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".

Thursday, 6 October 2011

The Nobel Prize for Literature: Tomas Tranströmer

"I believe in God but only when I am writing poetry." So wrote the new Nobel Laureate, Tomas Tranströmer. However, according to Bill Coyle, "Tranströmer is a Christian poet, though not a churchgoing one". 

Whatever the precise nature of his beliefs, it is clear that the new Nobel Laureate, at the very least, has a strong interest in the divine. One article which explores this further can be found in the Logos Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

You can read some of Tranströmer's poetry here and here. If anyone has any particular recommendations I'd be delighted to hear them.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Sea to the West

A greatly under-rated writer, I think, was the Anglican poet Norman Nicholson. Nicholson lived all his life in the industrial (and then post-industrial) town of Millom on the Cumberland Coast. He was therefore largely ignored by the metropolitan elite with the happy exception of T.S. Eliot who recognised his potential and signed him up for Faber & Faber.

My personal favourite among his books is his final poetry collection, Sea to the West, which is now sadly out of print. However, you can read (and hear) some of his poems here and here. He also wrote some wonderful prose works about the Lake District which are well worth seeking out.

Nicholson was a devout Anglican - and an editor of Pelican's wartime Anthology of Religious Verse - and there is no better example of his faith than the title poem of his final collection: 'Sea to the West'.

With one crucial change this poem provided the words for his own gravestone. He was buried with his wife and so the inscription reads:

Let our eyes at the last be blinded
Not by the dark
But by dazzle.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Tolkien and Catholicity

To return briefly to the subject of my last post ...

While there is room for a legitimate debate about Tolkien's style (though Tom Shippey and others have mounted a pretty robust defence on his behalf) there can surely be no doubt that Tolkien, almost uniquely among modern writers, realised the need for catholicity in fiction and so refused to be limited by the constraints of the all-conquering novel genre in writing The Lord of the Rings.

See Tom Shippey's The Road to Middle-Earth for a much more detailed discussion.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Dante and Catholic Literature

What constitutes Catholic Literature is a question I have steered clear of on this blog, partly because of its complexity but partly because it seems to me that it's not a live issue for most Catholic English teachers. The reality, in the UK at least, is that we spend the overwhelming majority of our time teaching books that have little or no connection with Catholicism, even if we teach in Catholic schools. What I have tried to do on this blog, therefore, is suggest just a few Catholic authors whose books we might drop into our teaching.

Nevertheless, the question cannot be wholly ignored, which is why Paul Claudel's essay about Dante is so interesting.

According to Claudel, "Dante is one of five poets who, I believe, deserves the adjective sovereign or catholic". (He doesn't say who the other four are.) Dante's work has three key traits: inspiration, intelligence, and catholicity. And what Claudel means by catholicity "is that these outstanding poets have received from God such vast things to express that only the entire universe will suffice for their work."

Such a vision does not force authors away from the real. On the contrary, "a true poet hasn't the least need for grander stars or more beautiful roses. What exists already is enough, and the poet understands that his own life is too short for the lesson it gives and the respect it deserves."

It is this catholicity, this breadth of vision, which makes Dante's work truly great. It is also this breadth of vision which makes his work truly Catholic.

The natural corollary of Claudel's argument, however, is that because they are limited to the merely human most novels (and a great many poems) do not deserve the same adjective. Now this is controversial and so I want to examine the idea in greater depth in a later post.

The crisis of the 19th Century, for Claudel, was not an intellectual crisis of faith but "the drama of a starved imagination." Part of Dante's genius was to create an image of Paradise that we could imagine, for, in the words of an English author quoted by Claudel, "if we are unable to form for ourselves a real conception of the thing desired, we are inclined to let our spirit stray and place it outside the field of actual interest." If we can't imagine it we can't believe in it.

Claudel's essay ends with some wonderful comments about Beatrice, Paradise and love but I wonder if this idea of "the starved imagination" isn't the idea which might be of more practical interest to Catholic English teachers. Maybe, just maybe, it's a problem we can do something about.