I wish someone would undertake to write a biography of that fine German writer Gertrud von le Fort as there does not seem to be one for an English-speaking readership. Still, there is some consolation in the way Ignatius Press has been gradually introducing new translations of her short stories and novellas; a few years ago they published The Wife of Pilate and other Stories as well as The Eternal Woman, the author’s profound response to feminism; this year we have The Innocents and Other Stories, a quartet of tales seasoned by the author’s characteristic insight and wisdom.
Von Le Fort, a convert in the 1920s, was not interested in inventing an entire social world, except as a lightly sketched-in background; what concerned her in her stories was the moment when an individual is faced by an acute moral or spiritual dilemma and has to make a choice that will affect their everlasting destiny; a choice between cowardice or courage. No wonder Georges Bernanos, the French novelist, was inspired by von le Fort’s novella, The Song at the Scaffold, to create his own version, later inspiring Poulenc’s opera, The Dialogues of the Carmelites, for he too pondered the tragic consequences of sin and the invitation to redemption.
In The Ostracised Woman, set in Germany on the eve of WWI, the author plays with a family legend – von le Fort was always interested in how historical events might cast an influence centuries later in that interface between salvation history and human history – to show how self-sacrifice and suffering in one generation can bestow a blessing on a later one.
Here she also alludes to her own aristocratic Prussian ancestry and its patriotic, militaristic esprit de corps in a discreet reference to the Third Reich, when a character comments, “What my youth had experienced only as restrained might fell into the hands of criminals”. Born in 1871 and dying in 1976, the author had grown up in the old, seemingly stable world of her class and heritage, and then experienced the destruction of her country twice over.
In another story, The Last Meeting, she plays with the theme of a fictitious meeting between the Marquise de Montespan, the current mistress of Louis XIV of France, and her displaced rival, Louise de la Valliere, who is now living in a Carmelite convent. The Marquise has engaged in the black arts to win the King’s affections and is in a state of “agonizing fear about the salvation of her soul”. Yet faced by the humility of the cloistered nun a diabolic impulse also brings the bitter realisation that “Real sin…is kindled at the sight of a virtue or a beauty that we do not possess!”
I hope Ignatius will next consider a translation of The Pope of the Ghetto and of von le Fort’s own autobiography of 1966, Halfte des Lebens. We live, as Douglas Murray writes in his recently published book, The Madness of Crowds, in a “deranged” society; it is time to listen to the creative voice of this Catholic writer who, in her cultured and gracious way, recalls us to our spiritual roots.