Thursday, 12 September 2013

What happened to the Catholic Novel?

... is not my question but Toby Garfitt's in the journal, French Studies

Dr Garfitt is a very interesting writer. An academic at Oxford University, he is also an evangelical Anglican who has an interest in Catholic Literature.

In his article for French Studies (an article which is in theory available for free, though the link doesn't seem to work), he argues that: "The idea of a specifically Catholic novel arose during the 19th century". Now this raises all sorts of questions about what might be meant by a specifically Catholic novel but we'll put those questions to one side for the moment.

He goes on to suggest that "it was Chateaubriand’s Atala (1801) that inaugurated the new genre of the Catholic novel as a riposte to the dechristianization associated with the Revolution ... and as the novel rapidly established itself as the major literary genre, a number of Catholic sub-genres developed."

All this is very interesting, though I would have liked to have seen more about Balzac who, by any reckoning, was a major novelist and a committed Catholic. According to Garfitt, "The Avant-propos to Balzac’s Comédie humaine expresses nostalgia for the alliance of throne and altar, but only a handful of the novels, such as Le Curé de village, promote a Catholic sensibility."

Even so, the whole essay is fascinating in its overview of a hugely significant era in literary history (whatever our views might be of the phrase "a Catholic sensibility"). However, what I find particularly interesting is the question which gives the essay its title: the notion that the Catholic novel has disappeared, a notion I just don't accept, partly because I don't buy into many of the literary assumptions that emerged in the wake of Vatican II.  Here's Garfitt again, quoting Bernard Beronzi:

"The most significant date in the later history of the Catholic novel, both as an evolving genre and as an object of criticism, is no doubt 1962, when the Second Vatican Council began its deliberations. By 1980 Bernard Bergonzi could write that since the old Catholic world-view had collapsed and was now replaced by a new ‘humanistic Catholicism’ that was less clearly at odds with the surrounding culture, there was no room for the old-style Catholic novel, and the best that could be hoped for was the ‘Catholic anti-novel’ of such as David Lodge."

However, as Garfitt points out there were still plenty of novelists who did not follow where David Lodge led, including Roger Bichelberger, one of whose novels he (Garfitt) has translated into English. 

The article finishes with these interesting thoughts: "In his most recent study The Pen and the Cross: Catholicism and English Literature 1850-2000 (London: Continuum, 2010), Richard Griffiths correctly emphasizes the importance of the French experience of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to the writing of Graham Greene and many others on this side of the Channel, but does not see more recent French writers and thinkers as offering any pointers to a possible reinvention of the Catholic novel. One of his central questions is whether Catholic literature can survive as theology moves on, and it will be interesting to see whether the theologically informed reflections of an influential philosopher like Jean-Luc Marion on love, idolatry and transcendence provide something for the next generation of novelists (in whatever language) to get their teeth into."

There are all sorts of assumptions built into Griffiths' question that we might want to question, especially in the light of Benedict XVI's writing: what theology 'moving on' actually means for a start. But this post is long enough as it is, so I'll return to this and related questions in later posts.

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