Saturday, 31 December 2011

New Year

Here's a great New Year poem from Denise Levertov.

You can also see and hear her reading some of her poems here.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

José Tolentino Mendonça

A couple of weeks ago the Pope appointed new members and consultors to the Pontifical Council for Culture

What was interesting about these appointments was a) how wide-ranging the Vatican's definition of Culture is (among the consultors were professors of neurology, physics, and astrophysics) b) how high profile some of these appointments were (Arvo Pärt being the standout figure) and c) how poets rather than novelists represented the literary arts.

I will write shortly about Catholicism and the novel but, for now, let's look at the poet (and theologian) who was named as a consultor, Fr José Tolentino Mendonça. You can read about his work here and can read one of his poems (which is partly about Flannery O'Connor) here.

If you ever need a lesson on how to not use the comma, Mendonça's the man.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Image Journal: Poems for the Season

Image Journal is an interesting publication with an interesting blog. If you're looking for some festive poems they have some good recommendations here.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

The Father Christmas Letters

Tolkien's The Father Christmas Letters - also published in more detail as Letters from Father Christmas - are quite fun, though not in anything like the same league as The Lord of the Rings. The title is also slightly misleading. The letters are indeed from Father Christmas (to Tolkien's children) but Father Christmas is not quite as significant in most of the letters as the North Polar Bear, his accident-prone helper, though I suspect that it is Tolkien's pictures rather than his tales or his characters which are the chief attraction for many children.

I was intrigued by one minor detail though. Tolkien is very precise about the date of the last major Goblin attack - 1453 - which rather suggests a link with the Ottoman Turks who famously stormed Constantinople in that year. Now we have to be careful here: Tolkien claimed to hate allegory (though there is more than a whiff of it in stories like Farmer Giles of Ham and the wonderful Leaf by Niggle). The simple fact that the Goblins return to the North Pole during the dark days of World War II suggests that we cannot simply equate the Goblins with the Ottoman Turks. However, this simple fact also suggests that Tolkien's imagination was rather more allegorical than he sometimes claimed or would have liked.

One word of warning. You don't get all the letters in The Father Christmas Letters or even, I think, in some editions of Letters from Father Christmas, which can be rather frustrating.

Indeed, despite the enormous number of books published by and about Tolkien, there are still some gaps. I look forward to the day, for example, when we get a Collected Letters. What we have at the moment is only a selection with some significant lacunae. Take this example, for instance:

"Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament..... There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthy relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man's heart desires."(pp.53-54)

I'd love to know what comes at the end of that first sentence. But, even with the gaps, these letters are really wonderful.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Dickens, Chesterton & Christmas

G. K. Chesterton wrote a series of brilliant introductions to Dickens' books, including his Christmas books, which are well worth reading at this time of year. You can find the relevant introductions here and here.

As you might guess, they are eminently quotable, so I have had to restrict myself to just a few of Chesterton's comments here. 

What he appreciates is that "Dickens devoted his genius in a somewhat special sense to the description of happiness. No other literary man of his eminence has made this central human aim so specially his subject matter." 

Which is why he was so attracted to Christmas, almost despite himself: "All Dickens's books," he writes,  "are Christmas books."

So what is so special about Christmas?

"Everything is so arranged that the whole household may feel, if possible, as a household does when a child is actually being born in it. The thing is a vigil and a vigil with a definite limit. People sit up at night until they hear the bells ring. Or they try to sleep at night in order to see their presents the next morning. Everywhere there is a limitation, a restraint; at one moment the door is shut, at the moment after it is opened. The hour has come or it has not come; the parcels are undone or they are not undone; there is no evolution of Christmas presents."

And why does the season matter?

"All comfort must be based on discomfort. Man chooses when he wishes to be most joyful the very moment when the whole material universe is most sad."

As he wrote about Dickens: "He may almost be said to have only written a brilliant introduction to another man's book."

Thursday, 8 December 2011

How to Read

I love this passage about reading from Steinbeck's East of Eden: "Samuel rode lightly on top of a book and he balanced happily among ideas the way a man rides white rapids in a canoe. But Tom got into a book, crawled and grovelled between the covers, tunnelled like a mole among the thoughts, and came up with the book all over his face and hands."

This thought from the Sayings of Light and Love by St John of the Cross (who is quoting Guigo the Carthusian who is, in turn, reworking Luke 11: 9) is wonderful in a different way: "Seek in reading and you will find in meditation; knock in prayer and it will be opened to you in contemplation." 

This fourfold approach is the basis of lectio divina but, it seems to me, it also has an application in the classroom. As English teachers we want our students to read but how they read is pretty important too.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Regina Derieva

Regina Derieva is an interesting poet. She was born in what is now Ukraine in 1949 and lived for many years in what is now Kazakhstan before converting to Catholicism, emigrating to Israel and then finding herself in a stateless condition. She now lives in Sweden and continues to publish to critical acclaim.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Making the Most of Advent

This time last year I recommended the poetry of St Robert Southwell (and here) and Alice Thomas Ellis's The Birds of the Air

This year I have been slogging through her The Inn at the Edge of the World, a novel about a group of individuals who spend Christmas at a failing inn on a remote Scottish island in a vain attempt to escape the horrors of Christmas. As is typical of Thomas Ellis, there is more to the story than immediately meets the eye - selkie legends run through the story and a twist is coming - but I'm not enjoying it as much as I did The Birds of the Air simply because the characters are an eminently unlikeable lot.

So what else is available as we prepare for Christmas? I recommended a few books last November and a couple of children's books this year (here and here) but there's plenty more out there.

Denise Levertov's 'The Tide', for example, is presented as an Advent poem in one anthology of Catholic poetry. It's a good poem but I wonder if her poem about the Annunciation might not be a better bet at this time of year (as well as in March)? Levertov is a fantastic poet and not terribly well known, at least on this side of the pond.

Another option is Mauriac's 'A Christmas Tale', a story about Christmas, growing up and authorship, which is available in John B. Breslin's The Substance of Things Hoped For (along with some other great, and unusual, short stories.

Any other suggestions gratefully received.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Rowan Williams meets Dostoevsky: Towards a Catholic Theory of Literature

In the introduction to his book about Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, writes about "Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene (at least in much of his earlier work) as Catholic novelists, and we mean by this not that they are novelists who happen to be Catholics by private conviction, but that their fiction could not be understood by a reader who had no knowledge at all of Catholicism and the particular obligations it entailed for its adherents. Quite a lot of this fiction deals with what it is that makes the life of a Catholic distinct from other sorts of lives lived in Britain and elsewhere in the modern age. ... Some of it is about how the teachings of the Catholic Church, difficult and apparently unreasonable as it seems, is obscurely vindicated as the hand of God works through chaotic human interactions."

That last sentence is enough to make the hackles rise but, even if we discount it, Williams' definition seems rather curious. These novelists are Catholic but not catholic. They are defined by their differences. Their vision is narrow.

But surely that is simply not the case. Both Greene and Waugh are read and enjoyed by many readers who have very little interest in, sympathy for, or knowledge of, Catholicism. As Catholics, their vision was wide enough to take in everything from gang warfare to relics, from politics to humour, from heaven to hell and everything in between.

This is precisely why Greene so disliked being labelled as a "Catholic novelist". But, if we are to reach towards a Catholic theory of literature, we have not only to be catholic in our own reading (as I suggested in my last post) but we have to allow Catholic novelists (and poets) to be catholic too. If Catholicism means anything at all it means everything.

To be fair to Williams, he does at least identify another type of Catholic novelist - represented by Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Muriel Spark, and Alice Thomas Ellis - whose books are less obviously Catholic but whose "work is about the possibility of any morally coherent life in a culture of banality and self-deceit." Williams feels more at home with this second group but, in using them as a way into Dostoevsky, he surely does a great disservice to Greene and Waugh.

But I mustn't end on a negative. It is encouraging to English teachers everywhere that both the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury are prepared to spend time reading and writing. In fact Rowan Williams thought this one was so important that he took a sabbatical to write it.

If you want to read more about his book click here or here or here.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Benedict meets Basil: Towards a Catholic Theory of Literature

Is it possible to have a Catholic theory of literature?

Over the next few weeks I shall try to explore a few different approaches, starting with one suggested by Pope Benedict in his General Audience on St Basil:

"Basil," he said, "was of course also concerned with that chosen portion of the People of God, the youth, society's future. He addressed a Discourse to them on how to benefit from the pagan culture of that time.

He recognized with great balance and openness that examples of virtue can be found in classical Greek and Latin literature. Such examples of upright living can be helpful to young Christians in search of the truth and the correct way of living (cf. Ad Adolescentes 3).

"Therefore, one must take from the texts by classical authors what is suitable and conforms with the truth: thus, with a critical and open approach - it is a question of true and proper "discernment"- young people grow in freedom.

"With the famous image of bees that gather from flowers only what they need to make honey, Basil recommends: "Just as bees can take nectar from flowers, unlike other animals which limit themselves to enjoying their scent and colour, so also from these writings... one can draw some benefit for the spirit. We must use these books, following in all things the example of bees. They do not visit every flower without distinction, nor seek to remove all the nectar from the flowers on which they alight, but only draw from them what they need to make honey, and leave the rest. And if we are wise, we will take from those writings what is appropriate for us, and conforms to the truth, ignoring the rest" (Ad Adolescentes 4).

"Basil recommended above all that young people grow in virtue, in the right way of living: "While the other goods... pass from one to the other as in playing dice, virtue alone is an inalienable good and endures throughout life and after death" (Ad Adolescentes 5).

"Dear brothers and sisters, I think one can say that this Father from long ago also speaks to us and tells us important things.

"In the first place, attentive, critical and creative participation in today's culture.

"Then, social responsibility: this is an age in which, in a globalized world, even people who are physically distant are really our neighbours; therefore, friendship with Christ, the God with the human face.

"And, lastly, knowledge and recognition of God the Creator, the Father of us all: only if we are open to this God, the common Father, can we build a more just and fraternal world."

To read the whole of St Basil's Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek [i.e. pagan] Literature click here.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Preparing for Advent: Frank McCourt

Another good book for younger students in the run up to Christmas is Angela and the Baby Jesus by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Frank McCourt. McCourt's relationship with the Church was sometimes turbulent (as this interview makes clear) but Angela and the Baby Jesus is a delightful, true story straight from his good Irish Catholic mother. You can read a full review from the New York Times here and you can hear McCourt talking about the inspiration for the book in the following recording, though the sound quality, I'm afraid, is not great.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Mary Douglas

I realise that it's rather off-topic but I want to write a few words (OK, quite a lot of words) about the great Catholic anthropologist, Mary Douglas, before suggesting a few literary links at the end.
When she died in 2007, Prospect Magazine had this to say about her: “Few thinkers have changed how we see the world; even fewer have changed how we think about how we see the world. Mary Douglas, who has died aged 86, is one of the rare exceptions. Her field was culture, but she was as unlike the stereotypical cultural studies academic as one could imagine. A devout Catholic, she spent the last few decades in an extraordinary flowering of inquiry that is now providing insights in fields as diverse as the study of the Old Testament and the politics of climate change.”
It was, in part, the immense range of her writings that made Mary Douglas such a profoundly important figure in British intellectual life in the second half of the Twentieth Century. She wrote books about Purity and Danger, Natural Symbols, Risk and Blame, How Institutions Think, and articles on everything from jokes to good taste, from drink to implicit meanings.

In a fascinating conversation with the historian and anthropologist, Professor Alan McFarlane, she spoke about the influence her convent education had had on her work: the nuns “were very interested in getting us married and they weren’t interested in us getting academic qualifications. But in order to get a grant they had to come up to certain educational standards and be certificated as a teaching school so in fact they were brilliant. Not just one, I had a series of really brilliant women teachers.”

In fact she goes so far as to describe three of her teachers as “quite outstanding intellectuals as well as teachers” and claimed that “to rise up to their standards was quite a challenge”. She also describes having a doctrine class every day which was so special that the students had to wear gloves: “We loved those lessons because the nun was so enthusiastic.”

Brown cotton gloves were also worn out of respect for the Blessed Sacrament whenever the girls went to chapel, while on Feast Days the pupils wore white clothes and white gloves. Some of the trenchant points she made about Friday abstinence in Natural Symbols were surely derived, on one basic level at least, from her experiences at the Convent of the Sacred Heart at Roehampton.

Indeed she became interested in social studies because all pupils were required to take a certificate in Catholic Social Teaching, based on the papal encyclicals. However, the nuns thought Sociology was anti-God and anti-religion so they wouldn’t send her to the LSE. She had to make do with PPE at Oxford instead!

So what has all this got to do with the Catholic English teacher? Three things, I think.

1. Mary Douglas wrote explicitly about literature in her last book, Thinking in Circles.

2. In her last years she also wrote about the Bible from a literary as well as an anthropological perspective: Leviticus as Literature, for example, is a fascinating book because of the multi-disciplinary approach Mary Douglas adopts.

3. Mary Douglas was educated at the same Sacred Heart school as Antonia White but the description she gives of her convent education is quite different from that given by White in Frost in May. I wouldn't wholly knock Frost in May, though I don't like the way it's been used to knock convent education across the board. However, while it's worth remembering that White later returned to her Catholic faith, as described in The Hound and the Falcon, it's also worth remembering that there were others, like Mary Douglas, whose experiences were much more positive from the start.

I'm not naive enough to think that very much of this will ever find its way into the English classroom but I do think that Mary Douglas is a great model of the committed Catholic intellectual and that her books are still very much worth reading. But don't worry: it's back to fiction for my next post.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Frank Cottrell Boyce on Newman

Frank Cottrell Boyce, the author of Millions among many other great children's books, gave a lecture last week on Newman. As you might expect from Cottrell Boyce, it was both witty and thought-provoking. You can download a PDF of the lecture or listen online. Both are worth doing.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Preparing for Advent: Michael Morpurgo and Quentin Blake

Michael Morpurgo and Quentin Blake are among Britain's most best-loved children's authors, so On Angel Wings, a retelling of the Christmas story by Morpurgo with illustrations by Blake, is a pretty surefire winner.

This short book tells the story of the shepherd boy who is left behind to watch over the sheep while the rest of the shepherds travel to Bethlehem to visit the infant Jesus. However, when Gabriel returns for him he becomes the first visitor at the stable and the first to give a gift. It's a charming and thought-provoking take on the original and one that I think I'll be reading to my Year 7s (11-year olds) in the last lesson before the Christmas holiday.

Blake's pictures, which will be familiar to anyone who has read Roald Dahl's books even if they haven't come across Blake's own wonderful books, complement the text as well as you would imagine and there's even a dramatised version coming up at the National Theatre on 21st December.

My only quibble, as with so many modern books that deal with angels, is that familiarity too easily replaces awe: "I'm sorry to drop in on you unexpectedly like this," are Gabriel's first words to the shepherds. But I'll try not to quibble too much. On Angel Wings is a welcome book for anyone looking for a good book for their children or their students for Christmas.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Lord of the Flies

A little while back I set myself a literary challenge. I've now decided that a side of A4 is not enough but I have restricted myself to two sides. I'm currently working my way back through the 20th Century and here's my analysis of part of the final chapter of Lord of the Flies.

William Golding was the master of the unexpected ending. In many of his novels there is an unexpected change of perspective in the final chapter which makes the reader reconsider all that has gone before. In Pincher Martin, for example, it is only right at the very end of the novel that we realise that the sailor whom we believed to have been struggling for survival throughout the novel has been dead all along. And in The Inheritors, a novel in which we follow a wonderful group of Neanderthals, it is quite a shock when, in the last chapter, we see them through the eyes of homo sapiens, through our eyes in effect, as nothing more than “strange creature[s], smallish, and bowed.”

In his most famous novel, Lord of the Flies, the change of perspective comes shortly after the children have completed their descent into savagery. At the start of the novel their plane comes down during what is presumably World War III and they find themselves stranded without adults on a desert island. But gradually their bestial nature comes to the fore and two of the boys, including the one nicknamed Piggy, are killed. As the book draws to a close, a murderous hunt is underway for Ralph, the group’s former leader.

Just as he is about to be killed, the boys stumble across a British naval officer and, suddenly, we see them as they are: a bunch of unruly children. But they are no longer mere children. Like the adults who have been tearing each other apart in a nuclear war, they have discovered “the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart” - original sin if you like – and, in a wonderfully bathetic moment, they burst into tears.

The final irony, of course, is that the officers who discover them, men whose only response is to turn away “to give [the children] time to pull themselves together”, are no better than savages themselves. They may have neat uniforms instead of matted hair and unwiped noses, and machine-guns instead of spears, but, as Golding knew full well having served in the British Navy during World War II, they are as capable of following the Lord of the Flies as any schoolboy.

In some ways Lord of the Flies is very much a book of its time. As Golding himself put it: “Before the second world war I believed in the perfectability of social man; that a correct structure of society produced goodwill; and that therefore you could remove all social ills by a reorganisation of society. It is possible that I believe something of the same again; but after the war I did not because I was unable to. I had discovered what one man could do to another. I’m not talking of one man killing another with a gun, or dropping a bomb on him or blowing him up or torpedoing him. I am thinking of the vileness beyond all words that went on, year after year, in the totalitarian states. They were not done by the head hunters of New Guinea, or by some primitive tribe in the Amazon. They were done, skilfully, coldly, by educated men, doctors, lawyers, by men with a tradition of civilisation behind them, to beings of their own kind. I must say that anyone who moved through those years without understanding that man produces evil as a bee produces honey, must have been blind or wrong in the head.”

But Lord of the Flies is not merely a response to the horrors of Nazism: it is a book about the human condition written in beautifully poetic prose (a book written by a man whose first published work was a, now largely forgotten, book of poems). Golding won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983 because his novels transcended the times in which they were written and spoke to something deeper in his readers’ minds and hearts.

Of course there’s one other reason why I’m keen on Golding. Before he became a full-time writer, before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, he was an English teacher. There’s hope for us yet.

(P.S. See here for the Nobel Prize Lord of the Flies game)

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Andrew Krivak - The Sojourn

Last November I mentioned not only Siegfried Sassoon but also the former Augustinian friar, William Brodrick, whose novel, A Whispered Name, was a welcome addition to the ranks of First World War novels. This year it's the turn of a former Jesuit, Andrew Krivak, whose novel, The Sojourn, is a National Book Award finalist.

By writing about a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army fighting on the Italian front, Krivak gives us an insight into an aspect of the Great War which is too little known (nothwithstanding Hemingway's Farewell to Arms). But this is more than a war novel. The narrative is framed by two stories about children who are rescued, the narrator by his mother and another child (but I won't give too much away) by the narrator. This is a novel which is as much about families and migration as it is about the war.

Having said that, the sections which deal with the war are among the best in the book. The part of the novel where Krivak writes about the sharpshooters in action is, I think, particularly fine, although the final post-war sections are also both moving and harrowing.

However, I did have some reservations about the novel. In particular I found Krivak's prose style hard to cope with at times. To put it simply, I thought his sentences were sometimes just too long. Take this paragraph, for instance:

All this time, we spoke in English. The first day he hoisted me into that saddle and we led the herd away from Pastvina, the last he spoke of any Slavic language was to those same Rusyn peasants who greeted him as they took to the fields in Lent with "Slava isusu Khristu," to which he responded "Slava na viki," and then ceased to say a word comprehensible to me, until, by the end of the summer, I knew - and could respond to - the language that was to become our own there in the mountains, and which he insisted that I never speak when we went back to the village, where everyone spoke Slovak, or Rusyn, or Hungarian to outsiders.

I felt like I was being swept away by a flood of subordinate clauses. There were also moments when the language jarred. Take the penultimate sentence in this extract, for instance.

     After a time, I asked, "What is left to be afraid of?"
    And he said, "The possibility that a life itself may prove to be the most worthy struggle. Not the whole sweeping vale of tears that Rome and her priests want us to sacrifice ourselves to daily so that she lives in splendor, but one single moment in which we die so that someone else lives. That's it, and it is fearful because it cannot be seen, planned, or even known. It is simply lived. If there be purpose, it happens of a moment within us, and lasts a lifetime without us, like water opening and closing in a wake. Perhaps your brother Marian knows this."

Krivak reminds Sebastian Smee of The Boston Globe of Cormac McCarthy, among other writers, so let's compare Krivak's paragraph with one of McCarthy's.

When it was light enough to use the binoculars he glassed the valley below. Everything paling away into the murk. The soft ash blowing in loose swirls over the blacktop. He studied what he could see. The segments of road down there among the dead trees. Looking for anything of color. Any movement. Any trace of standing smoke. He lowered the glasses and pulled down the cotton mask from his face and wiped his nose on the back of his wrist and then glassed the country again. Then he just sat there holding the binoculars and watching the ashen daylight congeal over the land. He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.

Of course it's invidious to quote authors out of context but I think the essential difference between the writers is clear even from these two passages. 

Friday, 28 October 2011

Evelyn Waugh's Short Stories

Evelyn Waugh's short stories are a little patchy in quality but they are still definitely worth owning and teaching. Some, like 'The Man Who Liked Dickens', are rightly regarded as masterpieces but others are less well-known.

'Love Among the Ruins: A Romance of the Near Future', for example, is not his best story but its subject matter is incredibly relevant in contemporary Britain and, as you would expect from Waugh, it has some great satirical moments.

The story follows Miles Mountjoy, an orphan brought up by the state and subjected to "Constructive Play" and psychonalysis every Friday, who becomes a pyromanaic. Fortunately for him, in "New Britain ... there are no criminals. There are only the victims of inadequate social services." He is therefore rehabilitated rather than punished, before being given a plum job with the Department of Euthanasia:

"Euthanasia had not been part of the original 1945 Health Service; it was a Tory measure designed to attract votes from the aged and mortally sick. Under the Bevan-Eden Coalition the service came into general use and won instant popularity. The Union of Teachers was pressing for its application to difficult children."

In the department he falls in love with Clara, an ex-ballet dancer whose sterilisation has had unexpected side-effects (she has grown a beard) and he slowly learns to become human:

"For Miles, child of the State, Sex had been part of the curriculum at every stage of his education; first in diagrams, then in demonstrations, then in application, he had mastered all the antics of procreation. Love was a word seldom used except by politicians and by them only in moments of pure fatuity. Nothing that he had been taught prepared him for Clara."

Events start to spiral out of control at Santa-Claus-tide (because Christmas, of course, has been abolished) but I won't spoil the ending here.

Evelyn Waugh is sometimes characterised as a conservative throwback, a man who was out of touch, but, in fact, as this story shows, he was not just remarkably acute but also remarkably prescient. 

Another story which now now seems more visionary than it would have done in the years immediately after Waugh's death is 'Out of Depth', which was written shortly after his conversion. Drawing upon the tradition of H G Wells and Conan Doyle and, more directly, on John Gray's Park, it tells the story of two men who, after a drunken night out, are sent back and forward in time to "recover the garnered wisdom which the ages of reason have wasted."

The story follows Rip Van Winkle, the man who travels into the future, to a London which has returned to primitivism. Londoners now live in mud huts, travel by canoe, and move "with the loping gait of savages." However, in a twist familiar to readers of Park (then) and Noughts and Crosses (now), these white savages are ruled by a noble black race. Rip gradually gets to learn about their way of life before coming across that garnered wisdom:

"And then later - how much later he could not tell -something that was new and yet ageless. The word 'Mission' painted on a board; a black man dressed as a Dominican friar... and a growing clearness. Rip knew that out of strangeness, there had come into being something familiar; a shape in chaos. Something was being done. Something was being done that Rip knew; something that twenty-five centuries had not altered. [...] The priest turned towards them his bland, black face.
   "Ite, missa est."

It may have been difficult to appreciate Waugh's understanding of the hermeneutic of continuity in the years following his death in 1966 but now his insights are coming back into their own. Perhaps his short stories, as well as his wonderful novels, could also put in more of an appearance in the classroom too.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

The Arab Spring

One way of making sense of what has been going on in North Africa and the Middle East over the last year is to look at literature and film. Of Gods and Men, which won the Grand Prize at Cannes, for example, clearly struck a chord with a great many people and is well worth watching. (The press kit also provides some useful information which could easily be used in the classroom.)

However, great a movie as it is, it doesn't provide the last word on North African politics. Clearly there is plenty more to the Arab Spring than what is going on in Algeria. There have been some wonderful books written in Egypt, for instance, which help shed light on the difficulties faced by Coptic Christians in recent weeks and months (to pick just one important topic among many). A novel I particularly enjoyed was Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery by Bahaa' Taher (some of which can be read here). 

As the translator, Barbara Romaine, points out in her interesting introduction: "just as it is no accident that [Taher's] novel - about a remarkable alliance between a Muslim village in Upper Egypt and the inhabitants of a nearby Coptic monastery - emerges precisely when it does [in 1996], it is no coincidence that the novel has not just one chief heroic figure, but two: the one a Muslim and the other a Copt."

She further points out that "it is arguably not primarily the issue of religious identity that has historically given rise to conflict between Muslim and Coptic communities. In fact, the most serious trouble between Coptic and Muslim groups has occurred at times when external or internal political forces have disrupted Egypt's social fabric to such a degree that its citizens 

have found themselves in a struggle to assert their identity as Egyptians."

Which is why this book is so important in the contemporary climate. Taher doesn't give us the sort of novel we might want because he doesn't play on our western prejudices. What he gives us instead is something much more profound and, ultimately, something much more hopeful:

"[T]he Western reader...," he wrote in an interview with Egypt Today, "wants to read about the exotic East, and about the discrimination against women. They want to hear that the regimes are dictatorial, and that there are fierce problems between minorities. 
Khalti Safeyya said that things are not that bad, and this is something they do not want to hear. The BBC interviewed me about it, and the anchor kept interjecting, ‘Surely things are not really as you describe them.’ At the end I told her it is your testimony against mine. Go back to what Lucy Duff Gordon wrote, and she was a visitor to the area I write about. If I write a novel about [discrimination], it will become a best-seller tomorrow."

However, I'm not recommending this book because it's timely or because it offers a hopeful picture of life in Egypt but because it's a great piece of literature. It's short - a mere 124 pages - and yet the plot, the characterisation and the sense of place are all vividly realised. There is, admittedly, little sense of what the Coptic monks actually do in the monastery - Of Gods and Men is much better at giving us a sense of the liturgy - but we are given a wonderful portrait of ordinary village life among ordinary Muslims and their relationship with at least some of their Christian neighbours.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

A few thoughts about 'Jamrach's Menagerie'

Jamrach's Menagerie, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is a fascinating book. The subject matter is, at times, grim indeed but it's worth reading for the prose style alone. I have used the section about the capture of the Ora (page 162), for example, to show my students how to make use of the senses, and especially smell, in their own writing. 

The book also raises some interesting questions for the Catholic English teacher. To explain further I need to mention some key moments in the plot so please look away now if you don't want to know what happens.

When the sailors are shipwrecked they cling at first to the vestiges of their humanity: they bury their dead at sea and pray. But as their plight and their actions become more desperate the novel's language also becomes more explicitly religious. The decision to turn cannibal creeps up on the characters and soon they are drinking blood and eating flesh:

"Drink of this," said Dan when it was his turn, raising the cup as if it was a chalice, "for this is my blood, shed for thee..."

It is the body and blood of ordinary human beings which sustain the sailors because, as one of the characters explains, "enough praying had gone on in that boat to sanctify all the holy places of the earth and it had long since become plain that God didn't answer. Not so's the average idiot could understand anyway."

However, religious questions remain to the fore as the plot begins to revolve around the notions of love and sacrifice. The last three sailors draw lots to decide who shall be shot and eaten and Jaffy, the young narrator, finds that he has agreed to kill his best friend, Tim. In a powerful but terrible inversion, Tim assures his friend that he's "got the worst of it":

"No blame, Jaf," he says. "I'd do the same for you. You're my best friend."

The novel ends not with Tim's death or with Jaf's rescue but with his return to London. Unable to face up to what he has done, he shuts himself away from everyone in the close-knit community, including Tim's mother and sister, the girl he has always loved. And yet his shame is all apparently self-imposed. When he emerges from his shell the people of Bermondsey do not reproach him for killing and eating one of their own. Even Tim's mother's verdict is: "I know it's not your fault, Jaffy ... I know it really, but it's just a very hard thing."

He lights candles for the dead in the seamen's bethel and gradually time and the understanding of those around him bring a kind of peace. But, however hard he tries to forget it, the essential question still remains: "My heart hurt, and at night I'd look up at the sky and remember the stars at sea and ask: am I forgiven?"

The answer, as far as there is an answer in the novel, seems to be yes. Tim's sister, the sister of the friend he has killed and eaten, moves in with him, in what is perhaps the book's most implausible moment, and life goes on. 

One could say that this is a book in which the goodness of God is replaced by the goodness of people, a goodness so wide it can encompass even those who have resorted to cannibalism.
 As Carol Birch explains: "Partly what moved me to write this novel was how much love there was in the accounts of the people who survived for the people who hadn't." 

Jaffy's world is ultimately godless and, ultimately, godless worlds do not work in the same way as God-filled ones so, although Jamrach's Menagerie is a beautiful and challenging novel, it is not one, I think, whose moral questioning can go unchallenged. 

Monday, 17 October 2011

‘Be dumb,
 or speak but of forgotten things to far-off times to come.’

'Vesica Piscis' by Coventry Patmore

In strenuous hope I wrought,

And hope seem’d still betray’d;

Lastly I said,

‘I have labour’d through the Night, nor yet

Have taken aught;

But at Thy word I will again cast forth the net!’

And, lo, I caught

(Oh, quite unlike and quite beyond my thought,)

Not the quick, shining harvest of the Sea,

For food, my wish,

But Thee!

Then, hiding even in me,

As hid was Simon’s coin within the fish,

Thou sigh’d’st, with joy, ‘Be dumb,

Or speak but of forgotten things to far-off times to come.’

A poem for Catholic bloggers?

Thursday, 13 October 2011

The National Book Awards

The National Book Award finalists have just been announced and there are a number of books on the list which immediately grabbed my attention. One of them is The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak, a former Jesuit.

Some of what he calls, in this interesting conversation, his genealogy of faith has found its way into his first novel:

Did I, in the first-person narrative voice of the memoir, have a story to tell? That question remains open for anyone who may want to read what became A Long Retreat. Excised, however, from the middle of that spiritual memoir are facts that I would eventually weave into the fiction of The Sojourn. In my work of nonfiction, I talked a great deal about the genealogy of faith that my grandparents had passed along, and my opportunity as a Jesuit to travel to and live in Eastern Europe, so that I could taste and see the reality of the lives that populated the mythological “old country” I had heard about as a youth. But when those chapters hit the nonfiction cutting room floor, I thought, “Okay, maybe not here, but they belong somewhere, and maybe my next project ought to find out where.”

The Pen and the Cross

Some of the most interesting work about Catholicism and English Literature in the last few years has come from French specialists. I shall write about Brian Sudlow's Catholic Literature and Secularisation in France and England, 1880-1914 another time but today I want to mention The Pen and the Cross: Catholicism and English Literature 1850-2000 by the recently retired Professor of French at King's College London, Richard Griffiths.

Griffiths is an interesting man. He is now an Anglican Priest and has written, among other things, a book about Poetry and Prayer for Lent. The best moments in The Pen and the Cross come when his sympathy for Catholicism, his French expertise and his knowledge of English Catholic Literature come together, as when he writes about Graham Greene and French Catholic writers.

There are also some wonderful surveys in this book. I particularly enjoyed the chapter about Gerard Manley Hopkins which would be a great introduction to the poet's work for 6th Formers.

However, I have to take issue with some of his judgements about Catholicism and the 20th Century novel. Griffiths is clearly more comfortable with what he calls "the heady atmosphere of the build-up to Vatican Two" than he is with the hermeneutic of continuity and so he aligns himself with those authors who, like "Greene and Lodge have shown that a new, vital, more literary Catholic novel can be created on the basis of dialogue and uncertainty".

Evelyn Waugh, therefore, has a "very rigid view of Catholic faith and doctrine" and "his work is essentially a dead-end" while Greene "stands as a rock at the centre of the Catholic literature of his time". And, like Waugh, a number of other writers "entrenched themselves in a last-ditch defence of traditional values".

So Alice Thomas Ellis gets relatively short shrift, in part because of her "predictable sideswipes against the modern Church", and Muriel Spark is a flawed genius partly her Catholicism is "of a traditional type, untouched by the modern tendencies that we have seen in so many other Catholic writers of the period."

I would argue instead that it is precisely writers like Waugh, Spark and Alice Thomas Ellis who provide the basis for a Catholic literary revival. In the years since Waugh's death, Britain may not have produced its own Martin Mosebach, a literary heavyweight and champion of orthodoxy, but it is surely only a matter of time. 

I am not writing off writers like Lodge and Greene, whom Griffiths rates so highly, but I would want very strongly to challenge the suggestion that "traditional values" are dead. The accession of Pope Benedict XVI suggests very strongly that the theological tide, and with it (ultimately) the Catholic literary tide, has turned.

But I don't want to end with criticism of The Pen and the Cross. Despite a few puzzling omissions (like Rumer Godden), Richard Griffiths has given us a fascinating book which has left me wanting to follow up a great number of novels, poems and writers. Catholic English teachers and Catholic schools will certainly want to have a copy on their shelves.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Teen Magazines

Teen magazines are really not my thing but, as these things go, t! magazine is much better than most. As well as all the usual articles about fashion, make-up and Tom Daley, there is also an article in the current edition about World Youth Day and another about Mary's Meals. Perhaps as important is what is not there. The editors are keen to leave parenting to parents.

The magazine also runs journalism courses for students. These run at various points during the year and have to be paid for but they sound as if they could be interesting.

Friday, 7 October 2011

The Translation of the Bones

There is an interesting article in today's Catholic Herald about the Orange Prize-winning novelist, Francesca Kay. Kay, who speaks positively about her convent education in the interview, has recently published The Translation of the Bones, "a novel about faith and motherhood".