Tuesday, 24 July 2012

What Happened to Sophie Wilder

First of all a disclaimer: I haven't yet read this book and, if I'm honest, I wasn't initially that attracted by the blurb.

However, having read about it on the ever-informative Image Update and seen that it received a favourable review from the New York Times and rave reviews from readers at Amazon, I became more intrigued, so I'm putting the information out there.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Frank Cottrell Boyce on "the great Catholic artist"

Frank Cottrell Boyce (of whom more here and here) recently wrote an article about his favourite Hitchcock film which contains this striking final paragraph:

"Hitchcock is the great Catholic artist, returning again and again to the themes of the fallen nature of creation. Sometimes – The Wrong Man,The Birds – this comes out as a bleakly thrilling feeling that everyone is guilty. In Notorious, however (and in Shadow of a Doubt, Psycho, North by Northwest and Vertigo), it plays the opposite way – that the world is fallen and therefore the best are only different from the worst by the grace of God; that our worst failings are forgivable and repairable; and that no matter how compromised we are, we can – and must – love one another. It's the reason his great thrillers are also great love stories. It's the source of the power of that last shot – a hungover pietà – of Grant carrying Bergman out of the house of shadows and into the possibility of love."

Perhaps that's a question for some future exam paper: "Hitchcock is the great Catholic artist. Discuss."

Saturday, 14 July 2012

The Tour de France, World War II and an Italian, Catholic Schindler

Road to Valor, which has just been published, looks absolutely fascinating. Here's how the publishers describe it:

Road to Valor is the inspiring, against-the-odds story of Gino Bartali, the cyclist who made the greatest comeback in Tour de France history and secretly aided the Italian resistance during World War II.

Gino Bartali is best known as an Italian cycling legend: the man who not only won the Tour de France twice, but also holds the record for the longest time span between victories. During the ten years that separated his hard-won triumphs, his actions, both on and off the racecourse, ensured him a permanent place in Italian hearts and minds.

In Road to Valor, Aili and Andres McConnon chronicle Bartali’s journey, starting in impoverished rural Tuscany where a scrawny, mischievous boy painstakingly saves his money to buy a bicycle and before long, is racking up wins throughout the country. At the age of 24, he stuns the world by winning the Tour de France and becomes an international sports icon.

But Mussolini’s Fascists try to hijack his victory for propaganda purposes, derailing Bartali’s career, and as the Nazis occupy Italy, Bartali undertakes secret and dangerous activities to help those being targeted. He shelters a family of Jews in an apartment he financed with his cycling winnings and is able to smuggle counterfeit identity documents hidden in his bicycle past Fascist and Nazi checkpoints because the soldiers recognize him as a national hero in training.

After the grueling wartime years, Bartali fights to rebuild his career as Italy emerges from the rubble. In 1948, the stakes are raised when midway through the Tour de France, an assassination attempt in Rome sparks nationwide political protests and riots. Despite numerous setbacks and a legendary snowstorm in the Alps, the chain-smoking, Chianti-loving, 34-year-old underdog comes back and wins the most difficult endurance competition on earth. Bartali’s inspiring performance helps unite his fractured homeland and restore pride and spirit to a country still reeling from war and despair.

Set in Italy and France against the turbulent backdrop of an unforgiving sport and threatening politics, Road to Valor is the breathtaking account of one man’s unsung heroism and his resilience in the face of adversity. Based on nearly ten years of research in Italy, France, and Israel, including interviews with Bartali’s family, former teammates, a Holocaust survivor Bartali saved, and many others, Road to Valor is the first book ever written about Bartali in English and the only book written in any language to fully explore the scope of Bartali’s wartime work. An epic tale of courage, comeback, and redemption, it is the untold story of one of the greatest athletes of the twentieth century.

It's also worth pointing out that Bartali was driven by his strong Catholic faith and that when he delivered messages that had been hidden in his bicycle frame he was delivering them to a network of Catholic priests who were helping Jews to escape from the Nazis. Which is not a side of World War II we hear enough about.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

World War II and Children's Literature

It’s a fair bet that any Key Stage 3 (11-14 year old) students who are studying World War II will have come across either John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas or Morris Gleitzman’s trilogy: Once, Then and Now. One of the most striking features of these books is the narrative technique. Though Boyne uses a third-person narrator in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, the focaliser (for all but the last section) is Bruno, the 9-year-old son of the Auschwitz commandant. Gleitzman’s novels are narrated by Felix who, at ten years old, is even more clueless than Bruno, at least at first. As Leo Benedictus has pointed out in an excellent article about hindered narrators, “this kind of novel, told in the first person by a character with a limited ability to understand the world or write about it, is the genre that defines our times”.

So what's going on here? Using a hindered narrator often helps an author create a sense of complicity between the writer and the reader. We are encouraged to read between the lines, to bring our contextual knowledge to bear on the book, to judge the narrator. However, with children it's not so straightforward. They may or may not have contextual knowledge. They may not be able to stand back so easily (depending on their age, quite apart from anything else).

It would, in other words, be easy to see The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Once, Then and Now as fundamentally different from earlier children's fiction, from, say, The Silver Sword or Hilda van Stockum's The Winged Watchman. The authors are more knowing and the readers are expected to be so as well. But it may not be quite as simple as this.

Like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, The Winged Watchman, a novel about the Dutch Resistance, is written in the third person but gives us a child’s perspective. It differs not in kind but in degree. The setting, and many of the characters, are openly Catholic but, more significant, is the subject matter. Rather than dealing directly with the holocaust, van Stockum focusses on resistance to the Nazis and so has to have write differently.

What has changed since her time is that children's literature has increasingly addressed the toughest of subjects head on, including the holocaust. It is therefore no surprise that children's authors like Boyne and Gleitzman use hindered narrators. How else could they possibly present such horrifying events to their young readers?

However, we shouldn't be fooled into thinking that the horrors of war have never been addressed in children's fiction before. It's just that in books like The Silver Sword and The Winged Watchman, both of which also focus on the experience of children in the war, the holocaust is held at arm's length.

Does this make them less valid? More escapist? I don't think so. Hilda van Stockum's response to the horrors of the war is no less historically informed and certainly no less valid in its own way than Boyne’s or Gleitzman’s. Boyne and Gleitzman gained something from having the benefits of historical distance but van Stockum gained something from living when she did and from having relatives who experienced life in the Netherlands during the war.

I haven't got space to deal fully with Boyne’s and Gleitzman’s books but I'll try to return to them another time. Gleitzman’s books, in particular, deal explicitly with Catholicism in interesting but challenging ways and so deserve further consideration.

Boyne's and Gleitzman's novels are certainly worth reading with care but we shouldn't neglect earlier fiction about the war, so if you want to read some more of van Stockum's wonderful children’s fiction you could click here.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

A Sonnet for St Thomas the Apostle

Click here for a sonnet on St Thomas the Apostle by the interesting Anglican poet, priest, academic and musician Malcolm Guite.

I also quite like this villanelle on the purpose of poetry.

And, finally, you can also download the opening chapter of his Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination by clicking here.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Pictures in the Cave

I mentioned George Mackay Brown in a recent post about Scottish Catholic literature and so thought I ought now to focus on one or two of his books. Pictures in the Cave is a series of connected short stories for children, which take us from the Orkneys of myth through much of Orcadian history almost to the present day. There's everything from selkie legends to the Spanish Armada, from King Robert the Bruce to German airmen in World War II.

The stories are not explicitly Catholic tales but there are a few intriguing moments. The first comes when Robert the Bruce seeks refuge in a monastery:

"You understand," said the abbot, "we don't ask here whether a man is a king or a beggar. It's sufficient that he is an immortal soul. The Kingdom of Heaven is of more concern to us than Scotland or England or Norway. This much I grant - a man can work and pray better if he is a free man in a free country."

The second is the wonderful 'The Feast of the Strangers', an Orkney Fable as he called it, which retells the Christmas story with a powerfully Orcadian setting.

And the third is the end of the book when all the characters seem to meet again in the afterlife. Like Muriel Spark, another great Scottish Catholic writer, George Mackay Brown was fascinated by time - God's time, our time, eternity, and the pull of free will, predestination and determinism. His Booker-shortlisted Beside the Ocean of Time famously slips in and out of different historical eras, for example. Some of his novels are coming back into print. Let's hope his children's books follow.