When Father Bertrand Beaulieu stumbles upon a handwritten document that proves the existence of God, his discovery has a profound impact on the church and the nation as both institutions move to suppress the news, fearing the repercussions of the document in terms of their own power. 25,000 first printing.
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On Monday, May 24, 1999 at 8:32 p.m. precisely, Father Bertrand Beaulieu of the French Society of Casuists opens a thick, handwritten letter and makes a stunning discovery: "Six pages further, 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." One of the many delights in Laurence Cossé's darkly funny ecclesiastical thriller, A Corner of the Veil, is the fact that the reader must accept the existence of this proof on faith. Though a handful of characters read the letter and are profoundly affected by it, Cossé holds her cards (and her proof) close to the vest; we never see it. In Father Beaulieu's mind, however, there's no doubt that what he has is the real magilla. He hurries to his friend Father Hervé Montgaroult, who, after explaining in detail and at length why it is impossible to prove the Almighty's existence, reads the proof himself and instantly falls into a beatific meditation on a world without doubt:
There would be no such thing as success any longer: Do the sea or the sky have success? No more failure: Does a tree know failure? No more hierarchy among men: Is the night superior to the river?Bertrand and Hervé bring the letter to their superior, Father Hubert Le Dangeolet, who refuses to actually read the thing and tells them to keep it absolutely secret until he can figure out what to do with it. Unfortunately, in a moment of bliss, Hervé has already revealed the monumental news to his sister, who happens to be married to a high-ranking official in the French government. Soon, word of it reaches the Prime Minister and before long the entire French cabinet is involved. Once politicians involve themselves in this momentous event, A Corner of the Veil really takes off--and Cossé demonstrates that elected officials are not the only political animals to reckon with. As the author pits priest against priest and pol against pol in a life-and-death struggle over the ultimate fate of the proof, God gets lost (literally) in the shuffle. By the end of this provocative, literary page-turner, you'll be wondering if it's the Almighty or the Devil pulling the strings. --Alix Wilber Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Monday, 8:32 P.M.
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.
"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 th
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