Catholic Novel/Literature: July 2002 Archives

Below, I quote with permission, a portion of an e-mail received from a reader. This will serve as a wonderful springboard to ask the essential questions.

I'm shocked that no one has yet mentioned James Joyce, not only the greatest Catholic writer of the 20th C, but, in my estimation, the greatest writer of the century, period. Despite Joyce's own ambivalent attitude toward the Church, his work, especially A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man and Ulysses, are thoroughly saturated with the Irish Catholicism in which he was raised, and with the Jesuit scholarliness in which he was educated. If one were to excise everything Catholic from Joyce's books, there would be almost nothing left.

Certainly Joyce's novels are not "Catholic" in the sense that they are didactic or apologetic, but, as Anthony Burgess pointed out in his study of Joyce (entitled Rejoyce), no good and faithful Catholic ever lost his faith by reading Joyce. Thomas Merton even stated in his Seven Story Mountain that the sermon on Hell in A Portrait was among the influences that led him to Catholicism, though Joyce obviously did not intend that sort of response.

Sure Joyce is irreverent, joking, and sometimes even downright scathing in his attitude toward the Church. Some may find his humor regarding the Church and its beliefs and rituals as offensive, but as Joyce himself said, "The Church was built on a pun" (Tu es Petrus . . . etc.).

Despite his ambivalence and attempts by some critic to make him out to have been agnostic or even atheist, I always get the sense that Joyce, in his own odd way, loved and respected the Church more than he would ever have admitted. How can one not love a guy whose response to being asked whether he had become a Protestant was to say that he did not give up a
rational and coherent absurdity in order to embrace an irrational and incoherent absurdity, and that he had simply lost his faith, not his reason? As a Catholic, I certainly disagree with his describing the Faith as "an absurdity", but one must admit, the quote is delicious, and more scathing toward Protestantism than Catholicism. It is perhaps also worth mentioning that Palestrina was Joyce's favorite composers, and that he used to walk the streets of Zurich humming the Missa Papa Marcelli.

The key problem here, I think, is that one must define more clearly what one means by "Catholic novel". Does the author have to be an orthodox, practising Catholic to qualify? What if the author is a lapsed Catholic, or went from being a lapsed Catholic to merely being a "bad Catholic"?

Does the novel itself have to be Catholic in a didactic, apologetic sense, i.e. does it have to seek consciously to promote the Faith, perhaps even at the expense of aesthetic and literary quality? Or does the novel just have to be "Catholic" in the sense that Catholicism is a prominent element of the cultural and religious milieu in which the action takes place? What if the author is, like Umberto Eco, a baptised Catholic who is now a self-described agnostic, but who wrote a fabulous Catholic book like The Name of the Rose?

Though certainly not an exercise in apologetics, reading The Name of The Rose will not lead one to embrace Eco's own agnosticism, and it provides a lot of interesting Mediaeval lacunae to boot. What about books by non-Catholic writers, who nonetheless depict the Faith and the Church in a sympathetic and intelligent manner?

Answering these questions will, I think, make it easier to compile a list of the "Greatest Catholic Novels of the 20th Century".

Profound thanks DW for permission to quote!

There's a ton of stuff to address here. Let me start by excerpting the note I return in re: Joyce (for whom I have the most profound respect as a writer--so much so that I have dared Finnegan's Wake three times, and plan several more sojourns, God willing, before I die.

On Joyce, I suppose that his placement on the now defunct Index may have been a key determinant in many not seeing him as a progenitor of the great Catholic novel. While he was grounded in Catholicism, his outlook was more that of Eliot in J. Alfred Prufrock. While perhaps not so nihilistic as his secretary (the redoubtable Samuel Beckett) I would argue that if one were to go through the Syllabus of Errors one would be likely to see that Joyce subscribed to a great many of them, and indeed probably helped in a literary sense to define some of them.

While I have enormous respect and affection for Joyce,
I would never place his novels in the ranks of great
Catholic novels. The themes are really quite
different from those that seem to define most Catholic
novels, and as you pointed out, he was and wore very
well the facade of Agnostic. The whole "Telemachus"
section of "Ulysses" is highly suggestive of a certain
contempt in which he held the church, and his somewhat
unusual (for the time) relationship with Nora tended
to underline that.

So I've addressed the Joyce issue (sort of). But the question remains, what defines a "catholic novel." Before I compose any more, I'd like to open the question up to thoughts and responses. Please tell me what you think defines the Catholic Novel.

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Catholic or Not?


Before the opportunity slips by, I did want to comment on a notion presented in Video Meliora. The blogmaster there writes (TS, please pardon me quoting so much):

I recall a convert friend who read Percy's "Love in the Ruins" totally differently after he converted and "Love in the Ruins" had absolutely no part in the conversion. Percy was a sort of Christian existentialist, which seems to me almost a contradiction in terms. Don't get me wrong, I love reading Percy, and am deeply appreciative that someone so talented was also a believer - but I wonder how truly "Catholic" his novels can be considered when an agnostic sees them in sync with his/her worldview. I realize the purpose of art is not to proselytize. But this is sort of personal to me since I have agnostic friends who could seemingly be reached by art - they are hugely turned off by a more direct approach - but art that to me is transcendent to them, well...

Now, we'll get to some of this when we start talking about what makes a Catholic novel. For the moment, however, it serves simply to say that the merit of a work, or its Catholicity, cannot necessarily be judged by the misinterpretation, or valid interpretation outside of the author's intent applied by the reader. Percy's work is no less Catholic because it can be read and enjoyed by someone outside the fold than say the Bible is because atheists enjoy the poetry of Song of Songs or the Psalms. The interpretation of the work is not the work itself and because of the infinite mutability of the language someone can force any work into the procrustean bed of interpretation and make of it what they wish. This is not to say that we cannot communicate (as some deconstructionist critics would have it). It is to say that by participating in the act of creation,. we join with the creator and are stuck with the Creator's rules, which include such annoying things as free will and conscience. We do not create ex nihilo but out of our fallenness and so the work is not perfect and does not convey perfectly our sense of things. However, it does not interefere with the work being Catholic or non-Catholic, supporting Christian values or tearing them down.

It works also in the opposite way. For example the soaring poetry of Percy Shelley is penned by an atheist, and yet much of it can be read and interpreted in a Christian context, a point no doubt vexing to Shelley himself.

More on this later, as we discuss the Catholic Novel, but I think this makes a start. Thanks TS for the provocative thoughts.

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Now it's time to go to work, so later, perhaps around lunchtime, I'll be addressing this question, which came up in some correspondence. I find the question provocative and profound.

Also, quote du jour, and perhaps a poem it there's time. You lose so much when you're up 15 minutes later than usual!

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Response to Chesterton


My comments have temporarily vanished as Haloscan is attending to their servers, but I did read a comment from someone this afternoon questioning me as to why I thought Chesterton's writing was flawed.

Part of it is subjective, but part, I think objective. Chesterton tends to hyperbole and overwriting at times to make his point. In some cases his metaphors and his language just don't seem to be under control. There are ocassionally lengthy passages of material that just pall. Also, some of what he writes is very heavy handed, seemingly without a strong sense of the language. I know this is not true because most of what he writes does reflect both control and moderation. I think sometimes the journalist with deadlines overtakes the inner writer and clubs him into silence.

As I am reading I will try to find bits that illustrate what I'm talking about. I suspect that I won't find them in Heretics but I know that I have read them both in the novels and some of the essays. I'll attempt to clarify. Thanks for bringing up the point.

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It has taken me a long time to warm up to Chesterton. For me his writing flaws often got in the way of some of the really superb things he had to say. However, I am now going through Heretics for the umpteenth time, this time with some thought that I might actually make it through. In the course of reading I happened upon this wonderful little quote from Chapter 1.

The man who is perpetually thinking of whether this race or that race is strong, of whether this cause or that cause is promising, is the man who will never believe in anything long enough to make it succeed. The opportunist politician is like a man who should abandon billiards because he was beaten at billiards, and abandon golf because he was beaten at golf. There is nothing which is so weak for working purposes as this enormous importance attached to immediate victory. There is nothing that fails like success.

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Some Replies


Some Replies
Dylan writes in comments below, "Love in the Ruins rocks -- took me just a single 10-hour sitting to read it entirely for the first time." And I have to agree. But I need to say as well that it is apparently quite disorienting for a great many people. In my Catholic Book group the majority of people simply said, "Huh?" And that can be a reaction to it. However, approached properly and on Percy's grounds, it is a wryly amusing, sometimes outright funny story of an alcoholic psychiatrist and philanderer who develops a device to "measure the human soul." Solidly based in Aquinas, the story unfolds in a "world gone mad." Or is it in the head of the psychiatrist gone mad? You need to read it to find out.

In reaction to my summer reading list Dylan offered that he was reading Death on a Friday Afternoon I have read this over the past two years as a sort of lenten exercise. Neuhaus has been, I think unjustly, accused of being a universalist. He defends his arguments quiet ably here. For those intrigued by the sound of the book, and excerpt is available here.

I find the book stirring and moving and convicting. Because I tend to share Fr. Neuhaus's convictions in this matter, I saw little problem with the argument in question; however, I also acknowledge that I stand on the strength of convictions, of the arguments of others, and on hope--not necessarily on a grounded, reasoned argument.

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Ten of the Best Catholic

An intrepid soul decided to set foot in that extraordinarily dangerous territory of "Best of" lists, and so, naturally opened himself up to the billions of us who wish to make adjustments, emendations, corrections, annotations, revisions, and generally mess the whole thing up. So here's at least my two cents.

Four of the books Diary of a Country Priest, Vipers Tangle (a.k.a. Knot of Vipers and Nest of Vipers), Silence(not "The Silence" as noted in the article) and The Violent Bear it Away can be endorsed without even a hint of demurral. The choices for the Graham Greene and the Walker Percy seem idiosyncratic . Why Brighton Rock, while admittedly quite good over the three greats ( End of the Affair, Heart of the Matter, Power and the Glory? And while The Moviegoer is indeed quite a good novel, I think I would be more inclined to suggest Love in the Ruins. I must pause to note that many in my Catholic Reading group were simply puzzled by Percy's book, wondering why so many thought it great.

I have not read and cannot comment upon Judith Hearne or The Accident. I have mixed feelings about Brideshead Revisited and perhaps I need to revisit it. The final choice, Memento Mori, while a very fine novel, strikes me as an odd choice for a best list. It is very difficult to pull much Catholic from the novel, and it does tend to stump most people who read it and try to figure out what makes it particularly "Catholic."

Had I been making the same list, I suppose it would like something like this:

Flannery O'Connor: Oh, why try to pick, just read her entire opus and count it as one. I mean it doesn't amount to the length of a single Tom Clancy novel and you get a lot more out of it.

Graham Greene: Probably The Heart of the Matter read it next to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and V. S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River.

George Bernanos Diary of a Country Priest

Franz Werfel The Song of Bernadette I don't know if this really belongs, being by someone Jewish, but I think it powerful and influential.

Shusaku Endo Silence

Walker Percy Love in the Ruins

Torgny Lindgren The Way of a Serpent

Francois MauriacViper's Tangle (Although Woman of the Pharisees and Therese are also very fine.

Sigrid Undset Kristin Lavransdatter, though I must admit, this suffers from its present translation.

And the following two are books that have haunted me and suggested their way onto the list--whether they deserve it or not is difficult to say--I suppose only time will tell.

Ron Hansen Marriette in Ecstasy or Atticus.

Undoubtedly there are a great many others that must be neglected by perusing this list. For example, one might site the extraordinary and beautiful science fiction novels A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter Miller Jr.) and A Case of Conscience, Black Easter, and The Day after Judgment by James Blish.

Please feel free to wrangle, disagree, add, subtract, multiply, or divide. I look for works that I have not yet read! If you'd like more information about any, please ask, I'd be happy to write at greater length. (As if you couldn't tell!)

One thing I ask please--No Andrew Greeley books!

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A Sonnet for Christians


I suppose that seems rather narrow, as a great many sonnets can be read by most Christians much to their improvement both in the spiritual and the secular order. However, this sonnet, possibly one of the most difficult in English, is certain the Master Sonnet for Christians, and for Catholic Christians at that.

The Windhover
Gerard Manley Hopkins

To Christ our Lord

I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dáwn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rólling level úndernéath him steady áir, & stríding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl & gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, -- the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty & valour & act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, o my chevalier!
No wónder of it: shéer plód makes plóugh down síllion
Shine, & blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gáll themsélves, & gásh góld-vermílion.

What a masterful working of the sonnet form! It isn't often that you see a rhyme scheme of AAAAAA BCBCBC. Admittedly, the first line-break is something of a cheat to get the scheme, but nevertheless we arrive. As one might expect from a Jesuit, the poem practically needs someone to guide you through it. While I'm not qualified to talk about all the nuances, I can give the reader a rough map and leave it to her/him how best to approach the magnificent and sometimes tortured language and thought behind the poem. First, a little bank of definitions:

Windhover-a kestrel or small hawk with pronounced red breast plumage
dauphin: the heir apparent to the French throne and by extension to any throne
wimpling: (probably clear by context) rippling
sillion: the furrow caused by the plow

Now, what to say about the poem? It is an ecstatic evocation of the soul's movement within us when we connect to an image outside ourselves that helps us understand God. It could be seen as an exultant reading of what Paul terms "the second book." The first is, of course (in St. Paul's view), the Hebrew Scriptures, but the second is nature itself.

What always moved me about the poem is the tremendous energy of the Windhover and its associations and the feeble motion it causes in the viewer who has locked himself up too much, "my heart in hiding/stirred for a bird..."

In addition there is the very mysterious conclusion in which Jesus ("my chevalier") is compared to the windhover and found a billion times more lovely and dangerous. Then we conclude with the statement that it is hardly a surprise as nature shows other examples of profound beauty as when by sheer effort the soil of the field lay in shining furrows and when an ashen covered ember falls and glows golden.

But this last three lines may also refer to Hopkins's reaction "my heart stirred for a bird." The preceding explanation "No wonder of it" may give the poet some consolation at the enormous strength and power of his reaction to this scene as he recalls that in other ways he has felt similar though smaller things. In a certain way it could be seen as an examen that allows Hopkins to list a few ways in which the knowledge of God has entered his otherwise closed world.

Hopkins is difficult to understand. But once again, read and read and read and read and then read aloud. Enjoy the sheer mastery of the language, the unexcelled beauty of what Hopkins is trying to do.

Hope this brief guide gives you the opportunity to explore more on your own. In works of real art, as in works of nature, the Lord of All makes His appearance.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Catholic Novel/Literature category from July 2002.

Catholic Novel/Literature: August 2002 is the next archive.

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