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Alice Asks the Big Questions
Translated by Sandra Smith
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In her quest to understand how thinkers through the centuries have tried to answer the age-old questions of existence, Alice uncovers an astonishing truth–almost lost to time–that will forever change the way she thinks about humankind’s place in the universe, and her own.
In this moving and captivating novel, Laurent Gounelle takes us on a journey of spiritual and intellectual discovery that is sure to surprise and enlighten.
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Narrow is the way which leadeth unto life,
and few there be that find it.
Do not conform to the pattern of this world,
but be transformed by the
renewing of your mind.
—Paul's Epistle to the Romans, 12:2
Alice couldn't resist a wide smile of satisfaction as she put down the phone. The potential client from Qatar had short-listed the PR consulting firm she worked for. The call for bids had been discreetly announced six months before. The Qatar International Promotion Agency was looking for a partner in the West to boost the country's image, so people would forget their suspicions about Qatar having financed ISIS.
There were only five companies on the short list: two American, one Spanish, one German, and one French. One chance in five to get the contract. Alice was convinced they'd win.
She breathed in deeply and stretched out, leaning against the back of her chair, letting it pivot toward the large window of her office, where her image was reflected. She was an energetic woman wearing a simple fitted suit that contrasted with her mass of chestnut hair, which fell in rather messy, long curls. She switched off the light on her desk and her reflection vanished. On the fifty-third floor of the Montparnasse Tower, you felt as though you were suspended in midair, in a darkening, late afternoon sky where several wispy clouds floated by. Down below, the lights of the lively, bustling city—a city where millions of people lived—were beginning to glow in the thousands of buildings that stretched out as far as the eye could see. Just now, when the offices were closing, the roads were crammed full of cars, and the sidewalks held swarms of little, insignificant figures walking slowly by. Alice smiled as she watched the crowds. So many people to influence, challenges to meet, so much excitement to feel. Since she had started attending the staff development seminars by Toby Collins, she was becoming more confident and finding more satisfaction at work despite the stressful, competitive atmosphere.
She breathed in again and relaxed. Théo was at home with his nanny by now. Paul would get home late, as he did every day. She might already be asleep by the time he was dropped off in front of their building. What would the taxis do at night if the lawyers didn't leave their offices so late?
Can't wait for summer, she thought. She wanted them all to be together. If her team won the Qatar International contract, she'd get a raise—that much was certain. Or a big bonus. How could they refuse her one? With that money, she could treat her family to an expensive holiday. Why not Australia, even? Australia—a dream from her youth, not yet realized.
The telephone rang. Her father.
"I'm at the office, Papa."
"Are you coming to Cluny this weekend, chérie?"
"Yes, of course."
"That's good news! Will Paul come as well?"
"If he doesn't have too much work, like making the rounds to see clients in prison. And if he agrees to skip his drawing class on Saturday. It's his only passion apart from prisons."
"Send him my best," he said, laughing. "Listen, I ran into Jeremy this morning. He doesn't look well at all. His mother is worried—she talks to me about him all the time. If you come this weekend, she'd really like you to make some time to see him."
Jeremy looking unhappy? Strange that she hadn't noticed it the last weekend she was in Burgundy. Jeremy, with his slender physique, dark blond hair, very light blue eyes, and delicate, soft features that revealed his great kindness. She remembered their childhood together in Cluny, their high-speed races in the ruins of the abbey, the fun they'd had daring each other, always with the same prize: a peck on the cheek on New Year's Eve. Their wild laughter in the middle of the vineyards during the harvest, when they hid to eat the grapes instead of picking them. Their first kiss on the lips when they were nine years old—she was the one who had kissed him—and how he had started to blush like Uncle Edouard's tomatoes. They had dreamed of traveling to the other end of the world together, to the place where they walk upside down, to Australia. Australia, even back then.
Poor Jeremy. She was very sad to learn he wasn't doing well. Everyone had been surprised by his radical decision after he'd finished college with such apparent ease. To give everything up like that, with his master's in Ecology and Sustainable Development in hand, and completely change direction.
Jeremy had been there for her when she had lost first her mother, then her best friend a few years ago, before she'd met Paul. Mourning had caused a profound crisis in her. He had listened to her with the patience of an angel, given affectionate support, and been truly helpful.
She wanted to help him now too, do something for him. But what?
She breathed in deeply while watching the crowd down below. Her profession was crisis PR, not psychotherapy.
* * *
The heavy courtyard door groaned on its hinges, making it hard to open. Jeremy slipped through and let it close by itself. It made a sound like the dull thud of a prison door. He took the narrow Rue Notre-Dame to the right, breathing in the cool air of the beautiful March day. Beneath his feet, the paving stones took on a golden russet color in the sunlight.
At the corner of the Rue Saint-Odile, nothing moved in the austere Treasury Building with its barred windows. Opposite, at the Tabac des Arts, a good dozen or so people were waiting in line to buy lottery tickets. First they paid taxes to the government, then they happily threw their money away.
Jeremy continued down the narrow street until he reached the Rue Lamartine, the main street of Cluny, a pretty little town with pastel facades and colorful storefronts. He counted thirty-six customers having coffee outside La Nation café. Coffee, he thought, keeps the spirit awake, but without actually awakening it. A little farther on, outside the second tobacco shop, fourteen people stood in line waiting to buy lottery tickets, ready to gamble on luck to improve their lives.
Jeremy counted twenty-two customers at Dupaquier, the upmarket specialty food shop. The delicious smells that wafted outside were enough to convert any vegetarian. And at least ten people were having some cheese and a glass of wine at the Panier Voyageur.
He turned around and headed back up the street. Low in the sky, the sun highlighted the carved stone jambs, pilasters, and other elements of Romanesque architecture. There were also a lot of people at Wolff's, the excellent optician, trying to improve their eyesight. But would they be able to see their own lives more clearly?
Thirty-four people sat at tables outside Germain, the pastry and chocolate shop, whose reputation extended far beyond the Beaujolais hills. Jeremy smiled. People, he thought, they give in to their love of food when their souls seek only to satisfy their bodies.
He turned off to the right along the Rue Municipale and headed toward the abbey, passing the Café du Centre with its belle époque décor, where he counted twenty-eight customers scattered around the outside seating area and the dining room. The wine lovers were even more numerous at the Cellier de l'Abbaye. When he reached the Place de l'Abbaye, he walked past the Brasserie du Nord, which was full to bursting—at least seventy customers—then continued up the Rue du 11-Août-1944, the Rue Mercière, and the Rue de la Barre. The travel agency promised its clients the chance to explore foreign lands, which made Jeremy smile.
Across the street, there were also a lot of people at the other wine bar, DiVINE Pleasure. A funny play on words for drinks that alter our consciousness without ever managing to raise it.
A few yards farther along, the street opened out onto the square in front of the sunlit church. Several parishioners were chatting outside. Jeremy greeted them as he walked by, then pushed open the button-tufted door. It closed behind him with the muffled sound of a bellows as he entered the cold space.
The smell of damp stones and the faint scent of incense wafted throughout the somber interior. Jeremy crossed the nave through a side aisle that led to the choir. His footsteps never broke the silence that reigned supreme in the church. He slipped into the vestry and waited in the semidarkness. The bells rang out, and he listened to their chimes until the final one, which echoed for a long time beneath the tall stone vaults. Then he slowly made his way to the altar and stood facing the congregation. The columns stood in a magisterial row, soaring upward toward the ribbed vaults, and met in enormous Gothic arches that ran all along the nave, drawing the eye and the spirit toward the heavens. Everything in the church seemed immense, and this impression gave a feeling of tremendous open space in the solemn atmosphere. The side aisles and even the central section of the nave were rather dark, but if you raised your eyes, you could see the light, a brilliant light that inundated the vaults with almost supernatural clarity.
Jeremy looked down at his flock.
Twelve people were sitting there, scattered throughout the first rows.
He began to say Mass.
After Mass, Jeremy accompanied his parishioners outside. The sun glistened on the uneven old paving stones and illuminated the medieval facades of the small square.
Two quite elderly women stood around him, discussing how to organize their charitable works. Victor, the retired winemaker, walked over to him and handed him a little jewelry box.
"Here, Father. I'd like you to have this."
Known by everyone in Cluny as the "Lord of the Manor," Victor was recognizable from a distance because of his somewhat old-fashioned yet imposing appearance: the herringbone tweed jacket he always wore, his confident features and wild white hair, just like Karajan's. Now partly deaf, he compensated for this weakness with an air of authority that couldn't hide his natural generosity, along with a portliness that allowed him to take up a lot of space despite his average height.
Jeremy opened the box.
"Don't read anything into it! I simply noticed that you didn't have one."
"But it's a very beautiful watch."
Despite his stutter, Victor's friend Étienne came to the rescue. Slim and quite short, he had soft features, snow-white hair combed over to one side, and an extremely kind expression in his eyes. The unlikely friendship between a deaf man and one who stuttered was less ridiculous than it might have seemed: Étienne's handicap, very noticeable in private conversations, lessened slightly when he was obliged to shout so Victor could hear him.
"The Father is saying…that it is v-very beautiful!" he shouted in his friend's ear.
"It's French, made in Franche-Comté. One of the last ones."
Étienne was a former employee at Victor's vineyard. The years had eroded the hierarchical distance between them, and since his retirement, he and Victor had become close. Sometimes a mere trifle led the Lord of the Manor to blow up and unleash his anger on Étienne, but that just made Étienne laugh. He was quite skilled at putting his former boss's outbursts into perspective. They had passed the torch to the next generation: Victor's eldest daughter had gone into business with Étienne's son. In their parents' day, the wine was a bit acidic—the gossips said they didn't keep the barrels clean—but it had sold well at a time when the French still drank table wine. Today, that wine wouldn't sell. The children had worked very hard to improve it and had succeeded. It was now greatly praised in the area, but its reputation barely stretched beyond Mâcon.
"That's very kind of you," said Jeremy, speaking loudly so he would be heard.
"I got it at Pradille, on the Rue Mercière, one of the last watchmakers who know how to take apart the movement to repair it."
"Hello, Father," Germaine and Cornélie said, virtually in unison.
These two little old ladies were known for their malicious gossip, and everyone in the town called the busybodies "overly zealous." Germaine had bright eyes, dyed black hair, and a rather large and somewhat hooked nose. She had a fondness for long, dark velvet culottes, which she wore with ankle socks as white as the roots of her hair. As for Cornélie, both her self-effacing personality and her appearance made her fade into the background: hair dyed a dull yellowish brown, beige cardigan, long pleated beige skirt, and beige leather loafers with tassels. She sometimes allowed herself a touch of whimsy: a green velvet headband.
Jeremy greeted them, then excused himself and went back into the church. He crossed the nave while glancing at all the empty pews. Once inside the vestry, he took off his chasuble and stole. The sound of muted footsteps and a slight rustling of fabric caught his attention. It was one of the nuns who lived in a wing of the rectory. He walked over to her and handed her the jewelry box.
"Sell it," he said, "and give the money to the poor."
The nun took it and smiled.
He thought about the Curé of Ars: In the nineteenth century, he had also donated to charity a watch he had received as a gift. When the person who had given it to him heard this, he presented him with another one, then another, until he understood that the priest would never keep one for himself. So he decided to lend the priest one, and at last had the satisfaction of seeing him wear it. Jeremy often considered the Curé of Ars his spiritual guide.
Jeremy started up the spiral staircase to the bell tower, climbing until he was just above the belfry, in the little open space beneath the dome. He often went there to be alone, to step back and get some air.
He sat down on the ledge. The cool air had the lovely scent of trees and nature. Here he could enjoy the view down over the rooftops of Cluny. The roofs were covered in old tiles whose colors reminded him of the dark red peel of passion fruit. There were flat tiles and rounded ones that brought to mind the ones found in the south, their red contrasting with the brilliant blue of the sky. From up here, he could see as far as the tree-covered hills that surrounded the medieval city.
He was young. He had his whole life ahead of him, and had dedicated himself to saying Mass for…twelve people. He took in a long breath. He had once imagined himself as someone who could guide people on the path to self-awareness, nurture them spiritually, lead them to joy. Twelve people. He immediately reproached himself for that thought: Was it not pride that led him to lament this way? Had he not dreamed of attracting a great circle of the faithful? He shook his head. No, his sincerity was real, his motivation pure, devoid of any self-interest—a true vocation. But how could he accomplish his vocation with a nonexistent flock? Twelve parishioners, mainly the elderly, half of whom came out of habit and the rest out of a kind of fearful superstition as they neared death.
Jeremy watched a bird as it flew along the rooftops, then disappeared behind the abbey bell tower, which stood tall, outlined against the blue sky. Or, rather, what remained of the abbey. It had been almost completely destroyed during the French Revolution and had been used as a stone quarry by the villagers. To think that it was once one of the holiest sites in Christianity, with a religious order that had ruled over twelve hundred abbeys and priories throughout Europe and ten thousand monks. The power of his abbey had been considerable, directly linked to the Holy See, and several popes had actually come from Cluny. What remained of it today? Twelve believers lost in a church built to accommodate four hundred.
He took another deep breath of clean air. He could see, very far below, tiny people walking down the busy main street and adjacent alleyways. He watched them for a long time, thinking of all the souls he would like to help awaken, if only they would come to him. But for that to happen, their consciences would have to be jolted. They would need to sense that something existed apart from money and ordinary pleasures: shopping, video games, sex, and TV. Was that really still possible? He had the impression that he was one of the last representatives of a religion that was fading away. His motivation was flagging, and his feeling of uselessness in this respect weighed heavily on him.
He sometimes thought about his visit to the coal mine, when he was still doing his master's in Ecology. The director didn't understand that he was defending a type of energy from the past. He continued as if nothing had happened, talking about his work as if he didn't realize he had fewer and fewer customers, fewer and fewer workers, and that in the long run, his mine was condemned to disappear. Jeremy had felt sorry for him. But today, he wondered whether he was in the same situation. Except that coal was bad for people. The mine made them go down into the bowels of the earth, and when they came back in the evening, they were covered in black dust. The mine's closing was perhaps a sign of some positive development. But spirituality elevated people, raised them toward the heavens. If spirituality disappeared, what would be left?
Jeremy sighed. He felt powerless, discouraged, helpless. And yet, in a certain way, he accepted his depression. Somewhere, deep within him, he could sense it: it was from the darkest shadows that light shone through.
The elevator doors closed with a gust of air on the downstairs neighbor who had just gotten on. She was blond, with a very polished, ultra-sophisticated appearance. Furious, Alice held her little boy's hand tightly and stared at the numbers that lit up as the elevator continued downward. Why had her husband smiled like that at the slut? It was easy to look beautiful when you didn't have a child to take care of and could spend half your salary on clothes and an hour and a half every morning on your makeup. And her husband fell into the trap. Infuriating.
The doors opened on the ground floor. The Barbie doll pivoted on her high heels and got out, her little Gucci bag slung over her shoulder. Alice dragged her son and her small, plain suitcase to the taxi stand. Paul followed, a travel bag in one hand and his cell phone in the other, reading his emails or the news as he walked.
Two hours later, in front of her father's house in Cluny, they parked the car they'd rented at the Mâcon train station. A large eighteenth-century residence with tall, white mullioned windows, shutters painted a light Provençal green, and a pretty facade washed in pale pink lime and covered in wisteria. Théo got excited and ran ahead to ring the bell. His grandfather opened the door, and the little boy rushed inside, darting between his legs.
"The swings in the backyard are more interesting than me," the old man said, laughing. "Did you have a good trip?"
Alice kissed her father. Paul shook his hand. Every time she visited, she was happy to see her father so serene in spite of his advanced age. He had very fine white hair and a radiant face, with little wrinkles that spread out around his blue eyes.
They found Jeremy's mother, Madeleine, inside, holding a cup of tea. They said hello, and Paul disappeared upstairs with the bags.
"I'm not staying," said Madeleine, standing up. "I'll leave you to your family get-together."
"No, do stay!" said Alice.
"I don't want to burden you with my problems. I've told your father how concerned I am about Jeremy. I'm quite worried about him, you know." She started walking to the door.
"Papa mentioned something about it to me."
Once she reached the doorway, the old woman turned and looked at Alice. She had a sad, dreamy smile on her face. "To think he was torn between his love for God and his love for you. But he did idolize you as if you were a goddess! If only he had chosen you, he wouldn't be where he is today."
Alice, stunned, watched her walk away.
"Are you having some tea, chérie?" her father called out from the living room.
Everything was spinning around in her mind. She did, in fact, have a vague memory of Jeremy trying to seduce her years before, though rather awkwardly. She hadn't played with his feelings, hadn't led him on. Their friendship meant a great deal to her, but their relationship would remain at that. He hadn't reacted badly, hadn't shown any emotion in particular, and their friendship had, in fact, continued as if nothing had happened. She'd decided it was just a fleeting attraction at an age when it's easy to believe you're in love with people you socialize with. She found it hard to take in that he might have been so infatuated with her. When did that happen? Perhaps before he went into the seminary.
Alice anxiously bit her lip.
She thought back to the personal tragedy she'd lived through shortly afterward and the period when she was in mourning. Jeremy had supported her, listened to her, helped her as though nothing had happened, despite the fact that his love had been rejected.
"Here you are, chérie. Here's your tea."
Alice automatically brought the cup to her lips and burned her tongue. Blind, that's what she had been. Blind to Jeremy's past feelings and now blind to his depression. She had seen him regularly during her weekends in Cluny, without ever noticing a thing. Her professional life had pulled her away from her closest friends.
She suddenly felt egotistical. Her heart aching, she thought back to the warmth Jeremy had shown to her husband. He was a saint, that Jeremy. She owed it to herself to help him, now that he was the one who needed her. She had to do something, anything, to make him feel better. He deserved it. And she owed him at least that much.
* * *
"Where are you taking me?" Jeremy asked, laughing. "I'm not in the habit of being kidnapped when I come out of the rectory!"
The little red Peugeot she'd rented sped away from Cluny along the local roads.
"To Chapaize. To the Saint Martin restaurant."
"We're going to Chapaize just to have lunch?"
"It's fine, it's only fifteen minutes away—not the other end of the world. We'll have more privacy than in Cluny, where everyone knows you."
"Is your family joining us?"
Alice shook her head. "Paul is taking it easy at the house. He's teaching Théo to draw."
A few minutes later, the little car was crossing the rolling countryside, its vineyards crowned with tree-covered hills. Alice rolled down her window. The wonderfully scented air filled the car.
They parked at the entrance to the sleepy village, which they walked through before sitting down in the sunshine at one of the small outdoor tables of the Saint Martin. They were right opposite the Romanesque church, with its magnificent square bell tower raised toward the sky. Chapaize was a very authentic historical village. Many of its old stone houses were washed with a traditional soft-toned lime, often adorned with sheltered passageways and dovecotes, and covered in wisteria and trumpet vine.
"Do you come here a lot?" asked Jeremy.
"Fairly often, yes. I love this restaurant!"
They ordered and the waiter brought them the white burgundy they'd chosen as an aperitif.
She raised her glass. "To the sin of gluttony we are about to commit this lunchtime!"
They clinked glasses, and she took a sip.
"Mmm, divine. Better than the wine at Mass, I assume?"
Jeremy just smiled.
They both fell silent.
"I ran into your mother."
"She's…worried about you."
"Mothers always worry."
- "Charmingly witty... a story of self-discovery and the power of faith, French novelist Gounelle's latest tackles the big questions behind organized religion, exploring a thoroughly modern solution to a centuries-old problem: How can we better connect with ourselves, our God, and those around us? Neatly packaged and thought-provoking, spiritual without being preachy, this will appeal to fans of Fredrik Backman's A Man Called Ove and Nina George's The Book of Dreams."—Booklist
- On Sale
- Feb 25, 2020
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Little, Brown and Company