Edward T. Wheeler
Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.
By this author
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Rev. Bruce Shipman, the Episcopal priest and former Chaplain at Yale, lives in a neighboring town. The controversy that surrounded his letter to the New York Times (August 21. 2014) concerning the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe caused his resignation from the Yale chaplaincy—and much by way of accusation and defense.
Stephen Webb makes a startling claim at the close of his First Things article on the U.S. penal system: “Revival will come to America when Christians begin doing justice to the American prison system.” He speaks from his experience in prison ministry and by analogy argues to substantiate his remarkable claim. We have to ask: What is the fundamental link between prison reform and national spiritual revival?
Frankly, when I read his piece for the first time, I felt myself uneasy, sensing that something was wrong. Part of this unease came from an assertion, almost a plea, that I have heard in one form or another for the two and a half years I have worked as a prison volunteer: “We need a voice.” This from a man all too aware of his crimes and his powerlessness within the system (yes, he is a felon), but more directly, his woeful prospects once he finishes his sentence. Stephen Webb’s article is not that voice, I reckon.
This is not a denial of the three telling assertions that Webb makes. Quite the contrary, I can’t but agree with his analysis. He sees the common human condition, bondage to sin in a fallen world, as most clearly exemplified in the life of prisoners. He calls for a re-examination of notions of justice in terms of the traditional teaching about Purgatory. Divine justice is restorative, and prison reform should follow from or reflect this model. We need to see rehabilitation not punishment as the end of correction. Finally he points to the paradox of modern conceptions of heaven – shall we say caricatures that pass for concepts. For too many, heaven appears as eternal imprisonment among the unbearably devout. Re-envisioning the ends of the criminal justice system and its practice points directly to a profound engagement with Christian life: faith, contrition, penance, amendment, the just life and the afterlife. We have to see ourselves in those who live behind bars and revive our Christian commitment.
I think, “What would the inmate who asked ‘for a voice’ say to Stephen Webb?”
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