Sunday, 12 December 2010

The Nativity of Christe

As I mentioned in a previous post, the poetry of St Robert Southwell is beginning to receive the attention it deserves. Here is his wonderful poem on the Nativity of Christ: 

Behold the father is his daughter's son,
The bird that built the nest is hatch'd therein,
The old of years an hour hath not outrun,
Eternal life to live doth now begin,
The word is dumb, the mirth of heaven doth weep,
Might feeble is, and force doth faintly creep.

O dying souls! behold your living spring!
O dazzled eyes! behold your sun of grace!
Dull ears attend what word this word doth bring!
Up, heavy hearts, with joy your joy embrace!
From death, from dark, from deafness, from despairs,
This life, this light, this word, this joy repairs.

Gift better than Himself God doth not know,
Gift better than his God no man can see;
This gift doth here the giver given bestow,
Gift to this gift let each receiver be:
God is my gift, Himself He freely gave me,
God's gift am I, and none but God shall have me.

Man alter'd was by sin from man to beast;
Beast's food is hay, hay is all mortal flesh;
Now God is flesh, and lies in manger press'd,
As hay the brutest sinner to refresh:
Oh happy field wherein this fodder grew,
Whose taste doth us from beasts to men renew!

Or, to be more accurate, that was his poem with spelling and punctuation updated. More lingusitically interesting and almost equally comprehensible is what he actually wrote:

Behoulde the father is his daughters sonne
The bird that built the nest, is hatchd therein
The old of yeres an hower hath not outrunne
Eternall life to live doth nowe beginn
The worde is dumm the mirth of heaven doth weepe
Mighte feeble is and force doth fayntly creepe

O dyinge soules behould your living springe
O dazeled eyes behould your sunne of grace
Dull eares attend what word this word doth bringe
Up heavy hartes with joye your joy embrace
From death from darke from deaphnesse from despayres
This life this light this word this joy repaires

Gift better then himself god doth not knowe
Gift better then his god no man can see
This gift doth here the giver given bestowe
Gift to this gift lett ech receiver bee
God is my gift, himself he freely gave me
Gods gift am I and none but God shall have me.

Man altered was by synn from man to best
Bestes foode is haye haye is all mortall fleshe
Now god is fleshe and lyves in maunger prest
As haye the brutest synner to refreshe.
O happy feilde wherein this foder grewe
Whose taste doth us from beastes to men renewe.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

The Burning Babe

There is something of a resurgence of interest in St Robert Southwell at the moment, with his Collected Poems and a major critical study (reviewed here) being published recently. Both books build upon the solid foundations laid by Alison Shell in Catholicism, controversy, and the English literary imagination, 1558-1660 and what they demonstrate is that there is clearly a lot more to Southwell than the much-anthologised 'The Burning Babe'. In later posts this Advent I shall draw attention to other Southwell poems that could be used in the classroom but I'm going to start with 'The Burning Babe'. It may be widely anthologised but that's partly because it is a great poem:

As I in hoary winter's night stood shivering in the snow,
Surprised I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty babe all burning bright did in the air appear;
Who, scorchëd with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
Alas, quoth he, but newly born in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel justice layeth on, and mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men's defilëd souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.
With this he vanished out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I callëd unto mind that it was Christmas day.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

'The Birds of the Air' - Alice Thomas Ellis

If you are looking for some Christmas reading then you could do a lot worse than Alice Thomas Ellis's The Birds of the Air. All the constituents of a traditional British Christmas are there - family arguments; embarrassingly drunk relations; the Queen's speech - but there is also a lot of comedy too, especially once you get beyond the first fifteen pages.

The Birds of the Air was written at a time of great personal anguish for its author. Her nineteen-year old son, Joshua, had recently fallen off the roof of Euston Station while trainspotting and died and yet grief does not overwhelm this novel. Indeed what is most striking about it is how funny it is.

Arguably the book's most interesting character is Mary Marsh who, like Ellis, was struggling to come to terms with the loss of her son. Though she shuts herself away in her room, she is also given a strange freedom by her grief. No longer obliged to maintain social niceties, she says what she thinks, thinks what she likes, and does what she wants. On one level she is not coping (to use a verb neither she nor Ellis would have had much time for) but, on another level, she is the most lively and amusing of all the characters in the book.

What keeps her going is the hope, or even expectation, of the resurrection. Besides this great hope, ordinary life seems utterly petty and irrelevant and so humour, and satire in particular, begins to seem like a perfectly reasonable response to the tragedies of life. And this book, which is very much in the tradition of Waugh, Spark and O'Connor, is very funny.

Mrs Marsh, Mary's mother, is a wonderful comic creation. She is a quintessential busybody who is torn between wanting to keep her family together and wanting to keep her suburban house clean and tidy. She is quite upset when her children leave "the washing-up brush on the wrong side of the sink" and when a neighbour suggests that she draw up a little list to help her prepare for Christmas she replies, "I could paper the kitchen with little lists."

The social satire is wonderful: both academia and suburbia are roundly mocked but Ellis also targets other quintessentially British institutions: "Winnie the Pooh vied with the Queen (God trailing in the distance) for the forefront of the mind of the English middle class," she writes. We don't get much Winnie the Pooh in The Birds of the Air but the Queen, the royal family and Church of England bishops are mercilessly satirised.

Ellis captures the tone of the Queen's speech perfectly when she writes that, "the monarch let it be known that, among other things, it would give her, personally, much pleasure if people would stop killing each other."

However, there is more to this short novel than mere social satire. The Catholic faith of Mrs Marsh's dead husband hovers on its edges, even though Mrs Marsh herself, "as a rule, ... avoided all mention of Catholicism in public, considering it, even after her years of marriage to her dear John, not quite nice."

In particular it is impossible to forget Jesus's words, "Behold the birds of the air, for they neither sow, nor do they reap, nor gather into barns: and your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are not you of much more value than they?" because birds hover over every aspect of the book. You cannot escape them: every type of bird, every type of avian pun, is here. The birds are a constant reminder to Mary (and Ellis herself) that she will see her son again.

‘There is no reciprocity," Alice Thomas Ellis once said in a newspaper interview. "Men love women. Women love children and children love hamsters." The love of women for their children lies at the heart of this novel but the love of God for men, women, children and, I suppose, hamsters lies even deeper.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

From Euthanasia to Assisted Dying with the OED

The Oxford English Dictionary is a great teaching resource, especially now that it's online and free to use  if you have a county library card. (See this website, for example.)

Tracking the history of certain contentious terms can be a profitable activity. Take "euthanasia", for instance. Its primary meaning, according to the OED, is "a gentle and easy death" and the first citation is from 1646 when Bishop J. Hall wrote in Balme of Gilead: "But let me prescribe, and commend to thee, my sonne, this true spirituall meanes of thine happy Euthanasia."

"Euthanasia" only came to mean "the action of inducing a gentle and easy death used esp. with reference to a proposal that the law should sanction the putting painlessly to death of those suffering from incurable and extremely painful diseases" in the late 19th Century.

"Assisted suicide" (meaning "suicide effected with the assistance of another person; esp. the taking of lethal drugs, provided by a doctor for the purpose, by a patient considered to be incurable") first appeared in print in 1976.

"Assisted dying", the currently favoured term of those lobbying for a change in the law, has not yet entered the OED.

Why these changes have taken place is, of course, not a matter for the writers of the OED but the question could provide the basis for a highly profitable classroom discussion.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

One sees great things from the valley ...

This a photo of a stone seat in the grounds of the school where I teach. The school lies in a valley and so an enlightened nun or headmistress chose a quotation from G.K. Chesterton's 'The Hammer of God' to adorn the seat: "One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak."

The story from which the quotation is drawn deals with the dangers of spiritual pride, the dangers that come from cutting oneself off from the messiness of the everyday world. This was not Father Brown's besetting sin: by immersing himself in the world, he not only came to understand his flock but also came to be a master detective.

'The Hammer of God' is a great detective story which provides English teachers with all sorts of opportunities. The Innocence of Father Brown, in which it can be found, was published in 1911 and so usefully falls before the National Curriculum's 1914 cut off point. I, for one, would love to teach some of the Father Brown stories to GCSE students. They're cheap too. You can get a good selection of Chesterton's fiction at a very reasonable rate and the Father Brown stories even cheaper.

After years of neglect, Chesterton is being taken seriously once again. This is good news for us all.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

What if they find us?

This book was recommended by one of my Year 7 (11 year old) students and it's quite a find: a powerful story from a mainstream publisher which shows Catholics in a very good light.

What if They Find Us, first published as Guardian Angel House in Canada, is based upon the experiences of Kathy Clark's Hungarian Jewish mother and aunt who were saved from the Nazis by the Sisters of Charity in Budapest. The book is part of the 'My True Story' series but it is actually an imaginative reconstruction of the time in fictional form. The book is very well researched and could easily be taught alongside other war literature for children. For all those reading The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, for example, it would be a great companion piece.

There is a great deal of suspense in this book: Kathy Clark has created real narrative drive, introducing new characters at suitable intervals and leaving us with some well-judged cliffhangers. We really want to know how the children's life in the convent will develop.

As you might expect, there are some terribly sad and moving moments too but it is the faith and heroism of the nuns and children that really shines through. It can be difficult to find good books for our Catholic children. Here's one I'd heartily recommend.

Kathy's website can be found here. As you can see, her British publishers spelt her surname wrongly on the cover of her book. You can order a study guide to What if They Find Us? here.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Preparing for Advent

As Advent draws close it might be worth thinking about what alternatives there are to yet more versions of A Christmas Carol. There are some interesting Christmas stories out there which bust stereotypes. 

Willi Chen's Trinidadian Christmas stories, for example, provide a welcome break from the usual Victorian fare. Alexandros Papadiamandis who has, albeit rather misleadingly, been described as Greece's Dostoevsky also wrote some interesting short stories set during different moments of the liturgical year, including Christmas. A good story for younger children - it makes a good assembly - is Frank McCourt's Angela and the Baby Jesus.

If you are looking for something longer or spikier for older students you could try Alice Thomas Ellis's The Birds of the Air or Mr Ives' Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos.

Anyone else got any suggestions? 

Friday, 12 November 2010

Elizabeth Jennings

Elizabeth Jennings was an interesting poet. She wrote many wonderful poems, some of which dealt explicitly with her Catholic faith. Some of her work, like 'For a Child Born Dead', could be extremely hard-hitting but she also wrote wonderful poems of celebration, as can be seen in Praises. You can hear her reading a couple of her own poems here and read some of her poems here or here.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

11th November

It is perhaps worth pointing out that I don't believe that it is the job of the Catholic English teacher to give priority to books by Catholics. However, I do believe that Catholic authors have something special to offer and that it would be curious at the very least if Catholic English teachers and Catholic schools did not draw attention to the work of their co-religionists.

War literature is a case in point. I shall be teaching or recommending many war novels and poems this week, most of which have very little if any connection with Catholicism. However, I am heartened by the fact that some of the finest novels about World War II, the Sword of Honour  trilogy, were written by Evelyn Waugh and deal explicitly with issues of faith. 

Another Catholic author who has been making a name for himself recently (and winning prizes) is William Brodrick, a former Augustinian friar, who talks about his life and work here. His 2008 novel, A Whispered Nameis a very welcome addition to the corpus of First World War literature.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

'Measure for Measure' - a Catholic play with a Protestant ending?

A whole raft of critics have recently shown an interest in Shakespeare and Catholicism. Alison Shell, Professor of English at Durham University, for example, has argued that "the relationship between Shakespeare and Catholicism is an interesting one which has often been underplayed; that Shakespeare's life and works can usefully be discussed in the light of it; and that Shakespeare may well have come from a Catholic family, though this need not imply that he was a Catholic himself." It may, incidentally, be worth pointing out that Shell is an Anglican and so has no Catholic axe to grind.

Other critics have also emphasised the importance of seeing Shakespeare in his Catholic context. Thomas Rist , for example, has written some interesting books and articles about Shakespeare and Catholicism while Manchester University Press has published books about Theatre and Religion: Lancastrian Shakespeare  and Secret Shakespeare: Studies in theatre, religion and resistance .

Given all this interest, what do we make of Measure for Measure, a play about a nun (and a friar, or a duke disguised as a friar) in Catholic Vienna?  According to Ernest Honigmann in Shakespeare. The 'Lost Years' (Manchester, 1985), p.123, Measure for Measure "activates latent active anti-Catholic feelings - while at the same time it manages to present a Catholic point of view persuasively from the inside." Alison Findlay , writing from a quite different critical perspective, comes up with a similar conclusion: "To regard Measure for Measure as anti-monastic satire, where Isabella's ideas 'are meant to differ sharply from those of a largely Protestant audience', fails to take account of the ways in which women might share her point of view because of religious or feminist sympathies."

In many ways Isabella is indeed the play's most interesting character, which, on the face of it, is rather surprising. Shakespeare's ability to give the marginal a voice is, of course, part of what makes him great but Isabella was not only a woman but a Catholic and not only a Catholic but a nun.

The big question is whether she can remain a nun after the play ends: the Duke, still dressed as a friar, twice proposes marriage and Isabella remains silent both times. As Arthur F. Marotti has argued, this is the dramatic crux of the whole play. Does Isabella abandon her vocation for marriage or does she hold out? Is this a Catholic play with a Protestant ending, where the foolish Catholic woman realises the error of her ways?

Or is it, more subversively, a Protestant play with a Catholic ending? Catholic Vienna, as depicted in this play, is rampantly dissolute: a 17th Century Protestant audience would have lapped it up. But Isabella doesn't give them the answer they would have wanted. She remains silent. The play remains ambiguous. The Catholic option is still open.

Siegfried Sassoon

This picture shows Sassoon as he is usually remembered but it's worth also remembering that he lived for many years after World War I and that he became a Catholic in his last years, as discussed in this podcast from Downside and this one from the same conference. It's very difficult to get hold of his last (Catholic) poems but now might well be a good time to resurrect them.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Translations Please

As I have suggested before there is a great deal of Catholic literature out there but far too much of it simply hasn't been translated. There are Catholic novelists in China, for example, who are virtually unknown in the West. There is an interesting interview here with the award-winning Catholic, Fan Wen, for instance. NB: Fan Wen's answers are more nuanced than some of the interviewer's rather loaded questions.

But it's not much better closer to home. Take Martin Mosebach, one of Germany's leading novelists and a good Catholic to boot. You can get his book about the liturgy, The Heresy of Formlessness, from Ignatius Press but why stop there? Why are his highly successful novels not available in English?

Of course, translations can have their problems. The Nobel-Prize-winning Paul Claudel, for example, would be all but forgotten in this country if it weren't for James Lawler's translation of some of his prose poems but, to be honest, they don't make for easy reading in this translation. If you can manage them, the originals are much more satisfying, though the translation at least points us in the right direction.

Sometimes we might even get both, as in this version of Paris by one of France's greatest writers of the 20th Century, the American Julien Green. However, this is very much the exception: most of Julien Green's books also languish in untranslated neglect.

The answer, of course, is to get learning those languages but we have to be realistic: life is short and the list of languages to learn is long. So in the meantime let's please have some more translations.

Piers Paul Read - 'The Misogynist'

I must admit that I found myself getting unreasonably irritated by The Misogynist, even though it is well-written, psychologically astute and, at times, wryly amusing. Part of the reason was because it's yet another book about a man embittered by the breakup of his family. Contemporary fiction is full of such men and reading novels like these always makes me want to scurry back to Great Expectations. However, another reason for my irritation is summed up by the embittered barrister whose story the novel tells. Towards the end of the novel he asks whether the function of writing is merely to process "the raw material of human agony into digestible entertainment for airline passengers and reading groups?" This is not a novel for airline passengers but, on the other hand, it isn't wholly clear who it is aimed at. 

Jomier, the barrister, is not a religious man and the many problems that life has thrown his way, ranging from distant children to an adulterous wife, have turned him sour. He worries, he complains, he tries to wrestle back a measure of control by obsessively transcribing his journals onto his computer. However, despite not being religious, he has a remarkably good understanding of Catholic theology and drops it into conversation with greater regularity than most men of his age or nationality would. When the turn to God comes it is, therefore, no great surprise. It is an answer to Jomier's problems that the Catholic reader (and, one suspects, Read himself) has been itching to give him since the start of the book: to a non-Catholic reader it looks, I suspect, rather forced. The Misogynist does have a clever twist at the end, which makes Jomier's moaning easier to cope with, but I'm not sure it's quite enough. 

Monday, 11 October 2010

Flannery O'Connor & Walker Percy

A review of Peculiar Crossroads: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Catholic Vision in Postwar Southern Fiction by Farrell O'Gorman

I recently went into the public library in Cambridge – a place not entirely without culture – in search of one of Flannery O’Connor’s books. Not being able to find it, I asked one of the librarians. Our conversation went something like this:

“I wonder if you could help me. I’m looking for a book by Flannery O’Connor.”
            “What sort of things did he write?”
“He was a she.”
“OK, so what did she write?”
“Mainly short stories but I’m looking for some of her essays.”
“Well, Irish Literature is over there.”

At that point I decided to give up and look for myself. I dread to think what would have happened if I had asked for anything by Walker Percy.

It may be that I was just unlucky that day but I don’t think so. The sad truth of the matter is that, across the UK, Flannery O’Connor’s works are hard to come by and Walker Percy’s all but impossible. So why is this the case? Could it possibly be because these two great Catholic authors are too inextricably linked with the American South? Are they merely regional writers who have nothing to say to a wider audience? And, if they are, is a Brit really the best person to be reviewing a book about them?
O’Connor herself knew how powerful the charge of regionalism could be and hit it head on in one of her many powerful essays, arguing that “the best American fiction has always been regional.” It was the very fact that she was grounded in a community, she thought, which enabled her to reach out to a wider audience. Being a regional writer, far from being a weakness, was almost a necessity. However, there was far more to her fiction than an interest in Southern mysteries and manners. She operated, as she put it in that same essay, “at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet.”
This idea gives Farrell O’Gorman not only his title but also, more importantly, the whole basis of his book. What he shows is that each branch of this peculiar crossroads was important to O’Connor and Percy: the importance of the South perhaps goes without saying but O’Gorman also demonstrates how their interest in eternity allowed them to write about the contemporary world in a new and highly influential way. Far from being constrained by what some at least saw as a moribund Southern literary tradition, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy were largely responsible for breathing new life into it, not despite their Catholicism but precisely because of it. In particular, they drew heavily upon the work of Romano Guardini and Jacques Maritain when developing their own distinctive Catholic vision. They were not just Catholics, O’Gorman argues, but Catholic existentialists and so, unlike many of their contemporaries and most of their southern predecessors, did not shy away from the postmodern world in which they found themselves after World War II. While their distinguished mentors, Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon, could never quite shake off the dead hand of the past, O’Connor and Percy were both ready for this postmodern world precisely because they embraced the European Catholic revival. If this is mere regionalism it is a very peculiar form of it.
O’Gorman’s book covers a lot of ground. There is a great deal of interesting detail about Percy’s and O’Connor’s family backgrounds and family circumstances; there are chapters on Catholic theories of fiction and an interesting survey of Southern authors influenced by Percy and O’Connor. There are other books which deal with one or other of these topics but what makes O’Gorman’s book distinctive is the way he brings his theologically informed literary criticism to bear on both Percy and O’Connor. By demonstrating that they were not simply Catholic authors who happened to be writing at roughly the same time and in roughly the same place, by showing that they shared a philosophy, O’Gorman is able to argue strongly that together they helped to reshape both Southern literature and Catholic fiction.
If there is a problem with regionalism, in other words, it is British regionalism that’s the problem. There is no reason at all why these two authors should not be well known on both sides of the Atlantic. Inspired by Peculiar Crossroads I am now determined to dig out more of Percy’s and O’Connor’s books, however much my local librarians might try to prevent me.

Friday, 8 October 2010

The Great Gatsby

When in 1922 F. Scott Fitzgerald started work on what was eventually to become The Great Gatsby he decided, as he told his publishers, that his new novel would “have a catholic element” to it. This catholic element may not be so obvious in the final version but that may be, as some critics have argued, because Fitzgerald chose to cut the account of Gatsby’s Catholic childhood and publish it separately as the short story, ‘Absolution’. What is certain is that knowing Fitzgerald to be an ex-Catholic helps makes sense of the novel’s great power.

The Great Gatsby is, in part, an indictment of the American Dream but it is an indictment that is framed in religious terms. It is no coincidence that it was “on Sunday morning while church bells rang in the villages alongshore, [that] the world and its mistress returned to Gatsby’s house and twinkled hilariously on his lawn.” Gatsby’s parties provide at least some of his guests with a pseudo-religion and Gatsby himself cannot entirely escape the pseudo-religious net. On reinventing himself as a seventeen year old, we are told, he went about “His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.”

However, this sentence does not tell the whole story: Gatsby was able to transform his lost Catholicism into something nobler than mere materialism. When he first kissed Daisy, he feared that “his mind would never romp again like the mind of God” but, in fact, “she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.” For Gatsby faith in God is replaced by an ultimately unsustainable faith in human love.

Alongside this incarnational imagery we find a less hopeful set of images in the novel. Immediately after meeting Gatsby for the first time, we are shown “a valley of ashes … bounded on one side by a small, foul river”: before we ever see one of Gatsby’s famous parties we are reminded that dust returns to dust, and ashes to ashes. We also meet Doctor T.J. Eckleburg who presides over this scene of desolation with giant eyes which apparently see all. He may only be an advert for an oculist from Queens but this faded advertisement, Fitzgerald suggests, is what God has become in the modern world: “You may fool me, but you can’t fool God!” the grief-crazed Wilson tells Michaelis after his wife has been killed and “Michaelis saw with a shock that he was looking at the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg, which had just emerged, pale and enormous, from the dissolving night.”

Throughout The Great Gatsby we are left in no doubt that in the midst of life we are in death so when Wilson finally tracks Gatsby down, Nick Carraway, the narrator, tells us that it was an “ashen figure” which glided out from among the trees and when he shoots him we learn, through yet another example of carefully chosen religious language, that “the holocaust was complete”. Gatsby makes the ultimate sacrifice for Daisy and it is no coincidence that it is described in explicitly Judaeo-Christian terms. What comes after death, though, is not fulfillment but bitter disappointment: the absence of mourners at Gatsby’s funeral simply reveals the emptiness of a life lived for material pleasures alone.

Gatsby’s tragedy is not so much that he loves an unobtainable woman but that he wants to obliterate the past. He does not simply want Daisy to love him: he wants her never to have loved her husband and she can never bring herself to say it, let alone believe it. History cannot be escaped so easily. However, his greatness lies in the fact that he is able to hang onto his pure dream even while caught up in sordid reality. What he cannot hang onto is his life. Mortality is the rock on which all dreams, including the American Dream, are dashed.  

It has been argued that The Great Gatsby swings between the lyrical and the satirical. There are some wonderfully funny passages in this novel as well as the purple passages for which it is celebrated. However, it is surely significant that it is the lyrical which finally wins out. Carraway’s sumptuous prose – prose as sumptuous as any of Gatsby’s parties - suggests that yearning is not to be rejected: Gatsby “believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.” If the novel swings between the lyrical and the satirical it comes to rest, finally, on the side of the lyrical. However, about the source of that lyricism it has nothing to say.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

American Literature and Religion

Here's my review of Amy Hungerford's Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion since 1960 (Princeton University Press, 2010), which appeared in last week's Catholic Herald:

It is often assumed, in this country at least, that the age of great Christian literature is over. What we have instead, the argument goes, are books which either ignore religion completely, mock it mercilessly, or treat it as an irrational threat.

It is also assumed that the situation is quite different in the US where affirmations of religious belief are all but obligatory for politicians and where highly respected authors such as John Updike have espoused religious belief.

However, as Amy Hungerford demonstrates in Postmodern Belief, religious assumptions are also often underarticulated in contemporary American literature and in secular academic discourse.

What Hungerford, who is professor of English at Yale University, attempts to do in her fascinating book is to bring these basic assumptions out into the open in order to examine just how literature and religion have intersected over the last 50 years.

Her book is not, as the rather misleading title suggests, a study of postmodernism. Indeed, part of her purpose in writing is to move beyond postmodern interpretations of religion and literature. Nor is it a comprehensive survey. Hungerford is quite open about the fact that she omits as much as she includes.

Nonetheless, Hungerford still deals with an impressive range of writers, from Salinger and Ginsberg to Cormac McCarthy and Toni Morrison and what she has to say about them is incisive and often original.

As the list of authors above suggests, she writes mainly about novelists who have emerged from within the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Indeed, the absence of any discussion of Islam is one the book's most surprising features, not least because of 9/11's continuing reverberations in American literature.

Of most interest to readers of The Catholic Herald will probably be her chapter on what she calls, after Don DeLillo, "The Latin Mass of Language" in which she argues convincingly that "DeLillo ultimately transfers a version of mysticism from the Catholic context into the literary one, and that he does so through the model of the Latin mass."

With a good many qualifications, Hungerford argues that DeLillo is a "religious writer" by paying particular attention to what is often regarded as his masterpiece, Underworld.

Clearly DeLillo is not a religious writer in any traditional sense of the term but, in Hungerford's view, the way his use of language becomes infused with religious meaning derives, at least in part, from his Catholic upbringing.

Indeed, Catholics may be heartened to discover that "one of the surprising findings of this book ... is the importance of the Roman Catholic religious imagination in the literature of the period, even - or rather, especially, outside the body of 'Catholic novels' by believers such as Flannery O'Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Walker Percy, or Graham Greene."

Hungerford seeks to overturn common assumptions about post-Protestant secularity by drawing attention not only to the Catholic backgrounds of J.D. Salinger, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison and others but also to the presence of many Catholic writers and critics in the New Critical movement and in the Creative Writing Programs which derived their modus operandi from it. 

However, there are limits to the satisfaction Catholics might feel about these reinterpretations. In the very first sentence of the book, for example, Hungerford declares that "this book is about belief and meaninglessness, and what it might mean to believe in meaninglessness."

Her central argument is that, as belief has been emptied of doctrinal content, not just former Catholics like DeLillo but American authors in general have invested language itself with religious meaning. Although she does write, extremely interestingly, about Marilynne Robinson, for example, Hungerford is not primarily interested in the work of believers.

She is a highly sympathetic critic but she is ultimately more concerned, as she explains in a personal conclusion, with the question of how we can "be post-religious and still have literature worth venerating". 

Much of the literature she discusses, therefore, is post-Christian and most of the authors she writes about have only the most tangential of links to the Catholic church, being, for the most part, either indifferent or lapsed.

However, it is arguable that by writing about practising Catholic authors only in passing, Hungerford leaves some fundamental questions about the relationship of literature and religion in America unaddressed, let alone unanswered.

By beginning her analysis in 1960, on the eve of the Second Vatican Council, she also effectively concedes the case for a hermeneutic of discontinuity and so perhaps fails to give full credit to the ongoing influence of orthodox believers such as Flannery O'Connor and orthodox beliefs in the post-conciliar literary world.

Nevertheless, it is easy to indulge in wishful thinking. Clearly Vatican II, or at least contemporary interpretations of Vatican II, was a cataclysmic event not only in the Church but also in literary America and authors like DeLillo were deeply affected by it.

What Hungerford doesn't touch upon, and what, to be fair, may only become clear over the course of the next decade or more, is what difference the re-evaluation of Vatican II associated most strongly with Joseph Ratzinger both before and after he became pope will transform American (and other) attitudes to literature and the arts.

Much as I enjoyed Postmodern Belief, the book which deals with those questions is one I am really looking forward to reading.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

National Poetry Day 2010

Looking for a poem for National Poetry Day? This year's theme is Home and so we could do a lot worse than look at the Chilean, Catholic, Nobel-Prize-winning Gabriela Mistral's 'Selected Poems'. 'The House' on page 117 might be a good starting point.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

After the Pope's Visit

The impact of the Pope's visit to the UK will be felt for a very long time. The Year of Catholic Education could prove interesting for a start but I want to focus on the significance of Newman's beatification

As the Anglican Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, Geoffrey Rowell, pointed out, Pope Benedict quoted from Newman's Anglican sermons during his beatification homily. It is striking how many great Catholic works of literature were written by authors on their way to the Catholic Church, the most obvious examples being Newman's An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, G.K.Chesterton's Orthodoxy and two of the Father Brown collections, and Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter. We need to be careful not to limit our definitions of Catholic Literature.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Cardinal Newman

Here's an A4 sheet I've provided for some of my students:

On Sunday the Pope is going to beatify John Henry Newman, the first Englishman to have been beatified for many years and the first novelist ever to have been beatified. It should therefore be a day of great celebrations. Being beatified means that he is on the 2nd of 3 steps towards being recognised as a saint by the Catholic Church.

Newman has been hugely influential. In his lifetime he was a very well known public figure and was eventually made a cardinal a few years before his death. He has since inspired people from all sorts of backgrounds, ranging from the Pope himself to Sophie Scholl, the young Protestant student who stood up against Hitler and was executed as a result (as you can see in the excellent movie about her life).

Newman (1801-1890) was not just a priest but a poet, a novelist and a great theologian too. His two novels are Loss and Gain, which deals with someone looking for meaning in his life in 19th century Oxford, and Callista, a book about the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire.

His most famous poem is The Dream of Gerontius, which was set to music by Edward Elgar. Some of his poems are now well known as hymns, notably ‘Lead Kindly Light’ and ‘Praise to the Holiest in the Height’.

He was also really important in the world of education. He was the first rector of what is now University College, Dublin and wrote a highly influential book called The Idea of a University about what an ideal university education should consist of. However, the book he is perhaps best known for is Apologia Pro Vita Sua, in which he explains why he converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism.

Newman was an expert on the early history of Christianity but he was not stuck in the past. He looked backwards in order to move forwards. He once famously wrote that “to live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.” That seems like a pretty good motto to live by.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Catholic fiction from across the world

As I have written elsewhere, we might like to think that, as Catholics, we are particularly aware of the need for catholicity but, in truth, we are as likely as anyone else to become parochial the moment we step inside a bookshop.

Part of the problem is a lack of translations. Many excellent Catholic writers, like the Argentinean novelist Manuel Gálvez, are almost unknown outside their own countries. Almost fifty years after his death, Gálvez’s work is now beginning to be re-evaluated but other authors have been less fortunate.

The great Chinese writer and critic, Su Xuelin, for example, found herself effectively marginalised as a woman, an anti-Communist and a Catholic after the Communist victory in 1949. Even today much of her work – like Ji Xin, a semi-autobiographical account of a young woman’s conversion to Catholicism – remains out of print and untranslated.

Even when authors do manage to find translators, their more explicitly Catholic works are often neglected. Japan’s leading Catholic novelist, Ayako Sono, has had two of her novels translated into English but her non-fiction book about St. Maximilian Kolbe can still be read only in Japanese, despite its being described as a “minor classic” by the renowned critic and translator, J. Philip Gabriel.

And so we could go on. Catholics from around the world languish in untranslated neglect because are neither fashionable enough nor secular enough to break into the publishing mainstream.

However, this is not the whole story: there are plenty of Catholic writers from Japan to Trinidad, from Indonesia to Nigeria, whose books have either been translated or were written in English in the first place.

Uwem Akpan, for example, is not the first African priest to have written fiction but, writing in English, he has received more international plaudits than any of those who have gone before him.

Patrick Chakaipa, who was head of the Catholic Church in Zimbabwe until his death in 2003, may have been the leading Shona novelist of his age but his works have remained virtually untranslated. Akpan, by contrast, has received rave reviews from, among others, the New Yorker, the Sunday Times and the Guardian.

Willi Chen, a Trinidadian of Chinese descent, is another remarkable Catholic to have written in English. A baker, painter and church designer, as well as an author, Chen is about to publish his third collection of short stories.

Chen may not have the same range as Akpan but he too does not shy away from contemporary problems. Chutney Power and Other Stories, his second and more obviously Catholic collection, deals with everything from family breakdown to rape and murder.

However, the prevailing tone, largely established by the exuberant use of language, is celebratory, especially in the Christmas stories. Reconciliation and a love of life are never far from the surface of Chen’s work.

By writing in English, Akpan and Chen have gained at least some exposure in this country. Asian Catholics, by contrast, have suffered from severe publishing neglect.

The remarkable Indonesian priest, novelist, architect and political activist, Yusuf Bilyarta Mangunwijaya, for example, wrote eight novels but only two of them - The Weaverbirds and Durga Umayi – have been translated into English.

The former deals with the Indonesian revolution in a relatively conventional style while the latter, by contrast, is an avant garde tour de force. Mangunwijaya was a major force in his own country but he is hardly known in the Anglophone world.

The situation in Japan is not much better. Despite only a tiny percentage of the population being Catholic, there have been an amazing number of Catholic authors in the last hundred years. However, with the exception of Shusaku Endo, they are virtually unknown in the West.

Part of the reason, admittedly, is because reading their work is rarely a comfortable experience. For example, Toshio Shimao’s most powerful – and, in many ways, most Catholic – stories revolve around his marital infidelity and his wife’s subsequent mental breakdown.

However, out of the darkness of these experiences, which are described in excruciating detail in the “sick wife” stories, Toshio Shimao found redemption in Catholicism and began to believe that “my wife was God’s way of testing me. I could not see God; what I saw was my wife.”

The only two of Ayako Sono’s novels to have been translated into English, The Watcher from the Shore (literally God’s Soiled Hand in the original Japanese) and No Reason for Murder, are similarly challenging. The former deals with abortion and the latter features a serial murderer.

Like Job, Ayako Sono often finds God to be elusive and enigmatic and so much of her work focuses on a very human search for the divine in apparently unpromising circumstances.

After mass murder, abortion and mental illness, it would seem counter-intuitive to turn to nuclear warfare for inspiration but perhaps the most hopeful and inspiring works to have emerged in Japanese Catholic literature in the last hundred years came out of the bombing of Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

One of the survivors of the bombing of Japan’s most Catholic city was a remarkable radiologist, Takashi Nagai. In The Bells of Nagasaki Nagai describes the moments immediately before and the days after the explosion.

He writes as a scientist, a doctor and a patriot, dealing with the impact of the bomb on individuals and on the community he served in a disconcertingly calm and measured manner.

There is much to challenge western readers in The Bells of Nagasaki, the author’s description of the bombing as “something beautiful, something pure, something sublime” being the most obvious.

For Nagai, the bomb created the last in a long line of Nagasaki martyrs who, through their sacrifice, brought “peace to the world and freedom of religion to Japan.” It is not a comfortable vision but, given Nagai’s personal expertise, humility and sheer goodness, it is a vision that demands to be taken seriously. 

There are other books that look at the bombing of Nagasaki from a Catholic perspective – Chikao Tanaka’s The Head of Mary, for example – but Nagai’s is a classic.

Among all the books by Japanese Catholics which deal with the horrors of the twentieth century, The Bells of Nagasaki is the one which offers perhaps the most authentically Catholic vision of faith, hope and love.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Graham Greene - 'The Ministry of Fear'

I'm with Flannery O'Connor in thinking that "the question of what effect the Church has on the fiction writer who is a Catholic cannot always be answered by pointing to the presence of Graham Greene among us."

Nevertheless, as recent writings remind us (here and here), he cannot be wholly ignored either. One book which often gets lost in discussions about his work and which is worth revisiting is The Ministry of Fear which begins with Arthur Rowe, a convicted murderer, popping into a fête during the darkest days of the London blitz only to be drawn into contact with a Nazi spy ring.

Greene called his novel an ‘entertainment’ but it is clearly much more than that. Despite creating one or two implausible moments in the plot, Greene draws us into the action from the very first pages and doesn’t let us go. The descriptive writing is tremendous and the sense of fear is utterly palpable.
What is more, there are big existential questions too. Rowe is haunted by guilt and confused by pity. While everyone else believes that the death of his wife was a mercy killing, Rowe himself accepts the fact that he is a murderer, though he cannot quite come to terms with the psychological implications. He is a man who, while fleeing for his life, is also desperately seeking redemption and, having fallen from grace, is haunted by memories of his own personal Garden of Eden. It is no surprise then that he book is packed full of references to gardens, usually from his innocent childhood.
Greene also returns time and again to the notion of fiction and its relationship with real life in his novel. Pre-war sentimental novels, he suggests, have to give way to thrillers precisely because the Second World War has lifted the lid on human depravity: “thrillers are like life – more like life than you are, this lawn, your sandwiches, that pine,” Rowe tells his mother in a dream. “This isn’t real life any more,” he said. “Tea on the lawn, evensong, croquet, the old ladies calling, the gentle unmalicious gossip, the gardener trundling the wheelbarrow full of leaves and grass. 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 any more.”

In other words, there is plenty of literary interest in this thriller, which makes it an ideal book for classroom use. But how Catholic is it?

When Arthur Rowe eventually finds redemption, it is hardly a Catholic concept he embraces: he atones for his wife’s murder, he believes, by suffering for his new lover. This idea may be derived from Rowe’s own Catholic beliefs but it hardly does justice to the orthodox Catholic understanding of the redemption. We have to be careful, of course. Greene once pointed out that “the ideas of my Catholic characters, even their Catholic ideas, were not necessarily mine.” Nevertheless, it is also true that, to use wholly anachronistic terms, Arthur Rowe finds the redemption he seeks having committed euthanasia by assisting in a suicide.

Sin and redemption feature prominently in this novel, just as they do in so many of Greene's other books, but Christ scarcely gets a look in. In the end this is a novel which draws as much on a worldview associated with Matthew Arnold and Thomas Hardy as it does on Catholic sources. Greene also draws upon the Henry James of The Golden Bowl in having Arthur Rowe and Anna Hilfe sustain their love through mutual deception at the end of the book. In one sense, there is no problem with this - it gives students plenty to get their teeth into - but we do need to be clear about what we are serving up.

Brilliant writing, an exhilarating plot and dodgy theology: you know what you’re going to get from Graham Greene and in The Ministry of Fear he gives you the lot.