November 15, 2007


The Catholic Novel Is Alive and Well in England (Marian Crowe, November 6, 2007, First Things)

The challenge facing a Christian novelist today is daunting. Walker Percy, in The Message in the Bottle, has said, “The Christian novelist nowadays is like a man who has found a treasure hidden in the attic of an old house, but he is writing for people who have moved out to the suburbs and who are bloody sick of the old house and everything in it” There is more indifference than hostility to religion, with many people just not seeing the need for anything else in their lives, which are quite satisfying. Even many Christians now have little concern with salvation or damnation, which formed the centerpiece of the classic Catholic novels. As David Lodge said in his novel How Far Can You Go?: “At some point in the nineteen-sixties, Hell disappeared. No one could say for certain when this happened. First it was there, then it wasn’t.”

Four Catholic novelists writing in England at the beginning of the twenty-first century have taken up this challenge: Sara Maitland, Alice Thomas Ellis, David Lodge, and Piers Paul Read. They do not hesitate to include the “craggy” and “paradoxical” parts of Catholicism. Yet they have produced fiction in which religious meaning does emerge from human experience, and grace is a “quality of human existence.” Incorporating recent developments in the Church and society, they integrate Catholicism into their work in ways that are substantial, imaginative, and serious, demonstrating exciting new possibilities for Catholic fiction.

Alice Thomas Ellis, who died in 2005, wrote witty satiric novels in a tight, elegant prose reminiscent of the early work of Evelyn Waugh. Although her use of Catholic material is oblique, she does satirize what she sees as a betrayal of the pre–Vatican II Church, to which she converted as a young adult. Here is what one of her characters says about the post–Vatican II Church: “It is as though . . . one’s revered, dignified and darling old mother had slapped on a mini-skirt and fishnet tights and started ogling strangers. A kind of menopausal madness, a sudden yearning to be attractive to all. It is tragic and hilarious and awfully embarrassing.”

In The 27th Kingdom, Ellis conveys the holiness of a young postulant as she arranges some tiles showing scenes from the gospel. Because the gospel story is as familiar to her as her own family history, she recognizes that some important scenes are missing but still puts them in correct order.

She looked like a girl assembling a family album, Aunt Irene realized suddenly. That loving care belonged to someone trying to remember whether that was the year George had measles, or whether the snapshot of Aunt Ethel in the bathing suit should come before or after the picnic on Beachy Head. She looked like a lover smiling at reminders of the beloved, dreaming of his babyhood, his first words, his last words.

This young novice, who occasionally levitates on the streets of London, is temporarily staying with the Mother Superior’s sister because one of the apples she harvested has failed to whither or decay after several months. Mother Superior fears the chaos that would ensue if it were known that something miraculous were going on in the convent. Ellis’ playful style and sardonic wit render these hints of the miraculous palatable to a secular audience while still leaving a margin of possibility that the supernatural can actually break in to the natural world.

David Lodge writes comic novels about middle-class English Catholics that are striking because his Catholic characters are so ordinary. They are not aristocrats or tortured souls undergoing spiritual crises in exotic or seedy places. Lodge’s ebullient comic spirit catches all the ridiculous aspects of Catholic life, often focusing on the vast discrepancies between the descriptions of the human situation in the carefully formulated pronouncements of Catholic theology and the unpredictable, sometimes absurd circumstances in which human beings often find themselves. He critiques what he sees as a rigid, puritanical sexual morality taught before Vatican II. His novels are also sympathetic and nuanced treatments of the problem of religious belief in our day. For example, a priest looks through the telescope of a friend’s adolescent son and wonders how to reconcile the immensity of space and the enormous age of the universe with the Christian story:

Had other Christs died on other Calvaries in other galaxies at different times in the last twenty billion years? Under the night sky, the questions that preoccupied philosophers and theologians seemed to reduce down to two very simple ones: how did it all start, and where is it all going? The idea that God, sitting on his throne in a timeless heaven, decided one day to create the Universe, and started the human race going on one little bit of it, and watched with interest to see how each human being behaved himself; that when the last day came and God closed down the Universe, gathering in the stars and galaxies like a croupier raking in chips, He would reward the righteous by letting them live with Him for ever in Heaven—that obviously wouldn’t do. (Souls and Bodies)

Sara Maitland is an eloquent spokesperson for women’s perspective in the life of faith. She draws on the Bible and myth to explore the struggles of religious women for empowerment and to dramatize the way that their bodily experience is an important part of their faith. One of her experiments has been to juxtapose the story of a contemporary young English woman with short biblical narratives told from the perspective of women. Maitland brings these biblical women to life, giving them flesh and personality. Here, in Daughter of Jerusalem, is her description of Elizabeth at the Visitation: “And menopause has not treated her kindly; her complexion has collapsed quickly and her breasts are withering, while round the hips she is putting on weight.” Maitland makes the Visitation emblematic of the fact that women linked by kinship or common experience can provide for each other what no one else can. “But there in one another’s arms, and only there, they are affirmed, encouraged, borne up, freed.” Maitland sees an essential link between Mary’s assent at the Annunciation with her virginal conception: “That purely conscious, unalienated woman who can so assent with the entirety of her person, needs no biological intrusion between her desire and its fulfillment.” In the same novel, the contemporary woman is awed by the intricacy and beauty within her own body when she sees her cervical mucus under a microscope: “the most beautiful pattern: elegant like ice on a window-pane; irregular fernish fronds crystallised on the glass plate.”

Piers Paul Read has been referred to as “one of Britain’s most intelligent and disturbing writers.” Perhaps he is disturbing because he focuses so intensely on the battle between good and evil in the human soul. Read has revived some of the forms used by earlier Catholic writers, such as the theological thriller and the novel of ideas. He also uses some traditional motifs of earlier Catholic fiction, such as vicarious redemptive suffering and God’s pursuit of the sinner. His fiction is deeply engaged with political movements and theological and philosophical ideas in twentieth century Europe. Several of his novels are set against the upheavals of the rise of fascism and World War II. He does not hesitate to depict human evil in grisly detail.

In Read’s novel On the Third Day, the alleged discovery of the skeleton of Jesus in Jerusalem, explores just what kind of crisis such a discovery would mean for Christianity, providing an opportunity for laying out various theological perspectives on the Resurrection. The plot of this novel, which was published in 1990, may have seemed far-fetched at the time, but it proved to be oddly prescient when early in 2007 a construction crew uncovered an ossuary, and some researchers claimed there was strong evidence that it contained the bones of Jesus. Read’s work is reminiscent of earlier Catholic fiction because of its strongly dualistic sense of the secular and the sacred. Like Ellis, he is critical of some aspects of the Vatican II Church, especially the failure to offer stronger moral guidance, and he believes that in some respects the contemporary Church has “lost the plot.”

What does the future hold for the Catholic novel? The work of Ellis, Lodge, Maitland, and Read suggests some possibilities for future Catholic fiction. Their novels are primarily written in the realistic mode, and I think future Catholic fiction will continue to show a preference for realism and closure, thus aligning it more with traditional fiction and away from postmodern and experimental writing.

Not at all atypically, one of the best recent British Catholic novels is by an author who doesn't yet realize he's Catholic.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 15, 2007 12:00 AM
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