‘There’s something lively and fateful about him, an aroused hatred, a wicked turn of mind, but also gentleness… But Müntzer is a Man of action; he gets carried along by his own prose.’
Vuillard’s work is intellectually stimulating; like Kundera, the arguments draw the reader into a discourse. The themes are less personal, in this case, the philosophy, history and politics of the past are a window on the modern world, a macro rather than a micro vision. This is highly entertaining, whether you agree or disagree with the author you will engage. This is ostensibly the story of Thomas Müntzer, radical sixteenth century preacher, and as such it’s insightful, but The War of the Poor is more intriguingly a theory of history, a way of seeing the past that joins the dots across centuries and continents between free thinking and radicalism and it is plausible and exhilarating and deeply relevant.
There’s a style of writing novels that allows you to read between the lines, to get more than actually appears on the page. Take the dialogue between characters in Pinter, not everything can be understood simply from the things people actually say to each other. The reader has to peer behind the lines to divine meaning. The concept behind Vuillard’s novel is similar but it’s not about between the lines so much as between the paragraphs, between thoughts. His fragmentary narrative inspires readers to ignite the synapse, linking one idea to another. A narrative that spans centuries and projects one man’s story back and fore through time becomes a unified philosophical piece. Vuillard doesn’t deal in cheap conspiracy theory but he sees the bonds, the binds, between moments, their ramifications, significance and legacy.
There’s also an elegance in the simplicity of The War of the Poor, the ease with which it can be read, it’s entertaining like a thriller, yet the meaning doesn’t slip by. This feels collaborative and, even, enlivening. I don’t agree with everything Vuillard lays out in his thesis but I enjoy his cogent view of history, even though he has cherry picked from the timeline. The sixteenth century life of Thomas Müntzer is given context by the English Peasants Revolt of 1381; this is more than a seminal moment in British history, it’s a signpost, an inspiration for rebellion and reform, a challenge to authority for centuries to come, it reaches out to Müntzer to inspire him. Similarly, Vuillard speaks to the current age of demagoguery and flourishing protest.
There’s a poetry to Vuillard’s prose that makes it is a joy to read, a succinctly expressed intelligence and force of argument that is breathtakingly comprehensive for such a slim volume. It doesn’t come as a surprise, anyone who had the good fortune to read Vuillard’s Prix Goncourt winning novel The Order of the Day will know that he has mastered the art of the novella. Applying a discipline and precision in paring back themes and story line while exhibiting a breadth of thought that is incredibly stimulating. This novella doesn’t quite have the righteous anger as The Order of the Day but that’s a quibble, rather than a fault.
What of the man at the heart of the novel? Thomas Muntzer was eleven when the count of Stolberg hanged his father. By fifteen he had formed a secret league against the archbishop of Magdeburg and the Church of Rome. It isn’t simply the state and the nobles that oppress the masses but the religious authority of Rome that sits in parallel ‘judgement’ of the people with the secular authorities. The people always suffer.
‘“I was filled with joy, but one unites with God only through terrible suffering and despair.” That’s what he believed.’
Fifty years before in Mainz they had printed a book, the Bible, in the three years it took a monk to produce one book they could now print 180. Thomas could read, he grew up with Gutenberg’s stories but he had to interpret them for himself, his heart burned. He became a student in Leipzig, a priest in Halberstadt and Brunswick, a provost in many places, he spent time amongst the Lutherite plebeians. Müntzer emerged as a reborn preacher in Zwickau, a back water, a weavers’ town. Müntzer met with reformers; Dreschel, Storch, Stübner, they talked fire, brimstone and ecstasy. Müntzer is convinced the people need to hear the word of God directly. He speaks against the corruption of the Church, the irrationality of doctrine and the sacraments. He read, not just St. Augustine but Erasmus, Nicholas of Cusa, Raymond Lully and Jan Hus.
‘They debated, argued, yearned to stand naked before the truth.’
In Zwickau it was the patricians of St. Mary’s versus the plebeians of St. Katharine’s. Müntzer agitated, when he spoke the people listened; God and money don’t mix. Müntzer is thrown out, Bohemia is in ferment over the Great Schism, heresy is rampant.
‘A yearning for purity swept over the land…’
The Bible must be accessible to human reason, slavery is a sin, popes should be elected by lots, he repudiates transubstantiation.
‘There followed a rain of papal bulls. The pope got mad, and when a pope gets mad, it rains bulls.’
This is a story of belief, of emancipation of the spirit and the body, of ideals, of corruption and religion. Can a good cause be soured by its methods? Of course it can, when the Pandora’s box of freedom of thought is opened there are hiccups, tragedies along the way but ideas don’t die. The message is fight, now as much as ever, for a better future.
Translated by Mark Polizzotti from La guerre des pauvres.
Review by Paul Burke
Other Press, hardback, ISBN 9781635420081, 20/10/20