The Catholic Novel

Is There Any Such Thing?

Richard A. Rosengarten’s review of Graham Greene’s Catholic Imagination by Mark Bosco (Commonweal, January 26, 2007) raised interesting questions about the relations between faith and fiction. In his first sentence Rosengarten refers to “Catholic novelists” and in his second to the “Catholic novel,” as if the one implied the other.

The idea of a Catholic novelist seems straightforward enough; several of them were writing in the twentieth century—in England, the United States, and France—and Rosengarten names some of them. Yet one of the most celebrated, Graham Greene, disliked being called a “Catholic novelist,” and preferred to regard himself as a novelist who happened to be a Catholic. His friend Evelyn Waugh was happy to appear before the world as a Catholic novelist and tried to present Greene and himself as literary upholders of Catholic truth and faith in the face of an unbelieving world. Still, Greene resisted these pressures, and in later years Waugh came to regret them.

Like most English Catholic writers and thinkers, Waugh and Greene were converts, who came into the church in mature life as a matter of choice. They lacked the cradle Catholic’s early experience of family and parochial life and schooling, which provided material to be drawn on in later years, even if the adult writer gave up Catholic belief and practice. James Joyce is a famous example of an unbeliever whose imagination never escaped from the Catholicism of late nineteenth-century Ireland in which he had been raised. In Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a fellow student says to Stephen Dedalus, the author’s persona, “It is a curious your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.” And what was true of Joyce has been true of many later Irish writers.

Among Americans, attempts have been made to trace elements of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s abandoned Catholicism in his novels. John Braine and Anthony Burgess were lapsed members of Catholic communities in the north of England whose novels reflected their religious origins. Burgess, who maintained a severely Augustinian view of life and world, took a disapproving interest in later developments in the Catholic Church and satirized John XXIII in his Earthly Powers. David Lodge is unusual in being a cradle-Catholic writer who still regards himself as a Catholic, though he admits that his present beliefs are a long way from traditional orthodoxy. And throughout the English-speaking world there are women writers who abandoned Catholicism but whose novels look back on their convent education with resentment or affection, or elements of both. Mary McCarthy, for instance, wrote in her Memories of a Catholic Girlhood that she was grateful for a religious formation that had given her a sense of the past and an understanding of intellectual history. There are, it seems, many ways of being a Catholic novelist, and not all of them involve still being a Catholic (even if one does not pursue the distinction between the defiantly apostate and the merely lapsed).

If the idea of the Catholic novelist offers difficulties, the “Catholic novel” presents many more. At one end of the scale there are books that are concerned with Catholicism as a social and historical phenomenon and the ways in which it affects the lives of individuals. One good example is Lodge’s How Far Can You Go? (called Souls and Bodies in the U.S. edition). This looks at the fortunes of a group of middle-class English Catholics, from the 1950s, when they are students, to the 1980s, when they are facing middle age. It covers the disturbances and transformations brought about by Vatican II and ends with the portentous appearance of John Paul II. This novel effectively performs one of the genre’s traditional functions, of imaginatively providing information about changes in the world, but it provides no clue to its author’s attitudes: it could have been written by an ex-Catholic, or even by a sympathetic and well-informed outsider. But if the category of the “Catholic novel” means anything, Lodge’s book clearly belongs in it.

At a different point on the scale are novels that focus on an individual’s spiritual dilemmas and crises. Here the emphasis is on the soul poised between salvation and damnation. Greene’s The Heart of the Matter is a notable example: the novel’s unhappy Catholic hero, Henry Scobie, finally commits suicide as the way out of an intolerable situation. “Is Scobie damned?” was a talking point among Catholics. Evelyn Waugh, for all his regard for Greene, was unhappy about the book and questioned its basic theology (Commonweal, July 18, 1948).

A good novel involves far more than a debate about ideas, but it can raise questions that are important in the lives of both individuals and institutions. This, I believe, is what Greene did in The Power and the Glory, where one of the strands in the compelling narrative concerns the nature of Catholic priesthood. The central figure, the Mexican “whisky priest,” fleeing persecution and desperately trying to meet the spiritual needs of his scattered flock, can still validly perform his priestly functions, despite the personal unworthiness that he is only too well aware of. The responsibilities of priesthood form a central theme in another powerful novel, one much admired by Greene, Shusako Endo’s Silence, about the persecution of Catholics in seventeenth-century Japan.

Novels like those of Greene, Endo, and Lodge, treating Catholic questions in very different ways, do not demand a Catholic audience. They have been widely appreciated by readers without religious commitments, who read the books simply as human narratives. The literary form of the novel as it developed in England and France was not well adapted to the exploration of religious drama. Its dimensions were social or individual, presenting people fairly like ourselves, with this-worldly ambitions or destinies or griefs that readers can readily identify with. It was, in Northrop Frye’s phrase, “low-mimetic,” with the focus on what Renaissance thinkers called the sublunary world.

If supernatural events appeared, the novel was likely to be transformed into the genre of the gothic tale or the ghost story, with distinguished examples in American and Scottish fiction. A Christian novelist might believe that God works in the world but find it difficult to show the process in action with any conviction. Waugh attempted it in Brideshead Revisited, in the episode where the worldly aristocrat and apostate Catholic, Lord Marchmain, is dying in a Venetian palazzo. He has previously refused to see a priest, but the priest tries again and Marchmain makes the sign of the Cross when he is on his deathbed. It is an edifying account of grace at work, which is certainly how Waugh wanted us to read it. But we are not obliged to see it that way, and nonbelievers are likely to remain unconvinced. Greene went further in The End of the Affair. The attractive and adulterous heroine Sarah gives up her lover and turns to God; she is poised to become a Catholic when she suddenly dies. After her death, strange things happen. A young boy, to whom she had been kind and who treasures her memory, is instantly cured of a life-threatening illness. A crusading atheist, who had fallen in love with her, finds that an ugly birthmark on his face suddenly disappears. We are invited to believe that miracles are at work, brought about by the agency of Sarah, now a saint in heaven. Skeptical readers were put off by these supernatural interventions, and some Catholics thought they were a mistake. Greene himself became one of them, and in later editions of the novel he tried, unconvincingly, to tone down the miraculous element.

Like “Southern writer,” “Catholic novelist” may still, in a loose, descriptive fashion, be a useful term for academics planning courses or literary journalists producing surveys. Yet I think the concept of the “Catholic novel” is empty and misleading. One distinguished Catholic novelist who thought so was the late Muriel Spark. Like Greene and Waugh, she was a convert, and received valuable support from both of them early in her literary career. In an interview published not long before her death, she spoke illuminatingly about literature and religion (Salmagundi, Spring-Summer 2005). She agreed with the interviewer’s suggestion that she had always been careful to make a distinction between the deposit of faith and the accidents that surround the everyday activity of the church. “Oh, yes,” she replied, “because they vary geographically, culturally, and in every way.” It was in this spirit that she said later in the interview, “I’m a Catholic and a novelist, but there is no such thing as a Catholic novel unless it’s a piece of propaganda.” Things vary, and we can enjoy the variety of novels that Catholics write.


Related: Peter Quinn, The Catholic Novel: Fact or Fiction?
Paul Elie: What Flannery Knew: Catholic Writing for a Critical Age
Being a Writer, Being Catholic, by Valerie Sayers

Published in the 2007-05-04 issue: 

Bernard Bergonzi is the author of A Study in Greene, among many other books of literary criticism.

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