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Louis de Wohl (1903-1961)

WHEN A MAN HAS REACHED A CERTAIN AMOUNT OF SUCCESS in his profession, people will come to him and ask questions. Now whenever someone asked me "Should I become a writer?" I invariably answered point-blank "No." Some were hurt, some angry, almost all of them were surprised. "Why not?" "Because you haven't got the stuff in you." "How do you know? You have never read anything I have done, have you?" "No. But I know all the same. I know because you asked me. If you had the stuff in you that makes a writer, you wouldn't ask me, you'd go and write and go on writing. You couldn't abstain from it."

And that goes, in my opinion, for all creative work; for would-be actors, architects, painters, sculptors, and musicians. Mind you, there are quite a number of people who cannot abstain from it, although they do not have the stuff in them, but that is beside the point.

As for me, I started writing at the age of seven or just a little older, and what really set me off was that some of the stories I read did not go the way I wanted. I simply decided to change them, and change them I did. At the age of eight I wrote a play, "Jesus of Nazareth," and the great speech of the High Priest Caiphas in the marketplace of Jerusalem bore a strong resemblance to Mark Antony's speech in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Caiphas praised Christ in the same hypocritical way that Mark Antony praised Brutus, to convince his audience of the contrary. Plagiarism or not, I was very much in earnest about my drama. I decided to compose the music for it myself, paint the posters and design the scenery, and of course I myself would play one of the leading parts, Caiphas perhaps, or Mary Magdalene.

More than forty years passed before I came back to that theme in my before-last novel, The Spear, the story of Longinus who pierced the side of our Lord on the Cross.

When one meets a stranger, the first question one is asked is usually: "Where are you at home?", and to most people that is an easy one to answer. Not with me. A dialogue almost invariably ensues. "I reside in New York." "Ah, you're an American." "No, I am British." "Oh, I see. Where were you born, in London?" "No, in Berlin, Germany." "Ah, then you are a German by birth." "No, a Hungarian. In continental Europe one inherits the nationality of the father, and my father was a Hungarian." "Is that so? Then I presume your mother was German?" "No." "I think I understand. She was English." "No, she was Austrian." "A bit complicated, but now I do understand. Then your original language was Hungarian, of course." "No, German. I don't speak Hungarian at all; only English, French, German, a little Italian and Spanish and a smattering of Latin, Greek and Arabic." At this stage I must be glad if my interrogator does not think I am trying to make fun of him; but what can I do? I have given him only the bare facts.

I used to live in Germany, up to 1935. Then I could not take the Hitler regime any longer. I cannot stay in a country whose laws I can no longer respect. Justice, according to Hitler's official version was "what the Aryan man thought was right." Unfortunately, what the "Aryan man" thought right was a mixture of cruelty and drivel. Hitler had nothing against me at the time-I gave him good reasons for having something against me later-but I had enough of him and went to England. It was perhaps not quite as easy as it may sound. I had built up a career as a writer in Germany. Every line I wrote was printed. I had thirty odd novels published, of which sixteen were made into pictures. Money came pouring in, and money is a good thing if you know what to do with it. And in England-to say nothing of the United States-I was totally unknown. What was worse, my English was only just good enough to get on in everyday life. It would take years before I could hope to write in English.

I soon realized that I was dealing not only with a different language but also with a different mentality. And then I had an idea. The mentality of a person is formed in early childhood. If I wanted to understand the mentality of the English, I would have to undergo a similar process myself. I bought myself children's books. Nursery rhymes, fairy tales, text-books of all kinds. I struggled through the books of the seven and eight year olds, then through those for children from nine to twelve, from thirteen to fifteen, and so on. I read history books, best-sellers, thrillers and adventure stories, newspapers and magazines, plays and poetry. A book a day was the minimum.

After five years I felt that I could start writing. And then the war broke out.

I volunteered. But the army, the navy and the R.A.F. all very politely declined. I was a foreigner. Even the A.R.P., the Civil defense people, would not have me. I was not allowed to dig a trench in Hyde Park. I was angry. I was so angry that I decided that they would have to take me. And as they would not have me as a simple soldier, they would have me as an officer. For this I needed an idea. I looked for it, found it, and went into action.

A few months later I was a captain in the British army with a Department of Psychological Warfare all my own. My job started just about at the time when the Germans began to bomb London, and I was stationed in London. When the war ended, I had been through a little over a thousand air raids.

When a man has to live very close to death year after year, he is bound to undergo a certain change. It is not just that he is afraid. He is that, of course, at least at the beginning, unless he is devoid of all feelings. But fear is not the main thing. First, the senses are sharpened. After a few months I invariably woke up a few minutes before the air raid sirens went off. When we have to live in the jungle again, our sense of danger returns, that instinct of prehistoric times, the instinct of the animal. But the intellect, too, undergoes a change. One no longer takes things for granted. One realizes much more, much stronger, that everything depends, not upon bombs, not upon oneself, but upon God. If one has not prayed before, one prays now. And if one has, one prays better.

My parents had both been Catholics, and I was brought up accordingly. I had never entirely lost my faith, but I had become tepid-a constant danger particularly for those who have had too much success at too early a stage in life. Now I could not help asking myself: If I die tonight-and I have a very good chance for that-what do I have to show for this life of mine? I remembered the parable of the talents. What had I done with the talents God had given me? I had written "successful" books, but to what was that success due ? All my books were adventure stories, thrillers. People read them in trains or when they were too tired to read something really good. And they were written for just that purpose. They were not written in the service of God. Another seven years would pass before the late Cardinal of Milan, Ildefonso Schuster, would tell me: "Let your writings be good. For your writings you will one day be judged." But already then I knew that I had to undergo a radical change as a writer, and I knew that I had to make up for many years of time lost. I did not vow, like Franz Werfel, to write the life of some special saint if I would get out of the war alive. I just decided to serve God.

Thus in a way my career started at the end of the war. What it was that I wanted to write about became clear to me very soon. I had seen the terrifying effect of a false ideal. Millions of Germans fell for the dynamic charlatanism of Hitler, they tried to ape him, to become little Hitlers themselves. And there is no country where people do not look up to some one and try to imitate him or her. Most people want to be led, if only by some outstanding example in this field or that. Therefore much depended upon these examples. Now what would be the examples that God would wish us to follow? Christ, of course. But then, Christ was not only a Man, He was also God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity; and how could Mr. Smith hope to imitate Him?

Perhaps that was the main reason why the Church taught us to venerate the saints. They were all human, and many of them had to combat all kinds of faults to reach sanctity in the end. I began to read books about the saints. Soon I realized that most of them were written by devout people-mostly priests and nuns-for devout people. I could not imagine that anyone living at the outer fringe of the faith, to say nothing of a non-religious person, would read them. Yet it was exactly that type of person who needed a saint's example and guidance more than anyone else.

I began to ask questions and found that for a great many people a saint was "a person who was a religious fanatic," or "a medieval phenomenon," or simply "someone who prayed all the time" (which last was much nearer the mark, though not in the sense they meant). Saints were "plastercast figures," "goody-goodies," "disagreeable zealots." Of a hundred people I asked, not one replied "saints are what I ought to be" or "saints are examples to be followed."

But I had read enough now to sense, to feel, to know that apart from being just that, they were the most thrilling, the most interesting, the most courageous and even the most glamorous people of all. I decided to write historical novels whose heroes and heroines were saints.

Soon enough I discovered that the problems of the saints -and all around them-were the problems of our own time, and that they and only they were able to solve them. Who of us has not heard the rubbish about "Christianity having failed" or "Christianity no longer being modern"? That was exactly what Emperor Julian the Apostate thought and it was St. Athanasius who put him right. So I wrote my novel Imperial Renegade.

We all worry about the danger from the East. So did the Western world when Attila, King of the Huns, broke into Germany, France and Italy, until Pope Leo I stopped him and his huge army single-handed. So I wrote my novel Throne of the World. The most vital necessity of our time is the rediscovery of the Cross in our hearts. So I wrote The Living Wood, the story of St. Helena who rediscovered the True Cross. Then, in May of 1948, I went to Rome, had my first audience with that living saint, the Holy Father, and asked him whom he wanted me to write about next! He said "St. Thomas Aquinas." Two years later I gave him the finished book, The Quiet Light, and asked him for his next order. This time he said "Write about the history and the mission of the Church in the world."

And that will keep me busy as long as I live. So far it has resulted in my novels on St. Augustine (The Restless Flame), St. Ignatius Loyola (The Golden Thread), and St. Longinus (The Spear). My most recent book, The Last Crusader, is not the story of a saint, although St. Pius V appears in it too at a decisive moment. But it certainly is dealing with "the history and the mission of the Church in the world," and it gives an example of the importance of the lay apostolate so dear to the Holy Father. Besides it shows a decisive phase in the struggle against the Islam, -a struggle that is by no means at an end as the latest developments go to show!

Now I am struggling with a novel whose hero is . . . St. Paul. Need I say that it is not exactly easy work? And need I say that I would not exchange it for anything else in the world?


[Mr. de Wohl is a Knight Commander of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre and his wife (nee Ruth Magdalene Lorch, whom he married in 1953) is a Lady Commander of the same Order. His fifty books include The Living Wood (Lippincott, 1947), Imperial Renegade (id., 1950), The Restless Flame (id., 1951), Throne of the World (id., 1949; published in England as Attila), The Golden Thread (Lippincott, 1952), The Second Conquest (id., 1954), Set All Afire (id., 1953), The Spear (id., 1955), and St. Joan, the Girl Soldier (Farrar, 1957) in the Vision Books series.]

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