This is the second in a series of posts on the Brian Moore novel, Catholics: A Novel. The first post can be found here.
Fr. Kinsella is finally able to fly onto the island of Muck by hired helicopter. The Abbot and Br. Paul watch the helicopter fly in as they are jarring blackberries. They are surprised as no one has ever flown onto the island before.
Fr. Kinsella is taken up the winding staircase to the Abbot’s quarters. Fr. Kinsella gives the Abbot a letter from the order’s father general, a letter of censure for the Abbey still performing the old Latin Mass. Through conversation we learn just how popular the Latin Mass has become. They discuss a certain missionary, Fr, Gustave Hartmann, who was tortured on mission in Brazil. The Abbot has Fr. Kinsella change his plans and leave in the morning so he can spend the night at the Abbey.
They leave the Abbot’s quarters and head toward the shore where Fr. Manus is fishing. The Abbot has Fr. Manus catch some salmon for dinner. Fr, Manus brazenly tells Fr. Kinsella he wants to talk to him about being stopped to celebrating the traditions. The Abbot has them come inside, as it is starting to rain.
Once inside Fr. Manus goes through a long monologue as to the history and important of the Latin Mass. Fr. Manus works himself up into a tiny rage where the Abbot has to step in between. Fr. Manus finally apologizes to Kinsella.
The Abbot gives Fr. Kinsella a tour of the Twelfth century Abbey. He shows him the burial place of all the Abbot’s of Muck, and where he expects one day to be buried. He then takes Fr. Kinsella to the guest house where he will spend the night. He will get picked up for dinner.
Kinsella takes a bath, freshens up, and is called upon for dinner. He is taken to the refectory where he meets all of the monks. They pray and have dinner. The community of monks all wanted to engage Kinsella over the Latin Mass but the Abbot side steps it all and brings Kinsella back to his quarters for tea. They discuss Kinsella mission to the Abbey. The Abbot tells him how they returned to the Latin Mass, and how the people came in droves to celebrate it. Kinsella informs the Abbot that these liturgical and sacramental changes have been made for the sake of “Ecumen brotherhood.” Fr. Kinsella informs the Abbot that American television is planning a documentary on the Abbey’s use of the Latin Mass, and it is critical with Rome that they stop before the filming. And so the burden has been placed on the Abbot by much higher powers to stop performing as they have been doing. Kinsella finally asks the Abbot where does he stand with the Mass, and the Abbot admits he is not a believer in its mysteries. However, the Abbot is still unsure what he will do and will sleep on it overnight.
Back at the guest house, Fr. Kinsella hears someone outside singing a traditional hymn. He steps outside and cannot find anyone.
At midnight, the Abbot goes down to the church and finds a group of monks praying for the conversion of Fr. Kinsella. It was they who were singing outside Kinsella’s door. Fr. Matthew confronts the Abbot and asks what his decision on their future celebration of the Mass. Fr. Matthew tells him that the new directive that the Mass is merely symbolic is heresy. The Abbot rebukes Fr. Matthew for insubordination. The Abbot, last in the church, leaves, not bothering to genuflect.
Presenting the detail of the Abbot’s personal lack of faith at the two-thirds mark of the novel set off red flags. This is no minor detail. The Abbot runs a religious community and that specific religious community is in the middle of a movement to return to the traditional rituals of the faith. That’s a big deal. My ebook listed the page when the reader is made known of this at sixty-five percent. Such a critical detail held back that long is a violation of storytelling craft, which undoubtedly would affect the artistry of the novel, especially I might add in a novel of ideas. If this were a mystery novel, so be it; surprises come but the tale is only a series of actions. Readers might feel cheated but it doesn’t leave the reader in a state of ambiguity. When it happens in a novel of ideas such as this, the central idea becomes undermined if the surprise detail relates to the themes. This surprise detail prompted me to really look at the construction of this novel, and that surprise detail caused me to see several inherent flaws. As an upfront summary, the main reasons why Brian Moore’s Catholics: A Novel is flawed is because it violates form and scale, of which I will try to explain.
First, the novel integrates two different forms, which are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but you have to be very careful in their integration. One form is that of a dystopian novel. The basic form of a dystopian novel is first the author establishes the dystopia, and then through a resisting character a conflict with the core of the dystopia is generated, and eventually the conflict comes to some sort of conclusion, either in the overturning of the dystopia or in many cases the crushing of the resistance, all of which support the idea which the author wishes to express.
Think of Orwell’s 1984, where the totalitarian state is established at the beginning, and then we are introduced to Winston, who is in conflict with the state. Think of the novel we read last year, Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World, where the Freemason takeover of world government has squashed all religions except Catholicism and is in the process of squashing that too with Fr. Percy Franklin in resistance. Think of Star Wars, with the Evil Empire in control and the resistance propelled by Luke Skywalker and his friends. One thing is absolutely required in a dystopian novel; there cannot be any moral ambiguity between the dystopian forces and the resisting elements. The dystopian forces are the bad guys and the resistance are the good guys. If there is a sense of moral ambiguity, then the dystopia collapses, and more importantly, the ideas of the storyline become qualified and lack clarity.
In this novel Brian Moore establishes the dystopia in Part One. We are introduced up front to Fr. Kinsella, who represents the enforcing element of the dystopia. We follow him on the mainland of Ireland as we see the dichotomy of what the regular Catholic wants and what the Church now demands, and the power of the Church to enforce it. In Part Two we see the resistance, or we think we see the resistance. The monastery is at the heart of the resistance. It is the priests from the monastery that are the driving initiative to return to the traditions and therefore are rebelling against the dystopian forces. So when Kinsella arrives at the island he is paired with the Abbot, and so the intuitive assumption the reader makes is that the Abbot is the personification of the resistance. The form itself leads to that assumption. If the author doesn’t want that assumption to be drawn he needs to make that clear as soon as possible.
The second form that Moore integrates into the novel is that of a character faced with a moral dilemma. Here the central character is faced with a moral decision that is pulling him in two directions. The two directions can have two forms, either a clear cut morally good versus morally bad decision or one in which there is ambiguity in the moral path. The outcomes of these decisions lead to the author’s ideas he is trying to express. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an example of the first. Huck must choose between the slave owning society and his friendship with the escaped slave Jim. Hamlet in Shakespeare’s Hamlet must choose between taking justice into his own hands or fulfilling his nobility’s obligation of being a vassal to the king, an obligation which comes from God. Here there is an ambiguity for most of the action but ultimately there is clarity. So too with Nick Caraway in The Great Gatsby. He has the dilemma of choosing between the immorality of the Buchanans and the immorality of Gatsby. While the ambiguity exists all the way through, the weight of morality leans with Gatsby. While it may not be perfect, the innocence of Gatsby’s love for Daisy outweighs the selfish brutality of the Buchanans. But in all three cases with developed clarity, the moral decision is affirmed.
Of a much more difficult novel to write is where the moral ambiguity is never resolved, where the dilemma is so powerfully weighted on both sides that no clarity is ever reached. The one novel that comes to mind here is Anna Karenina. Anna must choose between a loveless marriage—was it an arranged marriage, I can’t recall?—with a man a generation older and life with a man who will satisfy her youth and desire for love. As we know tragedy ensues, but tragedy could have ensued no matter which choice she made. It is a very complex novel, and it takes nearly a thousand pages to build the complexity and in the end we still can argue over whether it was better for Anna to have left her cold husband and merely lived without love. That clarity doesn’t come.
So Brian Moore overlays the dystopia form over a moral dilemma form. He has Abbot Tomàs (allusion to Doubting Thomas as someone pointed out) undecided as to whether he should follow Kinsella’s directives or resist. He’s torn between his underling priests who want to resist and… and what? Going along to get along? Not rocking the boat? What exactly is his moral dilemma? Is it a case of lack of clarity? No, Tomàs clearly understands the immorality of the destruction of the traditions. Or does he? Does he care? If he has lost his faith, why should he care? What exactly do we know about Tomàs? Hardly anything. How did he lose his faith? When did he lose his faith? Do the other priests realize how he lacks faith in even the essentials?
So here are the issues when it comes to the flaws of the novel. On the one hand Moore creates a dystopia, which requires moral clarity. There is the immoral imposition and enforcement of heresy. On that there can be no ambiguity. It is very clear from the very nature of the first form. Then there is the central character who is caught in a dilemma. The Abbot can be either Huck Finn or Hamlet or Nick Caraway where the moral choice is clear or will become clear in development or he can be Anna Karenina where there is ambiguity. Well, clearly the Anna Karenina example is not the case because as I’ve said it is a dystopia. There cannot be an ambiguity if it a dystopia. So then the Abbot can only be having a dilemma not because of temporary lack of clarity but because of lack of will.
Having a lack of will could make for an interesting psychological novel but in this case it would violate the form of the dystopian novel. How can you have a dystopian novel if there is no agent of resistance? Moore has all the agents of resistance in the minor, undeveloped characters. The Abbot is the collective representation of the resistance, and therefore when Moore introduces the Abbot’s lack of faith two thirds into the novel the whole intellectual structure of the novel collapses.
Finally Moore violates what I’ll call a sense of scale. How much of Part Two is actually meaningful to the novel? Why is he wasting space and time with blackberry jam and catching salmon for dinner? This is essentially a short novel. It’s barely over eighty pages. Yes, you can make the argument that this is showing life at the Abbey, but he’s got to get to the point. This is not much more than a longish short story. I kept waiting for the significance of all that to come together, and it never did. If he were trying to build the characterization of the Abbot, I found it all meaningless. And then he waits to two thirds of the way to spring the most important detail of the Abbot’s character? Moore is drawing this out as if the scale were like Anna Karenina. But the novel is not even one tenth the length of Tolstoy’s novel. Frankly it’s baffling. If he wanted the Abbot in a moral dilemma he needed to put him in that dilemma early on. And where is the development of Fathers Manus and Matthew? They are the energy behind the resistance. And where is the background to Abbot Tomàs’ evolution from a believer to his loss of faith? This novel is seriously flawed.
Thank you Manny for the detailed analysis!
For me two things didn't make sense: the abbot's lack of faith and the brevity of the novel. If you are going to introduce this complication, lack of faith, then you have to have the requisite number of pages to have it play out. Then I thought that such a short novel requires a much more controlled structure, you don't waste space on mundane detail - that's a mark of pulp fiction, or as we say in German "trivial literature".
I am glad you pointed out that a dystopian novel needs clarity in terms of good and evil, and the corresponding attributes of resistance and destruction. It seems obvious in hindsight, but I must admit I was stumped, thinking the whole thing is falling apart, blown away like a house of straw, if the Abbot cannot counter, but couldn't quite put a finger on it.
My Reply to Kerstin:
You're welcome Kerstin. As to the brevity of the novel, here are some thoughts. By 1972 when this novel was published, Brian Moore had established himself as a screenwriter. As I was reading the book it felt as if Moore had taken on some of the nuances of a movie/TV script in the narration. In some cases I thought it worked and in some cases it really hurt the novel. Let me identify some examples.
Notice how he cuts away from scene to scene. Take the helicopter scene at the beginning of Part Two. Notice how the eye of the author works in those first couple of paragraphs. It sees the helicopter coming in and landing. It lands and you see the pilot opening the door. Kinsella runs toward the helicopter, ducking under the rotating propeller blades. The pilot’s hand comes out and grabs Kinsella. Kinsella buckles up. The helicopter lifts off and the eye of the author is looking up, seeing it like a “dragonfly.” It’s up to the sky. Then the eye of the author has taken the view from the helicopter, seeing “three faces mooned up” below. Then we focus inside the cockpit on the pilot and Kinsella.
How many helicopter scenes from movies have you seen that are just like that? That eye of the author is exactly how a movie camera follows helicopter scenes. That helicopter scene is a trope from a hundred different helicopter scenes from movies. Notice how Moore shifts around, almost as if he’s splicing different camera perspectives together. In the sky you have this little paragraph:
“Have you even been on the island?” he shouted at the pilot.
“No, but I’ve flown over it.”
Two lines, and then the eye shifts again, almost to another camera perspective.
Notice how you then get these short descriptive sentences at the beginning of paragraphs: “Thunder. Lightning sheeted the sky.” Many times it’s not even a complete sentence, such as here, “Thunder.” These are movie script setting descriptions or at times directions, where the screenwriter will be leaving it up to the director to create the scene from the fragments the screenwriter has used. Notice the beginning of the next paragraph: “Now they were over the island, chopping along above a deserted strand…” It’s as if the eye has panned ahead in time to the splice of film where the helicopter has reached the island. And so on. If you have time, read the first few pages of Part Two again, up to the point the helicopter lands. And then all of a sudden the camera shifts to the blackberries and Brother Paul and the Abbot.
My point is that Moore is writing this novel and his movie script background has created this particular style. In some cases it works nicely, in some not so nicely. Here the helicopter scene feels more like a cliché than something fresh. The way the scene shifts from the blackberry jarring to Kinsella being shown up the winding stairway to the Abbot’s quarters I thought worked beautifully:
He heard steps, uncertain, coming up the winding stone staircase beneath his parlor, heard, predictably, Martin’s warning. “The ninth step is longer than the others, Father. The trip step, they called it in the old days. Be careful, so.”
“Thank you,” said the visitor in his American voice, the voice the abbot had heard on the telephone. Footsteps reached the top of the second flight. Good. It would not do to trip Rome up. “This way, Father,” the abbot called.
To Kinsella, turning and turning in that cold stone turret, to come out through the narrow door into the abbot’s parlor was dizzying, confusing, causing him, at first, to miss his host’s welcoming hand.
“How are you, Father.” The abbot’s voice was very soft.
I do like the way that is portrayed, but again it has a movie scene feel to the shifting of where the “eye” is looking. By the way, that “turning and turning” of a winding staircase is an allusion to the well-known William Butler Yeats poem, “The Second Coming.” “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…”
But then you have this awful clunker. Here the Abbot and Kinsella are walking past the kitchen.
The abbot moved briskly, his hobnailed boots loud on the flags of the walk, turning up through a slype and into the refectory, a large bare room around the walls of which were rough refectory tables and benches. In the adjoining kitchen two old monks peeled potatoes from a huge pile. On the hearth hung an iron pot, big as a cartoon cannibal’s cook pot. The turf fire gave off a pleasant scent.
Giving off a “pleasant scent” is not really specific enough for a writer who writes as a novelist. A novelist would be more specific and say a “wood burning scent” or a “tangy, herbal scent.” Something specific. A “pleasant scent” is a shortcut for a director to fill in. But look at the horrid description of the iron pot, “big as a cartoon cannibal’s cook pot.” He alludes to a cartoon, a movie image, a shortcut description that you would find in a movie script.
This movie script style creates the brevity you allude to. But where I think it really hurts the novel is in the characterization. I’m already too long, so I’m not going to cite examples, but the characterization is filled with tropes, just like the helicopter scene. All the characters, except maybe for the Abbot, are purely two dimensional. Fr, Manus, Fr. Matthew, the brother who walks with a limp and brings the tea, in movie script terms, these are character actor types. In a movie, the actors are on the screen and have makeup and display facial emotions. The very nature of acting it out creates a three dimensionality, or helps it toward it. In a narrative, that comes across as completely flat. The characters are mere stick figures.
I’ve never read Brian Moore before. I don’t know if this is his writing style or he got caught up in movie script mentality. I do know that he published the novel in 1972 and he wrote the movie script for the 1973 movie. Was he already writing the movie script before he finished the novel?
My Reply to Frances:
Frances wrote: "I
think that’s a brilliant insight, Manny. The helicopter scene is very
memorable, it’s so extraordinarily telegenic. Probably, this is the slimmest of
Brian Moore’s books and you make a compelling..."
Though I called it a cliché, I do think the helicopter scene was very well done. I'm glad you agree on some of the flaws of the novel. I want to make clear, it doesn't mean that the issue of the dystopia is not important. Let's assume that he is supporting the dystopia theme. We can now talk about the theme and its validity to today's church. I wonder what Archbishop Chaput would say about it.
By the way, that is a brilliant observation on the popularity of Buddhism and Thomas Merton in the 1960s. I bet that played a role in Moore coming up with what he did.
There is a sort of compatibility between Buddhism and other religions. That's because Buddhism I think is not strictly a religion but a way of looking at the world. So there can be overlap.
But to bring this to more contemporaneous times, I think I could see how the "Vatican IV Church" could form such an alliance with Islam. I shudder to think it, but Islam is an "Abrahamic" religion (which I personally feel is a forced assumption and not really in any meaningful way) and there is Jesus and Mary in Islam. Given the relativism and the ecumenical drive to get along at all costs and given the vast immigration of Muslims into Europe, I can see this happening.
My Reply to Kerstin:
"Unless I missed something, here is another unanswered question I have:
why does the unbelieving abbot continue to allow the Latin Mass to be
celebrated? Given the backdrop to Vatican IV, this is an..."
Good question. The novel is just too under developed to get a satisfying answer. I imagine the Abbot is going along with the priests under him because he doesn't want to upset his Abbey. They would rebel against him. He might figure he lives in a remote part of Christendom and that no one may notice. Or he may have internal feelings - perhaps the Holy Spirit - that kept him connected to the faith. We just don't know. This is why the psychological part of the novel (what I called above the dilemma form) is so lacking. We need to know why he became a religious, and had faith enough to become an Abbot, and we need to know how he lost that faith. It's not there and anything would be speculation.
My Reply to Irene:
Irene wrote: "Manny,
Doesn't all art, good art, require a dialogue between the creator and the one
encountering that art? If a piece of poetry, a painting, a novel spells out
everything, it is not exactly engaging. ."
Yes, of course, but you will find that a great work will have a core that is clear and logical, and from there nuances can be found that makes the work much richer than the surface.
So as i think I said above, let's get beyond the literary flaws of the novel and discuss what we think Moore was trying to get at. Tomorrow I'll post the closing section from which we can discuss the Abbot. I am fascinated by the ending. I don't know if I have understood it completely. I definitely want to hear your thoughts.
I found the trailer to the 1973 movie on YouTube. Check it out.