Lucy Beckett is an underrated Catholic novelist of originality and breadth. Her subjects have included The Time Before You Die, a sympathetic historical exploration of the life of a former Carthusian at the time of the Reformation, and A Postcard from the Volcano and its sequel, The Leaves are Falling, two novels charting the lives of a group of cultured young people caught up in the last war in Germany, Poland and Russia.
Her most recent novel, The Year of Thamar’s Book (Gracewing £20) is no less unusual in scope and interest; set in the Burgundian countryside and in Algeria between the 1960s and the present day, as a young Frenchman, Bernard, discovers a bond with his grandfather, Thamar, who has been deeply affected by conscription in the French-Algerian war of the early 1960s.
As always with her writings, the novel raises absorbing and perennial questions about the existence of God, the meaning of suffering and evil in the world and the distinctive presence and mission of the Catholic Church.
I asked Lucy what made her choose this subject, less familiar to the Anglophone world (and which, apart from being aware of the headlines at the time, I knew nothing about)? She tells me that before going up to Cambridge “I spent January-June 1960 in Paris as a foreign student at the Sorbonne. The Algerian was raging; de Gaulle was trying to hold things together; my landlady, a war-widow of the 1914-18 war, had a son-in-law in the army in Algeria; but no-one, including the high-powered politics and history lecturers at the Sorbonne, explained the war or said anything about it.”
She found herself on the edge of a demonstration in the Place Maubert with riot police and Algerie Francaise counter-marchers; “Scary enough for an English teenager who had never seen a riot policeman.” Having wondered what it was all about, Lucy explains that “Decades later I decided to write a story which would go back to the war in Algeria and explore the connections between the end of the French empire and the present day, dangerous in France because of both disaffected Muslims from North Africa and the Front National.”
Lucy reminds me that “many of the issues are only too topical now”, adding that “a couple of weeks ago President Macron acknowledged that there was systematic torture by the French army in Algeria – the first official acknowledgement, nearly 60 years after the war. No country is good at admitting shameful truths, but France is worse than most.”
I note that the village churches and ancient monasteries of Burgundy figure prominently in the novel; why is this? The author responds that when she was in Paris “My diplomat uncle and aunt took me to Burgundy for a long weekend. I fell in love for good with that part of France, particularly the woods and the Romanesque churches and have wanted to write about it ever since.”
She reflects, “I have also been interested in the somewhat schizophrenic relationship between French people and the Catholic Church – in their bones so beautiful and old, so important to the poor, yet so fascist and horrible, so firmly put in its place by the Revolution and the Third Republic: all of these things at the same time. The history of the abbey of Cluny is representative of all this.”
Noting that much of the book is centred on conversations about faith between grandfather and grandson, I am keen to know what Lucy’s deeper purpose in writing the novel was. She answers soberly, “If a hundred years of secular education has deprived the intelligent young in France of any knowledge of their Catholic inheritance – the ignorance Thamar wants so much to repair in Bernard – how much more has mere careless secularism deprived the young in England of even basic general knowledge of the Christian story.”
She tells me wryly that having taught Latin for several years as a volunteer in her local comprehensive school, the only children she came across “who knew anything at all about the Bible and the Christian year had been to Methodist Sunday School, and they knew a good deal. The others knew exactly nothing.”
She feels that one reason for writing the novel as she did “is that Bernard is an intelligent boy who knows something is missing but doesn’t know what. Perhaps a few readers of any age might recognise in him something they have felt?”
I mention that St Augustine crops up a lot in the novel, and to a lesser extent, Pascal, Charles de Foucauld and Albert Camus. What is his and their importance?
Lucy answers unhesitatingly: “Augustine is simply my hero, for the wonder of his intelligence, his deep and wide sense of God and his readability. So this novel, what with Thamar being educated to be a priest, and Algeria being Augustine’s home country, gave me irresistible opportunities for him to appear, as himself.”
“Pascal” she adds, “is the French writer most likely to persuade the doubtful or the definitely atheist to give Christianity at least a chance – and it’s so splendidly appropriate that his tomb remains in the ancient church of St Etienne-du-Mont and has never been moved to the horrible Pantheon. As for Charles de Foucauld and Camus: they are both, to me, very moving figures for whom in different ways Algeria and its suffering at the hands of France were primary concerns in their lives.”