31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 29: “Classical Scenes of Farewell” by Jim Shepard
From You Think That’s Bad
“One of my great subjects over the years,” says Jim Shepard, “great in terms of just volume, has been complicity with power and complicity with evil. … I don’t think I ever will write something from the point of view of Hitler, or Himmler, or something like that. But the guy who enables Himmler …”
Writing about history’s monsters is something that captures a part of the author’s imagination, but doing so in a straightforward way seems unsatisfying, in part because it lets the reader off the hook. “If I write about Himmler,” Shepard says, “I leave the reader in a very comfortable position, because the reader says, wow, what an evil guy. If I write about somebody who helps Himmler, I hope that I’m leaving the reader in a position of going, well, actually, that enabling is something that sounds familiar to me as well, because I happen to know of some things that happened that I didn’t do anything to try to stop.”
This is at once a statement of artistic intent, and an explanation of one of the key strategies Shepard employs in “Classical Scenes of Farewell,” an excoriating story featuring Gilles de Rais, a fifteenth century soldier in the French army who fought with Joan of Arc and was later executed as a child murderer. Crucially, the story is not centred on de Rais, but on one of his manservants, Etienne Corillaut, who goes by Poitou (the nickname is a region in France, but also refers more specifically to a kind of donkey bred there). By filtering the narrative through Poitou’s first-person perspective, Shepard paradoxically humanizes it, thereby rendering the events in the story all the more horrifying.
To tell the story of de Rais’ exploits would be monstrous, but his career as a murderer – think the Marquis de Sade crossed with Clifford Olson – was so outrageous, so extraordinary, that it readily affords the reader a safe distance: there is no way any sane person could possibly identify with de Rais as a character or find any empathy for his actions. However, by using a young man from a poor family – someone much easier for a reader to understand and empathize with – as a kind of tour guide through hell, Shepard forces a pang of recognition on the reader; the manifest discomfort in the story comes from a realization of just how apparently normal Poitou appears. If he is capable of abetting de Rais’ crimes, then by extension, and given the right circumstances, so might anyone be.
The story is structured as a confession, written by Poitou on the eve before he is to be executed along with Henriet, another of de Rais’ accomplices. “I am now twenty-two years of age,” Poitou writes, “and here acknowledge to the best of my abilities the reasons for those acts that have made this name along with my master’s the object of hatred throughout the region.” But, Poitou doesn’t stop there:
I here also address the questions that my kinsmen hear from every stable hand, every innkeeper, every farmer in his field: What transpired in his mind that allowed a young person to have acted in such a manner and then to have lived apparently untroubled among his fellows? What enabled him to have stepped forward into the sunlight and Nature’s bounty for six years of such iniquity?
In other words, Poitou – and by extension Shepard – wants his readers to understand him, to comprehend the reasons behind his active participation in absolutely horrific activities. Shepard does not spare the reader the horror: the scenes depicting de Rais’ crimes are explicit and highly disturbing, but they are not in any way gratuitous or pornographic; the violence in the story – some of it sexual violence – is unacceptable and frankly difficult to handle, but this is surely the point. What Shepard is interested in is a confrontation with evil, and a reckoning with the forces in the world that allow it not only to exist, but to flourish.
The opening scene depicts Poitou’s childhood on his family’s “tumbledown farm,” a place his mother believed to be “serried and tumid with devils.” These are the supernatural devils of early Christendom; when Poitou encounters an actual, flesh-and-blood devil in the person of de Rais, we note the disconnection between the Church’s notion of evil and evil as it actually exists in the world. Shepard ironically portrays de Rais as a highly devout man; he tells the Inquisitor who condemns him to death that before his sentence is carried out he wants to be reincorporated into the Church from which he has been excommunicated.
The backdrop to the story is of course France in the 1600s – a period in which the country had been ravaged by war and strife, and the gap between the wealthy, titled nobility and the dirt poor was astounding. “Each of [de Rais’] castles,” Poitou states, “was thronged about by children made homeless by a hundred years of war and brigandage, begging where they could and stealing where they couldn’t.” The rampant social inequality and class-based misery provides a waiting flock of forgotten children from which de Rais may choose his victims. De Rais is a manifestation of pure evil, but the story at least strongly implies that it was the social conditions in France – conditions that in some ways closely mirror our own in the second decade of the 21st century – that allowed him to continue killing unchecked.
Shepard is fond of quoting Flannery O’Connor’s assertion that the fiction writer’s focus is the action grace in the territory of the devil. There is no grace to be found in “Classical Scenes of Farewell,” though Pitou’s final words are an imprecation to God that the fires that burn him and Henriet alive may serve to cleanse them of their sins: “And God will come to know our secrets. At our immolation He’ll appear to us and pour His gold out at our feet. And His grace that we kicked away will become like a tower on which we might stand. And His grace will raise us to such a height that we might glimpse the men we aspired to be. And His grace like the heat of the sun will burn away the men we have become.”
The great Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa claimed that being an artist means never averting your eyes. In telling the story of Gilles de Rais’ deluded manservant, Shepard resolutely refuses to avert his eyes. “Classical Scenes of Farewell” is a bold attempt to reckon with the nature of evil in history and, by extension, the evil that exists all around us in the present. That we as readers so easily recognize our own society – to say nothing of ourselves – in the pages of the story is perhaps its most disturbing and agonizing aspect.