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The Illuminations

True personality floats beneath surface consciousness, obscured by the fog of dementia or the fog of war. To meet what one is can affirm or destroy. This theme works its way ever so deftly through the parallel developments of two characters in Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations. Anne Quirk resides in a care home on the Scottish cost, west of Glasgow. Luke Campbell, her grandson, soldiers for a Scottish regiment in Afghanistan. Their self-recognition, respectively and jointly, is the climax of the novel’s plot; hence the novel’s title, the grand lighting-up of the English seaside resort of Blackpool. 

O’Hagan is a writer of many voices: he impersonates Marilyn Monroe’s dog in his earlier Life and Opinions of Maf, The Dog, and a pederast priest in Be Near Me. [The latter a work of insight and justice.] His third person narrations in The Illuminations offer us the surface life of the failing Anne through fragmented speech in dialogue and in carefully observed gesture or facial movement. In effect, O’Hagan takes on the fears so many of us have – the blank of demented senescence. He offers a conditional hope mediated by great respect. His male protagonist is a soldier, an officer, committed to his men, if not to his mission. Certainly his fractured self is alive in marvelously sustained dialogue, the “slagging” vulgarity which constitutes the verbal shield under which his squad operates amid the ambushes, the haze of marihuana, and the deceits of the Afghan war. The novel alternates its scenes between Lochranza Court, Anne’s care home, and a mountain road in Afghanistan where Luke and his men are in convoy on a so-say humanitarian mission. The venture ends in massacre and disgrace – the ignominious fall of Luke’s mentor, Major Scullion, and Luke’s own disillusionment.

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What is "I Refuse"?

The fiction of the Norwegian writer, Per Petterson, particularly his Out Stealing Horses, published almost a decade ago, has received general critical acclaim. Character, setting, mood and landscape open up a world familiar and strange. When I read him, I find a singular point of view, a consciousness shaped in a world in extremis – and all the more dramatically powerful for that.

The phrase, “I refuse” occurs three times by my count in Petterson’s new novel of the same name. It is spoken as an encouraging assertion of life over death – as in “I refuse to die.” So Tommy, one of the chief characters, to his mortally sick, adoptive father Jonsen – who dies soon after.  It is also a denial of family or marital obligation. Tommy refuses to bear responsibility for his aged, abusive, real father; and a waitress, Berit, refuses to wear her wedding ring, despite her husband’s demands, to free herself for an assignation with Tommy. Refusing becomes a form of independence, an assertion of the self, against the constraints of family ties, vows, or the menace of death. In their contexts, the refusals seem desperate, and ultimately unfulfilling. The sources or motivation for the decisions “to refuse” lie unexplored, rather stated as facts.  The Norwegian world of Per Petterson is not simply physically chilling, but deeply emotionally so.

This is a complex and teasing narrative, built around sharp disjunctures in time sequence and narrative voice. First person accounts by the two principals, Tommy and Jim, extremely close boyhood friends, reveal their chance meeting at the very beginning of the novel.  They have not seen each other for over thirty-five years. There are third person accounts of the events that caused the break in their friendship and reveal how Tommy’s mother disappeared and how he came to be raised by Jonsen. Siri, Tommy’s sister, recounts her brief romance with Jim, and his painful, inexplicable rejection of her.

The plot, if plot there is, takes its energy from the first, chance meeting, and through time shifts, alternation of voices, works its way to the frustration of any future meeting, and suggests the major theme of the novel – the isolation of each of us, and the corresponding inability to know the other person. Deeper still, Jim, whose adolescent ability in school, and his blond good looks, appear to set him apart and give him the advantage over his rough and unpredictable friend Tommy, suffers deep emotional depression, and scarcely survives a suicide attempt.

One typical Petterson scene points both to the inscrutability of motive and the lingering effects of guilt.

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Atticus Lish and Next Lives

Preparation for the Next Life, Atticus Lish’s extraordinary novel seems material for the perfect melodrama: a vet returned from the horrors of war, Byronic wounds setting him apart; the plucky immigrant woman, a survivor, canny and intent on saving the wounded hero. The backdrop: New York City where anything is possible. Given the pretext of the work, a reader can’t help but wonder if the love affair can not generate the compassion to redeem the soldier and make real the dream of the woman? Lish’s world is not that of melodrama: he subverts the expectation through unsparing realism. In the process, his vision leaves desiccated flabby assumptions about PTSD and the underworld of illegal aliens. Love simply is not enough to buoy the pair above the wash of the City’s violence and exploitation. 

The novel has had high praise in many reviews, principally for Lish’s ability to create dialogue, or perhaps more accurately, the speech, demotic, of the outer boroughs of the City. The progress of the plot is almost cinematic – by way of montage, scene juxtaposed on scene. The abrupt changes of place and character create a sense of energy, almost manic energy, particularly in so far as Skinner (the Iraqi vet) and Zou Lei (the part-Uighur, part Chinese illegal) share an obsession with physical training. They literally pursue each other in sweat drenched, convulsive runs – or rival each other in squats and lifts.

In remarkable explorations Lish takes us into the shadow economy of undocumented immigrants – the punishing work in over-hot kitchens, or clattering rag-trade sweat shops. Skinner’s altercation with the son of his landlady puts him in the holding cells of a local precinct, and Lish manages to channel in rapid fire speech all the riot, aggression, taunting and fear of the men jailed. He has the same ability to convince that he knows the many different Chinese dialects and the Pidgin English that serves as common speech as well as the clannish tensions that push Zou Lei down the pecking order of kitchen hierarchies.

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John Boyne's Lonely Priest

John Boyne’s A History of Loneliness asserts through its title that we will be confronted with a story of one isolated or excluded. The history is a confession, addressed to readers as “you” and by extension the history is a testimony. The narrator, Father Odran Yates, is a witness to the transformation of the Irish Catholic church – particularly to the esteem accorded priests and the institution of the church by lay people. At the end of his priestly career, Father Yates finds himself disillusioned and alone – divided in his self-condemnation and his remaining faith in his vocation and the church.

One would expect a hostile review of forty years of recent Irish Catholic history from a John Boyne who said in an interview: “my priests and educators made me feel worthless, and disparaged and humiliated me at every turn.” Indeed the author is gay, and records callous beatings and harsh spiritual strictures leading to extensive bouts of depression. His subject in the novel is the pedophile scandal that scarred so many boys and adolescents and which was willfully hidden, despite the risks to so many young people. The salvific aspect of the novel is that his narrator is a good priest, one who recognizes the strength of his own vocation, and in so far as he trusted the hierarchy which he obeyed he fell into the sin of omission. He refused in an unsettling denial to suspect those closest to him of “interfering” with children.

I use the word “salvific” carefully: the novel should be read as way to a just response to the great crimes of abuse. Boyne’s handling of Father Yates’s voice is the central achievement. The viewpoint is one of hindsight; the revelations of duplicity and complicity in suppressing the predatory treatment of children isolates Yates. He seems, in self-accusation, to lose affect, to view his ministry as one lived by false surmise – about the integrity of his superiors, the honesty of his fellow priests. The narrative tone resonates with the “loneliness” of the title; indeed, Yates might feel as if he alone did not see what was going on around him, particularly in the life of his oldest friend and fellow priest Tom Cardle.

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Now on the homepage

We've just posted three new stories to the homepage.

1. In his latest Letter from Rome, Robert Mickens suggests the possible reasons behind the Vatican Secretary of State's "apocolyptic assesment of the the Irish referendum" is culture, "particularly Italian culture," because Italy is "the most conservative country in all of Europe when it comes to social conventions and customs," especially concerning the family.

Mickens also reveals who exactly has been holding "secretive meetings and initiatives" in the run-up to October's Synod on the Family that deal with "some of the more thorny issues" the bishops will be debating, including the Kasper proposal.

Read the full Letter from Rome here, and if you need to catch up, here's all of them.

2. The Editors present reasons, if the Amtrak derailment isn't enough of one, for why the U.S. government’s failure to invest in infrastructure must change:

The United States now spends less than 2 percent of its GDP on infrastructure, less than half of what Europe spends—and less than half of what we were spending in the 1960s....The American Society of Civil Engineers gave [the nation's infrastructure] a grade of D+... [and] noted that the average age of the country’s 84,000 dams is fifty-two, and that one in nine of its bridges is considered structurally deficient. Every few years one of these bridges collapses, occasioning a brief outburst of bipartisan concern on Capitol Hill. Then nothing changes.

Read all of 'Signal Failure.'

3. George Dennis O'Brien, pondering the future direction of Catholic education, looks backward:

The dominant style of higher education in the ancient world was not academic but humanistic, directed at educating future political leaders who needed to learn the art of persuasion.... [T]he humanistic “classical curriculum” dominated American colleges from colonial times until the end of the nineteenth century.

Are Catholic institutions replacing the humanistic style with the "academic style of close argument and verifiable truths"?

Read all of 'Incarnation U,' and if you want more of the higher education debate, read Jackson Lears's excellent review of William Deresiewicz's Excellent Sheep.

New issue is live

We’ve just posted our June 1 issue to the website. Among the highlights:

Amanda Erickson describes the struggle of a Catholic parish community in Freddie Gray's Baltimore neighborhood to respond adequately, in the wake of the riots, to the root causes of hopelessness there:

The life expectancy of those born in Sandtown-Winchester is thirteen years shorter than the national average. Those are problems that can’t be fixed by one man, or in one morning. So instead, Rev. Bomberger grabbed a broom and headed across the street.

Andrew Bacevich reviews Andrew Cockburn’s “imperfect but exceedingly useful book,Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins, about the motives behind and justifications for targeted assassinations and drone warfare—now common practices in U.S. foreign policy. 

Cockburn quotes one U.S. Air Force general bragging, “We can now hit any target anywhere in the world, any time, any weather, day or night.” Yet why bother with bombing bridges, power plants, or communications facilities, when taking out Mr. Big himself provides the definitive shortcut to victory? Here was the ultimate critical node: Decapitate the regime. As an approach to waging war, what could be more humane, not to mention efficient?

Plus: New poetry from Marie Ponsot, Celia Wren explains why the once-promising plotlines of Mad Men hit a dead end, Paul Johnston reviews the latest from Reading Lolita in Tehran author Azar Nafisi, Molly Farneth reviews the latest, uncomprehensive but newly non-Eurocentric Norton Anthology of World Religionsand Charles Morris reveals the dirty little secret of major-league banking bankers don't want to believe. 

See the full table of contents here.

New issue, new stories

On the website now, our May 15 issue. Here are some of the highlights:

Jo McGowan examines the effects violence against children has on society at large—effects so drastic it is being treated as an "any other epidemic," “says forensic psychologist Karen McCluckey:

Isolate the contagion. Prevent transmission. Treat outbreaks instantly and aggressively.

Jerry Ryan reflects on his struggle to discover "what the person of Jesus means" to him, spiritually and theologically:

Classical theology has the angels deciding their destiny in a single, unalterable choice. I sometimes dream of being able to imitate such an act, one that would free me from all my ambiguities and contradictions, my half-hearted aspirations and ineffectual resolutions. This is not the way things work, however...

Read all of "Knowing Jesus" here.

Eve Tushnet reviews an exhibit produced by over 40 artists at the National Museum of African Art that recreates Dante's Divine Comedy on three floors:

I’m sitting in hell with a couple of little boys, who are trying to prove they’re not scared. We’re watching a cloth-wrapped figure prostrate itself and bang its fists against the floor, as sobs and wordless singing give way to a howled “I, I, I surrender!”

Read about the beautiful, horrific, beatific and redemptive show here.

Also in the May 15 issue: James Sheehan on how Greece and Ukraine are "testing Europe"; reviews of books about abortion, the short history of the black vote, a young Lawrence of Arabia, and secular humanism—plus poetry from Michael Cadnum, Thomas Lynch, and Peter Cooley; and Elizabeth Kirkland Cahill reflects on bodily decrepitude and wisdom.

Also featured on the site now, the latest from E.J. Dionne Jr., who writes about a senator's sensible stance on faith and secularism. Read the whole thing here.

"In Paradise" - Another View

I found myself disagreeing with Paul Johnston’s review (3/6/15) of In Paradise, Peter Matthiessen’s last novel. I fear that his sober, almost disappointed judgment, putting stress on the author’s failure to engage the Shoah with sufficient spiritual vision, will put readers off.  Johnston asks for a novel that “requires us to remember – to insist- that the world is God’s creation and not our own, and that all people, including those unlike ourselves, are created in the image of God.” One can scarcely disagree with such a belief in the Incarnation, but Johnston is really posing a broader question: can literature, fiction, say anything adequate about the Holocaust? He raises a standard that is exclusive, and I would hold absolute in a way the hedges out the imagination. In the course of the review, I find that Johnston’s shows his own hesitation at the conclusion he reaches. While he admits Matthiessen achieves partial success, he notes that Matthiessen’s Buddhism keeps his vision from transcendence. As if looking back over his shoulder, Johnston can’t help but admire that struggle that is this artistic grappling with the past. The failure of the novel is what it says or doesn’t say to us and to those in the future. 

In Paradise takes us to an interfaith retreat at Auschwitz fifty years after the liberation of the camp. The participants are Buddhists, Jews, Christians, atheists, relatives of former Nazi guards, local Polish residents, and Clements Olin, a Polish American academic with family roots in Oswiecim, a town near the camp. Olin is the center of consciousness, ostensibly doing research on a Holocaust survivor, Tadeusz Borowski, and author of This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. He is also attempting to discover his own family history, especially the facts surrounding his birth and sudden removal to the USA. The novel explores the holocaust through Olin’s interactions with the other participants and those residents of the Polish village of his birth. The plot structure allows Matthiessen to provide a chorus of voices, some pious, others abrasive, some accusatory, and other proprietary. In sum, the characters grope in speech to confront the events that took place around them fifty years before. The weight of genocide burdens those in silent vigil upon the entry ramps. Their evening statements of witness after long reflection in silence find not consensus but divisiveness, and provide real opportunities for the novelist’s characterization.

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Booker Prize Guarantee?

Ambiguity in response to a novel rests with judgments that test values - literary, stylistic and ethical. I read Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize winning Narrow Road to the Deep North ready to turn away from the page at the shock of his recreation of a WWII Japanese work camp in Burma; but I could not deny the power of the writing. The novel might cover the same territory as the Bridge on the River Kwai, but Flanagan’s account makes tactile the foul degradation and suffering. His characterization takes us into the minds of the Australian prisoners and their Japanese captors, in particular that of the officer Doctor Dorrigo Evans, the Aussie chief, and his counterpart, Captain Nakamura. On the one hand, the novel offers us the mentality of the Captain who can justify working men to death even as he demands they be beaten to insure their compliance; and on the other hand, the mentality of his opponent who encounters such treatment and yet does not collapse, rather finds the strength to accept cruelty, resist with caution, and remain generous. Such focus has little by way of sentimentality. The extremity of the situation is evoked in measured, unadorned prose. Flanagan gives us two men who reveal themselves in acts of self-justification. Each asks: am I a good man? Their answers lay out a moral spread that stretches from assurance to distrust. If a claim can be made for the novel’s stature, it is in its willingness to entertain such moral contrasts. This is fiction that takes us into dark places.

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Mental Loops

The vivid expression “earworm” suggests a voice, perhaps a song, or some phrase or fragment, that plays unwanted in a continuous mental loop. Subliminal sometimes it may be, but persistent, even distracting, as we might wish to concentrate all our attention on a problem or text. I think that times of stress brings the voice on. I have heard inside my head my voice audibly repeating the short prayers that the nuns in grade school would unselfconsciously tell us were "ejaculations." Those moments when anxiety threatens to screech its nails down fearful chalk boards – then I am likely to repeat as litany Domine adjuvanda me festina.

I have lately been reading through three of Philip Roth’s novels from the eighties and nineties, The Counterlife, American Pastoral, and I Married a Communist. Each has its striking virtuosity of voice and of perception. The energy of the prose and dynamism of the plotting and the voices (heteroglossia of the first order) can sweep a reader along. I had to stop, however, over a passage near the conclusion of I Married a Communist. The chief narrator Murray records  experiencing an ear-worm like obsession in a moment of great anxiety. Murray has just left his brother Ira in his rustic shack in Pennsylvania. Ira is despondent, angry, homicidal. Murray knows how violent Ira can be, and he fears that his brother will soon attempt to kill his estranged wife. On the drive back to his home, unconvinced that he has dissuaded his brother despite taking his knives and pistol, Murray recounts his inner turmoil. He maintains his stability, more or less, by repeating a quotation from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. They are Feste’s words at the conclusion of the play: “And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.” Now you must know that Murray is an English teacher and an acutely sensitive reader. He is relating this experience to Nathan Zuckerman, his former student and now an accomplished novelist. Murray considers what his mind was doing with Feste’s words.

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Cradle Taboo

“Cradle Catholic” has a muscular connotation for me - the learned response to the stimulus of the Holy Name. I nod my head down in a perfunctory bow. Half-conscious, almost automatic gestures are part of a legacy, and so are profound orientations, habits of mind. We don’t choose these ways of thought and action; sometimes they grab us and point a way.

Dennis Lehane has used his Irish Catholic background in very successful detective fiction set in the Boston underworld. He writes spare, realistic dialogue and his books translate easily to the Big and Small Screens. (Mystic River, Shutter Island, episodes of The Wire and Boardwalk Empire) Characterization is always strong; it appears that his understanding of motivation draws easily on the “Cradle Catholic” mentality of his saints and sinners.

The Drop, his latest novel and screen play, is a case in point. The anti-hero, Bob, is an observant church goer, a loyal parishioner of St. Dominic’s, soon to be closed in a diocese-wide consolidation of poorly attended churches. Bob seems at first a suffering-servant, the bar-tender helper of his wise-mouth, lowering Cousin Marv, who is indeed Bob’s cousin. He is the apparent owner of the bar called after him. Bob is a dog’s-body, almost obsequious in has toleration of Marv’s barbed put-downs. Bob has no friends, no girl, and despite his ability to negotiate the Mean Streets, he is honest and thoughtful. His quiet strength will show itself in ways that puts him at odds with his church-going self. As we discover, Bob and Marv have a history barely hinted at but finally revealed. The plot winds its way through a long-discussed disappearance of a patron, a Chechen Mafia threat, the rescue of a Pit Bull and romance for Bob and Nadia, whose concern for the dog set them at odds with a psychopath. But the plot of the story turns on a revelation by way of a Cradle Catholic habit of mind.

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The Secret Place

Anyone who has taught in high school realizes that instruction runs a tough second (or third or fourth) place to adolescent relationships. Hormones, evolving identities, developing sexuality, and competitive self-assertion – being “bloody minded” as the English say - make the years emotionally fraught. Friends are everything. To be “in” or to be excluded often appears a matter of life and death. Tana French, the Irish author who has had great success with who-done-its?  such as Broken Harbor and In The Woods, uses the antipathy and idealism of teenage friendship-groups to ground her latest thriller, The Secret Place. Ms. French has an unerring ear for dialogue, of teenagers in sulks or power displays, or raw Dublin detectives bantering with each other in deadly earnest. The characterization by voice is remarkable.

The story is set in St. Kilda’s, an exclusive Dublin girls’ boarding school. A student from the neighboring St. Colm’s School for Boys has been killed, his murder unsolved for over a year. A  new piece of evidence suddenly triggers Detective Stephen Moran’s reopening of the case. Moran also has to prove himself to a tough woman homicide detective, Antoinette Conway – a lady who has felt the full sting of male prejudice. She also was in charge of the investigation that earlier failed to find the killer. Egos are on the line for the adults as well as the children.

The plot unfolds through exhausting interviews of eight girls in the course of one day’s investigation. The eight form two rival groups of four who spar with each other and the detectives in the give-and-take that eventually exposes the murderer. One of the eight is the only one who could be responsible for the picture of the murdered lad with the legend, “I know who did it.” that has appeared on the The Secret Place, a Kilda’s bulletin board that gives the novel its title.

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Amis's Zone

I read Martin Amis’s new novel, The Zone of Interest, twice; the first time to flush away the effects of a belittling review in the LRB (some enemies there) and then to appreciate Amis’s second fictional attempt (the first was Time’s Arrow) to approach the Holocaust. This is a serious and mature work. The Acknowledgements and Afterward indicate the focus Amis has brought to bear. His approach to the Shoah and his conclusions, if we trust the tale, are worthy of note.

Amis has us imagine the machinery of the Auschwitz death camp: to see the arrivals of the trains and the unloading of the box cars of prisoners, the band playing  to mask the intent of the selection, and then the movement of Jews to the gas chambers or to the work camp. The perspective he give us is that of those whose job it is to manage the camp, and to profit from it. How do the managers think and respond? What do they make of the killing they control, but from which they shield their families? And how do those Jewish prisoners who have been suborned to remove the corpses, to harvest the treasures of tooth and hair, live with themselves? What becomes of them all when they look into the mirror of genocide?

Amis has as his ostensible aim the answers to these questions.

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Monstrous Prodigies

I finished Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke a few months ago; he rushed me to a conclusion that tidied the plot strands but left one bulbous character knot: the Colonel. Johnson had created a mythic figure, one whose power seemed to defy the rather conventional death that common sense dictated to surviving characters. Where in the jungles of Southeast Asia was he? And what exactly was he conspiring to do? Johnson’s latest novel, The Laughing Monsters, deals with baser stuff, at least as far as character is concerned; but in Michael Adriko Johnson manages to present venal vision aggrandized. We see him through the eyes of his fellow rogue Nair, a spy and adventurer who has a history with Michael. The African, of uncertain political allegiance and violent career, is on his way to his jungle home to wed a beautiful African American woman. In the course of this abortive wedding odyssey, Michael offers Nair a chance to make huge sums of money, perhaps by brokering a deal that involves uranium, but certainly by exploiting the need for intelligence information by  interested parties. The plot twists, the rogues suffer and Nair betrays his NATO masters. Michael however seems to ride above this in his very audacity; he is reckless, that is he does not reckon as normal souls do. His over-reaching finds its source in greed; his courage in the limits of his conscience.  But his charisma, woeful word, leaves us with the same problem posed by the colonel: what do these fictions mean to us? What do they point to beyond their affront to the reader’s sheltered life?

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I had just finished Marilynne Robinson’s new novel, Lila, when The London Review of Books arrived with a piece by Colm Toibin on that novel and a larger comment on the treatment of religion in fiction. Tobin writes with appreciation, a novelist’s perspective, and an acuteness which is humbling. He manages to place Lila in perspective, pointing to the development of the trilogy, out of its predecessors Gilead and Home. Tobin’s piece is one to read carefully, as is the book he reviews.

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Peter Mathiessen's 'In Paradise'

Half-way through Peter Mathiessen’s final novel, In Paradise, the chief character, Olin, tells what he says is an alternate version of the crucifixion story to Catherine, a young novice soon to take her religious vows. The good thief makes his request that Jesus take him to Paradise. Jesus responds, not by saying “Thou shalt be with me this day in Paradise,” but rather, “No, friend, we are in Paradise right now ”

The virtual blasphemy points at the crucial conflict of the novel, called of course In Paradise: overwhelming bleakness of death and yet redemptive transcendence. The physical “paradise” is the Auschwitz Concentration camp. The plot involves a retreat of one hundred participants fifty years after the liberation of the camps. The intent of the retreat is to allow those involved to come to terms with the death camp: they are survivors, bystanders, family members of those killed and of those who killed, some are local residents; but the majority come from many nations and represent different faiths.

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George Eliot, Thomas a Kempis, and Christian Wiman

I had a nine hour train journey and a Kindle with the complete works of George Eliot ($.99). The upshot? I had not read The Mill on the Floss and so I began. If you recall Maggie Tulliver, the heroine of the novel, faces unaccountable hardship. Her creator has the adolescent Maggie turn to Thomas a Kempis (The Imitation of Christ) to find the spirit of renunciation and acceptance to bear with the troubles that afflict her. So effective are a Kempis’s words that Maggie finds herself in conflict with her admirer Phillip Waken because she rejects the claims of the self and refuses to strike out to find her own happiness. Maggie’s self-denial, her rejection of self-love, underlies the moral courage that ultimately costs her her life in heroic self-sacrifice. The ways of the world, the temptations of self-indulgence, simply cannot break the integrity that is Maggie’s armor against moral failure. Her tutor in this, The Imitation of Christ, evokes this testimony from the narrator:

it is the chronicle of a solitary, hidden anguish, struggle, trust, and triumph, not written on velvet cushions to teach endurance to those who are treading with bleeding feet on the stones. And so it remains to all time a lasting record of human needs and human consolations; the voice of a brother who, ages ago, felt and suffered and renounced

I found an odd joy reading the passage Eliot quotes from The Imitation, as I traveled at seventy miles an hour on the train south. There was an unnerving and excited recognition of a voice very familiar and now strange, stranger sill for speaking out of a Victorian novel written by a very “advanced” religious and social thinker a hundred and fifty years ago. Written in the fifteenth century, The Imitation enjoyed on-going admiration among both Catholics and Protestants, and clearly affect the young Mary Ann Evans. I recalled that my copy of a Kempis’s book (I had to have been given it in my Jesuit high school) was yellow paged, printed in gothic script, and resonated with the word “compunction” which I dutifully looked up and attempted to feel. In the imagination it bore for me, as it must have for fictional Maggie, a sense of the sacred.

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Life After Life

Kate Atkinson’s novel Life after Life comes as something of a surprise. Her earlier books featuring a feckless Scottish detective, Jackson Brodie, were inventive in plot and quirky in characterization. There was little to suggest the rather heavy themes signaled in the epigraphs from Nietzsche and Plato that appear in Life after Life; they focus, appropriately enough, on reincarnation. The plan of the novel is simple: follow a character, Ursula Todd, through her lives. The plural, “lives,” offers the plot mechanism: Ursula is born once, but her days follow multiple sequences, the first being her still born birth. She survives more successfully in following permutations.  We return to her birthday in February 1910 and accompany her as she, after two fatal sidesteps, finally arrives at adulthood and again we experience her different life courses. Chance, yes, is the impartial determiner.

The novel is a fictional experiment of sorts: how consistent is Ursula’s character when subjected to various conflicts? And indeed what are the responses of her family as she challenges them with different life experiences? There is the close sister Pammy, the cherished younger brother Teddie, the risqué and sophisticated Aunt Izzy, and a host of boyfriends, suitors, husbands and lovers. Ursula is consistently “rather pretty,” but various in her sexual precocity and fidelity. She is well-read enough to quote appropriately from the classics and to correct the pretentious in their misquotations.

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Middlemarch Revisited

A friend reminded me of the artistry of Middlemarch when he mentioned how much he enjoyed listening to an audio book of the novel on his way to work. I had to reflect that I had read Eliot first fifty years ago, under a magnolia tree in Fordham’s Rose Hill in the Bronx, caught up in Dorothea’s story but equally aware that I had yet another novel to read that week for Dr. Santaniello’s English Fiction course.  So taking up the book again, I was surprised and humbled by the number of times I had to read the following passage, Edward Casaubon’s proposal of marriage (in letter form) to Dorothea.

I am not, I trust, mistaken in the recognition of some deeper correspondence than that of date in the fact that a consciousness of need in my own life had arisen contemporaneously with the possibility of my becoming acquainted with you. For in the first hour of meeting you, I had an impression of your eminent and perhaps exclusive fitness to supply that need (connected, I may say, with such activity of the affections as even the preoccupations of a work too special to be abdicated could not uninterruptedly dissimulate); and each succeeding opportunity for observation has given the impression an added depth by convincing me more emphatically of that fitness which I had preconceived, and thus evoking more decisively those affections to which I have but now referred.

The knottiness of this passage, reminiscent of the frustrating Latin of Cicero, whose periods made me weep in the frustration of incomprehension, works in veritable counterpoint to the fluency of composition – and the ease of the prose rhythms. Casaubon’s self-regard, rendered in the subordination of the clauses and in the parenthetical notes to his own assertions are all too great warnings against the very proposal that Dorothea accepts. The weight of the words simply and ironically crushes any hope of realizing the “affections” that he mentions but are somehow buried in the qualifications that he has laid out earlier.

Perhaps it is too easy to comment that novelists do not write like this anymore. But I have to ask if that also means that our contemporaries do not make the demands upon us that the great Victorian writers did?

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Campus After-Life

The setting of Robert Stone’s new book, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, is the vale of tears. This campus novel transcends genre largely through the psychological effect of place. Not so much as a New England college town but as the trial ground where acts of faith, betrayal, retributive justice, and redemption take place, and where, of course, evil constantly threatens.

The plot centers on the adulterous affair that Professor Steven Brookman has with his beautiful, brilliant and possessive student, Maud Stack.  The title leaves no doubt as to the outcome of the affair. Vehicular homicide ends their parting quarrel. Her death is at the center of Stone’s meditations on love, the sanctity of life, abortion, vengeance, and fate – providence if you will, in the Divine Economy. Some critics have mentioned that they find the central relationship between Brookman and Maud insufficiently developed. But frankly I found myself too bound up in the peripheral characters who form a virtual chorus of speculation and assertion on deep matters of conscience, to be too concerned with the affair. The moral geography of the novel is never less than that of a battlefield, with real weapons and fatal or near fatal encounters.

The sense that the horizontal events of earthly life intersect with the verticals of the spiritual radiates throughout the book.

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