; but it’s not an inebriant. Its effect is a kind of sharp, dry lucidity of thought.” And then, after a momentary pause: “As for flavor, it’s utterly insipid. Tap water has more taste. We don’t really approve of the paltrier sensualisms, you know.” This did not surprise me. I knew him to be abstemious in his habits: on those rare occasions when he deigned to eat, he would not touch meat, and his detestation of tobacco was, in his own words, fanatical. At the same time, there was clearly nothing ascetical about him: he appeared comfortably but not excessively corpulent, and the subtle lavishness of his attire — suits as glossily black as India ink, ties of mist-gray or crimson silk fastened with platinum pins, gold cufflinks exquisitely inlaid with armigeral devices, the large emerald ring glittering on his left hand — seemed to me to emanate from a world of unfathomable wealth and unimaginable opulence.

I knew, of course, that an association with a devil was good neither for my spiritual sanity nor for my reputation, but I found his company irresistible: his experience was so vast and various, his erudition so comprehensive and arcane, and his special knowledge so much more exotic than any available to mortal men that I usually parted from him only warmed by drink, but intoxicated by his talk. His conversation did, however, require some getting used to. He was, for one thing, given to rather baroque locutions: he invariably called a taxi a “taximeter cabriolet,” for instance, and he had once complained to me, after he had spent a day in the city, of the “unseemly fremescence of the mobile vulgus.” But, while such phrases would certainly have seemed ponderous witticisms or insufferable affectations coming from anyone else, from him they seemed quite unpretentious. He had, after all, been a courtier of both Xerxes and Shih-Huangdi, an advisor to Antiochus Epiphanes, and an intimate of Valentinus; he had both granted the Cathars the protection of his estates in Toulouse and then joined the French crown’s crusade against them, had owned plantations in the Dutch Antilles and Haiti, and had stood an impassive witness in the streets of Paris as many of his fellow aristocrats had been carried by in the tumbrel; he had, in short, been and done so many things that his habits of speech seemed not so much mannered as timeless.

I must confess, though, that certain of his boasts seemed a little too fantastic to credit. “I invented vegetarianism,” for example, or (more expansively), “I invented the agricultural revolution . . . and, of course, human sacrifice.” On one occasion, he claimed not only to be a champion of the avant-garde but in fact the inventor of all conceptual art and its most generous patron. And his political convictions were somewhat nebulous to me. He confessed, for example, that he was of two minds regarding the end of public executions: the old spectacles, he admitted, had for the most part merely attracted the callous, the brutal, the sadistic, and the deviant, “but then,” he added, “who better to enlist upon the side of civilization?” He professed himself an ardent feminist, but when asked to dilate upon this would offer only some coarsely facetious slur, like “Women are probably no less depraved and pitiless than men if left to their own devices, and I can see no reason why their native ebulliences should be suffocated by archaic conventions.” He claimed to be both a communist and a devout advocate of the free market. He believed in a strong military and called himself a pacifist. He spoke glowingly of democracy and adored Stalin. Strangely, though, I never had the impression that any of his utterances was frivolous or the expression of a mere transitory mood. I always sensed that I was simply glimpsing facets of what I would have recognized as a single, complex, but internally consistent philosophy if only I could have seen it whole.

We were almost never actually entirely alone, I should mention. My friend was constantly attended (almost haunted, one might say) by a kind of valet, whom he referred to simply as “my man,” as if describing a rare curio acquired in a little-frequented shop, and whose narrow frame he draped in a garish antique livery — usually a scarlet coat purfled with gold embroidery and breeches of light blue satin — that had the unfortunate effect of making the poor fellow’s desperately unprepossessing features that much more obvious: a distinctly sallow complexion, gaunt cheeks, a sharply prominent nose, fierce small eyes not so much hazel green as sulfurous yellow, and a pronounced widow’s peak rising into a low slope of black hair all but lacquered to his scalp by a viscous pomade. I frequently forgot that “my man” was there, however, so unobtrusive was his presence; once he had brought the drinks, he would withdraw to his customary station by the fireplace, alongside the two miniature caryatids supporting the fluted porphyry mantelpiece, where at once he would become so unnaturally immobile that he seemed no more alive than they. Unless called upon to discharge some minor task, there he would remain until, at the end of the evening, my friend would curtly order him to bring the car around; he would then all of a sudden become animate, like a statue brought instantly to life, incline his head somewhat sullenly, hiss a barely audible “Very good, sir,” and depart. At first, I found this uncanny self-mastery unsettling, but my unease had dissipated when my friend had confided to me that his servant was also, like himself, “an angel in reduced circumstances.”

 Click here to order The Devil and Pierre Gernet: Stories by David Bentley Hart.

Click here to read a review of this book by blogger Nathan Duffy.