Paul Lakeland is the Aloysius P. Kelley, SJ, Professor of Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.
By this author
Watching the Netflix original Happy Valley over the last few days—though it was actually made by the BBC— it struck me more forcibly than ever before how artificial the American crime shows are compared to their British counterparts. Not that the British shows don’t have their share of foolishness—far too many stern strutting anguished people for what still is a fairly placid culture. They seem almost as suicidal as the Scandinavians at times. But, and here’s the point, they look like real people, not someone recruited into the police force as they step down from the Miss America catwalk.
Robert Stone’s latest novel, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, is a bleak academic story centered on what can—and no doubt often does—go wrong in a student-professor affair, and the consequences for everyone in their worlds. Set in a fictitious, tony New England college, perhaps Wesleyan or Bowdoin transferred to Massachusetts, it tells the story of Maud Stack and Steven Brookman. Stack is a brilliant but erratic student, Brookman a self-satisfied professor with a wife and child. When Brookman wants out and Stack doesn’t want to let go a public confrontation ends in her death.
Being the mother of the crucified, risen and glorified savior must be a bit like being a retired pope. Just what exactly are you supposed to do? This, in any case, is something of the challenge that the Irish writer Colm Tibn, him of The Master fame, has assigned himself this Christmas, though a less Christmassy book it would be hard to imagine. Toibin's novella, The Testament of Mary, reflects on the events of Jesus's public life and death from the perspective of a mother who understandably wished it had never happened.
It's been a while since I left a movie theater scratching my head but The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson's latest product, did it for me. This movie has received a lot of plaudits for the two central performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman as the Master himself and Joaquin Phoenix as the alcohol-raddled victim of post-traumatic stress disorder who somehow blunders into the closed family world of Lancaster Dodd (the Master) and is taken on as an evidently pro bono project. The film also looks beautiful and I didn't find the two and a half hours dragging much if at all.
This past Sunday the world saw the passing of Joe Cunneen, by any standards a great twentieth century American Catholic. Together with his wife Sally and Bill Birmingham, Joe published Cross Currents for half a century. Yes, I said half a century, fifty years to be precise. In that time he was principally responsible for bringing to the American Catholic audience some of the best writings of continental European theologians, before and after Vatican II.
What is it that makes a reader become interested in a really rather unpleasant character, especially when its the central character, even sometimes the narrator, of a work of fiction? The obvious examples that spring to my mind at least are the awful Bendrix in Graham Greenes The End of the Affair, Tony Soprano, Sherlock Holmes or even Hannibal Lecter. There are of course pretty dreadful specimens with whom we connect out of pity or self-recognition, like the unspeakably self-obsessed George Costanza of Seinfeld fame, and in this case humor is his salvation.
I remember the day five years ago when the head of a conservative Catholic congregation of women religious asked me what I taught. “Catholic studies,” I replied. “Oh,” she said, in a fairly good but probably unintentional impression of Lady Bracknell, “and what exactly is that?”
I just finished reading David Plantes old (1991) novel, The Accident, having also delved a few days ago into Jens Peter Jacobsens older (1880) Danish novel, Niels Lyhne. Plantes short book takes place in Leuven in the days when it was still known as Louvain. Its central character is an American undergraduate spending a year abroad, uncomfortable in the Catholic atmosphere of the city because he is, he says, an atheist.
Alan Hollinghurst is to me that rare find, a novelist in total control of his material. His latest novel, The Strangers Child, stretched over most of the twentieth century and taking up the perspectives of multiple individuals as the scene moves from one era to another, tests this capacity to its utmost.
It was only a matter of time before the New Atheists were challenged from within their own ranks. Hitchens and Dawkins and Dennett and Sam Harris, the leading figures among the self-proclaimed brights (seriously, with no sense of irony) offer sometimes serious and thoughtful challenges to the possibility of theism but fail spectacularly to present an alternative vision with any charm or warmth orlets face itany brightness at all.
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