Cover image for A corner of the veil
A corner of the veil
Cossé, Laurence.
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Uniform Title:
Coin du voile. English
Publication Information:
New York, NY : Scribner, [1999]

Physical Description:
271 pages ; 19 cm
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Central Library X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks
Central Library X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Paris. May 24 1999, 8.32pm: Father Bertrand Beaulieu of the venerable Society of Casuists, holds in his trembling hands six handwritten pages that prove the existence of God. Instantly, the secular and spiritual powers move to suppress the news, certain that it signifies their own demise.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

This droll, paradoxical novel of theological manners, a bestseller and prize-nominee in France, is both provocative and thoroughly delightful. Father Bertrand Beaulieu, a member of a Jesuit-like order called the "Society of Casuits," opens a letter from a crank, a fellow who has already bombarded Beaulieu with numerous proofs of God's existence, all of them flawed. This one, however, demonstrates God's existence irrefutably in a mere six pages. Beaulieu is literally floored; when he recovers from his prostration, he rushes to show the letter to Father Herv‚ Montgaroult, who has the curious job of refuting all philosophical proofs of God. After reading this unquestionable one, Montgaroult finds himself in a state of bliss, wandering the streets of Paris. The two fathers take the proof to their superior, Hubert Le Dangeolet, who doesn't read the paper himself, but locks it in his safe. Dangeolet realizes in a flash that this proof means, potentially, the end of the order. As he explains to his superior, Father Waldenberg, "We can't have our whole Casuist province in France slipping into a way of life that is positively Franciscan, and the ecstatic branch at that." In a series of comical plot twists, the news keeps leaking out, to a select few, of course. The French prime minister, Petitgrand, demands to see the proof and is apparently so overwhelmed that he announces to his cabinet the coming reign of love. This news properly horrifies the ministers of justice, interior and economics, who see the whole structure of greed and aggressionÄthe linchpins of modern societyÄcollapsing. Not to speak of their jobs. Cosse falters a bit in finally summarizing the proof. Still, with tight, clever and confident prose, this novel performs a bit of a miracle itself by turning theology into farce. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

A best seller in France, nominated for the French Academy's grand prize, this slight literary effort may have lost something in translation. Maudauit, a failed priest and obscure professor of physics and chemistry in VerriŠres, drafts an incontrovertible proof of the existence of God. He's been sending so-called proofs for years to Father Beaulieu, a Casuist (Jesuit) priest in Paris, editor of a scholarly church journal, who has dismissed him as a pest. This time, however, Beaulieu knows he's reading truth. The news sends him and the others with whom he shares it into ecstasy and makes a believer of the prime minister, who promptly resigns from his office. As the news continues to leak, a crisis looms in the innermost circles of church and state. The revelation that there is a God may well turn society upside-down. Coss‚'s sly little tale is drawn out beyond its limitations, teasing the reader but never delivering or enlightening. An optional purchase for collections of European literary fiction. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/99.]ÄJo Manning, Univ. of Miami Lib. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One The Casuists Monday, 8:32 P.M. PARIS, Monday, May 24, 1999, 8:32 P.M. Father Bertrand Beaulieu shut his office door behind him, considered the heaps of books, file folders, manuscripts, and newspapers in which other people would have seen ordinary disorder but whose meticulous order was clear to him, and concluded: yes, solitude was what he liked best. Every day, nearly every day, he asked himself the question: Was he happier in solitude, or in the company of his peers? Because his life required both that he be alone and that he never be alone. Evenings at seven-thirty, the dinner hour rang for him as a deliverance. He would work for five hours, six hours, in the afternoon (mornings he received visitors). Which did he enjoy more -- settling down to write, finally? or finally quitting for the day? Evenings, he was eager to join his companions at dinner. And at that moment the answer was beyond doubt: it was they who were his pleasure. Their mere existence, the sound of their voices, of their coughs, their smells, their wit, their culture -- the ever-fascinating shimmer of their collective knowledge -- their crazes, their quirks... But the meal over, his coffee cup still in hand, Beaulieu could not suppress it -- he would be seized again with the desire to be off by himself. Inimitable coffee, pale and lukewarm, that existed only in "their houses," here in this land of utterly correct coffee; coffee that everyone joked about but no one managed to get changed; a mystery, a true mystery. Cup in a fake white porcelain glaze, inoffensive enough to look at, but distasteful to use. And every evening, at that same instant, the desire to be off by himself -- no, the desire to be himself. Yet Bertrand took only an hour off for dinner, seven-thirty to eight-thirty. After which, unless he had some lecture to give or discussion to lead, he would go back up to his office. That hour, though, was enough to change his mind. No question -- for him, contentment lay in solitude. Actually, he had no more patience for solitude than he had for the society of his peers, as was frequently remarked, with an eye on Bertrand and a hand on his own pipe stem, by his tablemate and confrère Father Thomas Blin (who was also a psychoanalyst and a late-night taxi driver). At least, Bertrand thought as he went over to his office window, at least his own successive inclinations were themselves states of desire. Desire for people's presence, then desire for silence. He drew the curtains. The pulse of desire. For instance, before dinner, the mere sight of the day's mail as yet unopened overwhelmed Bertrand: two inches thick, ten letters at least, which he would have to answer tonight because the next day would bring as many more. And then just an hour later -- Why should that be? It was an hour of nothing special: a few words, a little smoke -- the same pile of mail was somehow appealing. Sitting down, pencils to the right, felt tips to the left. In front of him, pads of paper. Order and silence, autonomy. The feel of a garden in the evening, well, yes. Checking his list of things-still-to-do, finding "mail," crossing out "mail." One envelope larger than the others stuck out from the pile. It was also the only one made of cheap brown paper. Father Beaulieu pulled it out of the bundle. He had recognized the crazy writing that tilted its outsize characters over to the left, practically laying them flat. That lunatic was back again. A Martin Something who ten times already had sent Beaulieu -- this same way, by mail -- proof of the existence of God. Ten different demonstrations, one day by logic, three months later through chemistry, once by way of semantics, another time by way of the absurd, each time argued over fifteen or twenty pages, which Bertrand read through to the end each time. Because he answered. Well, he had answered in depth at least three of those mailings, anyway. The big envelope slid under the pile. He would do the others first. At ten o'clock, Father Beaulieu was still at it. He who had the knack of answering so neatly in three lines -- so very haiku -- this evening had had to spend ten minutes on the simplest response. Nothing but heavy questions. Eleven "To the Editor." Not one "Bertrand, old friend," not one "Dear Uncle B." The abortion article alone was responsible for three quarters of the letters. About as many letters of support as attacks. Support that brought Bertrand no pleasure -- ideological, excessive: one might think they hadn't read the piece. Attacks that hurt. He should have ignored some lines. He'd certainly had to read them. "How does the Society of Casuists put up with a troublemaker like you in its midst?"..."They say job rotation is the rule with the Casuists, and that today's provincial works in the kitchen tomorrow. Sir, we ardently hope to hear that you have moved to the stoves. However execrable your cooking, it can never do the harm your writings do." And offers to contribute to the magazine. Job inquiries. The table of contents for a thesis: the author proposed to publish it as is. A proposal -- from a woman, nice, actually -- to call the journal Jesus rather than Outlooks. Ten twenty-five. Finally. Only the brown letter left to go. Beaulieu opened it, already exasperated. Dear God, the number of madmen You put into the world. The handwriting was dreadful, a kind of embroidery that left no margin right or left, top or bottom. There were only six sheets tonight, fewer than the other times. Beaulieu took a square of chocolate from the desk drawer and started reading. Six pages farther, he was trembling. This time the proof was neither arithmetical, nor physical, nor esthetical, nor astronomical; it was irrefutable. The proof of God's existence had been achieved. Bertrand was tempted, for a second, to toss the bundle into the wastebasket. The hour had come for the world's "great tribulation," as in Apocalypse VII:14. The powers of darkness were to launch their final battle against the manifest truth, and he was the voice, the tiny human voice, who must give the signal for the hostilities to begin. But now he flung himself flat on his belly, his whole length, as on the day of his ordination. How long did he stay on the floor? He sat up, looked at his watch: over an hour. He was suffocating, now, with something like joy. He had to talk to Hervé. Hervé was never asleep at midnight. Bertrand stood and picked up the telephone at the end of his desk. The intercom. Dialed 30. He was right: Hervé answered instantly. Monday, midnight "Come on up," he said. Put the phone down. Stretched, with a huge creaking of the shoulder joints. At midnight, Hervé felt up to hearing confession from the whole population of Hell. A lot better than he felt after dinner, when he was completely knocked out, as people are who get up every day at six. What a blessing, this friendship between him and Bertrand. Midnight, I've got something to tell you, come on up. And if it were two A.M. and you were getting me out of bed, same thing. The openness between them. The complementary meshing, the affection. Bertrand the gentle, thin and fastidious in his velour suit, threadbare and indestructible like the man himself. The worried, the scrupulous. The man who would turn a thought over seven hundred and seventy-seven times in the hollow of his skull. The most reserved of men, now known even among the wider public for the boldness of his positions. It was unbelievable. The radical of moral theology. For the fundamentalists, the devil: to hear them tell it, a gravedigger of tradition, a violent man -- a real Protestant! Bertrand, who suffered so from the turmoil raised every month by his editorial in Outlooks. Who was floored by the attacks. Who you had to hold up bodily. And his counterpart -- Father Hervé Montgaroult, me -- the fellow Bertrand called his bulwark. Physically sure, a rugby forward. But otherwise, not a single idea, not the slightest imagination. Capable at most of rehashing his course in cataphatic ontology, and of repeatedly setting about, then setting aside, his still-unwritten treatise on the subject. "Come on in!" said Hervé loud and strong, just as Bertrand was about to knock. He listened to his visitor without interrupting him, without making a move, and without his face showing a trace of his reactions. Bertrand stopped talking. He had not let go of the six pages. Exhausted, he handed them to his friend. Hervé did not take them. He gave his sweet, rugby-champ smile. "Calm down," he said. "No proof of the existence of God has ever held up." These proofs and their grandiose and ludicrous history, the succession, since man began to think, of his efforts to prove God -- that was Hervé's domain. Each year, in late March, springtime brought back that chapter and with it one of the great moments of his course. The students -- 80 percent of them future priests -- would protest at first: What need was there of proofs? Happy age: they had just made the great plunge, leaving doubt behind them the way a diver lifts off the diving board. Someday the board was going to topple onto their heads. "So what?" they would always laugh. And then they would get caught up in the game, they would see the noble nature of the gamble by human intelligence to know God well enough to prove him. Of course the proofs were no use, or not as proofs anymore. But as reflections on God, they went a long way. As answers, they could not suffice. As questions, they opened up some superb problematics. Hervé stood up. Whenever he launched into a slightly learned disquisition he reverted to the peripatetic stroll. "There are limits to reason; Kant established that once and for all. No reasoning, no theory, can demonstrate that God is -- nor that He is not. Careful, though: we can, and should, know what God is. Otherwise, how would we distinguish Him from the devil? The idea of God is not contradictory." He looked delighted. In his little three-by-four-meter lair, even more cluttered than Bertrand's, he reversed course at the end of every sentence and, at every comma, he had to swerve around some obstacle. "Science, which proceeds by proofs, cannot move beyond the world of phenomena. The good Cardinal Newman said it -- you won't get to God by a smart syllogism. How could a rational construction, which links known propositions into a logical sequence, possibly demonstrate the existence of an unknown object? How could it demonstrate its non existence?...And if a person claims to prove that God exists, or, similarly, claims to prove that He doesn't exist, it's not God he's talking about. It's about some faraway star, a physical or mathematical object like other objects. Not about the God who transcends space and time." "Just read this!" Bertrand stood up too. He was holding the manuscript in two hands before him, like an icon. Hervé shook his head. "You're not listening to me. You're wrong. The story of proofs of God's existence through the centuries is the story of Sisyphus. In fact, there's cause to worry for our modern times, when Sisyphus has already given up at the bottom of the mountain." He had pulled a thick book off the shelf and was looking through the table of contents. "Read this instead!" Bertrand started up again. "Here it is! You've got four main types of proof: there's Kant's 'moral' proof, which is actually a postulate; but before that come the proof-style proofs, which are supposed to be logically compelling. Listen to the gorgeous names: the 'cosmological' proofs, the 'teleological' proofs, and the 'ontological' proofs." He laid his volume on an undiscernible surface on his loaded bookcase. He didn't need it. "The cosmological family of arguments sees God as the first cause of the world. The teleological arguments make Him the supreme end. The ontological arguments look to neither the causality principle nor the finality principle: from the idea that the notion of God is innate in all men, it deduces the existence of God." "I know," Bertrand cut in. "That's not what I'm talking about." "Plato gives us the ontological: all things share in the eternal Ideas, which in turn share in the unique Idea, sovereign Good, original Beauty, and world Spirit. "Aristotle proves God by the scientific method. He considers reality, and ponders its efficient and final cause. "I'll skip ahead here. It's Kant I want to get to, and his masterly demonstration that the proofs of God's existence cannot be scientific. "For Augustine, only an original and eternal Truth could explain the truths the human mind experiences. Only a divine Artist could explain the beauty of the world. Only the supreme Good fulfills man's aspiration to Beatitude. "Anselm, the great Anselm of Canterbury: he bypasses both empirical experience and scientific method. You recall his ontological argument: man carries within him the idea of a perfect Being; because he is so imperfect, he cannot have got the idea on his own; thus the idea itself implies the existence of the Most Perfect. It's absolutely simple!" "Just read!" moaned Bertrand. He moaned for two hours. "Read what I've got here! You'll forget your fancy speeches the instant you do!" It was as if Hervé didn't hear him. But when, at two in the morning, the exasperated Bertrand told him, "I'm leaving. More to the point, I'm leaving you the proof, in black and white," and when the door had closed behind him, Hervé Montgaroult stopped short in the middle of his room, staggering -- a great bear at the sight of fire. His eyes were on the brown envelope in the middle of his writing table. He could no longer keep away. All his efforts for the past two hours to put off the hand-to-hand combat with the Angel, that great display of verbal magnetism he had from time to time almost got caught up in, had been possible only because of Bertrand's presence. Now began for Hervé the night he was always to remember as his night of struggle with the proof. Copyright © 1996 Editions Gallimard.

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