Writing fiction is an act of formulating the right questions, not providing direct answers. This from Chekhov. But being a writer also presents many questions, two of which are perhaps universal to all generations and time periods and yet seem, as so much these days, more pertinent now than ever.
The first question I’ve mulled over since childhood, when I vacillated between Stephen King and John Steinbeck: what distinguishes a piece of fiction as either commercial or literary? The second question feels most urgent given the present state of our country: how might an artist’s work address times of political and social crisis?
Graham Greene seems a good writer to study in both regards. Before I read him, my perception was that he was a popular writer of thrillers and mysteries. However, the first Greene book I read was The Power and the Glory, a moral tale about a boozed-up and deeply penitent Catholic priest trying to escape persecution and find some semblance of dignity. At the time, I didn’t know about the dichotomy of Greene’s work, the two separate lineages of his fiction—the literary novels and, as he called them, the “Entertainments.”
Since then, I’ve discovered that while Greene encouraged the distinction, he didn’t offer much insight into it. In The Paris Review he attempted to clarify, saying “The [E]ntertainments…are distinct from the novels because as the name implies they do not carry a message”. The quote also implies Greene’s distaste for commercial novel, a phrase oxymoronic in the context of a serious writer discussing craft; the commercial fiction, the Entertainments, are not novels at all.
If we take his definition at face value, this presents an obvious problem. Because the Entertainments often do, like the literary novels, have a message. The actual difference may rest in how that message is delivered and to what effect. In an interview with Larry McCaffery, David Foster Wallace distinguishes literary fiction by pointing to the relationship between reader and writer, each with separate agendas, engaged in a paradoxical push-and-pull of expectations satisfied and subverted. He says:
This paradox is what makes good fiction sort of magical…The paradox can’t be resolved, but it can somehow be mediated—‘re-mediated’…by the fact that language and linguistic intercourse is, in and of itself, redeeming, remedy-ing. This makes serious fiction a rough and bumpy affair for everyone involved. Commercial entertainment, on the other hand, smoothes everything over.
While commonly accepted distinctions boil down to the commercial novel’s quick pacing, emphasized plot, simplified characters, and satisfactorily resolute ending, Wallace highlights a more essential component of the writing itself, a linguistic and thematic discourse that presents the reader more agitation than alleviation, more questions than answers.
This aligns with Russel Nye’s claim, in The Unembarrassed Muse, that “Elite art[‘s] aim is the discovery of new ways of recording and interpreting experience. Technical and thematic complexity is of much greater value in elite art than in… popular art; in fact, technique may become a vehicle for thematic expression, or may simply become an end in itself.” In other words, one factor distinguishing literary fiction from commercial fiction is the author’s textual awareness, proclaiming often subversive intentions. The Ministry of Fear, one of Graham Greene’s Entertainments, has all the apparent markings of commercial fiction. And yet, it metafictionally speaks to its own making, pushing it into the realm of literary art as defined by Wallace, Nye, and Greene himself.
So far left out in the definition of commercial art is its regard for readership and financial viability. The Ministry of Fear was preceded by Greene’s most acclaimed novel, The Power and the Glory, which, released during World War II, was financially unsuccessful. In The Life of Graham Greene Normal Sherry recounts the writer’s sobering realization:
Unless books…provided information about war or spies, the chances of their becoming bestsellers were remote…Greene’s brilliant novel had to compete with…titles such as I Was Stalin’s Agent or Hitler Versus Germany…or the Gestapo in England…There was a thirst for secret intrigues and the calamities of war; there was no interest in faraway Mexico or the tribulations of a betrayed whiskey priest.
The Ministry of Fear was Greene’s attempt at providing what his greatest literary achievement hadn’t—a thriller which speaks to the political reality from which it sprung. This is where writers in 2018 come in. Though we aren’t living through a world war, we are living through a world event, one which dominates public media, harnesses public fear, and encroaches on our private thoughts. To address it might seem overkill, but to not address it, to not situate our work within this new and strange world might seem naïve or negligent. But because this is an event so unprecedented, it presents a number of new questions. How can we write anything that addresses the political reality of our times, when so much of what defines our times boils down to an unstable and unreal reality? How do we address an administration and president that seems just as much an aberration of democracy as it seems democracy’s death-rattle? How do we write truth, when truth seems lost? How do we tell intelligent lies when stupid lies have become our national discourse?
These are the questions for which I, the writer, have no answers.
But I can say the reason fiction so often eschews providing answers is that the questions in which fiction deals are often inherently unanswerable. In attempting to address the unanswerable, most writers generalize the act of writing fiction to two things: the story, and how the story is being told.
The story of The Ministry of Fear is at its barebones level an obvious attempt at a commercial thriller—Arthur Rowe is swept into espionage, accused of murder, outcast, and on the run. But amid this action are quiet moments where the book breaks from its quick pace, such as in a chapter that sees essentially no plot-level movement.
Rowe wanders the rubble of bombed London. As he passes others, he makes observations but concludes that “None of these things mattered. They were like something written about: they didn’t belong to his own life and he paid them no attention” (61). This is the first acknowledgment of literature’s sudden impracticality, as well as the fact that the events of Rowe’s life have departed from his once secure perception of reality. It is followed by further recollections of a past Rowe simultaneously longs for and fervently rejects, saying “People write about it as if it still went on; lady novelists describe it over and over again in books of the month. But it’s not there anymore.” Then, in an address to his deceased mother: “It sounds like a thriller, doesn’t it—but the thrillers are like life…You used to laugh at the books…about spies, and murders, and violence, and wild motor-car chases, but, dear, that’s real life: it’s what we’ve all made of the world since you died.”
How the story is being told is where the complication of classifying the novel as either commercial or literary enters. And with this complication comes the complication of deciding whether Greene, writing through and about World War II, is attempting to situate a thriller within it, or using a thriller to comment upon it.
The election of Donald Trump was a moment in which, for many of us, the ground of reality broke apart. But it’s important to remember that all of the major events in human history had seemed, in the present moment, like the end of reality. A single election, a single war, a single bomb, a single personal tragedy, can have this effect. It’s a defining trait of traumas big and small—the world as we know it is no longer the same.
And when reality breaks, when trauma invades, as it always does, unexpectedly, we often question the value of all that we previously held dear. For Greene, this dearly held thing that seemed suddenly, amid the trauma of the war, impractical, was literature.
In The Ministry of Fear books represent paradox—their attempts at instruction become futile in times of true danger. At one point, Rowe waits for his hired detective, someone he hopes may provide guidance in the quickly evolving conspiracy of which he finds himself at the center. He waits in a bookstore, noting that:
Here was pornography—eighteenth-century French with beautiful little steel engravings celebrating the copulations of elegant over-clothed people on Pompadour couches; here were all the Victorian novelists, the memoirs of obscure pig-stickers, the eccentric philosophies and theologies of the seventeenth century…There was a smell of neglected books, of the straw from packing cases and of clothes which had been too often rained upon.
The books are cast under a grotesque light, impractical to the point of being perverse. It is far from the last time Greene uses books for thematic effect. They become integral to the plot in the following chapter, “A Load of Books,” in which Rowe finds himself next to a man who carries said load. At first, the bookseller seems a pitiable character. Rowe notes that “The weight of the suitcase cramped him: he looked very old under its weight,” shining light on the antiquity of the man and the books. All of this is hammered home by the bookseller himself, who says “There’s nothing so heavy as books, sir—unless it’s bricks.” Rowe agrees to help the man unload his books to a prospective buyer. But the hand of the genre is visible when he marvels at the ease with which he is being pulled into the plot: “He felt directed, controlled, moulded, moulded by some agency with a surrealist imagination.” The surrealism of commercial fiction is most often seen in the character’s easy acceptance of the environment’s absurdity. They are dropped into worlds of excessive violence, espionage, conspiracy, and they face it all with the studied pragmatism of native inhabitants. The Ministry of Fear takes great aims to measure its absurdities, to call them what they are to the average reader, deviations from real life, or deviations from pre-war real life.
Rowe finds himself in a hotel room while unseen forces of harm linger outside. The case of books, as well as its symbolism, is nearly forgotten as Rowe scrambles for a weapon, only to reappear when he finds nothing else. He opens the case, thereby ending Part One of The Ministry of Fear, with books, the symbol of rich antiquity, bringing the scene to unexpected conclusion. It is a metaphor not only of the way the world has changed in times of war, but of the culture’s expectations from its literature: where was assumed books, turns out to be a bomb.
In the second half of The Ministry of Fear, Rowe has completely lost his memory of the past two decades, thereby returning to the childhood innocence he longed for in the opening lines. The return streamlines Rowe’s character. Unburdened by the complexities of his experiences, he fully inhabits his role as a commercial protagonist. The idea of innocence being bound to narrative simplicity is touched on in an earlier section:
In childhood we live under the brightness of immortality—heaven is as near and actual as the seaside. Behind the complicated details of the world stand the simplicities: God is good, the grown-up man or woman knows the answer to every question, there is such a thing as truth, and justice is as measured and faultless as a clock. Our heroes are simple: they are brave, they tell the truth, they are good swordsmen and they are never in the long run really defeated.
Both innocence and narrative simplicity are longtime staples of commercial fiction. According to Nye “there are certain themes in popular fiction which seem to maintain perennial interest. One is nostalgia, the appeal of ‘better days and simpler times,’ the pervasive memory of the past, of childhood, of innocence not yet lost, of times free of the taint of contemporaneity.”
It’s just as easy to situate these sentiments into the Trump platform—a great America which can be had once again—as it is to situate them into the resistance—an American reality that once had, at its foundation, some semblance of truth. Our heroes, or more accurately “leaders”, are no longer brave, nor are they honest. Just as World War II turned reality into a wartime thriller (thereby turning the wartime thriller into Realism) so has the election of Trump turned reality into a piece of absurdist fiction.
Perhaps like many writers, I’ve wondered what a piece of fiction set within the current administration might look like. I started thinking about this before Trump was elected, when it seemed his run would end in a tossaway joke. Imagine the chaos of a reality TV star, an idiot, a narcissist becoming president. Imagine the damage he could do, someone with such a fragile ego, someone so brash and unqualified. A writer of fiction could do wonders with material like this. It would, of course, be a work of satire, one which comments upon the potential failings of our democracy and discourse, which remind us that there is only a thin line between our functioning, flawed system and overwhelming chaos.
But then it happened. And while the novel I imagined was an exaggeration of reality, the reality of what happened became an exaggeration of the novel never to be written.
Greene lived through a wartime thriller as he was writing a wartime thriller. And while a wartime thriller can be considered, on its own, a piece of commercial art, the fact that it was written during the reality of war, and the fact that Greene seems textually aware of this, at the very least distorts an easy classification.
Rowe learns he is wanted for murder, a murder he doesn’t yet know was staged and for which he is therefore innocent, and turns himself in to the police. After telling his story to one policeman, he is passed to another, Prentice, who the first calls “the surrealist round here.” As Prentice fills him in on the details of what has taken place in the first half of the book, Rowe is flabbergasted, asking “Is life really like this?” to which Prentice responds, “This is life, so I suppose one can say it’s like life.” In this sentiment, the story acknowledges its deviation from real life, while also asserting its responsibility to do so as an adherence to Realism. If war can so drastically shape experience, then it requires a new Realism to speak to that experience, which, according to the novel, is better aligned with commercial fiction. If literary fiction speaks to the complexities of character, the infinitely-faceted spirit of the human condition given free rein, it is starkly out of place in a world of severe reductions, of rations, of time compressed by daily bombings, of motives good and evil, of Hitler and Churchill, of existence polarized to alive and dead.
However, as Rowe and Prentice head to the next scene of the plot, the novel draws attention to Rowe’s pleasure:
It was a long and gloomy ride, but all the time Rowe repressed for the sake of his companion a sense of exhilaration: he was happily drunk with danger and action…none of the books of adventure one read as a boy had an unhappy ending. And none of them was disturbed by a sense of pity for the beaten side.
He becomes the fully immersed, complicit character of The Entertainment, as well as a mirror of its therapeutic effect. Commercial fiction is easier to digest than literary fiction; the reader of commercial fiction is not being asked to consider the unresolvable questions of real life, so is allowed a more strictly pleasurable experience. However antithetical this might be to Greene’s literary novels, which are characterized by meditations on the messy nature of morality, the second half of The Ministry of Fear finds morality streamlined—the bad are exposed and punished, the good are redeemed and go on. The novel ultimately follows the prescriptive course of commercial fiction, thereby preserving its “Entertainment” value.
Does this imply that commercial fiction in 2018 would be that that offers the reader an escape from the pervasive stories of the day? The type of work that either ignores the political and social climate or rewrites it with the happy ending the most optimistic of us have trouble imagining? And if this is the case, would literary fiction be that that fully embraces the challenge of speaking to a potentially aberrant reality, a reality that, if it isn’t aberrant, is unquestionably sad? By ignoring this reality, can we shorten its lifespan? Or by ignoring it, do we fail future generations, leaving out a part of our history that I’m not alone in hoping we will never repeat?
In any case, for Greene, the moralizing literary artist, the therapy of commercial fiction itself becomes an object of his moralizing. What makes The Ministry of Fear so difficult to classify is that its value cannot be contained to the plot. In literary fiction, the plot is only a part of the experience, which is often best exemplified by its linguistic intercourse. In the linguistic intercourse of The Ministry of Fear the claim being made is that while childhood equals innocence and pleasurable simplicity, it also amounts to ignorance. By the same turn, adulthood is not simply an immoral mess. And Rowe, embarked on his quest for justice, begins to realize the limitations of the story he has inhabited:
Over there among the unknown tribes a woman was giving birth, rats were nosing among sacks of meal, an old man was dying, two people were seeing each other for the first time by the light of a lamp: everything in that darkness was of such deep importance that their errand could not equal it—this violent superficial chase, this cardboard adventure hurtling at forty-five miles an hour along the edge of the profound natural common experiences of men.
If the Entertainments are, as Greene suggests, meant simply to entertain by immersing the reader in a message-less tale, this paragraph is a move in the wrong direction. The tragedy of Rowe’s past is that he killed his wife, a “mercy killing,” to spare her a drawn out, painful death. With his memory gone, this formative episode is no longer part of him. He regresses to a childlike innocence, but he is an adult. It is the adult in him that senses the emptiness of his hero-like bravado, which the surrealism of the Entertainment demands, yet which he is too Real a character to be satisfied with. Even prior to his memory being fully restored, he understands that, “Happiness should always be qualified by a knowledge of misery… Knowledge was the great thing—not abstract knowledge…but detailed passionate trivial human knowledge.” The tension between difficult knowledge and therapeutic ignorance is hammered home in lines such as “The sense of adventure struggled with common sense as though it were on the side of happiness, and common sense were allied to possible miseries.”
The questions posed by literary fiction are rarely ingredients for pure happiness. The realism of literary fiction deals in the most irreconcilable facts of daily life. Happiness, on the other hand, according to Nye is a required component of popular fiction. He writes that “Since the popular arts aim at the largest common denominator…the popular artist cannot disturb or offend any significant part of his public: though the elite artist may and should be a critic of his society, the popular artist cannot risk alienation.” If commercial fiction is meant to promote happiness and not criticize society, Greene breaks both rules in the novel’s last line: “It seemed to him that after all one could exaggerate the value of happiness.”
Happiness is not a word that could earnestly be used to define our recent history or, I presume, the years ahead. In a deeply divided country, it’s possible the ultimate distinguishing trait between literary and commercial fiction will be whether that fiction attempts to avoid disturbing/offending or whether it embraces its critical impulse.
However, it might be difficult to write fiction that criticizes society when much of our current cultural dissatisfaction stems from the same sources. When this thought bothers me, I try to remember that art has always been an expression within a limited medium. Each medium has its own rules and functions. What has always been most interesting about great art is what the artist can do within these confines, how the artist conveys infinity within the finite. The writer of fiction should not attempt a fictional version of Fire and Fury. What the writer of fiction should do, I think, is what the writer of fiction has always done: look beneath the overarching problems of our day, where a woman is giving birth and an old man is dying. For all the helplessness we may feel, this is where narratives, real and imagined, begin. This is where the events of human history take shape.
Though the dual nature of Greene’s body of work is still preserved, it has become a less viable method of differentiating his novels. The Ministry of Fear invites classification, thereby making it difficult to classify. This difficulty is inherent in all discussions about Art and Entertainment. The fact remains that Art, the literary novel in particular, is not worth a whole lot unless it compels one to consume it. By that same token, Entertainment’s entertainment value is often a result of its bits of wisdom and confrontation that tease out an audience’s emotional and intellectual investment. And whether we’re talking art or entertainment, books are being read by people who live in a world besought by political turmoil, gender and racial inequality, devastating economic disparities, war, violence, terror. I don’t know what an artist does with this information, but I do believe an artist has a responsibility to keep this information in mind. Good writers, good readers, and good books do not exist in a vacuum. Nor is fiction obliged to be journalistic. Somewhere between these two facts exist the answers I don’t have.
I’ve tried to come up with so many different themes for this year and the way I read my way through it. The year I read all the Russians! The year I read all the sad white woman poetry! The year I tried and failed to read all the books I’ve been hoarding under my sofa! And all of those are true, but none of them are all the truth. For me, reading comes in waves; these are the ones I’ll remember from 2017.
There was the week I spent in March reading The Master and Margarita on a river bank while my family kayaked in circles. My surprise when I discovered the book was infinitely more fixated on Pontius Pilate than on tequila is both embarrassing and, I maintain, not wholly unreasonable. My surprise when I found myself silently rooting for a demon cat on rampage in Soviet Moscow was just fun. Mikhail Bulgakov’s satire is biting, his characters insane, and his story strangely and deeply moving. I recommended the book to everyone I talked to for months, and I recommend it now. And as a kind of bonus, The Master and Margarita somehow, eventually, led me to Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, now one of my all-time favorite essay collections.
Later, over the long Texas summer, I filled the days and nights with women writers and what must have been gallons and gallons of sparkling water. Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony and God felt like a miracle to me—why hadn’t anyone recommended it before?—and I fell through Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Jane: A Murder, The Argonauts, and The Art of Cruelty in a matter of days. I read Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends, a sharp and challenging look at how we’re failing to respond to the migration crisis striking Central America and the U.S. Then I picked up the collected poems of H.D. for a cooling dose of classicism and a biography (or three) of Joan of Arc, who reminded me how to fight.
It was also over the summer that I looked around my apartment and realized (not for the first time) that I own far too many books I’ve never read and keep accumulating more. I spent the next few months trying to read through all the books stacked around and under and over all my furniture. That meant a lot of Graham Greene—The End of the Affair and The Power and the Glory, both immeasurably powerful books I’ve already stacked in my reread pile—and finally finishing Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, which I resisted and resisted until it undid me completely. It also meant trying to force my way through a tattered old copy of the Essays of Elia, for some reason, which made me abandon the whole project.
There’s one book, though, that I’m thinking about more than any other as we all collapse towards the end of 2017: Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Inoculation. Though first released in 2014, when the national conversation about vaccination was much bigger than, say, any talk of an immigration ban, I’m willing to argue this book has grown more significant over the years, not less. Biss’s elegant explanation of our interconnected fates, her careful consideration of what we owe one another and her gentle (and not-so-gentle) unraveling of our isolating, protectionist instincts is a powerful reminder that we don’t—and can’t—move through this world alone.
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Lent is an annual search, which might explain the popularity of this post. I continue to hear from writers — Christians and non-Christians alike — who are curious about the meaning and significance of Lent. The season is all about the appeal of story; the dramatic power of the Passion narrative. We’ve decided to re-publish this post with updated dates in hopes that it can be a literary companion for the next few weeks — and that it might demonstrate the diversity and range of ways that writers have imagined the season.
“Lent,” wrote Thomas Merton, “is not just a time for squaring conscious accounts: but for realizing what we had perhaps not seen before.” Lent is the most literary season of the liturgical year. The Lenten narrative is marked by violence, suffering, anticipation, and finally, joy. Jesus Christ’s 40 days of fasting in the desert are the spiritual and dramatic origin for the season that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday.
While Advent is a time of giving, Lent is a time of reflection, penance, and reconciliation, all revealed through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Holy Week is a solemn sequence of days leading to the grace of Easter. It is a different form of joy than Christmas; Easter joy is cathartic and transformational. Lent, then, is a time of complex and contrasting emotions. Highs and lows. A time to be shaken and surprised.
Jamie Quatro, whose collection I Want To Show You More arrived like a literary revelation, says that reading is like “the mystery of the Lord’s Supper…a form of communion: author, text, and reader rapt in an intimate yet paradoxically isolated collusion of spirits.” Here is a literary reader for Lent: 40 stories, poems, essays, and books for the 40 days of this season. (Sundays have never been part of the Lenten calendar). Some pieces are inspired by feast days and Gospel readings, while others capture the discernment of the season. Some works are written by believers, while others are crafted by writers who choose the literary word over any Word. This reader is intended to be literary, not theological; contemplative rather than devotional. Bookmark this page and come back each day. Save it for upcoming years. The dates will change, but the sequence of readings and reflections will stay the same: a small offering of communion that might transcend our isolation.
Day 1: Wednesday March 1
Reading: “Ash Wednesday” by T.S. Eliot
Lent begins with dust and darkness. Black-crossed foreheads are the rare time when true ritual bleeds into public view. As Lent is a time of change, it is appropriate to start with Eliot’s famous conversion text. Eliot said “skepticism is the preface to conversion;” The Wasteland and “The Hollow Men,” however desolate, capture the impersonal sense of art Eliot would associate with his new faith. “Ash Wednesday” is the start of a labor. When he writes “suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood,” he knows belief is not easy.
Day 2: Thursday March 2
Reading: Townie by Andre Dubus III
In Luke 9:22-25, Jesus warns his disciples that following him will be a struggle. Self-denial must be followed by a willingness to suffer “daily.” The disciples act on the hope of salvation, much like children following a father. In Townie, Andre Dubus III writes of his father, a man he both loved and hated. Dubus père dies in the final chapters of the memoir, and Andre and his brother Jeb build their father’s coffin, “a simple pine box.” It was a promise, the final chapter of reconciliation to heal a broken family.
Day 3: Friday March 3
Reading: “The Habit of Perfection” by Gerard Manley Hopkins
This Friday is the first real test of fasting for most (Ash Wednesday services make for strength in numbers). William G. Storey writes that fasting “help[s] the body share in the sufferings of Jesus and of the poor.” Hopkins, a 19th-century British Jesuit who has influenced as many secular poets as he has religious ones, dramatizes the ascetic life in his verse. His poems press against the borders of his forms; he wrings multiple meanings out of his language. “The Habit of Perfection” is an acceptance of denial: “Palate, the hutch of tasty lust, / Desire not to be rinsed with wine: / The can must be so sweet, the crust / So fresh that come in fasts divine!” What others think sour, Hopkins turns sweet.
Day 4: Saturday March 4
Reading: “Why I’m Still a Catholic” by Nicole Soojung Callahan
If I could suggest one single essay that dramatizes the difficulty of faith, the struggle of this season, it would be Callahan’s heartfelt essay. She sometimes feels like a “bad Catholic” in the same way as her adoptive parents, who were “lapsed old-school Cleveland Catholics brought back into the fold by a firecracker of a nun in Seattle.” Callahan notes that as “a child, my faith was almost the only thing in my life that made me feel that I was part of something larger —– the only thing that constructed a kind of bridge between my own little island and the larger continents on which other families and clans and communities seemed to reside. Letting it go would mean jettisoning a huge part of who I am, severing that long-cherished connection to a kind of universal family.” Like so many, Callahan is sometimes frustrated with the institution of the Church, and yet this Catholic identity formed by her youth — “annual May crownings, years of lectoring and serving at Mass, First Communion and Confirmation parties, and that dusty bottle of holy water on our bookshelf that my mother never allowed to run dry. I had a catalog of prayers I knew by heart; ancient hymns paired with terrible folk-Mass songs written in the 1970s; the familiar rhythm and beauty of the liturgical seasons” — is something she will always be grateful for, and that she has passed on to her own children. The final section of her essay is lyric, poetic, and worthy of being read aloud: as fine a credo of measured faith as I can imagine.
Day 5: Monday March 6
Reading: “The Tree” by Dylan Thomas
The feast day of Saint Polycarp, who, according to John J. Delaney’s Dictionary of Saints, “was ordered burned to death at the stake…[but] when the flames failed to consume him, he was speared to death.” Polycarp’s martyrdom is one of the oldest, and helps usher the peculiar Catholic genre of saint tales. Polycarp’s fantastical narrative is matched by “The Tree,” a story by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Although a “holy maker” who became “tipsy on salvation’s bottle” as a child, Thomas was no fan of Catholicism (his friend William York Tindall said Thomas was “essentially Protestant without being Christian”). “The Tree” is no devotional tale. Surreal and imagistic, it is the story of an inquisitive but easily misguided boy who crucifies a transient to a tree on a hill in Wales.
Day 6: Tuesday March 7
Reading: “Disgraceland” by Mary Karr
A week into Lent, one’s patience might begin to wear thin with all of this suffering (few human endeavors go awry as quickly as devotion). Mary Karr is the antidote to complacency. In “Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer,” Karr outed herself as a Catholic convert, “not victim but volunteer…after a lifetime of undiluted agnosticism.” “Disgraceland,” from her 2006 collection Sinners Welcome, begins with an account of her birth, whirled into this world to “sulk around” while “Christ always stood / to one side with a glass of water.” She ends on a gorgeous note: “You are loved, someone said. Take that / and eat it.”
Day 7: Wednesday March 8
Reading: “The Teaching of Literature” by Flannery O’Connor
Today’s reading from Luke 11:29 sounds rather harsh: “This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah.” This sign will be revealed in the death and resurrection of Christ, which makes this indictment of a crowd feel particularly heavy. While it might be heretical to wait seven days to introduce the work of Flannery O’Connor into a Lenten reader, this is the moment she becomes appropriate. Her fiction will appear later in the reading list, but today is in the spirit of her essay, “The Teaching of Literature,” most often collected in Mystery and Manners. O’Connor laments how fiction is taught to students, particularly when fiction is used as mere symbol: “I have found that if you are astute and energetic, you can integrate English literature with geography, biology, home economics, basketball, or fire prevention — with anything at all that will put off a little longer the evil day when the story or novel must be examined simply as a story or novel.” Pity the generation that sparks O’Connor’s ire.
Day 8: Thursday March 9
Reading: Radical Reinvention by Kaya Oakes
Christ tells his disciples “seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Secular criticism of religion offers the refrain that faith — as practiced by those who claim to be religious — often sounds like certainty, and certainty leads to judgment. (Most believers would benefit from conversations and friendships with atheists). Kaya Oakes’s memoir of rediscovery, Radical Reinvention, traces her search from skeptic to measured believer to reinvented believer. Oakes is funny and thoughtful, and shares the wisdom of her spiritual directors, including a Father Mellow, who says “The Church is both sinner and holy. So are all of us.” She is still undergoing her search, but one thing she’s discovered is that “living a life of faith is not about following marching orders. It’s about finding God in other people, feeling the movement of the Spirit, living the compassion of Christ as best we can.”
Day 9: Friday March 10
Reading: Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen
Saint Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows died from tuberculosis at 24. Gabriel’s popularity in America is marginal, based on his supposed patronage of handgun users (an absurdly apocryphal tale where Gabriel shoots a lizard to scare off Giuseppe Garibaldi’s soldiers). A more likely tale is that his devotion to the Virgin Mary and the Passion were a correction to the extreme vanity of his youth. Gabriel reflects the titular character of Ron Hansen’s novel, Mariette in Ecstasy, a 17-year-old novitiate at a convent in upstate New York. She is first introduced in the novel while standing naked in front of a floor mirror, aware of her beauty, and thinks “Even this I give You.” Hansen’s novel is what would happen if James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime converted. Now a deacon in a Cupertino, California parish, Hansen continues to write powerful fiction.
Day 10: Saturday March 11
Reading: “You Are Not Christ” by Rickey Laurentiis
In today’s Gospel selection from Matthew, Christ tells his disciples to “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” He ends his exhortation with a call to be “perfect,” a sharp expectation, an impossible goal. I often think of Laurentiis’s title in relation to that call. It arrives, first, as a phrase of forgiveness, but Laurentiis’s verse is unforgiving: “For the drowning, yes, there is always panic. / Or peace.” Only nine lines, the poem unfolds and exits like a deep breath, and, like much of Laurentiis’s poetry, weds the sensual with the spiritual. Lent is nothing if not the most physical of seasons.
Day 11: Monday March 13
Reading: “Idiot Psalms” by Scott Cairns
March begins with a scene from Capernaum: Jesus drives an “unclean spirit” from a man. Exorcisms are the perfect fodder for Hollywood — black-clad heroes chant Latin while they struggle with demons — but have a less theatrical role in Lent. Unclean is not a permanent condition. The narrator of “Idiot Psalms” “find[s] my face against the floor, and yet again / my plea escapes from unclean lips.” He seeks forgiveness, which is not as dramatic as Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller performing the Roman rite, but his desire “to manage at least one late season sinlessly, / to bow before you yet one time without chagrin” is palpable.
Day 12: Tuesday March 14
Reading: “The Didache” by Paul Lisicky
Lisicky’s short piece appears in his book Unbuilt Projects. The title is a reference to an apocryphal, anonymous document of early Jewish-Christians, although Lisicky’s narrative is focused on his relationship with his mother. “The Didache” begins with a question: “What were you like the last time I saw you whole?” The piece follows with more questions and considerations, while noting “It’s funny how we end up where we do.” The language of the final sentences becomes comfortably Biblical: “As the broken bread was scattered on the hillsides, and so was gathered and made one, so may the many of you be gathered and find favor with one another.” The lines are a lyrical refiguring of a Didache hymn, and lead toward the conclusion of Lisicky’s piece: “Take. Eat, says the mother, given up and broken, and pushes the sandwich into the lunch bag, and sends me on my way.” A nice reminder that our present, prosaic world is capable of being legendary and graceful.
Day 13: Wednesday March 15
Reading: The Grace That Keeps This World by Tom Bailey
Variations of faith sustain the characters of Bailey’s novel in the face of despair. The novel contains several first-person narratives, beginning with Susan Hazen, who says her parish priest “plants the wafer that leavens hope in my palm.” Susan’s faith is tested, along with that of her husband, Gary David (an act of violence cleaves their family). The book ends with Gary’s narrative section: “The pines have reawakened me to something that as a forester I’ve long known by heart: The work we live to do is work we’ll never see completed. The snow will continue to fall. The geese will come back, just as they will continue to go. I have my faith. The strength of belief. But this is the truth in our story the pines need to relate. This, they whisper, this is the grace that keeps this world. Honor it.”
Day 14: Thursday March 16
Reading: “The Our Father” by Franz Wright
“The Our Father” appears in Wheeling Motel, Wright’s 10th collection of poems. The poem’s relative brevity is inversely related to its power. To title a poem after such an iconic prayer is to locate the work as both ritual and rhythm. The first stanza reads: “I am holding cirrhosis / with one hand and AIDS / with the other, in a circle.” Wright’s poetry is so pared, having the feeling of being wrung through the emotion of being and distilled into the truest possible language. This first stanza establishes the sense of community: this is truly a collective father. As is often true with those suffering from addition or disease, that which causes the pain overwhelms the self. Wright’s lines break from those diseases toward the shape, “a circle,” that leads to comfort and forgiveness (Wright has written about how his own conversion has helped lift his life from addiction). “The Our Father” moves forward from this first stanza to the actual prayer, which is “simple” and “august,” though Wright compares and connects the bareness of the phrasing to the profound nature of Christ’s life: “you briefly took on tortured / human form to teach / us here, below–” The poem’s honesty continues, though, because the final lines speak to an awareness of the ephemera of existence: “What final catastrophe sent / to wean me from this world.”
Day 15: Friday March 17
Reading: “After Cornell” by Joe Bonomo
Bonomo’s essay, which appears in his collection This Must Be Where My Obsession with Infinity Began, reflects on the darkness and silence of the traditional confessional box: “To intellectually comprehend moral and ethical transgressions—regardless of how domestically petty they might feel to the confessor (last night I bit my little brother) — the confessor must shed anatomy’s garment and step in unencumbered. The fragmented reminder that we are always flesh filtered through the shadowy screen between priest and penitent, and such a reminder could not have been allowed to distract.” Bonomo laments the shift to face-to-face confessions, though he has prepared himself for the change, and the previous box felt “akin to stepping into the Old Age, of black, black, black.” Bonomo’s words bring me back to the confessions of my past: I made the same shift from darkness to (uncomfortable) light. Now my parish opts for the face-to-sheet-to-face confession in a lighted room, and we are given printed Acts of Contrition, columned in the center on a pink sheet. I agree with Bonomo, that something has been lost, or at least transferred, in this coming to light.
Day 16: Saturday March 18
Reading: “Second Avenue” by Frank O’Hara
Critic Micah Mattix writes that “O’Hara believed that poetry was a ‘testament’ of the self and that love was real. Drawing from his Catholic schooling and James Joyce’s aesthetics, in some poems he expressed the view that the artist was as a sort of Christ-figure who suffers to renew our experience of the world.” Mattix notes that O’Hara’s long poem, “Second Avenue,” although a “sprawling amalgam of absurd images, disconnected phrases and quotation, newspaper clippings, short dramatic scenes, anecdotes, gossip, and literary artistic references,” also reinforces this idea of “the image of the artist as God,” and “reverses…the biblical trope of God as light.” Mattix’s reading has altered my perception of O’Hara’s verse, which I have always thought as being more interested in play than profundities. Lent truly is the season of change, as long as one’s eyes are open.
Day 17: Monday March 20
Reading: “The Heart, Like a Bocce Ball” by Luke Johnson
Johnson’s poem begins with the characters “dead drunk,” “cannonballing across the lawn, gouging / handful divots, each of us still nursing / a tumbler of scotch brought home from the wake.” Although temporarily wasted, these “sons and brothers and cousins” aren’t wasting away: they are players, certainly, in this simple game of bocce, but there’s a real sense of connection here. The poem ends with the lines “The heart, like a bocce ball, is fist-sized / and firm; ours clunk together, then divide.” If there were ever a poetic form made for brief devotions meant to stretch throughout a day, it would be the sonnet.
Day 18: Tuesday March 21
Reading: “Their Bodies, Their Selves” by Andrew McNabb
Dray and Sarah Maguire “had lived a clothed life,” but “An accident had changed that.” The center of McNabb’s tight story unfolds in less than an hour, but stretches across the years of this elderly couple’s relationship. One Saturday afternoon, while using the bathroom, Dray falls, smacking his skull on the porcelain. Sarah, “scarred from shingles, melanoma, three ungrateful children and an undiagnosed depression,” fears blood, but instead sees her husband nearly bare (he’d gotten used to taking off his pants when using the bathroom “so he wouldn’t get caught up when he stood”). Sensing her husband’s embarrassment, Sarah undresses herself. Their bodies are in the open; “That is just you, and this is just me.” What starts as a moment of communion becomes a daily act, a presentation of bodies as a means of preservation.
Day 19: Wednesday March 22
Reading: Love & Salt by Amy Andrews and Jessica Mesman Griffith
Andrews and Griffith met in a graduate school creative writing workshop, and their shared literary interest in God soon became personal searches. Love & Salt is their collected correspondence, as well as letters that remained, unsent, as notes. Their epistles are layered and lyric, documents of friendship that are as intimate as they are inviting. In Griffith’s first letter, she longs to finally get Lent right, to live up to the words of Saint Ephraim’s prayer: “How many times have I promised, / Yet every time I failed to keep my word. / But disregard this according to Thy Grace.” The collection will make you long to find as worthy a correspondent as Andrews and Griffith (each of their letters could serve as daily devotions, bringing to life the statement they share from Vivian Gornick: “The letter, written in absorbed silence, is an act of faith.”).
Day 20: Thursday March 23
Reading: “From a Window” by Christian Wiman
Halfway through Lent, the heart can harden. Reflection leads to regret. Christian Wiman, the former editor of Poetry magazine, is the perfect poet for this time. Wiman’s verse has the uncanny ability to swiftly and believably transition from melancholy to joy. His memoir, My Bright Abyss, documents his unlikely journey back to Christian belief after being diagnosed with incurable cancer. Speaking about his return to belief, Wiman says “I have no illusions about adding to sophisticated theological thinking. But I think there are a ton of people out there who are what you might call unbelieving believers, people whose consciousness is completely modern and yet who have this strong spiritual hunger in them. I would like to say something helpful to those people.” “From a Window,” written during an admitted time of despair, says something. “Incurable and unbelieving / in any truth but the truth of grieving,” Wiman watches a flock of birds rise from a tree, “as if the leaves had livelier ghosts.” He presses his face against the window and wonders if the birds were “a single being undefined / or countless beings of one mind,” and admits that their “strange cohesion / [is] beyond the limits of my vision.” He pulls back, his skeptic’s mind reassured that the tree he is watching with a shaken heart is no different now save for the observer, and yet that same independence of existence — the fact that this beautiful, simple moment did not need him to observe it, and that recognition “is where the joy came in.”
Day 21: Friday March 24
Reading: “I Was Never Able to Pray” by Edward Hirsch
Gabriel, Hirsch’s book-length poem about the life and death of his adopted son, contains an unbeliever’s admonition: “I will not forgive you / Indifferent God / Until you give me back my son.” “I Was Never Able to Pray” predates his loss, but presents a similar song. Why would an unbeliever care about God? Designations of believer and atheist, pious and heretic are only useful as generalizations. Hirsch’s critical interests have always dealt with God-wounded writers (including James Joyce and W.B. Yeats), so it is not surprising to see that language extend to his own narrators. In this poem, the speaker wishes to be taken to the shore, where the “moon tolls in the rafters” and he can “hear the wind paging through the trees.” His lines of unbelief arrive on the tongue of faith: “I was never able to pray, / but let me inscribe my name / in the book of waves” as he looks up to the “sky that never ends.”
Day 22: Saturday March 25
Reading: “The Widow of Naim” by Thomas Merton
The non-fiction meditations of Thomas Merton could fill an entire Lenten reading schedule, but his poetic considerations of faith and Scripture are also worthy. Merton studied poetry at Columbia, and was “turned on like a pinball machine by Blake, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Meister Eckhart, Coomaraswamy, Traherne, Hopkins, Maritain, and the sacraments of the Catholic Church.” Yet like Hopkins, Merton lamented his more creative self, “this shadow, this double, this writer who had followed me into the cloister.” Although less than half of Merton’s verse was specifically religious, he did enjoy recasting Scripture into poetry (in pieces like “The Evening of the Visitation,” “An Argument: of the Passion of Christ,” “The Sponge Full of Vinegar,” “The House of Caiaphas,” “Aubade — The Annunciation,” and “Cana”). The Naim sequence only lasts seven verses, and is often lost between the Capernaum centurion and Christ’s reflection on John the Baptist. In Luke’s version, Christ arrives at Naim along with his disciples at the same time a man “who had died was being carried out.” Christ tells the mother of the man, the titular widow, to not weep. He touches the bier, a support for the coffin, and the “bearers stood still.” Christ tells the dead man to arise, and he does. Merton’s poetic recasting begins by moving the initial focus from the arrival of Christ to “the gravediggers and the mourners of the town, who, ‘White as the wall…follow / to the new tomb a widow’s sorrow.’” The mourners meet a crowd of strangers who “smell of harvests…[and] nets,” and who question the mourners: “Why go you down to graves, with eyes like winters / And your cold faces clean as cliffs? / See how we come, our brows are full of sun.” These strangers allude to the “wonder” of the miracle to come. Yet Merton’s twist arrives as an address to the reader that the “widow’s son, after the marvel of his miracle: / He did not rise for long, and sleeps forever.” The man was resuscitated, not resurrected; his gift of life was an ephemeral one. This allows Merton to place the miracle along a continuum, to place the weight of an ancient tale on the shoulder of modern humanity, the crowd.
Day 23: Monday March 27
Reading: “Girls” by Andre Dubus
Dubus contemplates the altar girl at Mass, she being the “only altar girl I have ever seen.” That observation opens to a short reflection about Mary, the “first priest.” He catalogues her potential fears, which begin with her encounter with the angel Gabriel, continue with her need to find shelter to have the child, and then the knowledge “she would lose Him because he was God.” He thinks about how he and this girl at Mass see the “cross as a sign of love,” but for Mary it was “wood and a dying son and grief.” I’ve written a few appreciations of Dubus, but in brief: pair “Girls” with his fiction, particularly “A Father’s Story,” and you have a portrait of a writer, a father, for whom faith is essential.
Day 24: Tuesday March 28
Reading: “Back in Ireland” by Thomas McGuane
St. Patrick would be proud of McGuane’s prose, as close to an American Joyce as possible (particularly his earlier, more sardonic novels like The Sporting Club). His more recent content has moved out West, capturing the spirit of breeding and raising cutting horses in Montana, but his prose retains its Celtic rhythms. “Back in Ireland” is the memory of a long-ago “meandering trip” to fish in southern Ireland: “I was at that blissful stage in my life when my services were sought by no one. I didn’t know how good I had it.” He is thankful for the guidance of a local angler, the type of person “who could never recall when they began fishing, so undivided was it from the thread of their lives.” McGuane notices that the entire town blessed themselves nearly constantly, “a rakish bit of muscle memory that I found myself imitating.” Church might have been a bit too much of a commitment, but the shadow of devotion “seemed to help before a difficult presentation…[of] the listless slob of a brown trout, curd fattened at the outlet of a small creamery on the Loobagh River.” McGuane’s sentences slather as heavy as fellow lapsed Irish-Catholic Joyce: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”
Day 25: Wednesday March 29
Reading: “Prophecy” by Dana Gioia
Gioia’s poetry, essays, and arts advocacy have long made him an essential writer. His recent, spirited essay, “The Catholic Writer Today,” has reignited the debate about the role of writing of faith within secular literary culture. Gioia’s own poems never proselytize. “Prophecy” contains a few direct questions, but is all wonder. What does a child staring out of a window think about? “For what is prophecy but the first inkling / of what we ourselves must call into being?” The prophetic sense can’t be prayed or willed into existence, there is “No voice in thunder.” The necessary “gift is listening / and hearing what is only meant for you.” “O Lord of indirection and ellipses,” the speaker says, “ignore our prayers. Deliver us from distraction…And grant us only what we fear.”
Day 26: Thursday March 30
Reading: “Life of Sundays” by Rodney Jones
Years ago, Jones visited my first undergraduate poetry workshop, and was given a packet of student work. My poem about fishing was in the bunch. Jones read the poem aloud to the class, and then went on to praise my lines. I don’t think they were worthy of his good words, but he wasn’t there to criticize. I might think that he was merely playing a part, but Jones’s poetry tends to be rather forgiving and observant. “Life of Sundays” is no different. Although the speaker doesn’t go to church anymore, “I want to at times, to hear the diction / And the tone.” What happens at the service “is devotion, which wouldn’t change if I heard / The polished sermon, the upright’s arpeggios of vacant notes.” He wonders: “What else could unite widows, bankers, children, and ghosts?” Although his belief has passed, he feels “the abundance of calm” from this ritual of Sundays, a day when the “syntax of prayers is so often reversed, / Aimed toward the dead who clearly have not gone ahead.” “And though I had no prayer,” the speaker says, “I wanted to offer something / Or ask for something, perhaps out of habit.”
Day 27: Friday March 31
Reading: “First Day of Winter” by Breece Pancake
It is difficult to not write about Breece Pancake in elegiac terms. Even one of his closest mentors, the great James Alan McPherson, said “there was a mystery about [him] that I will not claim to have penetrated.” His friend John Casey felt the same way, saying Pancake, who converted in his 20s, “took faith with intensity, almost as if he had a different, deeper measure of time.” Pancake’s fiction does arrive with an almost overwhelming sense of inevitability, from “The Way It Has To Be” to “Time and Again.” “First Day of Winter” is equally unsparing, although Pancake wrings a drop of hope from these characters. “Hollis sat by his window all night, staring at the ghost in glass, looking for some way out of the tomb Jake had built for him.” That tomb is his parents’ farm. His mother’s “mind half gone from blood too thick in her veins,” his father blind. Jake would not take in his parents at his own home. Hollis wrestles with a car that won’t start, its “grinding echoed through the hollows, across the hills.” His knuckles bloodied from the cold, he tells his father about Jake’s rejection, but Jake is the prodigal son. Hollis’s plan is no better: he intends to take his parents to the state nursing home. As often occurs in Pancake’s stories, there seems no way out, particularly not for Hollis, whose jealousy of his brother is clear (he has to watch his mother fawn over a photo of Jake and his family). Hollis snaps and tells his mother of Jake’s rejection, and that breaks his father’s spirit. They leave the room, and Hollis goes outside, where their “land lay brittle, open, and dead.” Back inside, Hollis hears “the cattle lowing to be fed, heard the soft rasp of his father’s crying breath, heard his mother’s humming of a hymn.” Like that, in the span of a sentence, Pancake breaths light, however faint, into this world: “The sun was blackened with snow, and the valley closed in quietly with humming, quietly as an hour of prayer.”
Day 28: Saturday April 1
Reading: The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert
Echoing the language he used to describe his writing of Emma Bovary, Flaubert said “I was in Saint Anthony as Saint Anthony himself.” Flaubert began the novel in 1848 but it was not published until 1874. An early audience of friends said he should burn the book and never speak of it. Flaubert, undeterred, said “It is my whole life’s work.” That work is a novel in the form of a play, a dramatization of St. Anthony’s tempestuous night in the desert. Michel Foucault called Flaubert’s phantasmagoric masterpiece “the book of books.”
Day 29: Monday April 3
Reading: Resuscitation of a Hanged Man by Denis Johnson
Johnson was once asked how he would “characterize the theological questions you ask about religion or to God in your work,” and responded in turn: “Ah, now — this is a question I’ve learned to run from, and it’s the chief reason I avoid giving interviews. If I’ve discussed these things in the past, I shouldn’t have. I’m not qualified. I don’t know who God is, or any of that. People concerned with those questions turn up in my stories, but I can’t explain why they do. Sometimes I wish they wouldn’t.” He owes the question to Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, a novel the main character of which fails at the action of the title, and then replaces despair with drugs and work as a radio DJ. Leonard English “didn’t kneel in prayer each night out of habit, but fell to his knees on rare occasions and in a darkness of dread, as if he were letting go of a branch. To his mind, God was a rushing river, God was an alligator, God was to be chosen over self-murder and over nothing else.” He prays to sleep with a woman he likes, but he doesn’t “pray anymore for faith, because he’d found that a growing certainty of the Presence was accompanied by a terrifying absence of any sign or feeling or manifestation of it. He was afraid that what he prayed to was nothing, only this limitless absence. I’ll grow until I’ve found you, and you won’t be there.”
Day 30: Tuesday April 4
Reading: “The Lord’s Day” by J.F. Powers
Although Powers won the National Book Award in 1963 for his novel Morte D’Urban, critic Denis Donoghue writes “I think Powers knew that his native breath was that of the short story.” Powers was the poet laureate of the Midwestern priesthood. His “priests are shown in the world, quarreling with their colleagues and pastors, grubbing for money, angling for promotion, playing golf, drinking beer, passing the time. If they have an intense spiritual life, we are not shown it…[and yet] no matter how commonplace or compromised the priest there is still are relation between him and the Christian vision he has acknowledged.” The daily life of a priest is not a sequence of miraculous highs and ecstatic visions. It is hard, slow work. A priest is a counselor, writer, politician. Powers capture this splendid service like no other writer. “The Lord’s Day” is the best introduction to his work, a slice of clerical domesticity. An unnamed priest has been stung twice by bees attracted to a mulberry tree near the rectory porch. Despite the pleading of a nun, he takes an axe to the tree. His body, “a fat vision in black,” is a contrast to the 12 women of the house, “the apostles” (“It was the kind of joke they could appreciate, but not to be carried too far, for then one of them must be Judas, which was not funny.”). Their shared home is not quite the picture of joy. The house is “sagging” and “daily surpassed itself in gloominess and was only too clean and crowded not to seem haunted.” The sisters sit around a table to count the collection from Mass. The parish has bills to pay. One nun says “Come on, you money-changers, dig in!” Another: “Money, money, money.” Powers smirks his way through his tales (my own experience with nuns is that they are the most hilarious and pious people I have ever met, their Baltimore Catechism shadows long since replaced with light). Not all the sisters find humor in this work; some wish Sundays were days of rest. It is a day of rest for the priest — he is off to a round of golf. The lead sister, “determined to make up for the afternoon, to show them that she knew, perhaps, what she was doing,” creates a ruse to hold-up the priest. She asks him to inspect the stove, which has been smoking. Annoyed, he says the problem is not the stove, but the only remaining mulberry tree, the one he’d spared. “If you want your stove to work properly, it’ll have to come down.” Rather than end the story with grace, Powers leaves the reader with the nun’s curt thanks. Frustrated, she leaves the priest, “only wanting to get upstairs and wash the money off her hands.”
Day 31: Wednesday April 5
Reading: “Annunciation Overheard from the Kitchen” by Mary Szybist
Szybist’s Marian poems appear in Incarnadine, which won the National Book Award. Szybist’s epigraph for the collection is from Simone Weil: “The mysteries of faith are degraded if they are made into an object of affirmation and negation, when in reality they should be an object of contemplation.” Szybist’s entire book is concerned with the Annunciation. As a young Catholic, Szybist “reached a point where I found myself unable to pray. I was devastated by it. I missed being able to say words in my head that I believed could be heard by a being, a consciousness outside me. That is when I turned to poetry.” In “Annunciation Overheard from the Kitchen,” the narrator is “washing the pears in cool water,” listening. This might not be the annunciation, but it is an annunciation. That leveling of experience is not meant to devalue the precedent — Szybist might be lapsed, but she is certainly not spiteful — but to rather raise the contemporary moment. The speaker more than simply listens, she is open to sound as “Windows around me everywhere half-open– / My skin alive with the pitch.”
Day 32: Thursday April 6
Reading: “Blessing the Animals” by R.A. Villanueva
Villanueva crafts quite the scene to begin this poem from his debut, Reliquaria: “In a parking lot beside the church, cleared / save for bales of hay and traffic horses,” are goats, llamas, border collies, and terriers. Someone “will garland parakeets with rosaries.” Cats are held like children as the priest crosses himself “beside the flagpole where I learned to pledge allegiance.” The narrator’s daily ritual is to fold the flag into triangles and bring it to the headmaster. Villanueva’s poems contain two planes: the devoted, lyric representations of faith and tradition, and the mischievous human impulse to break free. However responsible the narrator might be, he is still a young man who would dare a friend to “throw a bottle of Wite-Out” at the statue of Jesus in that same parking lot, who would taunt God one moment while kneeling to pray to him the next.
Day 33: Friday April 7
Reading: “Quid Pro Quo” by Paul Mariani
Mariani’s poem is set in an empty university classroom, where a colleague asks the narrator “what I thought now / of God’s ways toward man” after his wife’s miscarriage. The colleague merely expects a downward gaze, a smirk. Instead, the narrator raises his middle finger “up to heaven,” taunting God. Later, the narrator and his wife have a successful birth; it’s no small feat, this miracle, and the narrator is aware, leading to his wonder: “How does one bargain / with a God like this, who, quid pro quo, ups / the ante each time He answers one sign with another?”
Day 34: Saturday April 8
Reading: “The Road to Emmaus” by Spencer Reece
Reece, an Episcopal priest, has found inspiration in the “spiritual journey” of T.S. Eliot, often feeling “in conversation with him.” Although “The Road to Emmaus” alludes to a resurrection appearance of Christ, Reece’s verse, like so much poetry in the spirit of Lent, brings the ancient world to our seemingly mundane present. His first line, “The chair from Goodwill smelled of mildew,” sets the atmosphere for a conversation the narrator has with Sister Ann, a Franciscan nun. “Above her gray head, / a garish postcard of the Emmaus scene…askew in its golden drugstore frame.” Cleopas and an unnamed disciple, while speaking about the disappearance of Christ, are joined by the “resurrected Christ masquerading as a stranger.” The narrator of the poem has lost a love, and Sister Ann comforts him as he reflects on the past, including an AA meeting in a Lutheran church basement, when they “ate salads out of Tupperware,” but felt “like first-century Christians — /a strident, hidden throng, electrified by a message.” The poem moves in many directions, not least of all Sister Ann’s grace when she tells him “Listening…is a memorable form of love.”
Day 35: Monday April 10
Reading: “Gilding the Lily” by Lisa Ampleman
If we think of Lent as a season of re-naming, of reconsidering who we are and how we are, then Lisa Ampleman’s prose poem, “Gilding the Lily,” is a perfect representation of the season. “To keep anxiety at bay, my friend called chemo dragonfly love.” Ampleman’s poem is like a work of pastoral care; her narrator shows how we may weather grief and suffering by transforming them. Her friend “called nausea erotica. Just the same, we name our storms to lessen them — not a tropical cyclone, but Arabella, with ballet shoes and bun…Not hair loss, but deep conditioning.” The poem’s final line is terminal: “At the funeral I learned she was born Passalacqua: to cross the river, to pass a glass of water.” Our contemporary idea of the religious sense is hampered by the criticism that religion or belief feels like a whitewashing, or worse, an opiate. This is to misunderstand and neuter the power of faith. Poems like “Gilding the Lily” remind us that poems, like prayers, can be small salves. Sometimes they are enough.
Day 36: Tuesday April 11
Reading: “Saint Monica Wishes on the Wrong Star” by Mary Biddinger
Biddinger’s Saint Monica chapbook places St. Augustine’s pious mother in a Midwestern present. Young, modern Monica is imperfect. She fails. She even gives incorrect “details / outside the psychic’s booth at the fair.” Monica, like Walker Percy’s Binx Bolling, is transfixed by film. She has always wanted to be different, but “Who could blame / her, though? They lived in Michigan, / where nothing ever changed.” While working at a local pub, Monica wonders what would happen if she breaks a pint glass while washing it: “Would she have to wait for the flush / of blood, or would the transformation / be instantaneous?” Biddinger’s poetry makes any transfiguration seem possible.
Day 37: Wednesday April 12
“The River” (pdf) by Flannery O’Connor
Although “Greenleaf” (pdf) has been considered her “Lent” story, O’Connor’s entire canon is fodder for the season. “The River” is the story of Harry Ashfield, a boy of “four or five” years, who spends the day with a sitter, Mrs. Connin. She is the prototypical O’Connor character: stern, judgmental, witty, and closer to God that anybody else she knows. She decides to take the boy to the river, where a preacher has been healing believers. The boy smirks his way through the story, and takes on the name of the preacher — Bevel — before the sitter learns his real name. She feels it is her Christian duty to right the wrongs of his upbringing. O’Connor tells the story filtered through his voice, and his day with Mrs. Connin is illuminating: “He had found out already this morning that he had been made by a carpenter named Jesus Christ. Before he had thought it had been a doctor named Sladewall, a fat man with a yellow mustache who gave him shots and thought his name was Herbert.” Later, Mrs. Connin presents Harry to the preacher for baptism in the river, and also says “He wants you to pray for his mamma. She’s sick.” The preacher asks the boy for explanation, and it is simple: “She hasn’t got up yet…She has a hangover.” O’Connor’s next line — “The air was so quiet he could hear the broken pieces of the sun knocking the water” — captures the atmosphere of her fiction. O’Connor’s Catholic sense was a skeptical sense. Her skepticism can easily be misread as cynicism. The boy is baptized, but, like so many of O’Connor’s stories, “The River” ends on a solemn note. Yet that is not why she is appropriate to Lent. O’Connor belongs to this season because she offers no easy paths toward God. In fact, those who think they know the route — who might even deny it from others in word or deed — are due the severest rebuke.
Day 38: Thursday April 13
Reading: The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
If there ever were a writer willing to dine with “tax collectors and sinners,” it was Greene. If I ever get too sentimental about faith, reading Greene keeps me in check. He was the first to admit he was no saint (he would probably admit to being the antithesis), but novels like The Power and the Glory capture the tension between belief and sin. Greene’s novel plays it serious, but his essays and letters about his conversion are predictably wry. He once received useful advice from a Father Trollope: “See the danger of going too far. Be very careful. Keep well within your depth.” Greene’s novel about an atheist lieutenant chasing a “whiskey priest” across Mexico is part thriller, part theological treatise, all Lenten document. Take off work on Holy Thursday, get this book, and read it cover to cover.
Day 39: Friday April 14
Reading: “Today is Friday” by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway claimed to receive “extreme unction” from a priest while on an Italian battlefield in July 1918. A decade later, he would claim to be a “very dumb Catholic,” and planned to not speak about his Catholic conversion because he knew “the importance of setting an example.” Matthew Nickel, one of the few critics to resurrect Hemingway’s found faith, explains what while Hemingway was not publically “comfortable being known as a Catholic writer,” he was no nominal believer, having “performed the rituals of Catholicism for forty years: attending Mass, eating fish on Fridays, having Masses said for friends and family, donating thousands of dollars to the churches in Key West and Idaho, celebrating saints days, and visiting and revisiting important pilgrimage sites and cathedrals.” The Old Man and the Sea, The Sun Also Rises, and “Hills like White Elephants” hit loud and soft religious notes, but “Today is Friday” has always unsettled me in a particularly Lenten fashion. Only hours after Christ is crucified, three Romans soldiers are drinking at a bar with a “Hebrew wine-seller” named George. Add Hemingway’s oddly contemporary speech (“Lootenant”), and “Today is Friday” is an odd play. Two soldiers banter about the wine while one feels sick; his pain is “Jesus Christ.” The first soldier says “He didn’t want to come down off the cross. That’s not his play.” The second soldier wonders “What became of his gang?” The first soldier, who “slip[ed] the old spear into him…because it “was the least I could do,” says Christ’s disciples “faded out. Just the women stuck by him.” “Today is Friday” sounds like how Hemingway would have explained the Passion while seated at a bar. The uncomfortably comedic play ends with a sting. The soldiers leave the bar and the third, uneasy soldier speaks truth: “I feel like hell tonight.”
Day 40: Saturday April 15
“Christ’s Elbows” by Brian Doyle
Novelist, essayist, and poet Doyle is the literary antidote to cynicism. I’ve never seen a writer so good be so positive, and do so without lapsing into sentimentality. Doyle’s Mink River is a gem of a novel, but his shorter pieces make for effective reflection. His essay “Joyas Voladores” is a personal favorite, and “What do poems do?” shows how Doyle turns every narrative moment into an opportunity for revelation and epiphany. The narrator visits a kindergarten, where children ask ridiculous questions before arriving at the eternal query of the poem’s title. Doyle delivers, starting with the observation that poems “swirl / Leaves along sidewalks suddenly when there is no wind.” The next 10 lines are the best appreciation I’ve ever seen of the power of poetry. Doyle’s poem should be required reading for all teachers. “Christ’s Elbows,” an essay from his collection Leaping: Revelations & Epiphanies, is the perfect end to a season of change. Doyle asks us to think about the physicality of Christ, a man who died at his physical peak. He admits that scriptural “accounts of [Christ’s] body in action are few and far between,” so Doyle wants us to act on faith, imagining a young man serving as a carpenter’s apprentice or running in fields. Doyle wonders: “Did his hand swallow the hand of the girl he raised from the dead?” Christ, an itinerant preacher, likely had a form much like a marathon runner. Doyle considers the one moment — other than as he hung on the cross — when Christ’s physicality was in full view: “when he lets himself go and flings over the first moneychanger’s table in the temple at Jerusalem.” Like a good priest, Doyle pauses his discussion, and says “think of the man for a second, not the eternal Son of Light.” Think of a man charged and ready. A man who, after the drama of the moment, “would resume the life and work that rivet us to this day.” A life and work that “upends our world, over and over.” The glory and the grace of tomorrow will come soon enough, but for now, Doyle suggests, “Perhaps the chaos of our plans is the shadow of his smile.”
Image Credit: Flickr/echiner1
Piety and profanity both require devotion. Graham Greene knew that. Greene was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1926, and announced the conversion to his mother by writing “I expect you have guessed that I am embracing the Scarlet Woman.” He later identified as a “Catholic agnostic,” which complemented his baptismal name of Thomas, “after St. Thomas the doubter and not Thomas Aquinas.” He found God, but hadn’t lost his wit.
To say that Greene was a troubled Catholic would be the same as calling him a Catholic at all. He dramatized the obscenities of a Mexican whiskey priest hunted by Tomás Garrido Canabal’s Red Shirts in The Power and the Glory. In one scene, the priest has been jailed for possessing brandy, and shares a dark cell with others, including a couple having sex. A “pious” woman, jailed for having religious books, calls the copulating pair “brutes” and “animals.” She hates their “ugliness.” The whiskey priest knows better. He tells the woman to not believe that, “Because suddenly we discover that our sins have so much beauty.”
Michael Robbins is our contemporary poet laureate for beautiful sins of language. The New Republic calls Robbins a prankster. He rather reminds me of that whiskey priest, his lines by turns abrasive and aphoristic, but never apathetic. Robbins’s 2012 debut, Alien vs. Predator, set the mold for his poetic play, but I think Robbins’s center might reside in his criticism. In a review of theologian David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God, Robbins punctures the silkscreened divinity portrayed by the New Atheists (they “ingeniously deny the existence of a bearded fellow with superpowers who lives in the sky and finds people’s keys for them”). At the same time, he says “showing up American fundamentalism is about as hard as shooting the deck of an aircraft carrier when you’re standing on it.” His problem, of course, is with literalism: the Word made flat.
Critic Matthew Sitman has recently called Christian Wiman the “most important Christian writer in America.” Robbins, then, might be the most provocative Christian writer in America. For Robbins, the “incoherence” of naturalism “is the external warrant for my belief in God.” His one criticism of Hart is the theologian’s dismissal of the “possibility that our bafflement before ontological mystery is the result of our being the kind of limited animals we are. A badger cannot understand differential equations, but that tells us something about badgers, not equations.” It is refreshing to discover a poet critically concerned with God, and to do so with humor.
The Second Sex is formally tight and theologically fragmented. In his criticism, Robbins eschews literal pronouncements of the divine. For him, “where religion addresses ontology, science is concerned with ontic description.” The latter seeks to catalog; the former simply seeks. Books & Culture editor John Wilson was correct in comparing Robbins’s method to that of fellow believer T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land. Both poets mixed and matched. In “Springtime in Chicago in November,” Robbins writes “First comes love, which I disparage. / I blight with plagues a baby carriage.” If his entire collection were merely reworked pun after reworked pun, the result might be a trite book. But that would be mistaking his form for his function. The Second Sex is equal parts obscene and oblatory. Robbins, like a good preacher, paces his presentations. The shifts within “Country Music” are emblematic of his entire poetic project:
God bless the midnight bus depot,
the busted guitar case.
God bless diazepam,
its dilatory grace.
Those lapsed or elapsed in religious faith will recognize a certain method to Robbins’s poetic heresies. Who hasn’t wanted to say, “You must’ve been high as a kite / when you created us.” Whether or not “Country Music” is a genuine hymn, it ends on a particular note:
God keep the world this clean and bright
and easy to believe in
and let me catch my bus all right,
and then we’ll call it even.
Robbins’s verse is pared to be swift. “Lose Myself” starts flippant: “Yeah, I got the bug. Got razzle dazzle, / dazed and refused. I’m with stupid.” Four stanzas later, it ends with truth: “It takes three miracles to make a saint, / just one mistake to make a man.” The same pivots happen in “Peel Off the Scabs,” where the narrator reminds us that “God became a man, / surely I can do the same.” He follows:
O Captain! my Tennille! the Eagles
will come and pull out his eyes.
Jesus coming back, they say,
and we’ll all shout Surprise!
Robbins says “most reviews are merely serviceable, because reviewing is a service industry. Readers want to know whether they should read a book or skip it.” Elsewhere, he admits it is “remarkable that we’re driven to write about art–to explain, judge, describe, elucidate, analyze, hate, rhapsodize, tell a story. We can’t let them be–cathedrals, blockbusters, poems, pictures, statues, songs. They demand words from us.” In that vein, to identify The Second Sex as parodic would be reductive. Of course we steal from other poets. What matters is how we sharpen what we steal. Robbins employs a midrashic approach in his poetry. Whether he is pilfering from Led Zeppelin or Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robbins does so with technical agility. The Second Sex is a confident, skillful work that will make readers reconsider poetry. Who could end a poem titled “Sweat, Piss, Jizz & Blood” with “God is great”? A poet who finds divinity in all things, especially “a billion points of glitter / in a fathomless abyss.”
I am a writer because, as a married man, I cannot become a priest. Fittingly, I first met my wife at a priest’s rectory. Father Joe Celia made dinner each Sunday for student parishioners of St. Pius X church at Susquehanna University. Twenty students lined two tables that stretched out of the dining room and into the living room. I came for the gravy, meatballs, and garlic bread — authentic Italian cooking was in short supply in this pocket of central Pennsylvania — and for the friendship of Father Joe. I quit the college’s basketball team when I didn’t land the starting point guard spot as a freshman. My coach told me to have patience; Father Joe added that I could benefit from some humility. I didn’t listen to either of them, and would live to regret it. So goes Catholic guilt.
Father Joe reminded me that I was in college to study, not dribble. He was a patient mentor, and a saint for his willingness to read my terrible first drafts. In one story, I spent thirteen pages going step-by-step through the celebration of Mass. Father Joe gave that one back to me and said he had enough of that each weekend. Summary is sacred.
I missed my family back in New Jersey, but Father Joe’s dinners helped ease the distance. Most of the students at those dinners were weekly regulars, but one Sunday I noticed a beautiful girl sitting with friends in the living room. My first words to her were the less-than-smooth “dinner is ready.” We grew up a half hour away from each other. My AAU basketball practices and home games were played at her Catholic high school. She would run sprints for winter track while I fronted a full-court press, but we never met. It was not yet our time. But it was our time that afternoon. I did not simply fall in love; I collapsed and keeled. After dinner I told my roommate that I would marry Jen. It was an accurate prediction.
Only a few months earlier, I had made another prediction to my roommate. I was going to enter the seminary to become a priest. More specifically, I wanted to become a Jesuit. And by “entering the seminary,” I meant beginning the discernment process that preceded the long formation period. It can take nearly a decade to be ordained as a Jesuit, but they seemed like the best fit for me. They were priests, but they were also lawyers, teachers, and writers.
When I met my future wife that Sunday afternoon, I did not hear thunder. I did not shudder at betraying God. Rather, I recognized that my belief was not meant to develop into ordination. I was not meant to become a priest. I was meant to become a husband and a father. I should have trusted in my family’s history. My own father, while a student at Holy Cross College, was preparing to enter Jesuit discernment when he met my mother. Thankfully, they chose each other.
So much of faith is a matter of similar pivots and choices. Late in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus is confronted by his friend, Cranly. Dedalus does not want to attend Easter Mass, upsetting his mother. Cranly quips that it “is a curious thing, do you know…how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.” Dedalus, ever sensitive and defensive, stands his ground, stating that he “will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church.” James Joyce’s entire canon is steeped in the Catholicism he rejected. For Stephen, and for Joyce, the poet replaces the priest. Dogma gets in the way. Transcendence is found in art. Although young Stephen dreamt of standing before a congregation, as an adult he would rather be God on the page. I love Joyce’s work, but disagree with his conclusions. He was a shrewd enough Catholic to know that Stephen’s words reflect Lucifer’s, but more importantly, they reveal a dual rejection of servitude to the Church and priestly service to the flock.
Like Joyce, I am a cradle Catholic. I have known no other creed. My childhood was suffused with rosaries, missals, crosses on chains, books about saints, nightly prayers, reflections on the pain and power of the Passion and the Resurrection, and Mass, but it was also saturated with watching the Boston Celtics and taping Hot 97 on both sides of cassettes until Biggie blurred into EPMD. New Jersey is a synthesis of Philadelphia and New York City, of Newark and the Pine Barrens. Mexican, Spanish, Italian, and Irish immigrants have created a folk Catholicism that begins in our cities but bleeds toward the suburbs, where each small parish has its own culture. Here in Jersey, The Exorcist still wounds us, but we return to it, like paying respect to a warning. Weird NJ is not simply a regional magazine; it is a way of life. The Garden State is a mixture of the real and the supernatural. We often cannot tell the difference.
Even as a boy, I knew that most devout Catholics did not enter the clergy, but I was always interested in the vocations of priests. They were very much regular men. My priest joked with parishioners after Mass, gave us pep talks before CYO games, and ate French onion soup at Houlihan’s. My interest in the vocation began with those observations, but evolved during college. I moved from studying astronomy, a theology of the stars, to literature and creative writing. Comparative literary analysis fits Catholicism well. Catholic thought is diverse and deep, from Thomas Aquinas to Jacques Maritain, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Simone Weil, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, Walter Ong, SJ, and G.E.M. Anscombe. For me, the Bible was the ultimate text: an amalgamation of literary forms, a work that demanded attention, elicited contrasting reactions, and always seemed to reveal fresh meanings after re-readings. It was that intellectual pull, coupled with the beauty of ritual and the opportunity to offer spiritual support to a community that made me want to become a priest.
When I say that I cannot become a priest because I am married, I do not mean to simplify that statement, or to offer it as a complaint. If I were able to become a priest now, that decision would not be my own; it would belong to my wife. And that is one tremendous hypothetical. Catholics know Pope Francis is brilliant, compassionate, and not interested in changing doctrine. My personal desire to become a priest does not alone warrant revision of clerical celibacy. But I remain a practicing Catholic. You might call me an elapsed Catholic, to satisfy the jokes of my lapsed friends. My doubts have never been about God, but about the mechanisms of the Church, the institutional sins. Yet I have been blessed with the acquaintance of wonderful priests like Father Joe. Perhaps I am spoiled, but I have seen priests live as writers. The novelist Ron Hansen, while not a priest, is a deacon in the San Jose diocese. A lifelong Catholic who attended daily Mass, Hansen’s earliest novels were historical westerns, including Desperados and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He explains that his earlier subject matter was the result of following T.S. Eliot’s critical precept of the “wholesale subtraction of my own personality and the submersion of my familial and religious experiences.” “Frustrated” that his fiction “did not more fully communicate a belief in Jesus as Lord that was so important, indeed central, to my life,” Hansen wrote Mariette in Ecstasy, a novel about a stigmatic seventeen year-old woman who enters a convent in upstate New York. Ever since, Hansen has not shied from engaging the mysteries of faith, but believes that fiction writers “can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists.” I appreciate that sentiment. I have never hid my belief, but do not compel others to follow my faith. Like Luke Ripley in Andre Dubus’s wonderful “A Father’s Story,” I “have no missionary instincts.”
Contemporary priests who write recognize they must pass the highest stands of craft and storytelling before engaging the spiritual. I think of the excellent writing by priests at The Jesuit Post, the sharp cultural work of Fr. James Martin, SJ, known by many as the “Colbert Show chaplain,” and the fiction of Fr. Uwem Akpan, SJ. Born and raised in Nigeria, Fr. Akpan earned an MFA from the University of Michigan. His short fiction appeared in The New Yorker before being collected in Say You’re One of Them. He has noted that while not all priests are writers in the traditional sense, “there is no running away from the poetic and creative side of carrying the Word of God to His people.” Echoing Hansen, Fr. Akpan is drawn to fiction because it is “exploratory” and “not doctrinaire.” His description could apply to Outer Darkness, a “grounded take on exorcism . . . exploring everyday evil in an idyllic Midwestern town.” The show is currently in development from AMC, and is written and co-executive produced by Fr. Jim McDermott, SJ. These contemporary priest-writers follow in the lineage of 19th century British Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose groundbreaking poetry intrigues believers and non-believers alike.
This cross-appeal may be why priests make such complex characters in fiction. Consider the priests in The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather, and Silence by Shusaku Endo, not to mention the novels and stories of J.F. Powers, Flannery O’Connor, and Erin McGraw.
Priests and writers have much in common. Priests need to craft homilies that connect with an audience. These audiences range from the standing-room holiday crowds to the handful of daily congregants. A homily must simultaneously inform, entertain, and most importantly, serve as spiritual guidance and replenishment. Priests modulate between abstractions and specifics. They reach for the didactic without becoming pedantic. The celebration of Mass can be a grand ritual, the perfect antidote to a prosaic week, which makes poorly organized liturgical celebrations and flat sermons so obvious.
Even the most dedicated Catholics become uncomfortable in pews. Some are waiting to bring their daughters to soccer games. Others pine to watch football or stream Scandal. They have good intentions, but they offer both subtle and obvious cues when their attention is strained. A good priest will know the limits of his audience; a great priest will help them transcend those limits. He will show them the joy of this time spent together. As Thomas Merton said, “the deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion.”
I write for many of the same reasons that I wanted to become a priest. I want to bear witness to a sacramental vision. I want to admit my life as a sinner. Rather than judge others, I want to use empathy to sketch their imperfect lives on the page, and find the God that I know resides within them. Similar to the life of a priest, there is a space for silence in my writing life, but also a time of engagement with both reader and place.
I write from a Catholic worldview, but don’t often write about clergy or Catholic schools. Father Joe taught me that lesson, and thankfully, I listened. For me, writing is a form of prayer. I recognize that time spent at my desk can devolve into hours of selfishness, so I need to earn those words. Good fiction can be a form of good works. As a Catholic, I recognize that life is a story of continuous revision, of failure and unexpected grace, and of dogged hope. I am comfortable with the white space of ambiguity and mystery. I have faith, not certainty. To approach God in any other manner deflates the divine. I write and I believe in order to better see the world. Now, more than a decade after I left that rectory convinced I was meant to become a father and not a Father, a writer and not a pastor, I finally realize that I have not traded one vocation for another. I have discovered their common source.
Image via firstworldchild/Flickr
In a recent Bookforum essay, Natasha Vargas-Cooper argues that we should stop teaching novels to teenagers because she hated reading novels as a teenager. Her first example is The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. It took her a decade to understand Jake Barnes’s condition because she, “like most high school sophomores, had no frame of reference to tap into the heady though subtle emotions that course through Hemingway’s novels.” She found Jake and company boring. She was a “hungry” teenager “starving for stimuli,” so “trout fishing in Spain did not cut it.” Hemingway wasn’t the only snore. Add F. Scott Fitzgerald, along with the “damnable Brontë sisters [who] were shoved down my throat.” She traded Bless Me, Ultima for mediums that were more “vital and urgent,” like “movies, musicals, and plays.” Those visual narratives “gave me large and instant rewards for spending time with them.”
The real villains were not stodgy novels, but her public school teachers. “Brutally inept teaching of The Pearl” almost soured her on Steinbeck. Most of her teachers “were as inspiring and provocative as the Great Expectations Word Search they handout out the first day we started Dickens.” Those teachers were “largely well-intentioned adults who don’t have the resources, or sometimes even the intellectual vigor, to make emotional landscapes of the western front, nineteenth-century London, or Pamplona very real to sixteen-year-olds.” In the hands of these insipid instructors, novels weren’t “the best device for transmitting ideas, grand themes, to hormonal, boisterous, easily distracted, immature teenagers.” Her proposed solution: students should read non-fiction.
Her potential reading list includes memoirs, creative non-fiction essays, meditations on language, and journalism. It’s a good list, but the problem is that Vargas-Cooper thinks she’s discovered the groundbreaking secret “to spark a love of reading, engage a young mind, and maybe even teach them how to write in a coherent manner.” Non-educators who write about education often make breathless suggestions that have already been used in the classroom for decades. Many of the writers and works who appear on Vargas-Cooper’s list are commonly taught in high school classrooms, and are suggested as independent reading selections for summer work: David Foster Wallace, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, George Orwell, Jon Krakauer, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, and others. Here’s a small sample of non-fiction from my own classroom: Wallace’s “Shipping Out,” “The Essay Vanishes” by Ander Monson, “Listening for Silence” by Mark Slouka, “How to Make Collard Greens” by Megan Mayhew Bergman, excerpts from The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr, and essays from Brevity.
Like many sweeping proclamations about high school education by those who have never done the actual work of guiding and caring for a classroom of students, Vargas-Cooper’s essay doesn’t pass scrutiny at the line-level. She wants the same supposedly banal educators she attacks earlier in the essay to now teach Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” and Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion. She then follows with a confounding sentence tandem: “Maybe the classroom is not the best setting for children to have profound literary experiences. Give the kids something they can relate to, immerse themselves in, and even copy!” I assume this means that teachers should give students non-fiction, but this transfer and experience must not happen within a classroom. Even parodic prose needs clarity.
Although I remain befuddled by her unawareness of high school reading lists, I am not surprised that Vargas-Cooper chose to begin her complaint with Hemingway, a writer often reduced to his myths. The Sun Also Rises is particularly well suited to misreading because of its unreliable, love-drunk narrator, Jake Barnes. Many of my own students have enjoyed Hemingway’s novel. I don’t say all, because no one other than a first-day teacher — or writers of thin commentaries on education — expects all students to enjoy every assignment, or even to read every book. But if Vargas-Cooper is looking for a “thought-provoking excursion into themes of empathy, human responsibility, and folly,” Hemingway delivers. I’m fairly certain that a novel about a man in love with a woman who would rather just be friends might connect with a teenage audience.
Students also enjoy The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, a literary thriller suffused with theological complexities. An unnamed “whiskey priest” is on the run in 1930s Mexico after a regime based on the real-life governance of Tomás Garrido Canabal has outlawed Catholicism. Priests can either forsake their religion, or die. The whiskey priest chooses faith, but that faith is tempered by pride. He is no exemplary priest; in fact, he is a terrible man. He has abandoned the daughter he fathered out of wedlock. Anyone in his presence is in danger of arrest or execution. Another unnamed character, the lieutenant, considers the whiskey priest a symbol of all that is evil within the Church: gluttony and hypocrisy. The lieutenant wants to eradicate all vestiges of Catholicism, and he will use all means necessary.
I teach at a public school, not a parochial school. Most of my students have a vague cultural knowledge of Catholicism, but they are a world away from the Mexican province of Tabasco. Some students miss the double meaning of “father.” Others don’t understand why the villagers would risk death to receive the sacrament of confession. And others still will not read the book at all, either because of disinterest, or because they are overwhelmed with other classes and commitments. But I do not want to live or teach in a country that asks students to only engage experiences similar to their own. I look to create comfortable dissonance in the classroom. I want my students to recognize that they are geographically and culturally different than the characters in Greene’s novel, and then to consider their shared humanity with these fictional characters. I ask them to do the same with the Bundrens in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, or with Oedipa Maas in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. They spend a season with the brilliant, maniacal football team at Logos College in Don DeLillo’s End Zone. And I pray that they will never know pain equal to the men and women in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, but they benefit from seeing the world through such scarred eyes.
We should continue to teach novels in the high school classroom. Fiction has a home there. But we should stop writing fiction about high school teachers within essays about education. Vargas-Cooper’s ribbing is playful compared to the stereotypes cast by politicians who hope to siphon funding from education. Teachers don’t enter this profession to relax. Teachers are women and men who work themselves exhausted.
Let me be clear: we public school teachers are not martyrs. We get paid for what we do. Whether that pay is acceptable or not is for another discussion. In America, teachers are either seen as angelic or caustic, saviors or sycophants. These stereotypes enable politicians to convince the public to support the latest education fad or slash needed budgets. The reality is we teach because we love to help kids, and we think literature is a way to examine and understand our complex lives. We do our best to help students inhabit the world of novels. The worlds of those texts might be imagined, but the emotions are palpable and authentic. We do real work in public schools. That, I can assure you, is not fiction.
Image via Thomas Favre-Bulle/Flickr
For years I’ve heard my mother-in-law say that Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner is the best book she’s ever read — and for years I’ve chosen to read other books.
But this summer, during a long layover in the house where I grew up, I spent the longest nights of the year deep in Stegner’s stirring descriptions of the American West. His feel for the wide-open spaces of New Mexico, Colorado, and Idaho in the late 19th century nearly prompted me to vacate the coast. The novel left me continually uneasy in my chair for other reasons, too. Stegner creates the tragedy of Susan and Oliver Ward’s marriage with real-to-life perfection. He slowly locks them into a landscape of silence and misunderstanding that’s as unconquerable as the arid territory they’re trying to settle. After I’d finished the book, a friend who’d read it decades ago, told me he still considers it the finest fictional depiction of marriage he’s ever read. I agree.
After Angle of Repose I read Gilead, which I thought was also superlative, but which didn’t hook me in the quite the barbed way I always hope for in a novel. I think I just had a hard time getting inside John Ames’s end-of-life equanimity. With Gilead finished, it was back to Stegner. I began reading Crossing to Safety with a copy checked out from a library near my old home Maine and finished it with a copy borrowed from a library near my new home in South Carolina.
Crossing to Safety, like Angle of Repose, is about marriage, and it reinforces Stegner’s interest in a particular kind of relationship: strong-willed, striving women and the ways they misunderstand their meek husbands. I’d like to know what in his own life put Stegner onto the topic. I also appreciated the opportunity Crossing to Safety provided to talk about the qualities that attract friends to each other, and to consider how being married bears on the way we choose to die.
More recently, I’ve read The Power and the Glory. The finished book, with its many exquisite scenes, is sitting on my nightstand, waiting to be sent back to the library. I’m happy to say that the smells of mule dung and whiskey are still thick in my blood, secret companions like a flask to this holiday season.
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Gerard Manley Hopkins was correct: Catholicism is made of “all things counter, original, spare, strange.” In 1968, almost a decade after graduation, my father’s college roommate called. Charlie said he wanted to visit. My parents were raising my oldest brothers in Dover, New Jersey. Crucifixes hung on some walls, but this was not the seminary my father imagined he might join after studying at Jesuit-staffed Holy Cross. Charlie and my father played football there, and went together to daily morning Mass. Afterward they walked across packed snow to the mess hall. Fed by the Eucharist, and then fed with scrambled eggs.
Charlie waited until after dinner to speak candidly: he had become an atheist after intensive, personal study of the Dead Sea Scrolls. He did not have his two youngest children baptized. He was finished with the Church. Then he left, as if he had only come to make that pronouncement. At this point in the story, my father always shares the Jesuits’ advice: never study the Bible on your own. Reasonable translations of the Judeo-Christian Bible are a patchwork of literary forms, written and revised in specific contexts and for specific purposes. Their literary construction does nothing to lessen their efficacy as spiritual texts, but that literary construction must be historically and aesthetically acknowledged. My father would augment my necessarily simple CCD lessons with brief explanations of context and contour: he claimed that a thinking Catholic was the best kind of Catholic.
Yet I am equally drawn to the strange corners of Catholicism, where, again, my father was my guide. In one apocryphal tale, while lifeguarding at Bertrand Island Amusement Park, my father watched a man fall from a roller coaster. Mid-century coasters were wooden and clunky, and the man’s limp body dangled from the rails. My father rushed down from his high-dive perch, but stopped to see a man dressed in black climb up the boards, his preconciliar cassock flapping. A priest, determined to give the dying man his Last Rites a hundred feet in the air.
My Catholicism has been defined by these intellectual and ritual modes, a dialectic of mind and soul. Unlike Charlie, the deeper I wade into Biblical and theological scholarship, the stronger my Catholic faith becomes, and the more willing I am to negotiate and accept ambiguities and paradoxes. Through liturgical celebration, adoration of saints, and celebration of sacraments, Catholic ritual is a complex interaction between the prosaic, the palpable, and the metaphysical. In the Gospels, as well as in canonical and lay writings, those dialectics become dramatic through narrative. In both classic and contemporary Catholicism, story matters.
I was surprised to read Robert Fay’s 2011 article here at The Millions, where he claims a “literary vacuum” of contemporary Catholic writing. While I strongly disagree with Fay’s overall thesis that postconciliar liturgical retranslation led to a decline in Catholic art, his short essay introduces important points. Fay writes elegiacally about the postconciliar shift from Latin to English, or local, Mass: “what for centuries had seemed eternal, mysterious, and rich in symbolism — the very marrow that feeds artists — was suddenly being conducted in the same language as sitcoms, TV commercials, and business meetings.” Was Fay’s observation convenient hindsight, or lived reality?
I needed Fay to ask the implicit question, and in the past year I’ve attempted to provide the answer in The Fine Delight, my new book on American Catholic writing after the Second Vatican Council. My conclusion: Catholic literature is thriving. Postconciliar Catholic literature is full of nuanced representations of faith by a litany of writers with varying Catholic identities: Ron Hansen, Andre Dubus, Paul Mariani, Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, Brian Doyle, Salvatore Scibona, Kaya Oakes, J.F. Powers, Paul Lisicky, Joe Bonomo, Mary Biddinger, Patrick Madden, Amanda Auchter, Jeffrey Eugenides, Alice McDermott, John Reimringer, Erin McGraw, Tom Bailey, and Anthony Carelli. Some are Catholic, some write about Catholic themes and characters, and some react against Catholicism. As I was not writing an encyclopedia, my book coverage required abbreviation, but the list of necessary postconciliar Catholic writers is even wider: Noelle Kocot, C. Dale Young, Sarah Vap, Richard Russo, John L’Heureux, William Kennedy, Andrew McNabb, Mary Gordon, Mary Karr, Daniel Berrigan, Thomas McGuane, Annie Dillard, David Griffith, Robert Clark, Franz Wright, Jon Hassler, Luisa Igloria, R. A. Lafferty, Tobias Wolff, Ai, Jim Shepard, T.A. Noonan, Jamie Iredell, Joe Wilkins, Brian Oliu, Joseph Scapellato, Matthew Salesses, Sam Ruddick, Richard McCann, Matthew Minicucci, Mark Jay Brewin, Jr., and more, including writers who represent Catholicism on the page in sharp, brief glimpses, or whose literary and personal faiths are lapsed. I would have to take another year to build an international list. And these are only writers; consider the important work done by Gregory Wolfe at Image, and the new writing published in Dappled Things. Plus the curiously intersecting, artistic and intellectual Catholic faiths of Marshall McLuhan and Andy Warhol, as well as Andrew Sullivan’s current cultural commentary, which often returns to his Catholic faith. Add to the list Tim Padgett, Garry Wills, George Weigel. It is refreshing that I am unable to document all the variations of literary Catholicism.
How to account for any possible perceived dearth of contemporary Catholic literature and art? I have learned the problem is one of definition. In the same way that paradox is endemic to Catholic doctrine, and that postconciliar Catholic writing is wrought with personal and parochial tensions, Catholic imaginative literature remains a conundrum to many critics, both Catholic and secular. In Commentary, D.G. Myers prefaces his recent meditation on “The New Catholic Fiction” with a disclaimer: “As an Orthodox Jew, I have no qualifications whatever to speak of Roman Catholic fiction,” admitting elsewhere that he knows “just how easy it is to miss the emphasis, the tone, the undercurrent, in fiction that is written from a religious perspective that is not your own.” Myers posits that this new Catholic fiction is exemplified in recent novels by two lapsed Catholics: William Giraldi and Christopher R. Beha. Their literary Catholicism is concerned with “sick soul[s]” who are “unreconcilied to heaven and grace.” The emphases of their novels are “not on the mystery and beauty of God’s creation, but on the difficulty of the skirmish with ordinary evil.”
Myers ends his essay with the observation that although Giraldi and Beha “will not welcome being identified as Catholic novelists…they may speak to a new generation of Catholic readers…[and to a secular] generation of readers who never would have thought that Catholic novelists might be a serious force in literature again.” Such defining does not only occur from the outside: Catholic literature is marked by the act of self-definition. The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, and The Moviegoer by Walker Percy all dramatize central characters who define and redefine their personal Catholicism. These novels are not aberrations; rather, nearly the rule. Catholic literary self-definition is even more complicated in the postconciliar era, where contemporary writers investigate Catholic ritual and culture through sometimes more jaded lenses.
These considerations are applicable to dynamic, imaginative works, not devotional writing. Ron Hansen has lamented when Christian writers mistake their form: proselytizing does not belong in fiction. Dramatic tension requires action, not argument. The stereotype of simplistic Catholic-themed or influenced writing is often earned by one-note spiritual narratives with no basis in the hard work of real faith. Have writers forgotten the narrative arc of Luke, the complexities of John? Christ suffered; salvation requires sacrifice. No easy redemption in life, so why expect it on the page?
Paul Elie has considered the curious absence of a contemporary Catholic critical aesthetic, which should not be confused with an absence of Catholic literature. Unfortunately, the perceived absence of the former often results in skewed discussions of the latter. The Catholic Writers Guild, an Indiana-based nonprofit founded in 2006, is “a professional group of writers, artists, editors, illustrators, and allies whose mission is to build a vibrant Catholic literary culture.” I think such a culture already exists, but can recognize the desire for artistic fraternity. What confounds me, though, is the organization’s “Seal of Approval.” A member-writer “can get your book evaluated and approved for its Catholicity with the Seal of Approval… [which] is meant to be a signal to Catholic bookstores that they can carry the book without concern about its content.” They admit the seal is simply an observation that “neither the work nor its author go against the Mageristerium (sic) authority of the Catholic Church”; the seal is not an evaluation of the work’s “writing style or quality.” Once gained, seals can be ordered in groups of 25 for 10 dollars and are affixed, by the author or publisher, on the covers. For the first half of 2012, many books receiving the group’s seal were self-published. Undercover Papist, one title that received the approval, was written by Christian N. Frank, a composite of a “team of young Catholic authors.” From the book’s synopsis: “So you’ve just been sent on Mission Impossible, to get the most popular girl in your school to come back to the Catholic Church…Brian goes to Bible Camp undercover to rescue Allie, but it looks like a lost cause. Allie seems to be getting on just fine: helping her new Christian friends love God, and dating the camp’s hot worship leader.” I am not sure whom to pray for: Brian, Allie, the world entire.
The Catholic Writers Guild also sponsors the Catholic Arts and Letters Award, an annual prize given for a work of fiction that represents Catholic tradition and values. A laudable idea, yet the award is only given to work that has the “CWG Seal of Approval or an Imprimatur”; that latter, ecclesiastical distinction is given in the form of a nihil obstat, a note declaring the text free of doctrinal or moral error, a pronouncement rarely, if ever, given to a work of fiction.
Certainly any writing organization is welcome to cultivate its own aesthetic. But for an organization that bills itself as “the Rebirth of Catholic Arts and Letters,” some Christian humility is needed. I must have missed the funeral for Catholic literature. The Catholic Writers Guild’s tone is merely a symptom of a larger concern, something strange occurring in Catholic literary culture. Many have taken the fragmentation in postconciliar Catholic identity to mean an absence of that identity; somehow coloring has been mistaken for blanching. Paul Elie’s recent essay, “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?”, appeared in The New York Times to much fanfare. While Elie’s essay is concerned with generally Christian writers, his Catholic lens is unmistakable. Elie’s nuance has been lost on some readers: his lament “is how Christian belief figures into literary fiction in our place and time.” This is an extremely narrow critical focus. His concern is one genre within one writing mode, and his language intimates a proactive faith. Elie’s elegiac tone is admittedly hyperbolic. Like a good Catholic, he prefaces his words: “Forgive me if I exaggerate.” Curiously, Elie folds Catholicism into a general Protestant literary aesthetic while identifying Flannery O’Connor as an axis point. His worry that contemporary novelists are “writing fiction in which belief acts obscurely and inconclusively” is to be expected when O’Connor is the contrast. Elie prefers stories like Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”: fiction that “suggest[s] the ways that instances of belief can seize individual lives.” It sounds as if Elie is less lamenting the dearth of Catholic or Christian literature and more the cultural conversation that might provide the intellectual architecture to locate and revere such work.
“Whispers of Faith in a Postmodern World” is a nuanced response to Elie’s thought-provoking essay. Gregory Wolfe notes that such “lament[s] over the decline and fall of the arts” have become an almost annual ritual. Wolfe explains that “faith takes on different tones and dimensions depending on the culture surrounding it.” There is no need for a rebirth of Catholic literature. Thankfully, it has never died. But there is a need for a wider swath of reasoned, Catholic-informed literary critics to articulate that literature to the reading public. To explain Wolfe’s observed truth that “today the faith found in literature is more whispered than shouted.” Thinkers like Denis Donoghue, Mark Bosco SJ, James Martin SJ, and Peggy Rosenthal, who allow the beauty of Catholic literature and artistry to shine without buffing away “all things counter, original, spare, strange.” It is time to be catholic in consideration of a literary Catholicism: such paradoxical inclusivity is in concert with the life, and mystery, of Christ.
Image via familymwr/Flickr
I have a slightly hard time with Graham Greene. I don’t know why. I think his writing is very good. He has weighty themes and sexy titles. And yet I have found that I can’t really remember anything about his novels beyond the most basic plot points. I’m talking about his “serious” fiction here. I could tell you the story of Travels With my Aunt in painful detail, but recalling The Power and the Glory, I can only come up with “The priest died.” I also read The Quiet American; in that one I remember the American died. A pattern emerged in The Heart of the Matter, wherein the policeman was also called to Graham Greene’s crowded firmament.
The Heart of the Matter might turn out to be more memorable for me because it is about unsavory colonials (Although I suppose The P & G and The QA are also about unsavory colonials, in their own ways. I guess most things are about unsavory colonials, when you get right down to it). But I was more receptive to The Heart of the Matter because it reminded me of one of my favorite books, Burmese Days, George Orwell’s first novel and what I consider to be his unsung masterpiece. Burmese Days, like The Heart of the Matter, is about unsavory colonials, and it is about suicide. Both novels are populated with pathetic, overgrown schoolboys and refined women living for their husbands’ promotions; in both you feel what a shoddy business colonialism is. Although I prefer Burmese Days and its overall effect, Greene’s description of the bachelor cable censor and the bachelor spy (both graduates of the same second-rate school) competing at cockroach-hunting in the decrepit Bedford Hotel is a great moment in literature, and in the history of Empire.
The novels share a handful of other elements. (Let me to take a moment to apologize if my penchant for well-trod literary territory and retrograde comparey-contrasty analysis revolts readers, lowers the general tone, and threatens to turn this site into a high school English class, as one truculent darling recently noted in a thrilling commenter skirmish. Like Elvis, I’m just doin’ [sic] the best I can.) At any rate, both of these novels have: 1. A rich, conniving Native, the baseness of whose mind is rather cheaply reflected in the grossness of his person. 2. A comparatively fetching young English woman, marooned in an undesirable outpost of empire. 3. A small, grumpy, racist English population, whose primary concern is the eternal struggle to keep the gin cold. 4. And, by christ, they’ve both got a main character whose surname is five letters and ends in a y!
Perhaps these similarities have to do with the universality of the colonial (and, dare I say, the post-colonial) experience and mentality. And maybe Graham Greene had a gander at Orwell’s earlier novel and used it as a jumping-off point for his more complex and (to me) less convincing story. Because ultimately the novels diverge, and The Heart of the Matter goes in a puzzling direction.
Both novels end in a suicide. I understand the motivations of Orwell’s wretched Flory, whose public disgrace, as a casualty of local political machinations, prevents him from marrying the (awful) woman of his dreams. Love hurts. And life, especially his, sucks. But Greene’s Scoby, who is also a suicide and also in some respects a victim of local politics, is harder to empathize with. Scoby is a converted Catholic and a real boy scout. His official career is undistinguished, despite his devotion to his various duties. His young daughter has died. His wife is a trial but he tries to make her happy. She remains unhappy, and goes to live in South Africa, and through a series of extraordinary events, Scoby is unfaithful. The wife comes back, and then he is unfaithful to his mistress with the wife. He feels awfully guilty, but he takes Communion anyway which is a mortal sin, and then he’s so distraught by this that he ends it all. Meanwhile, he finally gets that promotion. His life sucked too, maybe more than Flory’s, but he seemed okay with it for the most part. It was the sinning that finally got him down.
I read Brideshead Revisited, where I learned that British Catholics are an obscurely persecuted minority who have to Stick Together No Matter What. I am also familiar with the adage about the converted and his alarming zeal. But still it seemed odd to me that Scoby committed one easily forgiven sin, and then made it worse by taking Communion, and then decided to do the one thing that is basically unfixable in his cosmology, which is to leave the party early and on purpose. It was clear that Scoby was bound for a sad end, but I thought it would be from borrowing money, or for not being whatever the word for “pukka” is in West Africa, or for some terrible scandal with his job. But no, it’s all got to do with his immortal soul. I suppose I am very privileged in that, if I am in possession of an immortal soul, it gives me very little trouble, like an unerupted wisdom tooth.
And I wasn’t quite sure what Graham Greene made of this behavior either – whether he presented this character as exemplary of an excess of virtue, or of Catholics being crazy, or whether he thought Scoby was a saint or an idiot or what. He’s certainly the nicest person in the book. Maybe it isn’t something easily categorized. Maybe it is, to use the abhorrent popular expression, what it is.
For a while I thought that Greene’s novel was the less depressing one, because it dealt with somebody who is not like most people, instead of, as in Orwell’s novel, with a a pretty ordinary man in an unfortunate spot. I venture to say that most people don’t kill themselves because they’ve told two women they love them and then go to church, as Scoby does. I was going to say that Orwell’s novel is more rugged and brutal than Greene’s, without any of this airy-fairy spiritual stuff, but the more I think about it, the less I know (and the more confused I get). Most functioning organisms will almost always believe that life is better than death, but something about Scoby’s psyche was obviously incompatible with life, even though he seemed like such a nice guy. I wanted to shake Scoby and say “Snap out of it, Scoby! You have every reason to live!” but even without the compromised immortal soul aspect, he really didn’t really have a lot of good reasons to live.
Both Burmese Days and The Heart of the Matter seem to say that life, or life in a certain place, is kind of rubbish, but Greene takes it further to say that the most, I guess principled person, in the place isn’t able to live in it. That, maybe, is the heart of the matter. And that’s dark.
For as long as I can remember I have kept Willa Cather locked away in the mind-cabinet, filed under Boring. Recently I examined this prejudice and it occurred to me that I cannot remember actually having read anything by Cather, and that, if and when I had, it would have been at a time when Laura Ingalls Wilder satisfied all of my needs with regard to American frontier literature. I know that my mom and at least one of my illustrious colleagues at The Millions are Cather enthusiasts, so it was high time for another look.Now that I have completed Death Comes for the Archbishop, I know that Boring was a designation that my sixth-grade self might have decided on because she had no appreciation for Quiet. The novel is pretty quiet. It is a short history of the life of this Latour and his friend Father Vaillant, two French Catholics in the new American southwest in the middle of the 1800s. Basically, the life of a devoted church man at that place and time consisted of getting on a donkey, riding a thousand miles, getting off, saving souls or making chit-chat with some other church men, getting back on the donkey, and going a thousand miles back. The narrative sometimes skips over a period of years because one of the characters was out running a quick errand. You never forget the men’s placement on the American continent; how terribly far away they were from their familiar places. After a lifetime of good deeds in a wild land, they die. That’s the story.The novel is quiet, but it is powerful. I might not read it again, but I liked it and it affected me in a couple of unexpected ways. My education taught me to take a very dim view of missionaries, and also that the story of the New World is the story of the white man coming and ruining everyone’s good time. I am admittedly pretty suggestible, but a book that makes me think that getting religion (not even my home brand) and taking orders is a good idea, even for one moment, is no joke. That I had a good two minute’s worth of daydreaming about myself in rugged garments, riding my donkey to a peach orchard to eat mutton and perform baptisms with my gentle brothers the peasants, is very uncharacteristic.The novel also made me hungry. I am not being facetious. In so many ways Death Comes for the Archbishop is about the various hardships of the landscape, and for a religious man who cannot (or isn’t supposed to) take comfort in the arms of a lover, his table (after the Virgin Mary and whatnot) is one of his chief pleasures. Of course, a reliance on any sensual pleasure can go too far, and the novel includes a gruesome cautionary tale about a priest who is a tyrant and a glutton and who gets his just desserts, as it were. Still, Latour and Vaillant don’t deny themselves treats when they can find them; they drink wine and French onion soup and dream of chestnuts and salad oil. I think this is why they are lovable characters. I have always felt that pointless abstemiousness is creepy; I have more affinity for Christlike people if they enjoy a stiff drink and a good meal like regular people.The uncomplicated upstandingness of Latour and Vaillant might be too wholesome for some readers; The Power and the Glory this isn’t. Furthermore, the novel does not talk about the terrible the things that religion wrought, so if you are wholly and understandably embittered about the Church and its influence, it might not move you. Cather’s criticisms of religious practice are confined to the Fathers Martinez and Lucero, the venal, renegade foils to Latour and Vaillant, and she never addresses the fact that even kindly, well-behaved priests were agents of destruction in the Americas and elsewhere. At the very end of the novel, Latour tells his protégé that “I have lived to see two great wrongs righted; I have seen the end of black slavery, and I have seen the Navajos restored to their own country.” Latour and Vaillant are sensible to the power of indigenous religious practices that pre-date Christianity, but he doesn’t acknowledge that governments don’t have a monopoly on cruelty and heavy-handedness, and that one conclusion of the Christian Mission was the creation of the awful religious boarding schools for American Indians.I don’t know what Cather’s views on the Church or westward expansion or the treatment of American Indians were, but this is certainly not a political novel. It’s a bit like an obscure parable, but more than anything it’s a novel of place. It reminded me of Frank Norris and John Steinbeck in that it was very firmly tied to a particular region in the American landscape; the work’s beauty is the land’s beauty. The most memorable of Cather’s characters here is the beautiful and destroying desert, the “light dry wind blowing in through the windows, with the fragrance of hot sun and sage-brush and sweet clover; a wind that made one’s body feel light and one’s heart cry ‘To-day, to-day,’ like a child’s.”
On the last Sunday in November, book critic Adam Begley scooped Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd for the top spot in the New York Times most emailed list. Not with a review though. Instead, he wrote an excellent piece about Florence for the travel section, in which he recommended E.M. Forster’s Room with a View as a kind of literary guidebook to the city. The Florence piece came several months after Begley employed the same tactic to tour Sicily, that time with Giuseppe de Lampedusa’s The Leopard in his pocket.Those two pieces inspired me to think about other novel-city pairings. Last June, The Millions ran a guest post from novelist Joan Silber, in which she detailed some of her favorite books for enriching a trip abroad. Here I have something slightly different in mind: novels that allow you to follow Forster’s advice to leave the guidebook at home (and instead replace it with a great work of fiction). So, without further ado:The American southwest: Try Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House for its stark descriptions of a New Mexico mesa.If you don’t know Boston already, let Henry James introduce you with The Bostonians, his story of love and politics in the 19th-century city.It feels cheap, I know, to make John Grisham your tour guide, but I devoured The Client on a boat trip up the Amazon and don’t regret it a bit. If, for some reason you’re looking to weigh down your trip to Brazil, go with Claude Levi-Strauss’ Tristes and TropiquesSee the Windy City through the eyes of Dreiser’s classic Sister Carrie, which renders a teeming, if not always hospitable portrait of Chicago.I like Graham Greene for Cuba, with Our Man in Havana. Greene recurs a lot in this list, so in order to get it out of the way all at once: London (The End of the Affair); Mexico (The Lawless Roads or The Power and the Glory); Switzerland (Doctor Fischer of Geneva); Vienna (The Third Man); Vietnam (The Quiet American)There’s still no better guide to Dublin than James Joyce (The Dubliners).Greece: Bring along The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller.E.M. Forster’s good for Florence. He’s also good for intrigue in colonial India: A Passage to India.It’s always a decision, do you want to see a place through the eyes of a perceptive foreigner or a local? In Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and The City you get both.Jerusalem: Mark Twain voyages to the ancient capital in The Innocents Abroad. How can you resist?London: OMG. Ready to party? Try and keep up with Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. A jaded post-colonial? Nick Hornby’s About a Boy. Prefer to delve into immigrant life? Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Or, if you take your London straight up, there’s no better pour than Bleak House by Dickens.Try Joan Didion’s Miami if you have half a mind not to come back.I can think of nothing finer than New York in the hands of E.B. White: Here is New York.Paris: Again, are you going for the expat experience or the genuine article? If the former, go with James’ Portrait of a Lady or Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. But for my money, see the city like a native. Stendahl’s The Red and the Black.The great Russian novels are like a trip abroad no matter where you read them. Try Crime and Punishment or Gogol’s “The Nose” and “The Overcoat” for St. Petersburg.Switzerland has inspired some great books in addition to the aforementioned Greene. There is Twain again with A Tramp Abroad and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.I conclude the list with wanderlust. Books and foreign places are a fitting pair. There will always be more of both than there is time. This is of course anything but an exhaustive list. I’d love to hear what books you recommend in lieu of a tour guide.
Christopher Sorrentino’s second novel, Trance, was a finalist for the 2005 National Book Award and was longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. He is also the author of Sound on Sound and American Tempura, a novella.I taught two literature seminars this year, so although I like to believe I’m picking great books to read in class, I’m going to disqualify those thirty or so titles; eliminating from consideration (but not, of course, really) such personal favorites as Light in August, The Power and the Glory, Waiting for the Barbarians, The Third Policeman, and The Confidence-Man. Neatly enough, the two books I read at opposite ends of 2008 certainly stand out among the most interesting: Zachary Lazar’s Sway, a really smart and wonderfully written exploration of pop culture’s limits, limitations, and transformative power, as embodied by the Rolling Stones, Kenneth Anger, and Manson Family member Bobby Beausoleil, which I read near the beginning of the year; and Lynne Tillman’s American Genius (a re-read, actually), a masterpiece of mannered, circular, and obsessive monologue, issuing from a resident at either MacDowell or a mental hospital — it’s as if Wittgenstein’s Mistress were to combine with one of Bernhardt’s deeply disaffected, monomaniacal narrators.More from A Year in Reading 2008
The “staff picks” shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many bookselling alums in our ranks, we thought it a good idea to offer our own “Staff Picks” in a feature appearing irregularly. We hope you discover something you like.+ Inside by Kenneth J. Harvey recommended by AndrewA tough, spare, bruising novel from Newfoundland author Kenneth J. Harvey, Inside depicts the experience of a man released from years in prison, cleared on DNA evidence. Not guilty but far from innocent, our man attempts to reconnect with his family and reclaim his life. The novel’s edgy, fragmented prose is sometimes tough reading, but I read it a year-and-a-half ago when it first came out here in Canada, and its images and tone still haunt me.+ Sarajevo Marlboro by Milijenko Jergovic recommended by GarthAmong the splendors of the short-story is that it needn’t teach us anything. Also among its splendors: that it often does, anyway. With this collection, journalist Jergovic uses a deceptively casual style to tally the cost of war. Stories like “Beetle” and “The Excursion” bring to life the human beings caught in Sarajevo during the war, moving us without ever hectoring. They are exemplars of the William Carlos Williams dictum: “No ideas but in things.”+ Silence by Shusaku Endo recommended by BenIt’s strange to me that Shusaku Endo’s fine novel Silence has yet to be canonized as a masterpiece of world literature. Although I’m not generally a booster of Japanese writers, this story of faith and suffering is one of the best novels I’ve read.Endo was a Japanese Catholic, and many of his works explore the conflicts between his faith and his culture. Silence takes place in the 17th century and follows two Portuguese priests as they try to introduce Christianity to Japan. The Japanese government resists their efforts, and the two are forced to go underground, running from a public official who tracks them relentlessly. As their flock is captured one by one, the priests are forced to a final showdown, where their faith is put to the test. Equal parts heart-wrenching and thought provoking, this beautifully written and moving book grapples with the meaning of faith in a world where prayers are met only with silence.+ Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin recommended by EmreForget about global warming for a second and pick up Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale – a perfect companion to the season that will immerse you in a world steeped in fantasy. Peter Lake’s journey from the end of the Gilded Age to a futuristic 1990s world doesn’t cover much ground; most of it is in New York. But, the creation of the City as a central character, the use of Winter to tickle warmth, and the struggle between the ideal-imagined and real-lived will take you on a ride that illuminates beauty in the ordinary via the fantastic.+ The Compleat Angler: or, The Contemplative Man’s Recreation by Izaak Walton recommended by EmilyAlthough I am not “a brother of the angle,” I count Izaak Walton’s 1653 Compleat Angler among my favorite books. And it would seem that I am not alone: Walton’s book has been in print continuously for the past 355 years and by some counts it is the most reprinted work in English after the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress. To describe this delightful book, however, is no easy task. “The waters are nature’s storehouse in which she locks up her wonders,” Walton writes, and his book sets out to be the meandering catalogue of these and much else. Like so many other books of its age, Walton’s Angler is hard to classify. It is part fishing manual, part meditation on the joys of rural life, contemplation, and patience, part compendium of whimsical fishing and river lore (an account of the Sargus, a fish who crawls onto land to impregnate sheep, stories of mythical rivers that dance to music, light torches, or cease to flow on the Sabbath), part miscellany of pastoral verse, and part cookbook, all united by the deeply humane and amiable voice of the narrator, Piscator. Recommended for: All restive souls, especially city folk afflicted with pangs of bucolic longing.+ The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene recommended by MaxThis Graham Greene classic takes on crises of faith as a “whiskey priest” in Mexico is pursued by a stern lieutenant and the specter of a firing squad and must contemplate his own shortcomings, his worthiness, and his ordained duty to his flock. Heavy stuff, but as winter takes hold in northern climes, readers will appreciate Greene’s backdrop of the humid closeness of the Mexican jungle – you may feel some perspiration on your brow – not to mention a cast of characters who serve only to heighten the priest’s moral ambiguity. Whether read as a layered allegory of faith or a tense romp through the tropics, The Power and the Glory deserves its place among Greene’s best works.
A cursory glance at my 2006 reading list and I’m one scream away from seeking therapy. I’m all over the map, really. I couldn’t even begin to explain the path that led me from Jonathan Coe’s epic comic/psycho-drama/mystery The Winshaw Legacy (aka What A Carve Up!) to Jonathan Lethem’s hallucinatory sci-fi Amnesia Moon, to Kenneth J. Harvey’s tough, stylistically ground-breaking Inside, told from the point of view of a just-released convict, freshly cleared on DNA evidence – not guilty (but far from innocent).Along the way, Philip Roth’s American Pastoral made me rethink modern history, Graham Greene’s The Power and The Glory introduced me to a whiskey priest in Mexico’s past, and William Boyd’s An Ice Cream War took me back further still, to World War I as it affected the lives of colonists in what are now Tanzania and Kenya.All great, but what lingers the most:Re-reading J.P. Donleavy’s A Fairy Tale of New York which Andrew Saikali (that would be me) previously described as the story of “an educated rascal with an appetite for life, intertwined with social satire.”And especially stumbling upon Gustave Flaubert’s Flaubert In Egypt, his actual journey, at age 27, along the Nile, told through journal entries and letters home that are passionate and ribald, frustrated and clear-eyed. To quote, um, myself (in a previous post), “Flaubert In Egypt pulls together these various strands and stands at once as 19th century Egyptian travelogue, youthful memoir, geopolitical Middle Eastern history, and literary artifact – the nexus of Flaubert the youthful romantic and Flaubert the keen-eyed realist.”
I’m in the middle of the most recent National Book Award winner The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard. It’s an oppressive book both in style and content. Each description comes with an aside or a qualification. When one character, a young Australian soldier, relieves himself on the side of the road during a break in a drive across the Japanese countryside, Hazzard describes it this way: “The young driver, profiting from the hiatus, had meanwhile peed behind bushes.” Everywhere there are these odd little inclusions like “profiting from the hiatus.” The book is about the occupation of a shattered, destroyed, and conquered place, specifically the Allied occupation of post-war Japan. There is still everywhere the lingering hysteria of war, which Hazzard, like the occupiers she describes, tries to forget or ignore by imposing a false civility on the situation. The interplay of the conquered and the conquerors thus leads to dense language and curious juxtaposition. The Great Fire reminds me a lot of what was probably the first truly difficult book I ever read, Graham Greene’s, The Power and the Glory. In that book, the “civilized” is a priest and the uncivilized is the tropical criminality of Mexico. Luis Bunuel once suggested to Alvaro Mutis, purveyor of his own brand of magical realism and author of the incomparable The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, that it is not possible to write a gothic novel that is set in the tropics. Mutis supposedly refuted this by writing The Mansion & Other Stories, though I can’t comment because (as of yet) I have been unable to lay my hands on that book. So, at this point, I would have to agree with Bunuel. In order to invoke the tropics one must also invoke the oppressiveness of the conditions there; content dictates style, which brings me back to The Great Fire. Though the book is not set in the tropics, its setting is oppressive, and thus so is the writing. And though I’m only a little ways into the book, it doesn’t seem like this is a bad thing.