Thursday, 9 February 2012

More Thoughts on Catholicism and the Novel

As I mentioned in a previous post, Georg Lukács famously claimed that the novel was "the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God." But does this stand up to examination?

It's easy to assume that 19th Century Realist novels (and their 20th Century Modernist successors) define the genre. With their focus on the individual in this world alone, Eliot, Hardy, Woolf et al certainly seem to have written epics of a world abandoned by God.

However, it doesn't take long to find another way of looking at the novel. We have, for instance, just celebrated the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens, an author who (according to G.K. Chesterton) was heir to a different tradition that stretched back through Shakespeare to Chaucer and other great pre-Reformation authors.

As Flannery O'Connor once wisely noted in 'Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction': "All novelists are fundamentally seekers and describers of the real, but the realism of each novelist will depend on his view of the ultimate reaches of reality."

I would argue that some of the novelists of the 19th Century did a wonderful job of describing this world but only at the cost of restricting their vision of reality.

So where are the novelists to whom Flannery O'Connor's words apply? Muriel Spark, a Catholic convert, is a good example.

According to one critic: "[It] is as parables concerning the nature of reality that her novels must be read. In them reality exists simultaneously on several different planes. Most often and most easily observed is the naturalistic level, a term used here to refer to the ordinary or commonplace world characterized by unremarkable people who lead routine lives. The naturalistic level is presented with absolute clarity and reality. Less easily understood is the author's presentation of the supernatural level, which frequently interrupts and alters the naturalistic plane."

And later she adds: "Muriel Spark … emerges as a novelist whose themes are religious, even if they are not always couched in traditionally religious terms…. [The] author is acutely aware not only of the world of man, but also of the world of God and the incongruity between the two. The world of man is represented by the naturalistic surface of her novels which realistically depicts the commonplace lives of the characters. The world of God is represented by the extraordinary and inexplicable happenings which disrupt that surface. Both are quite real. They are complementary parts of a whole and rich reality…."

It is perhaps no surprise that Muriel Spark still does not receive the acclaim she deserves. Unless writing about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, many commentators simply don't know what to make of her. She doesn't quite fit into the tradition of the novel as popularly conceived.

But, of course, she's not alone. There have been plenty of other novelists who wrote about what Evelyn Waugh called, in his 1959 preface to Brideshead Revisited, "the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters".

It's also worth pointing out that the world of the novel has changed out of all recognition since Lukács wrote The Theory of the Novel in 1920 (and even since Leavis wrote The Great Tradition in 1948) Both Magic Realism and Postmodernism in their different ways have disrupted the Realist tradition. Novelists now have to be open to wider possibilities, even the possibility of faith.


  1. While I certainly recognize the possibility for novels that contain or convey spiritual truth, the rise of the first-person narrator severely curtails the ability of novelists to convey anything of value. Yes, there are great, first person novels with a spiritual component--To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn immediately come to mind. But most first-person narrators are stuck in the provincialism of their own lives. It is almost impossible to search for God from a point of view that is oriented around the self.

  2. Dear Alison,

    It is certainly true that, as David Lodge put it in one of his essays, "it is no coincidence that the convention of the omniscient and intrusive narrator in fiction (of which Fielding was a supreme exponent) began to lose favour at about the time that Nietzsche announced the death of God, or that most of the significant modern novelists who have persevered with this convention have been professed Christians." However, I'd be wary of arguing that the third person narrator is any more objective. He or she is a literary creation too and is capable of being as unreliable as any first person narrator.

  3. Thanks for responding. I guess the point isn't that first person narrators are unreliable and subjective--or even that that's a bad thing. (In my examples, Huck Finn is as unreliable as his narration is brilliant and deeply moving.) It's just that good novels help the reader step outside of him or herself. It's very difficult to write in a first-person voice without the reader's reaction being, "Hey! He's just like me!" The problem is especially common in children's literature and young adult fiction, where it's difficult to publish third-person novels from unusual perspectives. I read dozens of such novels a year as a middle and high school English teacher and for

    There are some great first person narrators that open up the reader's world. And some limited third person narrators--think Joyce--that present an extremely narrow perspective. It's just that the advance of first person narration at the expense of third person narration hasn't been a positive development for the spiritual help of the novel as a medium.

  4. That's very interesting, Alison. I'm going to write something soon about World War II in children's fiction and hope to touch on some of these points. I think you're right to raise this whole issue: I'll try to explore it in more detail at a later date. I hope your work continues to flourish.