Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.
By this author
Many readers have probably experienced a feeling of communion when engaging closely with a work of literature, even if they're not apt to put it that way. Interviewed in the current issue of the Paris Review, Vivian Gornick speaks briefly but movingly about the time her elderly mother was nearing the end of an autobiography by a relatively unknown British writer. It was though the author were “right in the room with me," Gornick recalls her mother saying; "I’m going to feel lonely when I finish this book.” What more, Gornick concludes, could any writer want from a reader, than to be part of such a connection?
“Who is the third who always walks beside you?" begins the "third man" section of Eliot's “The Waste Land.” "When I walk there are only you and I together/But when I look ahead up the white road /There is always another one walking beside you.” In an essay recently featured in the Boston College alumni magazine, Alice McDermott borrows another line from Eliot in expanding the connection to include not just author and reader but the narrator (or voice) of the work itself. "We had the experience but missed the meaning," she says she sometimes tells her students when discussing a piece of writing, but in fact, she writes, that singular search for meaning can also get in the way of a truer experiencing of the work. “The wonder of the literary arts,” she writes, “of the way a novel ‘happens,’ lies first and foremost for me in its ability to make us look together, writer/narrator/reader, to see, together, what is there. …"
McDermott's essay is written with characteristic humility and acknowledgment of uncertainty, which has a way, as can be the case with her fiction, of making it all the more persuasive. Its title ("Astonished by Love") and stated topic (“storytelling and the sacramental imagination”) might not have initially drawn me to it; I'd probably head first for a Mary Karr essay with the title “How to Read 'The Waste Land' So It Alters Your Soul Rather Than Just Addling Your Head.” But McDermott is straightforward about where she's coming from.
The funeral for Mario Cuomo was held today at New York’s Church of St. Ignatius Loyola. In addition to inspiring tributes and remembrances, his death has also prompted archive searches for items like this: A 1990 letter in which the governor took up Commonweal’s invitation to join in a reasoned debate on abortion. “Perhaps the best I can do right now,” Cuomo wrote to the editors, “is to reflect on some of Commonweal’s commentary of the past six or seven months,” which he proceeded to do, at length, using bullet points and providing detailed citations [.pdf].
Much of the recent commentary, at Commonweal and elsewhere, has focused on Cuomo’s position on abortion and whether he’d given “intellectual cover” to Catholic politicians personally opposed but not inclined to act politically against it (the editors write about this and other aspects of Cuomo’s legacy in “Mario Cuomo, Politician,” just posted on our homepage). Or, if not that, his keynote speech at the 1984 Democratic Convention, which to those then longing for someone to speak truth to the heartless power of Reagan and sense to his legions of heedless followers was (and remains) a galvanizing event.
I still have the copy of that speech that was handed to me some months later, on my first day at my first real job in New York City, as a college intern in the press office of Governor Mario Cuomo. Since I’m now also at the age where I can say things like, “this was before the internet, so getting a printed copy was a big deal,” I will: It was. Few of my friends or classmates seemed to care, most having happily—with their first-ever presidential ballot—participated in the landslide re-election of Reagan, while some of my family members liked to dismiss my new “boss” as “your friend Mario Cuomo,” when they weren’t calling him “the most dangerous man in America.”
I had exactly one personal encounter with Mario Cuomo, when during my internship I was told to write a public service announcement for him to record: Two hundred words or so on the importance of protecting Adirondack rivers and streams. “The waterways of the Adirondacks are among our state’s most precious resources,” it began. No pretentions about it rivaling a stump speech much less a keynote, but then, I had not yet heard it in Cuomo’s voice.
Autumn Jones’s current piece on Jesuit colleges at the Atlantic (“Teaching God in Jesuit Universities”) bears a hompage teaser that poses the perhaps inevitable question: “Can mainstream institutions of higher ed also follow the teachings of the Catholic church?” The inside headline: “The New Brand of Jesuit Universities.”
Francisco Goldman (the New Yorker) and Alma Guillermoprieto (the New York Review of Books) are among the journalists who in ongoing reports not only continue to monitor the latest developments in the case of forty-three missing (and all but confirmed dead) students from the Mexican state of Guerrero, but also work to frame the events within a particular political and economic context, which is characterized mainly by government corruption, poverty, and the rampant and indiscriminate violenc
The room my wife and I were led to on the first evening of our Sicilian honeymoon had a warped linoleum floor, a sway-backed bed, and a cracked plastic chair in the corner. The shower curtain was torn and mildewed; ants crawled on the melting lump of soap. Outside the single window, down in the alley, a kitchen worker poured another bucket of scraps onto the moldering heap of clam shells and cantaloupe rinds. We checked out before we could fully check in, explaining that this was not what the brochure had promised.
We’re featuring two new pieces on the homepage. First, the editors on the release of and reaction to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on torture:
Leave it to David Gibson to ferret out the facts on Pope Francis’s alleged comments about pets going to heaven. He maps out the origins, paths, and mutations along the way of the story many might have wanted to believe in spite of their doubts, and not just the doubt sparked by its appearance on the front page of the New York Times last week (and repeated in brief by Serge Schmemann in the paper’s Sunday Review section).
“Honey, listen to me,” one character urges another in Kent Haruf’s 1999 novel Plainsong. “You are here now. This is where you are.”
“Here” is Holt County on the high plains of Colorado, and it’s the setting not only of Plainsong, a National Book Award finalist the year it appeared, but also of its two predecessors and its follow-ups, Eventide (2005) and Benediction (2013). When I heard of Haruf’s death last week, at seventy-one from cancer, I couldn’t help but think of Benediction’s cold opener unveiling a potentially unpromising conceit—terminal illness:
When the test came back the nurse called them into the examining room and when the doctor entered the room he just looked at them and asked them to sit down. They could tell by the look on his face where matters stood.
Go on ahead, Dad Lewis said, say it.
I’m afraid I don’t have very good news for you, the doctor said.
When they went back downstairs to the parking lot it was late in the afternoon.
You drive, Dad said. I don’t want to.
But the economy of language, the dispensing of conventional punctuation in dialogue, and the immediate clarity of characterization work to bring it off. Haruf seemed always to know where he stood, and what he wanted to do.
Places like Holt were home to Haruf when he was a boy, and though his family moved around a lot (his father was a Methodist minister) he absorbed the essence of these places which in composite became the vivid setting of his fiction. Haruf composed drafts blindly—he literally pulled a wool cap over his eyes as he typed—the better “to concentrate on the storytelling,” and judging from how believably Holt emerges across his books, it worked. “The ring of the [typewriter’s] return oriented him, as did the world he saw in his mind’s eye,” William Yardley evocatively puts it in his obituary of Haruf, whose wife, Cathy, is quoted later in the same piece: “ ‘He only got off home row a couple of times and typed gobbledygook,’ ” Mrs. Haruf recalled. ‘That’s not bad for all those years.’”
Few contemporary American novelists seem as successful as Haruf in linking people so closely with place, maybe because from the outset he dedicated himself to getting place right.