Conversion tales are perennially popular, but there is less of an audience for stories about what comes after — the daily struggle to live out your faith when the first rush of revelation (what T. S. Eliot called “the infirm glory of the positive hour”) has passed; or worse, the slide back into skepticism. “Saul had undergone a mutation on the road to Damascus,” Emmanuel Carrère writes of history’s most famous convert in The Kingdom (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28), his idiosyncratic history of the early Christian Church, translated by John Lambert. “He had been transformed into Paul, his opposite. . . . What if he became Saul once again?”
Carrère is the author of several well-regarded novels and many scripts for television and film, some of which he has directed himself, but his best work has come in his biographies of obsessive, eccentric men of the twentieth century — Philip K. Dick, the schizo-mystic American science-fiction writer; Jean-Claude Romand, a Frenchman who posed as a doctor for nearly two decades and murdered his entire family to prevent being exposed; Eduard Limonov, the Russian punk, journalist, and occasional political dissident who founded the National Bolshevik Party. “I consider myself a sort of portrait artist,” Carrère says in The Kingdom. But his are an unusual sort of portrait, for Carrère is himself an obsessive, eccentric man, and his twisted fascination with his subjects — and with himself — is always visible within the frame.
A book about Christianity’s first decades might seem a departure for Carrère, until one learns that he had his own Damascene moment. In the fall of 1990, the writer, then thirty-two years old and the very model of the sophisticated European skeptic, attended a Catholic mass in a Swiss mountain town and found himself “touched by grace.” He began to receive communion every day. He insisted that the woman with whom he’d been living marry him and that they baptize the sons they’d been happily raising out of wedlock. He filled eighteen notebooks with commentaries on the Gospel of John. Then one day, as abruptly as it had started, this period of religious fervor ended. “I forsake you, Lord,” he wrote in the last of those notebooks, on Easter Sunday, three years after his initial conversion. “Please do not forsake me.” Paul had turned back into Saul. In time, the experience of those years became so distant to him that, he writes, he was several years into working on The Kingdom before he thought to connect the subject with his own religious experience. (This fact, if it is to be believed, is indicative of the bizarre ways in which Carrère’s mind works.)
In The Kingdom, Carrère has made an impassioned attempt to imagine himself at once into the world of the early Christians and into his own devout past self. To this end, he has been canny in his choice of subjects — not Jesus or anyone who knew him while he was alive but Paul, the zealous Pharisee who enthusiastically persecuted Christians before becoming one, and Luke, the lettered gentile doctor who fell under Paul’s sway and eventually recounted his life in the Acts of the Apostles. These men were contemporaries of the apostles, but because they never met Jesus in the flesh their faith feels closer to that of a modern believer. Above all, Christ’s story must have seemed strange to them, and their own need to devote their lives to it, even unto death, a deeply perplexing compulsion.
Carrère takes inspiration from Ernest Renan — the author of The Life of Jesus (1863) and perhaps the first scholar to treat the early church as a subject of objective historical study — who believed that “to write the history of a religion, the best thing was to have believed it and no longer believe.” Carrère’s passage in and out of faith certainly makes him a sympathetic guide to the spread of this odd Jewish heresy in the years after Jesus’ death. “I’m writing this book,” he says in The Kingdom, “to avoid thinking that, now that I no longer believe, I know better than those who do, and better than my former self when I believed.” But he is far too peculiar a writer to produce a history of the kind that Renan would recognize. He says that he conceived his depiction of the early church as like a novel by Marguerite Yourcenar, “one of those sweeping, finely balanced architectural compositions, a masterpiece of artisanship at the end of which I’ll finally be able to take a deep breath and relax.” One of Carrère’s most endearing qualities as a writer is his utter lack of irony, and I take him here at his word. An enormous amount of thought and research has obviously gone into The Kingdom, and it often does an impressive job of vividly recapturing the early Christian world.
At the same time, Carrère admits that he actually prefers Yourcenar’s notebooks to her magisterial novels. He comes back to a sentence from one of those notebooks: “Keep one’s own shadow out of the picture; leave the mirror clean of the mist of one’s own breath.” He is temperamentally incapable of doing so. He is the kind of historian who admits that he prefers the least likely version of events because it better fits his story, or compares the disappearance of Jesus’ body from the tomb to the dumping of Osama bin Laden’s corpse at sea, or dedicates several pages to a tangent about amateur internet porn on the way to making a point about Luke’s composition of his gospel. To some readers this will feel insufficiently reverent, or simply too self-involved. Yet it takes a strange sensibility to infuse a story that has become so familiar over time with the strangeness it deserves. Early in The Kingdom, Carrère tells a friend with whom he’s collaborating on a Philip K. Dick–inspired television show about the story he’s writing:
It starts with an itinerant preacher who opens a modest weaver’s workshop. . . . Bald, bearded, weakened by a mysterious illness, he tells with a deep, evocative voice the story of a prophet crucified twenty years earlier in Judea. He says that this prophet came back from the dead and that his coming back from the dead is the portent of something enormous, a mutation of humanity, both radical and invisible. The contagion comes about. The strange belief radiates out from Paul in the seedy parts of Corinth, and its followers soon come to see themselves as mutants disguised as friends and neighbors: undetectable.
His friend responds with excitement: “Told like that, it sounds like Vintage Dick!”
Among other things, Carrère’s vision of the church’s early days in Asia Minor serves as a reminder of how much of what we now call Western civilization is in fact rooted in the East. Such debts are the subject of another book from France, Mathias Énard’s novel Compass (New Directions, $26.95), translated by Charlotte Mandell. Énard’s narrator, Franz Ritter, is an Austrian musicologist, a self-described “poor unsuccessful academic with a revolutionary thesis no one cares about.” He contends that the unprecedented flowering of music during the classical era — one of Europe’s greatest cultural achievements — actually “owed everything to the Orient”: “Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, Berlioz, Bizet, Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy, Bartók, Hindemith, Schönberg, Szymanowski,” all used Eastern influences to “undermine the dictatorship of church chant and harmony.”
Ritter’s commitment to his thesis induces in him a mania for spotting Arab and Persian notes in European culture, a mania that his friend and sometime lover Sarah lightly mocks by giving him a replica of the compass Beethoven kept on his writing desk, altered so that it always points east. As the novel starts, Ritter is living and teaching in his native Vienna, which ought to be the center of the world for a professor of nineteenth-century European music but feels to him like a backwater compared with Damascus and Tehran. He has just received a letter from Sarah, a scholar of comparative literature with a dissertation titled “Visions of the Other Between East and West,” announcing that she has forsaken her study of the Islamic world and taken up Buddhism in Borneo — “an east to the east of the east.” The news sends Ritter into a quite literal dark night of the soul, and Compass takes place over this long insomniac evening, during which he reminisces about their travels throughout the Middle East and plans his own magnum opus, “On the divers forms of Lunacie in the Orient,” a self-mocking study of Western scholars driven mad by their obsession with the exotic East.
Compass is filled with anecdotes from the long history of European Orientalism, featuring not only the familiar players — Gertrude Bell, Agatha Christie, Gustave Flaubert, T. E. Lawrence — but also fascinating minor figures, among them Alois Musil, a cousin of the writer Robert, who was a Hapsburg spy working to counteract British fomentation of an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during World War I (“Lawrence of Moravia,” Ritter calls him), and Marga d’Andurain, a French noblewoman who married a Bedouin in the hopes of becoming the first European woman to visit Mecca and then likely poisoned him before disappearing in the Bay of Tangier in 1948.
Énard is himself a translator of Persian and Arabic who has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East, and he writes with an obvious love of the region, a deep knowledge of its history, and a great despair over what has become of it during the past decade. About a recent trip to Damascus, Ritter recalls:
We made fun so often of the ragged Syrian soldiers sitting in the shade of their ex-Soviet Jeeps broken down by the side of the road, hood open, waiting for an unlikely tow truck. As if that army had no power of destruction, no force of combat; the Assad regime and his tanks seemed to us like cardboard toys, marionettes, effigies empty of meaning on the walls of cities and villages; we did not see, beyond the apparent dilapidation of the army and the leaders, the reality of fear, death, and torture appearing behind the posters, the possibility of destruction and extreme violence behind the omnipresence of soldiers, badly dressed as they were.
There is something Sebaldian in Ritter’s encyclopedic erudition and the seamless way that he shifts between personal and historical memory. Like Sebald, he supplements his stories with documentary photographs, and he even shares a few of Sebald’s literary touchstones, including Kafka and Stendhal. But Ritter’s swirling, splenetic sentences put one more often in mind of Thomas Bernhard, his fellow Viennese nestbeschmutzer, who might well have agreed with Ritter that although the Ottoman Empire may once have been the “sick man of Europe,”
today Europe is its own sick man, aged, an abandoned body, hanged on its gallows, which watches itself rot thinking that Paris will always be Paris, in about thirty different languages.
Énard’s books are perhaps too difficult to make him a true literature-in-translation superstar in the Knausgaard or Ferrante mode. (An earlier novel, Zone, also takes place over one night, but it consists of a single 500-page sentence.) Still, Compass stands a fair chance of finding the wider American audience it deserves, if only for its timeliness. On the day I finished reading it, the Battle of Aleppo was nearing its horrifying climax and Angela Merkel announced that she supported a burka ban in Germany. A novelist like Énard feels particularly necessary right now, though to say this may actually be to undersell his work. He is not a polemicist but an artist, one whose novels will always have something to say to us. If that doctored replica of Beethoven’s compass stands as a fitting emblem of Ritter’s work, a better one for Énard’s would be the compass that can be found in hotel rooms throughout the Islamic world, so that travelers can orient themselves for prayer — a compass that “can indeed serve to locate the Arabic peninsula, but also, if you’re so inclined, Rome, Vienna, or Moscow: you’re never lost in these lands.”