Irresistible Strozzi

Jerome Strozzi stole my book review, just like he stole Jean Sulivan’s novel. I was going to paint Eternity, My Beloved as the equivalent of the 1,500-some page Les Miserables, boiled down to 146 pages of raw form and elemental truth. It would have been a beautiful analogy. But I realized that if anything is going to draw you into this book, it has to be Strozzi. Strozzi is irresistible.

Strozzi is the book’s protagonist, an unassuming, respectable priest in pre-World War II France. He takes assignments from his superiors and becomes an admired professor at a Catholic high school. But during the Nazi occupation, he is sent to minister in the "unoccupied zone," a section of Paris ruled by the underworld of crime. There, out from under the Catholic hierarchy’s watchful eye, a spark ignites in Strozzi, and after 50-plus years of living, he comes alive. Strozzi relates to the thieves, prostitutes, and pimps around him without condescension. He doesn’t tell them anything about God, and he espouses no doctrine; he just lives among them.

Jean Sulivan, himself a rebel priest, taught school and ran several cultural organizations for 20 years. At age 45, after his first novel found popularity, he requested (and was granted) permission from the cardinal of Rennes to write full time. He wrote more than 30 books over the course of his life. Eternity, My Beloved was originally published in 1966 in France and was this year translated from the French. Sulivan died in a car accident in 1980.

SULIVAN BASED the character of Strozzi on a priest named Auguste Rosi, whom Sulivan befriended in real life. I suspect that the events in the book are factually true but fictionally arranged. Sulivan guesses that the reader will have questions about this: "You think I’m just wandering. Well, what difference does it make if Jerome Strozzi isn’t exactly as I’ve presented him?àI sing of an unknown, an adventurer of the open spaces. There is a Strozzi sleeping in every one of us, a Strozzi waiting to be born." If you’re confused by his words, you have reason to be; Sulivan seems to have been baffled by his friend Rosi, and the novel reveals Sulivan’s attempt to comprehend Rosi through the creation of Strozzi.

Sulivan describes Strozzi’s life in anecdotes, first-hand stories, and (by his own admission) his imagination. The novel takes us on a journey through Sulivan’s desire for understanding: What makes this holy fool tick? Strozzi confounds him; somehow Strozzi exists through the devastating consequences of living in the margins, and rather than degenerating into a cynic, he exudes a peace that Sulivan both gravitates toward and finds annoying.

As a narrator, Sulivan is everywhere: in Strozzi’s head, in his own head, and in the critic’s head, deconstructing his writing for the reader. He admits his limitations as a writer and a believer in order to let us see through his biases to Strozzi. The paucity of his words is at once liberating and maddening; I found myself reveling in his poetic style and groaning for clearer connections. At times I felt like Sulivan had left a skeleton of a novel, a tome that, had it been given flesh, would have reached the length of Les Miserables with as many subplots. Instead, he paints in watercolor, giving hints of stories and shades of characters that the reader is left to divine. Through this medium, Sulivan reveals the sacred. We see Sulivan struggling with the finiteness of words in the face of infinity, and through the struggle, we see him create utter beauty out of his humanness. —Kelley E. Evans

KELLEY E. EVANS is resource center manager at Sojourners.

Eternity, My Beloved. Jean Sullivan. River Boat Books, 1999.

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