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
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
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
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