Listen to New Voices on Studs Terkel our partnership with 826CHI-here! Read the Story

00 / 00

Jean Cau discusses his book "La pitié de Dieu" ; part 1

BROADCAST: Nov. 1, 1962 | DURATION: 00:31:44


Through an interpreter, Jean Cau discusses his book "La pitié de Dieu", or translated, "The Mercy of God". Cau's book is about four prisoners and their interactions with one another. Cau explained, in one way or another, with a reference to Kafka, we are all condemned and it will be a great surprise to all to learn what we are guilty of.


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Studs Terkel We are seated in the apartment of Jean Cau. This is on. Let me see if I have my French is right it's [French]. No not seize, trieze 13 13 [French] in fifth floor and now I know why the French are able to keep slim even though cal-the di the diet is highly caloric as good exercise. But Jean Cau is perhaps one of the most knowing of all Parisian journalists. He knows this city forwards backwards upside down. Knows the color of it. But this year Mr. Cau has been signally honored. He's won the Prix Goncourt for his new novel and this is the equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize in America. I know the rough translation is the "Compassion of God" in French Jean Cau whom we've met before on two different occasions. Your book in French the title is

Jean Cau The title is "La Pitie

Studs Terkel de Pitie.

Jean Cau La Pitie de Dieu.

Studs Terkel La Pitie de Dieu

Jean Cau God's mercy God's compassion God's pity.

Studs Terkel Before I ask you about yourself as a journalist for The L'Express. Read by I know countless numbers of Parisians, the novel itself God's pity. Would you mind telling us about the work itself. What you had in mind in the writing. What's the nature of it, of this novel? Where is the locale?

Jean Cau [French]

Studs Terkel Oh, we're calling on on occasion-

Jean Cau It's a story, it's a novel four, four men four prisoners are in jail and [French].

Tim They are guilty.

Studs Terkel I think we should point out that third voice you hear is that of Tim, Louis Mitelberg known as Tim who is, I think one of the most celebrated of political cartoonists in all France. We've seen reproductions of his work in America. He too is of the Paris of L'Express. So Tim now and then will interject so Jean Cau can be free. This deals with four prisoners who are guilty.

Jean Cau [French] I need an interpreter.

Tim They are in prison because they have been condemned. For for crimes they have committed and for which they have been.

Studs Terkel It's okay.

Tim The four prisoners are in prison by they have been condemned for a crime they have been found guilty. But somehow, what Cau just said, is that they have the impression that they are imprisoned for a guilt. They have been-

Jean Cau More secret.

Tim A secret guilt which is not the one they have been condemned.

Jean Cau Yes, that's right.

Studs Terkel So I follow up. These are four men who are condemned but not for that which they themselves secretly feel guilty.

Jean Cau Yes, if you want, that when when one is guilty when the society is [French]

Tim Condemned.

Jean Cau Condemned, condemned a person [French]

Tim I am not sure that I will translate it right.

Jean Cau I can help you.

Tim Yes please help me. When they have been condemned by the society. [Jean Cau speaking French] For a, for a actual crime for a visible crime. They have still the impression when they found found themselves before the judges [Jean Cau speaking French] that they that they are innocent. That they pay for guilt, for for crimes or for being guilty for different things before.

Jean Cau Yes.

Tim Which all this society accumulates on them-

Jean Cau Yes.

Tim -charges on them.

Jean Cau Yes, for for example in the book I have [French]

Tim A person.

Jean Cau A Person.

Studs Terkel One of the characters, one of the characters in the book.

Jean Cau One of the one of the characters he's a boxer is condemned to because he has killed a prostitute and that visible crime. But he feels himself innocent-

Tim Innocent.

Jean Cau -innocent of this crime because years before he killed a friend during fighting on the ring and for him-

Tim Boxing.

Jean Cau Boxing and for him, the real crime he committed in his life. He's to killed a friend fighting.

Studs Terkel Aha. So he was not, I follow of course. He was not he was not condemned for that which was legal with which he considered more brutal, the killing of a friend, something that is legal. He was condemned for a killing that society looks down upon as horrible but not nearly as horrible to him as killing his friend in the ring.

Jean Cau Yes.

Studs Terkel So now we're coming to the theme of your book here now. Guilt, guilt that the world one another feels on so many occasions. Guilt is the theme of the book.

Jean Cau Yes

Studs Terkel It's as society, now these four men I take it represent.

Jean Cau Yes and the book is something more to it's [French]

Studs Terkel It's an allegory,

Jean Cau It's an

Tim It's a screen, screen through which he wanted to catch the human condition.

Studs Terkel So the jail then is simply the jail and these four men. The jail is simply a framework.

Jean Cau The world.

Studs Terkel The jail is the world.

Jean Cau Yes.

Studs Terkel And these four men represent four different aspects of society perhaps. One is the boxer.

Jean Cau Yes one is a boxer, another is a doctor another is an intellectual and another is a workman.

Studs Terkel Well, let's let's take these last two for example the intellectual and the workman. What's the intellectual's alleged guilt and real guilt.

Jean Cau The intellectual is guilty. Because he killed his father for the society. But the secret culpability.

Studs Terkel Culpability.

Jean Cau His secret culpability is to have lost [French]

Tim The faith [Jean Cau speaking French]. The faith. [Jean Cau speaking French]. The killing of God was for himself the original primary crime which he cannot [Jean Cau speaking French].

Studs Terkel When you say lost faith in God are you inferring here to faith in man as well?

Tim Well, he said that when he killed his father it was only the second crime a logical continuation of the first crime because after killing God killing the father was

Studs Terkel A reflection crime.

Tim A reflection, a consequence. [Jean Cau speaking French] which he didn't believe anymore. [Jean Cau speaking French] The one, the crime which he considers himself really-

Studs Terkel Guilty.

Tim Guilty is the crime of killing God.

Studs Terkel Yes. So now we're following this pattern. We're following a pattern here now from the boxer to the intellectual there is an obvious crime that society condemns but a much deeper crime society condones does not-

Jean Cau What that mean?

Studs Terkel Condones accepts.

Jean Cau Tolerate I see.

Studs Terkel So thus far I follow it up a level.

Jean Cau Right.

Studs Terkel Now we come to the working man.

Jean Cau The working man was [French]

Tim A playboy.

Studs Terkel Don Juan oh a Don Juan, a cassanova, a

Tim ladies Of

Studs Terkel Of the suburbs [Jean Cau speaking French] A suburban ladies man.

Jean Cau And he married a girl very pretty. And it [French]

Tim The day he married he had the impression he had the feeling that he betrayed his youth and himself. [Jean Cau speaking French] He says his crime which he considers his crime is the marriage. It's his desertion of a situation of his condition [Jean Cau speaking French] A man who-

Jean Cau He was.

Tim Of the man he was, yes.

Studs Terkel It was the, he was the natural man this Don Juan.

Studs Terkel Yes.

Studs Terkel And he thought and so he abandoned his freedom by marrying.

Jean Cau And a day-

Studs Terkel What was his, what was his legal crime?

Jean Cau And a day he killed his wife for jealousy and is condemned for this crime but another time. You don't [French].

Tim He doesn't feel.

Jean Cau He doesn't he doesn't feel himself for guilty of these crime. Secretly once more

Tim He he feels himself guilty for having changed to another kind of man.

Studs Terkel He feels then he betrayed each of these three cases so far man feels he betrayed himself. [Tim and Jean Cau speaking French] Not that I'm crazy about doctors but what about the doctor? [Jean Cau and Tim laugh] What about the doctor?

Jean Cau The doctor is, it's a more, It's the most complicated of these characters. He the doctors had a brother when he was young and this brother one day died. And the doctor has le sentiment

Tim The feeling,

Jean Cau The feeling.

Tim Sentiment.

Jean Cau That that his brother was dead [French]

Tim Instead of himself.

Jean Cau Instead of himself [French]

Tim And his feeling of guilt is that he saw his brother being dead. So near himself and he had the impression that he should be dead himself instead of his brother and that. That's that's where started his feeling of guilt. [Jean Cau speaking French] For all times he made that man a guilty man [Jean Cau speaking French]

Studs Terkel What was his legal crime? [Tim and Jean Cau speaking French]

Jean Cau Yes, the social crime. He killed his wife and he killed his wife to be killed. [French]

Tim He killed his wife to be condemned

Studs Terkel In short he was suicidal. The killing of his wife [Jean Cau speaking French]

Tim He killed his wife to respect the justice which the death of his brother didn't respect.

Studs Terkel Ah, I see no, no, another, here, in short, in short, he committed suicide.

Jean Cau Yes.

Studs Terkel In short, he would self-destruct.

Jean Cau Yes, exactly.

Studs Terkel Because of the guilt that he carried. Because the, now, one question [Jean Cau speaking French]

Tim Since the death of his brother he considered, he considered himself as a living death.

Studs Terkel A living death. Now I must ask you one question before I come to another one a larger question about these four men and society. Everything is clear to me so far with the working man, the intellectual, and the boxer. The doctor, why did he feel guilty because of his brother's death? Why the guilt? [Tim and Jean Cau speaking French]

Tim He noticed that since the death of his brother his mother didn't love him anymore. Maybe because she preferred the other son. Maybe since the death of this other son she preferred that son. But since the death of this of his brother he he he felt he noticed his guilt through the, through the.

Studs Terkel Attitude of

Tim That's right.

Studs Terkel So then if I follow this Jean perhaps unconsciously he felt because of his mother's favoring the brother he may have felt a will to kill unconsciously of his brother. When his brother died he felt he actually killed him.

Jean Cau Yes

Studs Terkel Is that it? [Tim

Tim He had the impression that he became jealous of his brother because sadly the death of his brother became the most important.

Studs Terkel So now we follow four different members of the society in which we live guilty for a crime they consider less than the one they feel they committed but went unpunished for. Now then, what are you trying to say Jean Cau? Over and beyond this we know you are thinking beyond these four men and beyond the jail. What led you to write this book? This theme?

Tim The the idea was to show that men are men feel guilty. They have a guilty com, a guilt complex for which [Jean Cau speaking French] and the society is wrong when the society brings up the crimes [Jean Cau speaking French] brings out. Brings up or brings out I don't know. Brings up the crimes for which they have to be condemned.

Jean Cau Yes. [French]

Tim The truth is more simple.

Jean Cau The origin of this novel is some some words of Franz Kafka, of the writer Franz Kafka. I read one day this in the diary of Kafka. [French] [Tim laughs]

Tim He he read it in a diary of Franz Kafka said a phrase which says we will all be condemned.

Studs Terkel Damned.

Tim Damned, damned by God but we'll be very surprised to learn for what crime. [Jean Cau speaking French]

Jean Cau That the origin of the book [French]

Tim That this little rain which made grow, the tree.

Studs Terkel Yes. So this seed, this was the seed.

Tim That's right.

Studs Terkel This was the seed of Kafka quote that you read was the seed.

Jean Cau Yes. And this little phrase of Kafka

Studs Terkel And then you're-

Jean Cau Like a Japanese flower, you see. You put a Japanese flower in some water and you became very, very great,

Studs Terkel Jean Cau you're talking about now the world today too aren't you? In which people each day betray themselves is that the idea? [Tim and Jean Cau speaking French]

Jean Cau It's an allegory it's a fable. It's a translation. It's a political translation with a novel of [French] things that we are everyday living.

Tim You want a match [unintelligible]

Studs Terkel A light, thank you. In the working of this novel [match striking] which came about as a result as a result of reading the Kafka quote. This quotation this was the seed but it was more than that was your own feeling too. Do you feel this? Are you talking now about [Tim speaking French] are you talking now about France to some

Tim Is that what you asked?

Jean Cau No no no absolutely no but. [French] without to know that. Maybe have [unintelligible] because we have lived four years occupied by by the German army and we were in jail too. And after the war and my youth was very [French]

Tim Maybe maybe the occupation of the four years by the Germans of France. Created in him without unconsciously this the feeling of being four years in prison closed. Maybe this created this feeling of guilt.

Jean Cau [French] I was a child during the the war and during the occupation and I was [French]

Tim Adults.

Jean Cau The adults [French]

Tim [unintelligible] us guilty. Did you consider [Tim and Jean Cau speaking French] France, having being afraid of Germans or Frenchmen being afraid tortured imprisoned by the Germans occupied.

Jean Cau And for the child that I was maybe I don't know as that's an explanation that-

Studs Terkel I was just won-no I know sometimes the unconscious that is working too and you're doing is I was wondering-

Jean Cau Another thing is that, you know, the thing is that during seven years we have made a war in Algiers.

Studs Terkel I was about to ask the question of

Jean Cau And and and maybe as a Frenchman, I was guilty of this war maybe unconsciously another another time I wrote this book to [French]

Tim To espouse the feeling of guilt to to liberate your concern from the-

Studs Terkel To purge in a way.

Tim That's right.

Studs Terkel A purge. I was about to ask about Algiers because as you say this is very dramatic. Here were the French in jail socially in jail by the Germans and yet came the other side of the coin when to a large extent people. Are you saying this was standing by and watching them do the same thing to some extent?

Jean Cau Yes when [unintelligible] was in jail and another time the the Algerians were were in jail and [French]

Tim Equilibrium, this balance.

Studs Terkel This balance. In fact, if I follow this the Frenchmen then what what Jean Cau was saying was at one time the jailed and the next time the jailer.

Tim Yes yes yes.

Jean Cau Exactly.

Studs Terkel And so the double guilt.

Jean Cau I don't know if that is a very explication.

Tim It's more it's more than-

Studs Terkel [laughing] It's very-

Jean Cau I don't know maybe.

Studs Terkel Well this

Jean Cau I am psychoanalyzing myself.

Studs Terkel But it it seems then the book obviously came out of Jean Cau's deep thoughts and feelings that perhaps he expresses best in this allegorical manner. Do you see? It had to come out of your life this book you feel this book had to come out of this time.

Tim If you want to know why and why if he the the the writer, the artist wants himself to know why he did he he write such a book or this book. He doesn't really know but he tries to find out maybe he should be psychoanalyzed.

Studs Terkel Of course.

Jean Cau Yes, I am obliged to ask to myself why I wrote this book because this book is is like my baby. And why this baby and why this face, why this nose, why this color of the eyes? I don't know. Because you are helping me to to to to know

Tim To find out.

Jean Cau To find that.

Studs Terkel But sometimes as you say a writer need not know analyze the fact that he does it. Sometimes it comes out of his subconscious. [Tim and Jean Cau speaking French]

Jean Cau I am French I am not Chinese I am no I am no Negro Central Africa. And sure [French]

Tim The situation I was living in produced probably this book-

Studs Terkel And yet-

Tim -through him.

Studs Terkel And yet, as Jean Cau is talking. I am not a Frenchman but this book that you are describing though it, you thought of France as you wrote this book may have universal applications dealing with double levels of guilt all over the world.

Jean Cau Yes probably probably. And I hope [French] signification. And it's for that that I made an allegory instead to write realistic book [French]

Studs Terkel As an American, as you are talking now it is not too difficult for me to feel as for reasons that are quite easy to determine in the matter of one people as against another. I imagine this could apply probably to every man who tries to be thoughtful anywhere in the world. So then you view the world then, the world, the society of the world is your locale.

Jean Cau Yes, Studs if if for instance, the phrase of Kafka when Kafka has the same problem as me if you want and he said we will be will we be damned. But we don't know why.

Tim For whi-for which crime.

Jean Cau Which crime [Jean Cau speaking French]

Tim For our biggest astonishment, surprise.

Jean Cau What do we say, what he says [French]

Tim Kafka was speaking for example when he spoke about this being damned and he fin-find out by surprise. Maybe some other reasons. Probably he was speaking about his condition of being a Jew. [Jean Cau speaking French] Which he found himself daily in his condition and is living and he couldn't give a name for this culpability for this guilt. Do you understand?

Studs Terkel I follow. I'm thinking now of the name of the book The Comp-would you say roughly translated "The Compassion of God?" The-

Tim Yes yes. The pity-

Studs Terkel Pity.

Tim -of God.

Studs Terkel The the give me that in French again. I've got got to learn French-

Jean Cau La Pitie de Dieu

Studs Terkel Pitie

Jean Cau La

Studs Terkel La

Tim You have, you say you have pity for for a for a poor man.

Studs Terkel You have pity you have compassion for him, you have sympathy for him. Why do you call it. Why the title? This is inter-Why this title?

Jean Cau [French] That's more complicated. But I I tried to be simple [French]

Tim Because I think that you take God as a faith. [Jean Cau speaking French] Or as a metaphysical hypothesis [Jean Cau speaking French] In front in in in in the view of metaphysical hypothesis in face of faith religious faith in. In face of [Jean Cau speaking French] We are all equal and [Jean Cau speaking French] All our existences are innocent in front of death. [Jean Cau speaking French] Because God may have also this name of that. You understand is abstract-

Studs Terkel Well, I I fol-roughly I follow but I think it is no accident that you chose this concept, you know, for the title in view of the allegory you've written. It's I know it's won the Prix Goncourt is the top-

Tim The highest.

Studs Terkel It's the highest.

Tim The most considered the most valuable literary-

Jean Cau Most money too.

Studs Terkel Most money too.

Tim As soon as you receive the Prix Goncourt you are sure to be to be sold at least 200,000 copies.

Jean Cau Yes. And many translations too.

Studs Terkel Well, I think it's I think isn't there an English translation due soon?

Jean Cau Yes in January I think.

Studs Terkel So this will be soon available in America?

Jean Cau Yes, I hope. You have some problems too. Guilty.

Studs Terkel Oh-

Jean Cau Like us.

Studs Terkel -the guiltlessness I think. Guilt I wonder where guiltlessness is at the moment in view of the world as it is today. This is a question. Is there commitment in mind? I'm going to ask you this Jean Cau. About yourself. I know that you were interested in existentialism the idea of it.

Jean Cau Yes.

Studs Terkel Commitment man's. Where does man fit in the picture? You spoke of God and the pity. What about man? Of the individual in all this? What can he what can the individual do about all this? [Tim and Jean Cau speaking French]

Tim No connection.

Jean Cau No connection no.

Tim No connection with the existential.

Studs Terkel No, but is there, as you write the book. You are merely stating the condition you are stating the condition [Jean Cau speaking French] He is stating it. And that's it he doesn't [Tim and Jean Cau speaking French] In short he does not say what should be. He says what is.

Jean Cau No no no no no no no. That is not a novel with a thesis.

Tim Thesis.

Jean Cau With a thesis no.

Studs Terkel This you state it as it is.

Jean Cau Yes.

Studs Terkel Well just perhaps I suppose this is that the job of any true novelist to state things as they are and let it have it's own effect on the reader. It's own impact on each individual reader.

Jean Cau Yes, that's

Tim It's the job of somebody else to find-

Studs Terkel We must ask Jean Cau then, now that you are a Prix Goncourt winner. You are still a journalist for, now, this is the book we must look for. The rough translation the compassion, God's compassion, or God's pity. You have another novel you're still working as a journalist?

Jean Cau Yes I'm still working as a journalist because I want to be living the world too instead to leave always with myself finding my home. I must go down in the streets of the world.