Friday, 15 April 2016

The Dream of Scipio - 4. The Academic

And Julien? Did his whole life come to nought in the end?
As a bachelor he had enjoyed a carefree existence of academic freedom and sufficient means for travelling abroad, collecting art, entertaining lifelong friends and ephemeral romances, all the time keeping in touch with Julia by extensive correspondence. She was honing her talents as a painter beyond the conventional, while Julien dedicated part of his sparetime to write a book on Neoplatonic philosophy as could be glanced from Olivier’s poems and the relating documentary from the Vatican Library, chiefly Manlius’ treatise and the archive of Olivier’s protector, the cardinal. He never finished it.

All this changed when the Germans invaded France. Julia came to live with him and their carefully guarded Platonic relationship bloomed into the full consummation of love. Despite the bleak circumstances under the occupation, together, they felt as happy as ever. Julia, being Jewish, had to go underground. Near her hiding place in the countryside she discovered Sophia’s ancient sanctuary. Inspired by murals of the saint applied by a medieval Italian master, a close friend of Olivier’s, she came into her own and, at last, sprang on her true form of expression.

No such luck for Julien. All his life, he’d stayed aloof from politics, but persuaded by an old friend who’s high-up in the Vichy hierarchy, he accepted a government job and now finds himself working for the collaborators and, ultimately, for the Germans. At first, it doesn’t bother him too much - it better be him in this position, than the odd fanatic - but when blackmailed, with Julia’s freedom at ransom, into betraying an other old friend who’s joined the Resistance Julien baulks. The stolid intellectual who was never involved beyond his personal predilections finally ‘understands’. He understands by his latest discovery in the cardinal’s archive, that he misjudged Olivier and that everything he wrote on the subject is worthless. He understands that he’s lost Julia, forever, and he understands that the betrayal of his old friend is never going to happen. From this complete understanding it’s not hard to imagine a virtuous act.

In the afternoon of the fatal day, when his friend is to be arrested, Julien walks up to the little house where the meeting has been arranged. It’s the house of his late mother, where Julia lived in hiding and where they spent their last year together in carefree happiness. Once inside, he calmly gathers his notes, all of them, and builds a big pyre in the middle of the living room. He applies the kerosene and lights a cigarette. The smoke of the ensuing fire rises in a timely warning to his friend to stay away and for the next hour or so cloaks all that comprised the essence of Julien Barneuve.

A wonderful book that has so much more to offer than this brief summary can even begin to suggest.

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