Novels that Keep Satan at BayPAUL EVANS
Originally the province of the French visionaries Mauriac and Bernanos, the Catholic novel has found exponents as various as are the many roads to Rome.
The great Russians ó Tolstoy and Dostoevksy, the latter the novelís
sharpest psychologist and strongest spiritual force ó grappled hotly with
God, but they were exceptions. As the century turned, so did the novel, toward
experiment, abstraction, self-reference. Catholic truth celebrates creation but
abhors materialism, and its timelessness scorns novelty. Itís not surprising then,
that Catholics make uneasy novelists.
That unease, however, can prompt greatness.
Catholics bring to the form the spirit that completes the flesh: attentive to
the Word beyond the world, they make fictional life fully-dimensional. Originally
the province of the French visionaries Mauriac and Bernanos, the Catholic novel
has found exponents as various as are the many roads to Rome. What unites them,
though, is their insistence that the novel ultimately be realistic: that it heed,
that is, the whisper of the soul above the clamor of the streets.
a sampling of great Catholic novels, listed solely in the order of my preference.
Try them all; each is life-changing.
The Power and the Glory.Action-packed, violent, their
settings fascinatingly seedy, Greeneís existential thrillers are philosophical
brain-teasers you canít put down. Anticipating postmodernismís blurring of high
art and pop culture, the English convert juxtaposes politics and age-old faith,
the primal skill of storytelling with a technique that mimics the jump-cut editing
of film noir. In this 1940 wonder, thugs have seized Mexico and, as all
totalitarians must, outlawed the Church. Resisting alone is Fr. Montez, the most
pathetic of Christ figures, a whiskey priest, a bastardís father. Heís a broken
vessel, to be sure, but through him flows divine love, antidote to the revolutionís
monstrously misguided humanism. At the end, Montez wears the martyrís crown; that
the crown is, metaphorically, barbed and fly-specked underscores Greeneís incarnational
message: the Jesus in us is broken, disgraced, and triumphant.
OíConnor, Wise Blood. Even today, OíConnorís native Georgia
remains, for Rome, missionary turf. And from the tension between her environment
(Baptist, poor in spirit, rich in character) and essence (Catholic, complex, mystical)
her vitality springs. Suffering from lupus erythematosus, she identified
with the lame and halt and shunned: her characters are hurled, hurt, toward heaven.
Hazel Motes, prickly star of this 1952 tragicomedy, may be the misfit who haunts
us longest. Fanatically fundamentalist, ultimately he acts on the biblical injunction
that he who has a mote in his eye must cast it out: he blinds himself. Such a
shocking finish befits a yarn whose cast includes racketeering preachers, a mummy,
and a rascal in a gorilla suit. Finally, however, itís Motesís grabbing for God
that startles most: like Kierkegaard, OíConnorís target is the complacent Christian.
And, by any means necessary, she insists that we remember: Faith is a matter of
life and death.
Jose Maria Gironella, The Cypresses
Believe in God.In the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway
and Malraux joined the Republican ranks, Gironella didnít. While itís hard to
countenance his Fascist sympathies, itís harder to deny the power of his 1952
rendering of the brutal, baffling rehearsal for World War II. The first of five
books about Spainís conflict, this thousand-page epic recalls Pasternakís Doctor
Zhivago, that other 20th century masterwork that renders the pathos of tradition
besieged. As it surges toward the outbreak of fighting, it tells the tragedy of
a priest felled by a firing squad while mobs torch churches, and of his brother,
anguished over the abuses of the old order of Church and State, but terrified
of anarchyís approach.
Georges Bernanos, The Diary
of a Country Priest. Neglected nowadays even by his compatriots,
Bernanos deserves a revival, if only for this uncommonly lovely 1937 gem. An encomium
to communion and sanctity gained through commonplace struggle ó a kind of
Zen Catholicism, a realization of ThťrŤse of Lisieuxís ďLittle WayĒ ó it
achieves sad, simple beauty by conveying in vernacular, an ordinary clericís transcendence.
Brilliant for realizing that ennui may lend Satan his easiest entry, the
tale depicts a pastorís exhaustion. Warily regarded by spiteful parishioners he
hopes only to help redeem, heís insomniac, forgetful, sick, and not above complaining.
But, heartbroken, he endures their suspicion and his own insufficiency-and in
so doing wins God.
J.I. Powers, Wheat That Springeth
Green. Satirizing American clergy-the bull necks squeezed by stiffened
collars, the all-too-human saints-Powers flashes wit and scalpel. But his surgery
on the Churchís body politic is loving: he knows how priests dress, talk, err,
joke-and pray and serve. This 1938 high comedy gives us a Father Joe Hackett,
a lapsed idealist, green and oily, now ďa good hard worker fond of the sauce.Ē
An all-pro suburban pastor, guardian angel of the collection basket, he renders
easily to Caesar. Arriving none too soon is a younger, Sixties-happy assistant.
For all his naivetť, Father Bill is the tender mystic Joe once had been. From
the pairís enforced fraternity arises compassionate compromise that revitalizes
their very real-world parish. Itís a measured grace and completely convincing.
Shusaku Endo, Silence. In 1966,
Endo scored popular and critical success with this story of the persecution of
Jesuit missionaries to 17th-century Japan. In a land nominally Buddhist but overwhelmingly
secular, this was no mean feat. Endo has gone on to become one of Japanís literary
titans, but Silence remains his finest work. Itís a rendering, ultimately,
of kenosis, the Christian giving up of power for love. Forced to witness
the torture of converts, Father Rodriguez, the young protagonist, is told that
their agonies will cease-if he renounces our Lord. Refusal, and his own martyrdom,
appears inevitable, but he realizes that even such hard heroism would be self-seeking.
Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter. Undset,
a Norwegian of genius, won a Nobel for this trilogy, its last volume published
in 1922. Fourteenth-century Norway, Christian but bloodied by its pagan past,
provides her background; this is historical fiction grounded in period detail
but supercharged with passionate immediacy. A celebration of womanís strength,
it portrays the life-passages of its hero: love, motherhood, hard rural work,
retirement to convent prayer, and death from the Black Plague. Kristin herself
is more of a flesh and blood (and soul) character than most modern protagonists;
like all of us, she spars with heaven and with earth. The world Undset recreates
very nearly throbs on the page.
A Viperís Tangle. Catholicism of the severity Mauriac prized
is a relic today-and his readers are almost as rare. Itís not hard to see why;
few writers are less ingratiating. But Mauriac, a 1952 Nobel recipient, rewards
us with pitiless insight, with clear, dry judgment. French village life, in Mauriacís
eyes, is seen through a glass darkly: flinty peasants squint, smug bourgeoisie
preen. Ensnared among them, Louis, an ailing miser, undergoes domestic hell, his
family the very vipers of the novelís title. Creeping deathward, he at last forgives
them, but his journey toward love is a long walk, hard, on shattered glass.
Green, Moira. His life at least as darkly tumultuous as his
fiction, Julian Green was born in 1900 to American parents. But the language he
commands with such panache is Moliereís. Even while chronicling the American South,
his sensibility is European, and very Catholic. But his faith is leagues removed
from conventional pieties; in his best work, the action takes place in an invariable
time-frame-the dark night of the soul. In this strange, overheated work of 1950,
a student strangles the girl who tempted him down from the cross of his moral
arrogance. He gives himself up, but not before Green subjects him ó and us
ó to the full terrors both of lust and guilt.
Paul. ďNovels that Keep Satan at Bay.Ē Crisis Vol. 13, no. 8 (September,
Reprinted by permission of the Morley Institute a non-profit education
organization. To subscribe to Crisis magazine call 1-800-852-9962.
Paul Evans, co-author of Rolling Stone Album Guide, has
contributed criticism to Sigrid Undset on Saints and Sinners (Ignatius
Copyright © 1995 Crisis