In her first book to be translated into English, French-born writer Emmanuelle de Villepin, who moved to Italy three decades ago, offers her most personal novel to date, The Devil’s Reward (Other Press, May). Translated from the French by C. Jon Delogu, the story is based on the life of de Villepin’s mother and family—and their disappeared aristocratic Catholic way of life.
“The way my grandparents lived is not possible today. They lived like kings,” de Villepin says over coffee at Winter Institute 13 in Memphis, Tenn., earlier this year. “I remember my grandmother’s tailor wanting to be paid. She gave him the money, but told [the tailor] that she would never let him dress her again.” The tailor was expected to appreciate the honor of having de Villepin’s grandmother wear his clothes.
De Villepin also recalls her grandmother’s rigid Catholicism, which bordered on superstition. When they would walk to church, her grandmother would warn de Villepin to be careful not to swallow any dust for fear de Villepin wouldn’t be allowed to take communion, her mouth wouldn’t be pure enough to receive the host. When de Villepin went to the bathroom, her grandmother advised her to be quick, so that the devil wouldn’t have a chance to see her.
The novel, which is set between the First and Second World Wars, is recounted primarily in the voice of vibrant 86-year-old Christiane, who shares the same name and many of the characteristics of de Villepin’s mother, whom de Villepin regards as a rebel. And it explores a previously hidden piece of family history: Christiane’s father Papyrus’s heroism during WWI, his subsequent drug addiction, and the effects of one great love affair, which reverberated in future generations. The time period, with the sense of a coming new age, is evoked by the real life Austrian philosopher and architect Rudolph Steiner (1861-1925), who along with his wife Marie von Sivers, is a character in the book.
Steiner’s philosophy inspired visual artists like Kandinsky, and Steiner created a form of drama known as eurythmy. But he is perhaps best known in the U.S. today for both his biodynamic approach to agriculture and his educational philosophy embodied in the Waldorf Schools. Although the story dates back nearly 100 years, The Devil’s Reward opens in present-day in Paris with Christiane’s daughter, Catherine, calling to tell her that she and her daughter, Luna, a grad student, are coming to visit. Catherine is distraught and needs a break after discovering that her Milanese husband is cheating on her, again. Christiane advises her daughter, whom she finds rigid and stiff, not to “overvalue” the marriage pact. “Goodness and wellness and appropriateness is as dangerous,” Christiane says in the novel, “as their opposites.”
When Luna, who is working on a thesis about Steiner, asks her grandmother about him, both she and Catherine are surprised to learn that Christiane’s father knew Steiner. And Papyrus’s story, which even Catherine didn’t know, comes tumbling out like the items stored in his military trunk—a hussar’s coat, books, notepads, a silver ball for storing opium, and a saint’s medal pierced by a bullet.
For de Villepin, “the devil’s reward” of the title involves finding a balance between goodness and evil. It’s a balance that Christiane in the novel seeks to remind her daughter is essential to enjoying life. The story that Christiane tells has parallels to de Villepin’s generation as well. Her uncle, Xavier de Villepin, was a French senator; his son Dominique de Villepin, served as prime minister of France from 2005-2007. But despite the many similarities between de Villepin’s life and the book—de Villepin’s own grandfather was known as “Papyrus” and was heroic in war and cowardly in private—de Villepin is emphatic that the book is fiction. “A novel is a novel,” she says.
While de Villepin borrows liberally from her family history and bends it in the service of her story—Papyrus only served in World War I; in the novel he is also drafted to serve in World War II—she is careful about other types of borrowing. To describe the devastating effects on Papyrus and other soldiers who took part in the Battle of the Somme in World War I, which lasted from July 1 to November 18, 1916, de Villepin used the entire three-and-a-half-page Wikipedia entry, with full credit, as the novel’s chapter 7. “I didn’t want to cut and paste,” she says. “I didn’t want to [retell] the Battle of the Somme. It was honesty.”
The Devil’s Reward was originally written in French. And her American publisher, Judith Gurewich, whom she met through a bit of matchmaking by Cristina Foschini, rights and acquisitions director of Gruppo Editoriale Mauri Spagnol in Milan, Italy, helped edit the French manuscript. It was “fantastic,” de Villepin says. “Because she [grew up speaking] French, she knows exactly what I mean. I’m not totally betrayed by translation.” De Villepin says that she is more comfortable writing in French, because it is her mother tongue.
When she finishes a book, de Villepin says that she is always “very sad,” even after five books. “I miss my characters,” she says. “There is something totally out of control with the characters. They were born from the writer’s imagination, but then they become autonomous and their independency is striking for the author. For example, when Dostoyevsky sent the first part of The Idiot, he wrote to his publisher that he still doesn’t know if Myshkin was a saint or a manipulator.”
In addition to her fiction, de Villepin is known in Italy for her reporting from refugee camps in Lebanon and the Syrian/Lebanese border, along with her photo-journalist daughter, Neige De Benedetti. De Villepin is v.p. of Fondazione Dynamo, the Paul Newman charity in Italy, and president of the association Amici di TOG (Together to Go), a center for rehabilitation programs for children suffering from complex neurological diseases.
For her part, it is de Villepin’s family history and her “extraordinary” philanthropic work that attracted Gurewich. “I really think she has a soul and has suffered. Her soul is very much reflected in the book.” But before she purchased the novel, Gurewich asked a conservative friend who heads Weleda, a company founded by Steiner that makes holistic, natural, organic cosmetics and pharmaceuticals for anthroposophic therapy, in France, to read the manuscript. When he told her that he “hated” it, Gurewich says with a laugh, “I thought it would work.”