Literature: July 2002 Archives

My, What a BlogDay But


But I still have several other issues to develop. More tomorrow, but the final word of the day is in response to a comment by TS regarding John Updike.

I find Updike's work exceedingly uneven. I believe he is critically overvalued (and I know Tom Wolfe would agree). And I have to admit to always having been mystified by his characterization as a "Christian Novelist." All I have been able to conclude is that perhaps Mr. Updike belongs to one of the more "progressive" branches of mainline protestant churches. However, I don't spend much time puzzling over it as my rule of life is "Remove the beam in your own eye before you go after the mote in your brother's." But I do admit to being somewhat puzzled.

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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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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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My Summer Reading List


Unlike Mr. Claybourn, no one has expressed the slightest interest in what I'm reading this summer. But I am incredibly interested in what other people are reading and so as a service for those too timid to ask, I offer you my reading history and prognosis (in the strictly nonmedical sense of that word. Though, I suppose I should share with you a list of symptoms of reading addiction.)

At present I am juggling The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Brothers Karamazov, The House of the Seven Gables, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, and The Sayings of Light and Love. I feel impelled to note, lest accusations of pretentiousness be hurled--I am reading the Dostoevsky and Hawthorne and have been reading them for months with little progress. They comprise a sort of "background reading" that I hope to move forward with ASAP. Twain is for the reading group that I belong to, and John of the Cross is to refresh my acquaintance before I attempt to guide an entire group of Carmelites through his work. Now, on the things I am reading on my own for my own purposes (though I suppose all of the above qualify in one way or another), I have Dwight Longenecker's delightful St. Benedict and St. Therese: The Little Rule and the Little Way; Joseph Ellis's wonderful concise history Founding Brothers , a title not entirely accurate as one of the segments in the book deals with John Adams and his Wife Abigail (one of the great true love stories of all time); Sister Miriam Pollard's truly wonderful book of poetry Neither Be Afraid; and 1.5 million blog messages per day.

On the just finished and highly recommended front, John Simon's intricate and fascinating account of the conflict between Jefferson and Marshall, which, for better or worse, ended up defining the nation as it stands now, What Kind of Nation. I cannot say enough good about this truly detailed and fascinating excursion into the past; however, it does tend to aggravate me seriously as I am not a proponent of much of what our modern Court system has inflicted on society, and its ability to do so stems from this time and the apparently innocuous decision of Marbury v. Madison. I also just finished Michael Casey's book on humility, A Guide to Living in the Truth. I hope to write more extensively about these latter two in a few days. Further, I will lengthen the list and modify the recommendations list so that everyone can peruse at their leisure.

A question--what does everyone thing about Amazon Associateships. I tend to be somewhat green in this matter, preferring, whenever possible and reasonable, to give my patronage to smaller, local dealers. However, for purposes of reference here, that seems a difficult route. Please advise if you have strong opinions one way or the other. That in itself should make for interesting reading.

On the horizon, I would like to read Torgny Lindgren's epic of the plague Light. Once again, I hope to write a good deal more about Mr. Lindgren in the future. Also on the list is the 1895 (?) version of Portrait of a Lady. As with my films, I prefer the original, unreedited versions of classic works. I'm told that the 1914 New York edition is different in substantive ways. James is a taste that has come to me only recently. I spent quite a while wandering through the labyrinth entitled The Golden Bowl. When I finished, I was stunned to discover that I had encountered an artist who had forced me to grow, and though while reading it I had wondered at whether I was enjoying it, I find that reflecting upon the experience has been tremendously fruitful and wonderful. James is an author best read for the journey, not the destination. Many in this Tom Clancy and John Grisham world might be quite disappointed in the "story" such as it is of James's masterpiece, but it is a wonderful work that lives on in the imagination, forcing multiple rethinkings and reconsiderations. I know that I have come no where near beginning to tap its wonderful depths. And so, I now confess myself a Henry James fan.

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What Makes Literature?


What Makes Literature?

A question many of us have asked ourselves through time. In this delightful excursion by Umberto Eco, he reflects upon the prose of Alexandre Dumas and what has allowed it not only to survive, but to prosper when contemporaries like the enormously ponderous Eugene Sue have (mercifully) subsided into the background.

And what about The Count of Monte Cristo? I have written previously about how once I decided to translate it. I would find phrases such as: "He rose from the chair upon which he was sitting." Well, which other chair should he have risen from, if not from that upon which he was sitting? All I had to say in my translation was, "He rose from the chair", or even "He rose", as it is already clear he was sitting at a table.

I calculated that I had saved the reader at least 25% reading time by shortening Dumas's language. But then I realised that it was exactly those extra words and repetition that had a fundamental strategic function - they created anticipation and tension - they delayed the final event and were fundamental for the excellent vendetta to work so effectively.

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Quote of the Day


From John Milton, Comus: A Mask

The Spirit sings:
Listen where thou art sitting
Under the glassie, cool, translucent wave,
In twisted braids of Lillies knitting
The loose train of thy amber-dropping hair,
Listen for dear honour's sake,
Goddess of the silver lake,
Listen and save!

No reason, just because. And a good because it is too! Because it is lovely language, because it is utterly unexpected by anyone who knows John Milton well, because it is a Thursday and a melody is never harmful on such a day, because God gave us poets to celebrate the beautiful things in life, because I like it very much and like very much to share such a beautiful work.

Read it aloud and listen in wonder to the assonance in the third line where the liquid "L" of "glassie" is reflected in both of the following words and suggests the body of water in which the Nymph Sabrina lives. Then the soft "S" of "glassie" is captured again twice in "translucent," once again suggesting both the water and perhaps the reeds along the bank as they sway in the wind. More than any of this the very loose prosody allows the words to wind rather sinuously, not held to the rigorous meter (mostly iambic) that so clearly blocks out much of the rest of the poem.

I had long loved this little snippet of the larger poem and for the longest time did not realize where it had come from. Thank goodness for Google! I hope you are able to enjoy it as well, and perhaps, moved by the small piece, will seek out the larger.

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The Metaphysical Poets--John Donne I

There are any number of writings that have deeply influenced my experience of the reality of God's Presence in life. From time to time I'd like to share some of these. For some reason the poem that comes to mind today is John Donne's "Holy Sonnet 14"

Holy Sonnet 14
John Donne

Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

This is so much a poem of contradictions. That I may stand, God must overthrow me. Reason, which should defend me, proves untrue. I, like a town taken over by alien forces seek to let God in, and yet can do almost nothing by myself. (Surely, the act of asking is a very small step--we don't want to descend into quietism). But my favorite lines are the concluding couplet. The sonnet follows a highly unusual and powerful rhyme pattern ABBA, ABBA, CDCD, EE ( a more usual configuration of this rhyme scheme ends with a pair of tercets CDE,CDE, or variants thereof). And the EE couplet makes for an usually for profound effect. I can't think of another sonnet that packs quite the wallop of these two lines. "[For I,]/ Except you enthrall me, never shall be free/ Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me."

These two lines speak in so many ways and foreshadow Chesterton's fascination with paradoxes. It is impossible for me to be free unless I am God's slave. (Enthrall is a wonderful word because it has gained such a patina of meanings through time, but the original and powerful meaning is to make someone a thrall--a person held in bondage.) Unless I am God's slave, I am unfree. And if I am not completelty ravished by God's Love, I can never be chaste. Chastity depends upon grace and my will cooperating with grace. It is only possible when we love something or Someone more than we love ourselves.

Forgive me belaboring the point, but the poem is such a magnificent combination of images that it really stands as a stark reminder of the power of the Metaphysical poets--a group that wrote before we truly developed some of the mind/body dichotomy that is sometimes a mark of more rigid puritanism. (This dichotomy serves today to create an almost schizophrenic personality in many moderns.) "Holy Sonnet 14" serves as an example of what a poet truly in tune with and listening to God can produce. I would look to Donne as one of my examples when thinking of writing about the mysteries of Grace.

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

Literature: August 2002 is the next archive.

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