Robert Kiely November 21, 2011 - 10:31am
The editor suggested writing about books published in the past ten years, though he would tolerate a reference to something older. Taking full advantage of this concession I shall start with a book published 170 years ago. I have long regarded Dickens as one of the greatest writers ever, but have had to acknowledge that I have not read all his novels. Earlier this year I filled one of the gaps by reading, for the first time, Barnaby Rudge (Vintage Classics, $13.95, 730 pp.), published in 1841. It is one of Dickens’s occasional ventures into historical fiction, set in and around London in the 1780s, against the background of a wave of hostility against Catholics, then a small minority regarded with suspicion by the Protestant population at large and subject to legal disabilities.
The prevailing prejudice was fanned into violence by a mad aristocrat, Lord George Gordon, who provoked the “No Popery” riots in the capital. Dickens, who seems to have been both fascinated and horrified by accounts of the riots, made Gordon a character in his novel. Barnaby Rudge is an absorbing read, though it lacks the comic exuberance of the other early novels and the symbolic intensity of the later ones. It shows that Dickens was remarkably free of the prevailing anti-Catholic prejudice, and treats his Catholic characters very sympathetically. In a longer perspective, his accounts of urban violence anticipate the destruction and incendiarism that broke out in the streets of London and other British cities last August.
Dostoevsky read Dickens and may have learned something from him, but the creator of Ivan and Alyosha Kara-mazov, Father Zossima, and the Grand Inquisitor was a profoundly religious writer, in ways that went far beyond Dickens’s conventional Anglicanism and belief in general benevolence. Unlike most great novelists, Dostoevsky was a passionate Christian, a committed if uncomfortable member of the Russian Orthodox Church. This dimension of his life and thought is discussed sensitively and at length by Rowan Williams in Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction (Baylor University Press, $24.95, 304 pp.), which Williams has produced in the margins of his day job as head of the global Anglican community. It combines close critical attention with theological insight, and reflects a great breadth of reading in several languages, including Russian. Williams reads Dostoevsky in the original, but for the benefit of his readers he discusses the texts in translation. The part of my mind with a taste for small pointless facts wonders if Williams is the first Archbishop of Canterbury to know Russian. Linguistic competence apart, he shows a sympathetic interest in the traditions of Orthodox spirituality. Like other critics, he sees the novelist as a kind of creator, and in his final chapter observes, “This book has argued that we best read Dostoevsky as working through this analogy between writing and divine creation; the point being not to assimilate human creativity to the divine but to introduce to the imagination a model of making that is directed towards freedom and not control.” Williams then acknowledges that this model is imperfect, and does not go to the heart of the dilemma facing Ivan and Alyosha: how to believe in a God who created a world that is so full of suffering. But he does something to illuminate it.
To move from the nineteenth century giants to an English novelist born in 1946 is to make a rapid shift in cultural space, but Julian Barnes can survive the comparison. His latest novel, The Sense of an Ending (Alfred A. Knopf, $23.95, 176 pp.), shows the precision, economy, and ingenuity of its predecessors, and returns to the North London suburbia that provided the setting of his first novel, Metroland. The narrator, Tony Webster, now well into middle age, looks back to his school days when he was one of a group of clever, articulate, and opinionated youths. A few years later one of them, Adrian Finn, commits suicide, and the novel follows Tony’s attempts to understand this tragic event. Eventually he discovers that the reasons for it are not at all what he (and the readers) had assumed. Veronica, the woman with whom both Tony and Adrian have been involved at different times, is given to complaining to Tony, “You just don’t get it, do you?” No, he doesn’t. Nor do we.
Time and memory are central preoccupations, suggested by Barnes’s appropriation of the title of a book on time and narrative by the late literary critic Frank Kermode, and by the words from a Mick Jagger song, “Time is on my side,” that recur in Tony’s memory. Barnes is very much at home with French literature, as was evident in his brilliant Flaubert’s Parrot, and his concern in this book with the ways in which the past breaks into the present inevitably recalls Proust. But Barnes also echoes the knowing aphoristic precision of the classical French moralists: “It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old we invent different pasts for others.” The Sense of an Ending, recently awarded the Man Booker Prize, is an outstanding novel, funny, painful, and surprising.
I end with the first work of a scholar born in 1981, Alexandra Harris’s Romantic Moderns (Thames and Hudson, $40, 320 pp.). If the title is laconic, the subtitle is very explicit: “English Writers and Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper.” Harris looks at the ways in which the international modern movement in literature and art was transformed in an English context by the threat of war in the 1930s and its reality in the ’40s. John Piper began as an austere practitioner of abstract art but in the war years became a representational (and much admired) painter of bombed buildings and an English countryside threatened with invasion. In literature, Eliot follows the cosmopolitanism of The Waste Land with a concern with English history in Four Quartets. There is a comparable contrast in Virginia Woolf, between the severe formalism of The Waves and the loving evocation of tradition and custom in Between the Acts, a work written on the eve of war and published, posthumously, after it had started. Harris’s book, full of insights and exceptionally well written, makes a dazzling start to her career.
Bernard Bergonzi, a frequent contributor, is the author of many books of literary criticism, including most recently A Study in Greene.
A friend and I fell into conversation about what kind of writing interests us the most. I’ve tossed this question around in my mind from time to time, but I found it surprisingly hard to put my reflections into words. So I was pleased and surprised to receive a book from her that put a lot of my thoughts and feelings into a (rather large) nutshell.
Going on Faith: Writing as a Spiritual Quest is edited and introduced by William Zinsser (Marlowe & Company, $13.95, 214 pp.). The book consists of nine autobiographical essays by a varied group of authors who share, to one degree or another, Zinsser’s sense of appropriateness when he was asked to deliver the keynote talk for a program called “The Ministry of Writing.” Zinsser wondered: “How did you know that I’ve always regarded my writing as a form of ministry?” The answer came, “It’s all through your work.”
Zinsser looked for others who shared his impulse. Hillel Levine, who remembered the story of Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who saved as many as ten thousand lives on the eve of World War II, “felt a prophetic call to go in search of the mystery of goodness.” Frederick Buechner observed that “something outside ourselves is breathed into us” (if we’re lucky, I’d say). David Bradley responded, “It may sound silly, but I believe that to become a better writer I have to try to become a better person” and later, “then writing is my religion. For I do believe that somehow...if I search my soul and my heart I will find a way to capture some kind of energy, to somehow bring down a little fire to change my readers and myself.” If you read only one essay, choose Jaroslav Pelikan’s on writing as a means of grace. “It is in the quest that we find; it is in the finding that we seek, not only because in the beginning was the word, but because the same word is there at the end.” And again, “The word of the Lord abideth forever.”
Zinsser certainly proved his ministry in producing this book. Reading the essays sharpened my sensitivity to the spiritual quest, and helped make more concrete the unformed thoughts about writing that were floating around in my head.
Curiosity about the relationship between spiritual quests and how willpower influences the ability of a person to persist in that quest, despite the many temptations to take an easier route, led me to read Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney (Penguin Press, $27.95, 291 pp.). The book turns out to be a collaboration between a psychologist who has published more than 450 social-scientific works and a writer, both of whom are declared agnostics (“We’re both lapsed Christians who don’t spend much time on our knees praying to any higher power, either at home or in church”). As far as I can tell, they haven’t spent any time on their knees. Still, they add that while “psychologists, for some reason, have been particularly skeptical of religion...self-control researchers have developed a grudging respect for religious belief’s practical results.” Even when social scientists can’t accept supernatural beliefs, some recognize that religion is a profoundly influential human phenomenon that has been evolving effective self-control mechanisms for thousands of years. I found especially interesting the authors’ careful studies of alcoholism. And the highlight of the book is a long account of the life, thoughts, and writings of Henry Morton Stanley, the famous explorer of Africa who exhibited fanatical, perhaps pathological, self-control and is remembered largely for his famous (and perhaps apocryphal) greeting: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”
From the first to the last page of his wonderful The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance (Vintage, $24.95, 355 pp.), Edmund de Waal is on a pilgrimage, a quest, in this biography of his remarkable family. De Waal walks his readers into the opulent rooms of nineteenth-century Paris, revivifying their occupants and brilliantly re-creating the fascinating artistic scene, while contrasting this with the cold formality of life in Vienna. He is seeking to understand and describe the varied gifts and demands that flow from the Ephrussi family’s complicated history: the many stories, cities, works of art, riches, palaces, and the power and the brutal anti-Semitism that shattered the family and sent its members into their own diaspora.
A 264-piece collection of tiny Japanese sculptures—netsuke—animals, plants, people (the hare with amber eyes is one of them), symbolizes the unity of the family. De Waal, himself an artist (he is a famous potter) explores both the evanescence and persistence of art, using the netsuke as his examples. The collection becomes a character in the book as it passes through four generations and allows us to look into the private lives and surroundings of four branches of the Ephrussi family. As the book begins, de Waal has just inherited the netsuke. This is a book to linger over. Read it at your leisure.
Lilly Bere is so convincing as the eighty-nine-year-old narrator of Sebastian Barry’s beautiful On Canaan’s Side (Viking, $25.95, 256 pp.) that I had to keep reminding myself she isn’t the real author. Mrs. Bere’s story, written in the days immediately following the death of her beloved grandson, is sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes inspiring, always captivating in its intimate and poetic images of her surroundings and her eventful life. A mixture of celebration, resignation, and intelligent but unpretentious probing, I found every page of this little novel a delight. I hope you will too.
Molly Finn, a longtime contributor, lives in New York City.
We all need some cheer and beauty in our lives. Two stunningly beautiful “coffee-table books” that deserve to be taken from the table and actually read and pored over are Italian Mosaics 300–1300 by Joachim Poeschke (Abbeville Press, $150, 432 pp.) and John Singer Sargent: Venetian Figures and Landscapes 1898–1913 by Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray (Yale University Press, $75, 272 pp.). Yes, these books are expensive, but they are cheaper than a trip to Italy. And they provide an entrance to a world of art without demands on your feet or misinformation in bad English from ignorant tour guides. Both books show the astonishing technical and aesthetic achievement of contemporary photography in capturing and reproducing great works of art that are inaccessible to most viewers.
Mosaics in San Clemente and Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome, San Marco in Venice, San Appollinare in Ravenna, Monreale in Sicily—and many others depicted in three hundred illustrations in Italian Mosaics 300–1300—are among the glories of Christian art. Rich, deep, gemlike colors glisten and glow. Awe-inspiring figures of Christ in judgment and Mary enthroned share spaces with vivid saints, solemn prophets, fleecy sheep, exotic flowers, trees, sparkling stars, and cartoon-like depictions of episodes featuring Adam, Eve, Noah, and a huge cast of well-known and little-remembered biblical characters. Some full-page pictures show panoramic views of walls and ceilings in natural light; others are close-ups that make visible extraordinary details of shape, expression, and skill impossible to see from the floor. Poeschke’s text is learned and readable. Pleasure and instruction go hand in hand.
John Singer Sargent is often dismissed as the painter of flattering, facile portraits of rich ladies in pretty dresses, but his watercolors of Venice are so luminous, so brilliant, so breathtaking that one would never wish to put him or this gorgeous volume of Venetian Figures and Landscapes 1898–1913 on a back shelf. Often painted from a gondola bobbing up and down in a canal, these pictures—some quick sketches—seem to be moving themselves, flashing glimpses of light on water, shadows on peeling walls, indefinite, agile figures crossing bridges, climbing steps, strolling on quays. Sargent was known to have painted his watercolors very quickly, never wasting a stroke, never missing a curve. With gusto and the sharpest of eyes, he suggests the stones of Venice, not painstakingly line by line, but as if seen and loved in a passing moment of pure joy.
Two solid, entertaining, serious books of history are Charles C. Mann’s 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (Alfred A. Knopf, $30.50, 560 pp.) and David McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris (Simon & Schuster, $37.50, 576 pp.). Mann retells the seemingly well-known story of the discovery and settling of America by including plants, animals, seeds, and diseases in the human movements from other continents and cultures from 1493 to the present. His narrative—filled with stories and facts seamlessly connected—looks back to the past, steadily to the present, and ahead to the future. Mann puts Africa and Asia as well as Europe clearly in the picture of the enormous and increasing flow of life and the materials of both health and disease across oceans. He sees the great bounty of new life to this continent, but he also recognizes the damage done by poisonous insects, parasitical plants, and microbes that have accompanied trade and migration from faraway places. Because Mann is willing to take the reader into close-up views (including into his own backyard) of the ecological situation at various moments in our history, his book—despite its breadth and density—has an immediacy and relevance to us all.
McCullough’s The Greater Journey, about American writers, doctors, inventors, artists, and students who went to Paris between 1830 and 1900 to work, study, and immerse themselves in the life of the cultural center of Europe, is at its best in reprinting excerpts from letters and diaries by Americans who not only benefited from their time in the great city, but contributed to the energy and welfare of a place they considered their second home. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman doctor, went to Paris—then a center of modern medical practice—because she could not find proper employment in this country. French doctors were not interested in working with her either, but she was admitted to a training hospital for midwives. She slept in an unheated dormitory, took classes in obstetrics, worked long hours in maternity wards, and eventually returned to the States and founded “a hospital entirely run by women.” Another relatively unsung hero was Elihu Washburne, who was appointed ambassador to France after the Civil War by Ulysses S. Grant. During the Franco-Prussian War and again during the even more dangerous period of the Commune, Washburne, unlike most other diplomats of the time, remained at his post helping thousands of Americans, Germans, and French citizens survive or leave the country safely. His diary entries provide striking snapshots of a city in danger and of the mind of an honorable American. James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel F. B. Morse, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens also figure prominently in this rich collage of French history and the private lives of talented Americans abroad.
My favorite book of poetry this year has been Touch by Henri Cole (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, $23, 80 pp.). Cole’s poems can be witty or sober—never solemn or pretentious. They always make sense, at least to the senses. As the title suggests, Cole’s poetry is close to the skin, to nature not as landscape but as felt on the flesh as well as in the mind and heart. It probably sounds odd these days to call poems “honest,” but that is what I would call them. You hear a genuine human voice.
If you can’t afford the expensive books at the top of my list, the cheapest, poorest, best classic that everyone should read at least once every year is The Little Flowers of Saint Francis (translated by Raphael Brown, Doubleday Image, $10.95, 357 pp.). These simple, odd, sometimes disturbing, almost always funny stories are parables filled with gospel wisdom, joy, and profound holiness. Everyone knows about the wolf of Gubbio and Francis preaching to the birds. But did you know that he sent Br. Rufino to preach in his underwear? Made Br. Masseo twirl around three times in order to decide which road to take? Taught Br. Leo the meaning of Perfect Joy? Francis was known by his followers as alter Christus, “another Christ.” He was also an innocent prophet who knew the destructive power of greed long before Wall Street, the sacredness of nature long before the Green Party, and the need for reform long before the Reformation. These childlike old legends are always new, always true.
Robert Kiely teaches English at Harvard and is the author ofBlessed and Beautiful: Picturing the Saints (Yale University Press).
My reading this year has been the usual hodgepodge of old and new, fiction and nonfiction, prose and poetry. In the old category is Edwin O’Connor’s The Edge of Sadness (Loyola Classics, $13.95, 664 pp.), once a staple of American Catholic fiction. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1962. The novel tells the story of a few months in the life of Fr. Hugh Kennedy, the middle-aged pastor of a dwindling parish, who unexpectedly becomes involved in the spiritual struggles of a family he had known as a child. Early in the book the reader begins to expect that a great revelation is in store, but that expectation is misplaced. Instead, O’Connor gives us many small revelations quietly but unerringly rendered. True pathos, we’re given to realize, can often be found not in dramatic confrontations or failure, but at the edges of human experience.
In Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet (Atlantic Monthly Press, $25, 288 pp.), the Australian scientist and environmentalist Tim Flannery doesn’t have small things on his mind, but one great thing: the future of our planet and our place on it. Ranging from the formation of the earth 4.5 billion years ago to a petition to the UN Criminal Court in 2010 to recognize ecocide as a “crime against peace,” Here on Earth presents many fascinating, little-known facts in twenty-three short, well-focused chapters. Who knew that the extra fizz of a can of warm soda illustrates why there is less carbon in the atmosphere during ice ages than during the warmer periods in between? But the book as a whole tells just one story: the accelerating environmental threat that has the power to alter the entire planet’s future. Will our future be the story of Medea, the willful granddaughter of the sun who destroys her own children? Or will it be the story of Gaia, a self-healing living planet? Somewhat alone among those warning of the likelihood of environmental doom, Flannery remains an optimist. In a conclusion that comes as a surprise from an author who too often likens human beings to ants, he declares that Gaia can triumph if we have not only a change of mind as a species but a change of heart as well.
Flannery tends to see things from an intellectual and emotional distance. David Adams Richards’s 2006 novel The Friends of Meager Fortune (MacAdam/Cage, $14, 377 pp.) has a much more intimate focus. Set in a lumber town along the Miramichi River in Richards’s native New Brunswick during World War II, it is the story of a winter logging operation on a forbidding hill and of lives that come to grief there. Told in an odd voice whose identity is only gradually revealed, The Friends of Meager Fortune relocates Greek tragedy to a small Canadian town. At the heart of this drama, though, is something modern: a “famine in the soul,” as the novel’s title character puts it. “Men have rid themselves of God, and are famished,” he explains in the midst of the heartbreaking calamity on the hill, “and therefore do terrible things to make the famine go away.”
Marilynne Robinson, a first-rate novelist herself, is also interested in the effort to banish God and religion from our modern condition. Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (Yale University Press, $15, 176 pp.) consists of four lectures given at Yale in 2009, one of which was subsequently excerpted in Commonweal (“Thinking Again,” May 7, 2010). Robinson is concerned about contemporary reductionist accounts of human consciousness that seek to trivialize or even dismiss “the mind’s self-awareness from among the data of human nature.” Too much positivist and scientific thought, she argues, writes off the significance of subjective experience, seeing individuals only as members of a flawed species. Robinson traces this problem to three nineteenth-century thinkers, Darwin, Marx, and Freud, but she also takes on contemporary exponents of such views, including Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker.
All these thinkers insist we are not who we think we are—the selves manifest in our literature, religion, and everyday lives—but creatures whose true nature is far less grand and whose questions about the origin, destiny, and meaning of human life all have purely matierialistic answers. To the extent that these so-called scientific conceptions of what it means to be human exclude “concepts like agency and intention,” they fail both as science and as philosophy, Robinson argues. True science, she notes, must be able to account for poetry as well as religion.
A writer who brings science, poetry, and religion together is the young poet Tracy K. Smith. In Life on Mars (Graywolf, $15, 88 pp.), Smith’s subjects include everything from the Hubble Telescope, which her father helped build, to the music of David Bowie. Steeped in pop-culture references, Life on Mars nevertheless opens with an ancient question: “Is God being or pure force? The wind / Or what commands it?” On the book’s cover is an image of the Cone Nebula as revealed to us by the Hubble, and Smith’s poems are as beautiful and in some ways as mysterious as that distant cluster of extraterrestrial matter.
Paul Johnston teaches English at SUNY Plattsburgh.
Mary Margaret Nussbaum
In 1996, Sherry Turkle, a professor of social studies in science at MIT, met with colleagues who “carried computers and radio transmitters in their backpacks and keyboards in their pockets” and had “digital displays clipped onto [their] eyeglasses.” Because of their getup, the researchers called themselves “cyborgs.” “We’re all cyborgs now,” Turkle writes in Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (Basic Books, $28.95, 384 pp.).
Turkle says ours is the “robotic moment.” “For decades computers have asked us to think with them. Now [they] ask us to feel with and for them.” And the patients she studies as a psychologist do. They teach their Furbies to speak; they bury their Tamagotchis online; they choose Facebook feeds over the sight of their children at play; they send My Real Babies to comfort their elderly parents; and they gamely become the instruments of their own surveillance.
Turkle’s questions about all this innovation are old. When do we make a fet-ish of a thing, and a thing of a person? In what ways have we failed each other, and how has this failure prepared us for a life spent between screens? She works backward from the techno-triumphalist conclusions we’re sold every day to study the results of just what’s happening to us, the digital experiment’s subjects.
There’s nothing so weighty in Jean Thompson’s The Year We Left Home (Simon & Schuster, $25, 336 pp.), save time and place and who we are in them. Pastel mints animate the novel’s first sentence. The taste of the mints mingles with the smell of the “metallic furnace heat” in a “low ceilinged” church basement in Iowa, in January, where a bride and groom are holding the first of two wedding receptions. The year is 1973. The two who just married have done so disastrously, but they are moored by a world. Over the course of the book’s thirty years most of the people who keep that world’s rule of “privation, thrift, cleanliness, and joyless charity” will be buried, and their farms sold.
Thompson’s characters cannot have what pleases them. Their stores are shuttered; their marriages sour and their affairs disappoint; good farmers press guns to their heads. But then there is this: at the end of the first chapter Uncle Norm and Aunt Martha—having scrubbed every dish—surprise the wedding guests by producing a can of Dance Wax, which they sprinkle on the scuffed floor. They move lightly to a song the others find too “fast and swingy.” It is the kind of moment Virginia Woolf caught, providing those who witness it with enough awe to sustain them through many aching years.
The poet Donald Revell catches the half-thoughts most of us shrug off as intrusions, and he attends to them. The condition for catching is emptiness, and the attention leads to awe. “What better now to be than empty / Than a star breathing size into mist,” Revell asks in The Bitter Withy (Alice James Books, $15.95, 80 pp.). Without ever becoming pat or sentimental, Revell writes about heaven and forgiveness and God and that hardest of subjects for poets: happiness. “Forgiveness is a watercourse and conflagration,” he says. God is the “smoking perimeter / of His eternal November.” And “What makes actual human happiness / Nearly unbearable is its reality, / Its mass.”
Revell’s most recent collection is full of dead people, like the world. The poet’s mother is dead, as is his father. This does and does not matter, “For what are space and time but the inventions / Of sorrowing men?” Extinction is sure. Still: Ophelia lives, and so do we; the “body is changed by the faces of evening”; and heaven “Rhymes with given.” Here is a book that is like an emptied, swept house, with quiet pouring from its corners. The windows become the walls, and then the walls go too: “Snow so very / Small so welcome, / A whited tree / Comes to me.”
The mother in Emma Donoghue’s novel Room (Little, Brown and Company, $24.99, 329 pp.) does what W. H. Auden says some poets can do: she “makes a vineyard of the curse.” Her curse is her captor’s chamber. The vineyard is her five-year-old son’s world, a world in which cast-off eggshells are strung into snakes and a melted spoon is good company. Room is narrated from his point of view. Donoghue understands the gravity of a child’s levity, collapsing the cadences of Mother Goose and Goodnight Moon into taut scenes of terror and bravery.
Perhaps all stories of love are stories of salvation. The mother in Room saves her son by naming a brutal world good; the son saves the mother by who he is and what he sees. As is natural to a child, Jack sees life—lots of it.
It’s wonderful that Room is a bestseller. Donoghue’s novel reads as much like the news as it does like a myth. It gets at all the sadness of the world. It gets at its vast store of mercy, too.
Mary Margaret Nussbaum was the 2010–11 Eva Jane Romaine Coombe Writer-in-Residence at Cincinnati’s Seven Hills School.
“Cheap is good,” a Jesuit friend likes to say, “but free is better.” Readers on limited budgets know that buying new books is a challenge. So my Christmas suggestions include two books received gratis and one for which I forked over some of my Jesuit monthly stipend.
The first was completely free, thanks to downloadable books now in the public domain. It is Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Here is an embarrassing confession: until a few months ago my only previous exposure to Austen was through the movies. My high-school English teachers’ tastes ran heavily to William Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, and Ernest Hemingway, and you will not be surprised to learn that at the Wharton School of Business, when it came to eighteenth-century English writers, Jane Austen was thrown over for Adam Smith.
Even on an e-reader, it’s a delightful tale. The romantic fervor of Marianne Dashwood, who longs for the most unsuitable of men, stands in contrast to the intelligent reserve of her older sister, Elinor. Austen compares Marianne’s “sensibility,” a word that at the time meant either romanticism, sentiment, or a refined aestheticism, with Elinor’s “sense,” the capacity to make rational, moral decisions. But the book is not simply an allegory (Marianne and Elinor are not pasteboard representations of competing ideologies like the characters in an Ayn Rand novel); thanks to a genuinely affectionate relationship, Elinor learns some sensibility, Margaret some sense.
Austen’s darting wit is a highlight, particularly when the two worldviews clash. My favorite passage, which made me laugh aloud, comes when Elinor suggests not visiting a particular autumn locale, now covered with fallen leaves:
“Oh,” cried Marianne, “with what transporting sensation have I formerly seen them fall! How have I delighted, as I walked, to see them driven in showers about me by the wind! What feelings have they, the season, the air altogether inspired!”
“It is not every one,” said Elinor, “who has your passion for dead leaves.”
In an entirely different category is a book that I could not afford, but read after we received several copies at America magazine. Eric Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer (Thomas Nelson, $19.99, 624 pp.) was a thrilling read for two reasons. First, it is the best written of the biographies I’ve read of the great German theologian, anti-Nazi activist, and martyr. This reaction may have been colored by the fact that I had just finished the worst written biography I ever hope to lay eyes on. (Let us, as Elinor Dashwood might say, speak of this no further.) Jumping into Metaxas’s colorful prose was a relief. Second, the story is unfailingly inspiring.
Bonhoeffer’s saga is well known. The German theologian who dazzled (and occasionally addled) his elders and inspired his contemporaries, found himself impelled to oppose the rise of Hitler. Particularly striking for me was Bonhoeffer’s return from the United States in 1939 after having left Nazi Germany only a few weeks before. In this he reminded me of St. Isaac Jogues, the seventeenth-century Jesuit who returned to his native France after being tortured by the Iroquois, but who returned again to “New France.” The martyr remains with the poor and accepts their fate, when all would forgive him for escaping—all except his conscience.
Bonhoeffer’s antipathy for what he felt was a vapid theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York was another surprise. During his first visit there, he was demoralized by a theology “without the slightest substantive foundation.” As an antidote, he attended services at Harlem’s Abyssian Baptist Church, where he found a more vibrant faith among the descendants of slaves. But perhaps even Bonhoeffer did not realize the extent to which Europe itself would become enslaved by Nazi ideology. By the end, the young man’s martyrdom is not only tragic, but sad, because we have gotten to know him so well in Metaxas’s compelling book.
Bonhoeffer had something in common with the subject of a book for which I shelled out a few bucks: Witold Rybzczynski’s A Clearing in the Distance (Scribner, $18, 480 pp.), the delightfully told story of the founder of landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted. Many Americans could identify him as the man who designed (with his partner Calvert Vaux) New York’s Central Park, and public spaces in Brooklyn, Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, Oakland, and San Francisco, not to mention the stupendous 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago (a contribution detailed in Eric Larson’s zippy The Devil in the White City). But fewer may know that before finding his ultimate vocation, Olmsted had been, variously, a seafarer, a farmer, and a journalist. Like Bonhoeffer, but in a far less dangerous realm, he battled the status quo, reminding people for the thousandth time not to judge him on what his parks looked like now, but how they would appear decades hence. And as one might say of the Misses Dashwood by the end of their story, Mr. Olmsted combined both sense and sensibility.
James Martin, SJ, is culture editor of America. His latest book is Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life (HarperOne).