Internationally bestselling author Peter Prange makes his US debut with a luminous historical novel.
Truth. Betrayal. Revolution. Love. ENLIGHTENMENT.
PARIS, 1747. Betrayed by God and humanity, eighteen-year-old Sophie moves to the seething French capital and finds work as a serving girl at Café Procope. Here, against her will, she falls deeply in love with Denis Diderot, the famed philosopher and a married man. He and his colleagues are planning the most dangerous book in the world since the Bible: an encyclopedia. Even more scandalous are references concealed within that threaten to undermine both the monarchy and the church. But Sophie soon realizes that even her own rights to freedom, love, and happiness are at risk. Prange powerfully recreates a fascinating era in this spirited story of passion, censorship, self-expression, and rebellion.
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Read an Excerpt
“Credo in unum Deum. Patrem omnipotentem, factorem coeli et terrae . . .”
Sophie closed her eyes as she knelt barefoot on the tamped clay floor of her bedroom to pray with all the fervor of her eleven-year-old heart. And this heart of hers was giving her no rest—it was pounding so fiercely, as if it wanted to jump out of her chest. The Apostles’ Creed in Latin was one of the tests that the priest was going to require today of the village children studying for Communion, before they were allowed to approach the Altar of the Lord for the first time in their lives. Although Sophie had already prayed the Credo a dozen times this morning, she said it one more time aloud. The sacrament of Holy Communion, after the sacraments of baptism and confession, was the third door on the long, long journey to the Kingdom of Heaven, and this profession of faith within the Catholic Church was the key to opening this door in her heart.
“. . . visibilium omnium et invisibilium. Et in unum Dominum Jesum Christum . . .”
Of course Sophie understood not a word of the prayer, but she knew for certain that the Lord God in Heaven loved her. As she murmured her way through the maze of Latin verses, she felt as if she were running through the boxwood labyrinth that Baron de Laterre had planted in the castle park. She felt utterly lost inside it, without hope, about to reach the end, but if she simply kept rushing along she would manage it somehow. Each verse was a new passageway, the end of each verse a turn in the labyrinth, and suddenly she would be standing free in a sundrenched clearing. As if she had passed through the gates of Heaven into Paradise.
“. . . Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum. Et vitam ventura saeculi. Amen.”
“Don’t you think you’ve practiced enough? It’s time for you to get dressed.”
Sophie opened her eyes. Before her stood her mother, Madeleine. Over her arm she carried a white, billowing cloud—Sophie’s Communion dress.
“I’m so scared,” said Sophie, pulling off her coarse linen shift. “I feel terrible.”
“That’s only because you’ve got nothing in your stomach,” said Madeleine, slipping the dress over Sophie’s naked body. She had sewn it out of a curtain remnant that the baron had given to Sophie. “You haven’t eaten a thing since confession yesterday.”
“What if I’ve forgotten one of my sins?” Sophie hesitated before going on. “Then will I be able to let the Savior into my soul at all? It has to be completely pure.”
“What sort of sins have you committed?” Her mother laughed and shook her head. “No, I think your soul is as shining clean as the sky outside.”
Sophie could feel the curtain material scratching the tips of her breasts, which had been strangely taut for the past few weeks. “People say,” she replied softly, “that I’m a testament to sinful love. Shouldn’t I confess that too?”
“Who said that?” asked Madeleine, and from the vigorous way she was doing up the buttons Sophie could sense that her mother was of an entirely different opinion.
“The priest, Abbé Morel.”
“So, he says that, does he? Even though you relieve him of so much burdensome work? Without you he wouldn’t be able to teach the other children at all.”
“And he also says that Papa is in Hell. Because he never married you. If men and women have children without being married, then they’re no better than cats, Monsieur l’Abbé says.”
“Nonsense,” declared Madeleine, fastening the last button on Sophie’s dress. “The only thing that matters is that parents love each other, like your papa and I. Love is the only thing that counts.”
“Except for reading!” Sophie protested.
“Except for reading.” Madeleine laughed. “And everything else is foolish talk—pay no attention to it.” She kissed Sophie’s forehead and gave her a tender look. “How lovely you are. Here, see for yourself.”
She gave her a little shove, and Sophie stepped in front of the shard of mirror that hung next to the small altar to the Virgin Mary on the whitewashed wall. When she saw herself she had a delightful shock. Looking back at her from the mirror was a girl with red hair falling in thick tresses over a beautiful dress, like the ones that only princesses and fairies wore in the pictures in fairy-tale books.
“If your papa in Heaven can see you now,” said her mother, “he won’t be able to tell you from the angels.”
Could he really see her? Sophie wished so fervently for it to be true that she bit her lip. Her father had died three years before in a foreign land from a violent fever raging in the south of that country. She remembered him so vividly that all she had to do was close her eyes to see him: a big, bearded man with a slouch hat on his head and a pack on his back. He could imitate all the sounds of animals in his bright voice, from horses whinnying to the twittering of strange birds that were found only in Africa. His name was Dorval, and people called him a peddler, but for Sophie he had been a harbinger from another world, a world full of secrets and wonders.
Each year he had come to the church fair in their village, loaded down with knives and shears, pots and pans, notions and brushes—but above all with books. For three weeks, from Ascension Day to Corpus Christi, they would then live together like a real family in their tiny thatched-roof house at the edge of the village. Then Dorval would move on with his treasures. Those three weeks had always been the best time of the year for Sophie. She spent every moment in his company, listening to his stories of faraway places and dangerous adventures, about the fair Melusine or Ogier the Danish giant. With her father she would leaf through the thick, magnificently illustrated books from among the new ones he kept producing out of his pack. Handbooks, herbals, and treatises that apparently had an answer to every question in life: how to cure warts or the hiccups, how to banish the terror of Judgment Day, or how to overcome the evil powers in dreams. From Dorval Sophie had inherited her red hair and the freckles that were sprinkled across her snub nose and cheeks by the thousands, making her green eyes seem to shine even more brightly than her mother’s. Even more important, she had gotten something from Dorval that set her apart from all the other children in the village—an ability that her mother said was worth more than all the treasures in the world: the ability to read and write.
Suddenly something occurred to Sophie, and in an instant her festive mood vanished.
“That man last night,” she said softly.
“What man?” asked her mother, startled.
“The man with the feather in his hat. I heard what he told you.”
“You were eavesdropping on us?” Madeleine had the same expression as Sophie did whenever she was caught doing something forbidden.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Sophie stammered. “Is he going to be—my new papa?”
“No, no, my dear heart, most assuredly not!” Madeleine knelt down and looked her straight in the eye. “How could you believe anything so foolish?”
“Then what did the man want from you? He tried to kiss you!”
“Don’t worry about that. That’s just how men are sometimes.”
“So he’s really not going to be my father?” Sophie asked. Her whole body was trembling because she was so upset.
“Cross my heart! I told him to go to the Devil,” Madeleine said. “But what’s wrong? You look all flustered. I think I’d better give you something to help you relax, or else you’ll feel ill in church.” From the shelf she took one of the many little bottles that stood next to the thick herbal tome, and poured a few drops of a black liquid into a wooden spoon.
“There now, take this,” she said, holding out the spoon. “This will calm you down.”
Sophie hesitated. “Isn’t it a sin? Before Communion?”
“No, no, my heart, it’s not a sin,” said Madeleine as she carefully stuck the spoon into Sophie’s mouth so that not a drop would fall on her white dress. “Medicine is allowed before Communion. You want to pass the test, don’t you?”
© 2003 Droemer Verlag
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Philosopher's Kiss includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Peter Prange. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In eighteenth-century Paris, Sophie Volland begins a passionate affair with the famed philosopher Denis Diderot as he and his colleagues embark on an ambitious and dangerous undertaking: the creation of an encyclopedia containing all of human knowledge. This revolutionary work threatens to undermine both the monarchy and the church, placing its authors at risk during the tumultuous years of the Enlightenment. As Sophie’s fate becomes entwined with that of the Encyclopedia, she must ultimately make a decision that jeopardizes her happiness, her future, and her love for Diderot.
TOPICS & QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
- What are Diderot’s motivations for wanting to produce the Encyclopedia? Why does he advocate for multiple contributors rather than a single author? Why does Diderot believe the work will essentially change the course of humanity?
- What is your opinion of Diderot from a professional standpoint? Is his willingness to take risks to complete the Encyclopedia admirable or foolish? What do you think of him on a personal level, including the way he treats his wife and children?
- “If Diderot loved a woman, she inspired him—and no other woman had inspired him as much as Sophie.” (p. 44) Is Diderot simply in need of a new muse, or is there more to his attraction for Sophie? Why is Sophie drawn to the philosopher?
- Why does Sophie marry Antoine Sartine? Even though she doesn’t love him she believes that he is a kind, honest man who cares for her, and she is determined to make their marriage work. What prompts her to leave Sartine?
- How do politics and religion come into play regarding the Encyclopedia? Why is it considered dangerous by the church and the monarchy? How do Father Radominsky’s views of the Encyclopedia change by the end of the story?
- Discuss the theme of books and writing in The Philosopher’s Kiss. How are books perceived by the various characters, notably Sophie, Diderot, Sartine, Father Radominsky, and Madame Pompadour? Why is Sophie afraid to let people know she can read?
- What is your perception of Madame Pompadour? How important a role does the king’s mistress play in the creation and publication of the Encyclopedia?
- Discuss Sophie’s last encounter with Diderot by the Seine. Is he justified in forbidding her from further work on the Encyclopedia? Why or why not? Why does Sophie leave him? What impacts her decision more—his professional pronouncement or the manner in which he treats her?
- What are Chrétien de Malesherbes’s reasons for lifting the official sanction against the Encyclopedia and warning Diderot that the police are coming to search his home? Why does Malesherbes seek to adopt Dorval, and why does Sophie agree to his request?
- After keeping his knowledge secret for years, what prompts Antoine to inform Sophie that Malesherbes is the man who accused her mother of witchcraft? Why does Sophie agree to see Malesherbes on the eve of his own execution more than a decade later?
- Sophie often wonders, “Was she going to turn out like her mother?” (p. 59) What similarities are there between Sophie’s circumstances and those of her mother? How does she ultimately interpret her mother’s final message, the word “happiness”—as a warning or as encouragement to overcome fear and seize happiness?
- Madame Pompadour tells Sophie she’ll reconsider her decision to have the Encyclopedia banned if Sophie agrees to go to the king’s pleasure palace. Why does Sophie refuse, even though it could be the only way to save the Encyclopedia and possibly Diderot’s life? In what ways does Sophie’s friendship with Madame Pompadour become an integral part of her life?
- Sophie goes to the publisher Le Bréton with an idea she believes will save the Encyclopedia from being banned once it’s published—to edit out the most inflammatory passages. Did Sophie make the right decision? Why or why not? Why was she willing to risk Diderot’s love by altering his life’s work?
- What is Diderot’s reaction when he finds out that it was Sophie who altered the Encyclopedia? Why does he eventually come to a different understanding about what she did? How does his encounter with the waitress at Café Procope change his mind about the Encyclopedia?
- “Life is not a stage play . . .” Sophie says to Diderot. He replies, “I can’t imagine it any other way.” (p. 23) What does this exchange reveal about their differences in outlook and personality? What similarities do they share? Were you surprised that Sophie eventually reunited with Diderot? Why or why not?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Like the philosophers of the Enlightenment, hold your book club at a local café or coffee shop. Or try serving your own coffee, tea, and hot chocolate (Diderot’s preferred beverage—with vanilla and cinnamon, of course).
2. Create your own version of the Encyclopedia. Keep a record of your group’s reading selections by writing an entry for each one describing the book and highlights from the discussion.
3. Learn more about Denis Diderot at www.history-world.org/diderot.htm and the Age of Enlightenment at www.history-world.org/age_of_enlightenment.htm and www.answers.com/topic/1715-1799-travel-guide.
4. For insight into the intriguing mistress of Louis XV, visit www.madamedepompadour.com. Take a virtual tour of the Marquise’s apartments at Versailles, find out about her personal collection of more than 3,500 books, view fashions from the period, and much more.
A CONVERSATION WITH PETER PRANGE
What inspired the idea to use the creation of the Encyclopedia as the basis for a novel?
Nothing seems to be less boring than a book about the creation of another book. But the Encyclopedia is not a simple book. It is a book that really changed the world. Our daily lives would not be the same without the Encyclopedia. Its creation stands for the struggle between two giants: the theological tradition and the philosophy of enlightenment. A struggle that lasted for more than twenty years filled with passion and suspense. Not the worst setting for a novel, I presume.
What appealed to you about using Denis Diderot as a character?
Diderot is a perfect character for a novel because he is full of contradictions. He lives for his intellectual mission, but he is one of the most passionate lovers I have ever heard about (and I know what I am talking about—my doctoral theses dealt with French libertine literature). He criticizes the holy church and all religion, but he deeply believes in God. He praises happiness on earth, but he knows seasons of dark depression and desperation. In short; he is a fascinating figure that only life, not fiction, can create.
What can you tell us about the real-life Sophie Volland? How much is known about her and the role she played in the publication of the Encyclopedia?
As a matter of fact, we know nearly nothing about Sophie Volland. The most important testimonies of her existence are the letters Diderot wrote to her. Was she his lover or only a friend? We don´t know. And if her last will, written by her own hand, didn’t exist we might imagine that she was just a creation of Diderot’s fantasy. What a wonderful situation for a novel writer. So I had the chance, even the duty, to give her an identity und a story. If life is her mother, I am her father.
How did the environment during the Enlightenment make it possible for the Encyclopedia to be created and published?
The central idea of enlightenment was that man has the right of paradise on earth, not only in heaven as the priests taught to keep people in line. In this sense, the Encyclodpedia was a kind of manual of human happiness. And this is exactly why the elite—the representatives of the Catholic Church and the monarchy—did everything to suppress this revolutionary book and its authors.
Madame de Pompadour is a fascinating character, an intelligent woman with a deep affinity for books and knowledge. How did she come to be such an influential figure in matters of state for such a long period of time? Was it unusual, at the time, for a king’s mistress to have that much power?
Madame Pompadour, indeed, is one of the most influential women in European history, comparable only to Roxelana, the famous favorite of the Ottoman sultan Suleiman. Beside her outstanding intelligence and education, she used all weapons a woman can use in order to keep control over King Louis XV and to make way for the ideas of enlightenment. Unfortunately for French history, but fortunately for my novel, she was opposed by the intrigues of clerical and political traditionalists at the court of Versailles.
Readers are never directly introduced to Voltaire, and yet he is a presence in the novel. How much influence did the philosopher have on the creation of the Encyclopedia?
Voltaire was one of the most important intellectual leaders of his time. In this sense, he and his ideas had an enormous influence on the spirit of the Encyclopedia. But perhaps he was too absorbed by his own work to be the team player necessary for the creation of the Encyclopedia. On the other hand, his most hated rival, Rousseau, the other outstanding intellectual figure of the century, was Diderot’s most complicated and sometimes unbearable best friend. So we have a lot of human conflict within one of the most decisive intellectual debates in European history.
Italian lothario Casanova shows up in a memorable way. Why did you decide to include him in the scene depicting Robert’s execution?
That was not my decision—Casanova decided himself to watch Robert’s execution. As he told us in his memoirs, lots of aristocrats did so, most of them accompanied by attractive ladies. It’s hard for us to understand nowadays but these extremely cruel executions were a kind of theater—a shocking and erotically fascinating spectacle at the same time, as Casanova tells us.
What kind of research did you do to reconstruct Paris during the Enlightenment, from details like living conditions to bigger-picture concerns like the volatile political and religious climate?
If you want to have an idea of eighteenth-century Paris, you have to ask the people who lived in the city at that time. So I went to the Bibliothèque nationale for months and read all the testimonies of Diderot’s time that I could find—especially in the enfer (“hell”), the library archives where all erotically and politically dangerous books are deposed.
After the Encyclopedia was banned in France, you write “An outcry rose up through all of Europe, across every border.” (p. 43) Why were other countries more open to the idea of the Encyclopedia being published?
The other countries were merely more open-minded about the progressive ideas of the Encyclopdedia than the French monarchy. But politicians always like to point fingers at other countries in order to forget their own mistakes—not only nowadays but also in the eighteenth century. The German king Frederick II, for instance, personally admired the French philosophers, as well as empress Catherine of Russia. But that did not mean that the regimes in their own countries would have been less repressive than in France.
From a historical perspective, how important was the publication of the Encyclopedia? How has Diderot been remembered by historians?
From a historical point of view, the publication of the Encyclopdia was of outstanding importance: a book that changed the world, comparable only to the Bible or the Koran or the American Bill of Rights or Capital by Karl Marx. It was the battery of enlightenment—the power of the mind that laid the groundwork for the French revolution and finally blew away the ancien régime. Without the Encyclopedia, the world today would be different.
Why did coffeehouses like Café Procope become gathering places for freethinkers? Is there evidence that Diderot met Sophie at this famed establishment?
People coming together in the Café Procope did not drink beer or alcohol, but coffee and hot chocolate. This was not a matter of taste, but a matter of mind. The freethinkers wanted to be clear, lucide, in order to exchange philosophical and political ideas like merchants sold and bought products at the bourse. Did Diderot and Sophie meet there for the first time? We don’t really know—but can reality be more real than my novel?
For readers who might want to visit Paris after reading The Philosopher’s Kiss, what sites would you suggest they see? What is your favorite place in Paris?
I would suggest going to the Café Procope (near Métro Odéon) where you still can have a drink or a meal (better only a drink, because the meals are pretty expensive). Then I would suggest visiting the whole Quartier Latin, especially rue Saint-André-des-Arts, where Bréton, the editor of the Encyclopedia had his workshop. And, last but not least, Versailles—the palace from which Mme de Pompadour tried to support Diderot’s work and the revolutionary ideas of the philosophes.