After winning the 2017 Prix Goncourt for The Order of the Day, Eric Vuillard published The War of the Poor in France last year, recounting the civil uprising that accompanied the 16th-century Protestant Reformation in Germany. This dense, incisive work available in English since November 3 does justice to the memory of the oppressed and shines a light on our current time.
Thomas Münzer is a loner, a poor man devoured by hunger and thirst. A man filled with anger whose father was summarily executed when his son was a boy. Born 40 years after the invention of the printing press, the young Münzer reads the Bible and later becomes a preacher. He now delivers sermons to weavers and miners, believes in the direct relationship to God, and rejects the wealth of the prelates and the supremacy of Latin. Much like English figures John Wycliffe and John Ball two centuries beforehand, he wants to make religious texts accessible by translating them into the language of the people.
“Müntzer is a voice,” writes Eric Vuillard. “He cries out that, princes or servants, rich or poor, God molded us from the same gutter mud, whittled us from the same sandalwood.” This voice accompanies the revolt that set the South of Germany ablaze in 1525, when the farming communities and the urban workforces rose up against injustice and oppression. This unrest culminated in a single battle that cost the lives of 4,000 people, ending with the defeat of the rebels and the execution of Münzer, decapitated at the age of 35.
Published in France in January 2019 in the midst of the Yellow Vest crisis in France, The War of the Poor approaches history as one vast movement. Münzer’s rage and the discontented masses he appeals to are part of an older, larger European context. Mirroring his novel 14 juillet, which recounts the Storming of the Bastille from the baying mob’s perspective, Vuillard, who is also a filmmaker, portrays the collective as if with a wide-angle lens while giving a voice to the downtrodden. Whether focusing on the Great War (La bataille d’Occident), the colonization of Africa (Congo), Buffalo Bill’s invention of mass entertainment (Sorrow of the Earth), or the origins of the Third Reich (The Order of the Day), the author writes in order to know, to document a reality, just as American writers Studs Terkel and James Agee did by recording accounts of the Great Depression.
While he uses literary tools to delve into the past as a writer — not a historian — Vuillard keeps his distance from fiction, breaking from the novelistic tradition that began in the 19th century. Combining density, precision, and a breadth worthy of fresco paintings, his brief stories in which every word counts make him one of the most original and political figures in the French literary landscape.
=> The War of the Poor by Eric Vuillard, translated from French by Mark Polizzotti, Other Press, November 3, 2020. 112 pages, 17.99 dollars.
Article published in the October 2020 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.