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.