Mysterious Presence

Little Saintby Hannah GreenRandom House. 273p $25.95

This book honors a 12-year-old martyr by the name of FoyFaith, in Englishin the southwest of France during the last of the Roman persecutions, in A.D. 303. Five centuries later, in what is called a Furtive Translation, or pious robbery, her remains were carried off from Agen in the Garonne to the town of Conques 100 miles east, on the side of a valley shaped like a sea shell. Conques, as Hannah Green describes it, is a compact pinkish fairy-tale city, solidly there with its towers, its castle, its yellow stone church rising tall and massive above the old stone houses gathered around it, all slate roofs. There in the Romanesque church, the reliquary statue of Sainte Foy came to dominate the piety and culture of the town.

Throughout the Middle Ages, Conques was a mandatory stop on the pilgrim route to Compostella. The chronicles of that time record Sainte Foy’s mischievous vanityher appearance in vision to elicit gold and precious stones and carved intaglios and cameos for her statueand her miraculous compassion. Between 1975 and 1982 she cast an enduring spell upon the author, who returned to Conques for months at a time with her husband, the painter John Wesley. In fact the whole locale, all of those craggy rocks and wooded gorges wedged in between Auvergne to the north and classic Provence to the south, cast its spell.

Hannah and Jack traversed most of this region on bicycle. She recreates one of their tours in her second, or middle, section but moves freely back and forth to include incidents and glimpses from other excursions. (The one fault of this heavily geographic book is its lack of maps. This reviewer had recourse to Rand McNally.) The author, from the start, gives us a cast of French provincial characters, speakers of the Provençal patois, who become like familythe monk Père André, custodian of the Treasure and of the history of Sainte Foy; Rosalie, the vegetable gardener, and her husband, Charlou, with his naughty humor; the pious Madame Benoit, 92 years old; the artist and intellectual Jean Sègalat, who reminds her it is the divine details that make good writing; the Cannes family hoteliers and Monsieur and Madame Fabre, who rent them rooms with a view.

Some 25 years in the making, this posthumous book, with its sprightly observation and frank religiosity, brings closure to a distinguished writer’s life. Little Saint, one must infer, was a manuscript kept close and worked over until the author’s death in 1996 with the violent tenderness and even transport that Sainte Foy aroused in her. The reliquary of Sainte Foy, plus a statuette in the church, with their look of tranced contemplative majesty, shared with Romanesque statues of Our Lady the power to move whosoever beheld her to this awe at once mystical and aesthetic and compassionately human that obviously affected the author of this book.

In its middle section, Ascent to the Dolmen of Lunel, Little Saint celebrates the notion and the experience of a sacred place. Hannah and Jack encounter some ancient dolmens, including the Stone of Fevers at the entrance to Le Puy cathedral, that still exert a magnetic telluric current. She explains that something in the conformation of the earth has preserved since the earliest days the mysterious energy of God’s presence. More reason for reverence then in this area peopled so mysteriously thousands of years before the advent of a Celtic population whom the Gauls and the Romans in their turn absorbed.

Not just incidentally, Little Saint is a book about France. We sense this even in the author’s close attention to food, especially the gathering and boiling and crushing of chestnuts, which had been for centuries the staple and bare sustenance of local inhabitants, whose character is as prickly and rough as the outer burry shell of the chestnut, Hannah Green tells us, until you see it open to you. Tourists may say of this region, How beautiful, how charming. But in the local history there are terrible things, harsh, cruel. Nonetheless these people have the wonderful French façade! They may be suffering, but when they greet you they muster up cheer and humor, they go out to you. It is so courteous, so dignified. Sainte Foy, Holy Faith, has a lot to do with that, the author intimates, quoting Charles Péguy: Faith is a great tree, an oak tree rooted deep in the heart of France.

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