"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Poetry: “Pentecost” by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Part 2

Almost two months ago I posted on my discovery of theGerman poet, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff and included a poem titled “Pentecost” both in the original German and an English translation.  As I mentioned in the post, a German friend was the one who made me aware of her poetry.  Well, my German friend, her first name being Barbara, read the post, and being an English teacher in Germany her interest was stimulated by the English translation.  She wrote me a nice note with her thoughts on the translation, and I have her permission to post them.  So this was a treat: to have someone who is fluent in both her native German and English, and is very knowledgeable on literature break down in detail a translation of a famous German poem.  I just had to share this.  She starts her letter this way: 

I was quite amazed to see that you had put her poem "Pentecost" on your blog - in English AND German! I had never read a translation of one of her poems before so I was curious whether too much was "lost in translation". As you already stated in your blog, you see a "red flag" when the translator tries to stick to rhyme scheme and meter. So I spent a nice evening comparing, sometimes amazed about the beauty in the English version, sometimes sighing about things that got lost. 

First, here is the original German poem:

Still war der Tag, die Sonne stand
So klar an unbefleckten Domeshallen;
Die Luft, von Orientes Brand
Wie ausgedörrt, ließ matt die Flügel fallen.
Ein Häuflein sieh, so Mann als Greis,
Auch Frauen knieend; keine Worte hallen,
Sie beten leis!  

Wo bleibt der Tröster, treuer Hort,
Den scheidend doch verheißen du den Deinen?
Nicht zagen sie, fest steht dein Wort,
Doch bang und trübe muß die Zeit uns scheinen.
Die Stunde schleicht; schon vierzig Tag
Und Nächte harrten wir in stillem Weinen
Und sahn dir nach.  

Wo bleibt er nur, wo? Stund' an Stund',
Minute will sich reihen an Minuten.
Wo bleibt er denn? Und schweigt der Mund,
Die Seele spricht es unter leisem Bluten.
Der Wirbel stäubt, der Tiger ächzt
Und wälzt sich keuchend durch die sand'gen Fluten,
Die Schlange lechzt.  

Da, horch, ein Säuseln hebt sich leicht!
Es schwillt und schwillt und steigt zu Sturmes Rauschen.
Die Gräser stehen ungebeugt;
Die Palme starr und staunend scheint zu lauschen.
Was zittert durch die fromme Schar,
Was läßt sie bang' und glühe Blicke tauschen?
Schaut auf! Nehmt wahr!  

Er ist's, er ist's; die Flamme zuckt
Ob jedem Haupt; welch wunderbares Kreisen,
Was durch die Adern quillt und ruckt!
Die Zukunft bricht; es öffnen sich die Schleusen,
Und unaufhaltsam strömt das Wort
Bald Heroldsruf und bald im flehend leisen
Geflüster fort.  

O Licht, o Tröster, bist du, ach,
Nur jener Zeit, nur jener Schar verkündet?
Nicht uns, nicht überall, wo wach
Und Trostes bar sich eine Seele findet?
Ich schmachte in der schwülen Nacht;
O leuchte, eh' das Auge ganz erblindet!
Es weint und wacht.  

Annette von Droste-Hülshoff

Once again, here is the English translation:

by Annette Von Droste-Hulshoff

The day was still, the sun's bright glare
Fell sheer upon the Temple's beauteous wall
Withered by tropic heat, the air
Let, like a bird, its listless pinions fall.
Behold a group, young men and gray,
And women, kneeling; silence holds them all;
They mutely pray! 

Where is the faithful Comforter
Whom, parting, Thou didst promise to Thine own?
They trust Thy word which cannot err,
But sad and full of fear the time has grown.
The hour draws nigh; for forty days
And forty wakeful nights toward Thee we've thrown
Our weeping gaze.  

Where is He? Hour on hour doth steal,
And minute after minute swells the doubt.
Where doth He bide? And though a seal
Be on the mouth, the soul must yet speak out.
Hot winds blow, in the sandy lake
The panting tiger moans and rolls about,
Parched is the snake.  

But hark! a murmur rises now,
Swelling and swelling like a storm's advance,
Yet standing grass-blades do not bow,
And the still palm-tree listens in a trance.
Why seem these men to quake with fear
While each on other casts a wondering glance?
Behold! 'Tis here!  

'Tis here, 'tis here! the quivering light
Rests on each head; what floods of ecstasy
Throng in our veins with wondrous might!
The future dawns; the flood-gates open free;
Resistless pours the mighty Word;
Now as a herald's call, now whisperingly,
Its tone is heard.  

Oh Light, oh Comforter, but there
Alas! and but to them art Thou revealed
And not to us, not everywhere
Where drooping souls for comfort have appealed!
I yearn for day that never breaks;
Oh shine, before this eye is wholly sealed,
Which weeps and wakes. 

Barbara continues:

All in all, considering the difficulties of translating poetry, it is a good translation. But in several places, AvD's language is stronger, richer, more consistent in imagery. If you want to know the details - read on. If you don't, just skip the next lines and wait for my next letter, which will deal with your last letter and a few other things. :-) 

“AvD” is Barbara’s abbreviation for Annette Von Droste-Hulshoff.  Next Barbara goes stanza by stanza to highlight where she disagrees with the translation.  Barbara’s analysis is indented, and my comments to her analysis break in below. 

Stanza 1: "The Temple's beauteous wall" - almost a hit, but AvD says "immaculate", a word which has certain religious connotations (as in "Immaculate Conception"). 

Stanza 2: "The hour draws nigh" - So far, I have only encountered the expression "draw nigh" in contexts where it means "approach", and my dictionary says the same. AvD writes, "Die Stunde schleicht", meaning that it creeps or crawls, i.e. time passes very slowly as it often does when you are waiting for something to happen. Moreover, in German there is an alliteration as both words begin with the sound 'sh'.  

Excellent.  There would be no way for one not fluent in German to pick up on those subtleties.    

Stanza 3: You already drew your readers' attention to such alliterations and repetitions. A repetition (also found in l. 1 of stanza 2) is "Wo bleibt ...", which - I must admit - is almost untranslatable. Relatively close translations are "Why does He fail to appear" or "Wherever has He got to", but both are somehow unsatisfactory and useless in a poetic text. These are questions that German people may ask who are waiting desperately for someone to turn up. 
"Though a seal/ be on the mouth, the soul must yet speak out"
The (rather common) metaphor of the seal is not in the German text, and I don't know why it should be used here because a seal on the mouth always means that the person is not allowed to speak, be it that someone else forbade it or the person him- or herself. AvD uses a metaphor in the next line: "the soul speaks out bleeding silently". 
In the following, AvD uses imagery from nature, from the hot desert, which she already described in the first stanza. This imagery from nature is one of the weaker points of the translation. "Hot winds blow" - that's rather plain; AvD writes about a whirlwind whirling the dust through the air ("Der Wirbel stäubt" - I need a sentence to explain her three words!). And now there seems to be water - but the floods ("Fluten") consist of sand only. The translation could give people the impression there was a lake after all, though with a lot of sand in it. But I like the way the actions of the tiger and the snake are rendered. 

Ah, now the insertion of that “seal” metaphor is a significant failure on the part of the translator.  One can accept a roundabout way to translate something that is untranslatable and to simplify the nature imagery, but to create a metaphor where one doesn’t exist is a distortion.  Idioms might have to be glossed over, but metaphors in poetry are the poem’s soul.   

Stanza 4: (Are you still here? I admire your patience ...)
"a murmur" (of people?) - AvD says "Säuseln", which is the sound of a very light breeze so she stays within the imagery of nature. The whirlwind on the ground did not seem to make any unusual noise, but now everyone can hear that the wind is getting stronger "swelling and swelling and rising to a roaring storm" - the storm is already there, not just advancing. Am I too petty here? I suppose I am.
"wondering glance" - "fearful and glowing (fiery) glance(s)". Now there's the beginning of the next group of images - fire.
"'Tis here" - "Perceive" 

No, you did not lose me…lol.  I think the translator was using murmur for the breeze.  A breeze murmurs is a cliché in English, and the translator was being unimaginative.   

Stanza 5: "'Tis here" - "It's Him"
"quivering light" - not strong enough. AvD talks about flaring or flashing flames.
"the future dawns" - "the future breaks (open) - slow versus rapid process. 

"Whisperingly ... is heard" - AvD writes about a silent whisper which is like begging for something. And it is not only heard but - as the "flood-gates" are now open, releasing a lot of water - the words are like a river making its way. But the translator mentions this aspect in the line before. 

Stanza 6: ll. 1f and 3f are questions. 

"Ich schmachte in der schwülen Nacht" - In German, the word "schmachten" has three connotations:
1. feeling a strong hunger, starving
2. being in a dungeon, underfed and robbed of your freedom
3. having a strong craving for your lover 

So we might say that here is a hungry soul waiting for salvation, for a sign of the Lord, for comfort. In the translation the soul is only waiting for "day that never breaks" - an invention of the translator. Moreover, the night is "schwül", i.e. sultry, which brings us back to the imagery of the hot, almost unbearable weather, giving us the impression of a soul that finds its present state almost unbearable. 

I have no idea why the translator did not translator those lines into questions.  Seems like another significant flaw.  And thank you for dissecting the line “Ich schmachte in der schwülen Nacht."  Even with my extremely poor German I can hear the beauty in that line.   

And thank you Barbara for taking the time to write this.  I certainly appreciate it.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Matthew Monday: I Spy

We, my wife, Matthew, and I were driving on a long trip, a vacation down to Myrtle Beach in South Carolina.  The entire drive takes about ten hours non-stop, but I figured Matthew is not ready for such a long non-stop trip, and so I broke the drive into two five hour halves.  Of course that assumes you don’t hit any traffic, and there was an hour delay on the New Jersey Turnpike (I guess it was for construction, but we didn’t actually see anything) and an hour and a half in the Washington D.C. area, which I guess was just because of volume.  As it turned out, even a five hour leg was too much for Matthew. 

How do you keep an active, talkative four-almost-five year old boy busy while strapped to his child seat in the back alone?  You don’t.  I’m mean, yeah, there are songs and talk games, but that gets old for adults, especially adults that are over fifty.  You want a little peace and quiet after a while.  No wonder some of these new minivans come with DVD players.  But we don’t have one.  We have our eleven year old SUV, which as it turns out turned eleven years to the day on that day.  You can give him some little toys to play with, but shortly thereafter he drops it and can’t reach it.   

And after a while, he doesn’t shut up.  Ahhhh!  He can’t go sixty seconds without saying something.  

One game we played to keep him occupied was “I spy.”  One person in the car sees something on the road, say a blue pickup truck, and says, “I spy blue pickup truck,” and everyone looks around and tries to identify it. 

Daddy: “I spy a big tree.” 

Matthew:  “That one Daddy, over there?” 

Daddy: “Yes.” 

Matthew: “My turn now.  I spy a white bus.” 

Mommy, who is driving: “It just passed us.” 

Daddy:  “I spy motorcycle.” 

Matthew:  “There’s one.  I want to go now.  I spy…”  There’s a delay here while he looks around for something to identify.  “I spy…uh…something grey and black.” 

Daddy, looking around and not seeing anything: “Do you mean this charcoal car?  It’s kind of grey and black.” 

Matthew:  “No.”  Everyone is looking around. 

Mommy:  “What’s grey and black?” 

Matthew:  “Daddy’s head!”   

Big, big laughter from the two of them.  Haha.  Me not so much. I could manage a smirk.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Faith Filled Friday: Proverbs 9:1-6

While reading this month’s Magnificat, the Catholic magazine of daily devotionals, I came across this wonderful little poem that is in Proverbs.  Now as I’m slowly reading my way through the Old Testament in sequence, I have not gotten up to Proverbs yet.  I’m not aware of how its organized or its significance.  I've only been exposed to bits of readings quoted, read in church, or placed in devotionals.  I was surprised that this was in the form of a poem.

Wisdom has built her house,
She has set up her seven columns;
She has dressed her meat, mixed her wine,
Yes, she has spread her table. 

She has sent out her maidens; she calls
From the heights out over the city:
“Let whoever is simple turn in here;
To him who lacks understanding, I say, 

Come, eat of my food,
And drink of my wine that I have mixed!
Forsake foolishness that you may live,
Advance in the way of understanding.”

          -Proverbs 9:1-6

The line “She has dressed her meat, mixed her wine,” reminds me of my mother with her meats that go into her Sunday Italian gravy.  I believe “mixing of wine” refers to the ancient practice of adding water to wine to adjust the taste.  At least they did that in the Roman world, so I’d assume they did it in ancient Israel as well.

The gist of the verse is with the line “Let whoever is simple turn in here.”  Wisdom rests in simplicity, so “forsake” sophisticated foolishness.

And I absolutely love the lines, “Come, eat of my food,/And drink of my wine.” Isn't that a phrase used in a song?  Probably.  Of course it echoes Christ, “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood” from John 6:54.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Poetry: “The Windhover” by Gerard Manly Hopkins, Part 1

As I continue on my annual poetry read, this year being that of Gerard Manly Hopkins, I want to analyze in some depth one of the most original poems in the English language, arguably Hopkins’ greatest poem, and for sure one of my all time favorite poems ever written, “The Windhover.”  Actually Hopkins himself said it was “the best thing I ever wrote.”  Here is the poem, but don’t be intimidated, I’ll walk you through it. 

The Windhover

To Christ Our Lord

I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
   dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
   Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
   As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
   Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing.

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
   Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

   No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
   Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

First let’s get some of the basics out of the way.  It’s an Italian sonnet where amazingly all eight endings of the octave have one rhyme, “-ing.”  [The octave is the first eight lines; the sestet is the remaining six lines.]  The octave here contains one complex thought, which I’ll shortly decompose, and the sestet breaks down into two thought units, one in the first three lines, the other in the last three lines.
If it is a sonnet, it’s a rather experimental sonnet.  Sonnets typically contain ten syllables, making that pentameter, and the rhythm is usually iambic, which means it follows a rhythm of unstressed/stressed, five times per line.  The very first line does follow an iambic pentameter meter, the bold being a stressed syllable.  Bold type below signifies a stressed syllable, while normal type is unstressed.

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-

But what is one to make of the second line:

dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding

Sixteen syllables!  And with no regularity.  I won’t do this for the whole poem, but here are the next three lines:

   Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,

The third line also has sixteen syllables, the fourth has fourteen syllables, and the fifth has eleven syllables.  There just isn't a pattern.

A couple of points can be made here about the meter.  Hopkins is a dissenter to the belief that natural rhythm of the English language is iambic.  He is actually prophetic here.  Other than Walt Whitman, and I don’t know if Hopkins was aware of Whitman’s poetry, no other poet before him broke from the iambic predominance in English poetry, with the possible exception of Robert BrowningBrowning had a penchant for quirky rhythms, Whitman considered his meter natural, and Hopkins called his meter “sprung rhythm.”  Between the three they pioneered what became known in the 20th century as “free verse.” 

Hopkins’ stretching of the lines beyond the traditional pentameter is both an aesthetic statement of breaking with tradition and reflects the soaring flight of the falcon within the lines.  Adding or subtracting an extra foot (a single syllable) is not unusual, but adding six most definitely is.  Notice also the enjambment (the running of lines into the next) in the octave, and how that also reflects the soaring freedom of the bird.  It makes the poem run.  I don’t ever recall seeing a hyphenation (“king-dom”) in any poetry before modernism get fragmented so that the first syllable ends a line and the next enjambs into the next.  It probably has occurred, and I suspect someone will point it out to me, but it’s not in my memory banks.  Did Hopkins do it just to be different or for the rhyme?  No!  It has thematic significance, which I’ll point out in part two of this analysis.

So, allow me to break down what is literally going on.  From the first chunk of meaning from the octave we have this, which I’ll reformulate in linear form:

“I caught this morning morning's minion, king-/dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding/Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding/High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing/In his ecstasy!”

The poet saw a bird that morning, a falcon, who the poet calls a “dauphin” (a French aristocrat) and in whose flight appears to be either (a) being pulled in by the morning dawn light or (b) the falcon ahead of the dawn seemingly pulling the encroaching light across the sky.  Both of those meanings I think can fit “dawn-drawn Falcon.”  I’ve always seen it as (b) but I bet most people read it as (a).  Now the falcon is actually a windhover, which is a smaller species of falcon that can stop and hold itself still against the wind so that it appears to hover in the sky.  So to put this all together, the bird swooshes across the morning sky until he comes before the poet and just hangs still in an ecstasy. 

Now for the next chunk of meaning:

“then off, off forth on swing,/As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding/Rebuffed the big wind.”

After a moment of hovering, the falcon takes off, swooping like an ice skate heel pulling a precise turn.  In flight, the bird “rebuffs” the wind, that is, checks it or pushes back against it.  This is the first image of the bird in opposition to the wind.

“My heart in hiding/Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing.”

Here the narrator steps forth and tells how at a moment of weakness or fragility—how does one interpret “my heart in hiding”?—was looking for some inspiration, some incredible finesse, some incredible skill, some “mastery.”  That completes the octave, and to put the complex thought together what we have is a poet looking for some inspiration when early one morning he catches sight of a falcon coming across the dawn light.

The sestet has a b-c-b, c-b-c rhyme scheme, which so beautifully interlocks.  And Hopkins chooses some of the hardest words to rhyme: “chevalier” and “vermillion.”  The first three lines of the sestet brings a climax to the bird/wind opposition, and the last three lines explains the meaning of event that enfolded before his eyes.

“Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here/Buckle!”

Here is the climax: the falcon (“brute beauty”) in full skillful sweep collides with the air into a crash.  The metaphor (implied through “chevalier” and “dauphin”) is of jousting knights coming to a crash.  The collision is described as a “Buckle,” and, if anything, how he uses this word shows Hopkins to be a great poet.  What a word to choose here.  To some degree the whole poem rests on this word “Buckle.”  Notice how he enjambs the word to the next line and ends the sentence one word into the line.  That’s a bit unusual, but it gives the word an immense power.  But what does he mean?  When jousting knights collide, their spears buckle.  It means a collapsing and breaking open.  But it means more.  Hopkins is punning on the word.  Buckle, like a belt buckle, brings things together, binds them.  But in what way does a bird flying into the wind buckle?  Yes, it’s metaphorical.  But it’s more than that.  It’s metaphysical.  What buckles and breaks open and binds together is transcendence.

“AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion/Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!”

What breaks open is literally the morning sun bursting with light, lovely and dangerous.  The bird, the wind, the sun, God’s creatures within God’s elements are integrated and charged with spirit.

But Hopkins is not finished there.  He then goes on to explain what the drama that unfolded before him means with two incredible and contrasting metaphors.

“No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion/Shine”

From the lofty action-filled imagery of the falcon and the wind, all of a sudden Hopkins is talking about a plough?  The burst of light, he says, should not be a wonder.  Why?  Because a plough plodding through dirt shines.  From the transcendent imagery of falcon and air and light, Hopkins switches to that of plough and earth and mundane.  Here too that gleam of transcendence is encapsulated in the “shine” that bursts forth from the activity.  Even the word sillion—a word coined by Hopkins, meaning the turned over soil that is not as dusky as that on top—suggests the innate glimmer of the divine that shines in all things, not just with a falcon, but with lowly dirt.

“and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,/Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.”

Here he repeats how the divine is in everything with another image, embers in a fireplace.  As they burn, they fall and break open, and show the “gold vermillion” of its interior beauty.

That provides a reading of the poem.  This post is already a bit long, so I’m going to reserve the implications and aesthetic considerations in a part two, and even discuss a little controversy with this poem.  If you enjoyed this, stay tuned.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Literature in the News: Redefining Religious Fiction

I came across this interesting article, “Redefining Religious Fiction” by D. G. Myers in the online version of Books and Culture: A Christian Review, which I liked to share and comment upon.     Myers opens his essay with a premise. 

The novel of religious faith—or, rather, its disappearance—has been much in the literary news lately. Since the death of Walker Percy a quarter century ago, no American novelist of comparable stature has emerged, it is said, to pack flesh and blood onto the life-altering experience of "something beyond myself" (as the British novelist Muriel Spark shyly described the religious sensation). The last American fiction writer to shout her Christian convictions at the top of her voice was Flannery O'Connor. But now, it is said, while ordinary Christians may bellow from pulpits and political rallies, American fiction has become like the churches of Europe—hushed and almost empty of believers. 

That is a premise that is around today, and I’m not sure it holds up to scrutiny.  Oscar Hijuelos, Ron Hanson, Tony Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, even Don Dellilo have written novels with religious connotations.  To be sure, faith is not as overt in these novels as say in novels from the prior generations, but it’s there subtly.  But nonetheless, Myers has a point; religious literature is not as conspicuous as it used to be.   

Myers goes on to cite a debate between Paul Elie and Gregory Wolfe, where the two take sides on this issue. 

 The main combatants in this cultural clash have been Paul Elie, author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own (a 2003 collective biography of four postwar Catholic writers), and Gregory Wolfe, editor of Image, a literary journal founded to publish work concerned with the faith traditions of the West. A year and a half ago, Elie declared in the New York Times Book Review that religious belief shows up in contemporary fiction, if at all, merely "as something between a dead language and a hangover." Great religious novels like The Brothers Karamazov and Brideshead Revisted are barren of living offspring—except perhaps for the novel Elie admitted that he himself was in the process of writing. Replying in The Wall Street Journal, Gregory Wolfe scolded him for looking in all the wrong places for the wrong thing. "[W]e live in a postmodern world, where any grand narrative is suspect, where institutions are seen as oppressive," Wolfe said. "Indeed, one of the most ancient religious ideas is that grace works in obscure, mysterious ways." 

That Elie essay in the NY Times Book Review can be found online and read here.   The Wolfe Wall Street Journal essay can be read here.     

Elie proposes that religion, though still paramount in American life, has regressed in fiction because of various social changes in the culture. 

[Flannery] O’Connor called for fiction that dramatized “the central religious experience,” which she characterized as a person’s encounter with “a supreme being recognized through faith.” She wrote that kind of fiction herself, shaped by her understanding that in the modern age such an encounter often takes place outside of organized religion — that in matters of belief we find ourselves on our own, practicing “do-it-yourself religion.”  

Today the United States is a vast Home Depot of “do-it-yourself religion.” But you wouldn’t know it from the stories we tell. The religious encounter of the kind O’Connor described forces a person to ask how belief figures into his or her own life and how to decide just what is true in it, what is worth acting on. Tens of millions of Americans have asked those questions. Some of us find ourselves asking them every day. But even in fiction, which prizes the individual point of view, and in our society, which stresses the individual to excess, belief is considered as a social matter rather than an individual one. When we talk about belief we talk about what is permissible — about the sex abuse scandal or school prayer or whether the church should open its basement to 12step everything. What about the whole story? Is it our story? Is belief believable? There the story ends — right where it ought to begin. 

Myers, however, supports Wolfe in that religious fiction has not disappeared from the literary scene, but has been altered stylistically. 

I find myself on Wolfe's side, and not merely because he quoted me in the Journal. Elie commits the error that so many commit in talking about religion: he reduces it to the confession of belief, which must be uttered in a voice loud enough to be heard over the fashionable din. But there is plenty of perfectly good religious fiction, Wolfe reminded Elie, which conveys its faith in "whispers rather than shouts." Elie was dismissive. Why the need to whisper? "It's not like we're in England or Mexico where priests are being hunted," he scoffed in a later interview. But this misses the point. Although religion in what Terry Eagleton calls its "doctrinal inflection" may once have appealed to intellectuals and writers like T. S. Eliot, Allen Tate, and Robert Lowell, for whom conversion was a reawakening of the mind, it no longer does so. The generation of young Americans just now rising to notice is surrounded by an intellectual élite which jeers that religious belief is the death of intelligence. For the Roman Catholics among them, the scandal of clerical sex abuse was an occasion of profound disgust, which led even the most devout to muzzle their faith. The public display of religion has come to seem as false and insincere as public displays of affection. 

Other than the clerical abuse reference (it was disgraceful, but how silly the claim that it led to muzzling our faith), I tend to agree with Myers.  Religious fiction is being written, though not in the same overt manner as it was in the past.  Religious fiction will always be written because great novels show the transcendence of mortality, and religion, at least through Christianity, since that is what I know, is the fullest means of showing transcendence.

Wolfe, who publishes the magazine Image, (I used to subscribe in its early days when I used to read print magazines), summarizes it this way: 

In short, the myth of secularism triumphant in the literary arts is just that—a myth. Yet making lists of counterexamples does not get at a deeper matter. It has to do with the way that faith takes on different tones and dimensions depending on the culture surrounding it.

 Mr. Elie quotes Flannery O'Connor's manifesto: "For the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures." That made sense in the context of her time, when the old Judeo-Christian narrative was locked in a struggle with the new secular narratives of Marx, Freud and Darwin.

However, we live in a postmodern world, where any grand narrative is suspect, where institutions are seen as oppressive. So the late Doris Betts could say that for all her admiration of Flannery O'Connor, her own fiction had to convey faith in whispers rather than shouts. Indeed, one of the most ancient religious ideas is that grace works in obscure, mysterious ways. But obscure is not invisible.

I don’t disagree with Wolfe’s conclusion, but I don’t think it’s fully accurate or complete.  Now here is my perspective as to why today it’s more of a whisper than a shout, as it used to be.  I think it’s more mundane than the intellectual struggles that Wolfe portrays back in mid twentieth century.  The reason I see is that today writers of literary fiction do not want to be identified—or more accurately, “pigeon-holed”—as genre writers.  There are lots of Christian contemporary writers, but they mostly form a genre, and if you want to be considered “literary” you have to, fairly or unfairly, transcend being labeled genre fiction.   I think it’s the market today that has indirectly muted overt religious fiction. 

All three essays, Myer’s, Elie’s, and Wolfe’s are excellent reads and all three—even Elie’s in dissent—cite writers where faith plays a part in the fiction.  You might want to read them to find some new writers to read.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Lines I Wished I’d Written: From “The Wood-Sprite” by Vladimir Nabokov

I’ve wanted to read more Vladimir Nabokov for a while.  The little I’ve read intrigues me, especially for his prose style.  He may be the best prose stylist in English since World War II, and English is not even his first language.  It may not even be his second language.  Just look at how precise and to the point are his sentences in this short story that isn’t even anything he seems to have put real effort in.  The Wood-Sprite”   is such a short little story—three pages—that one could consider it a throw away exercise.  The story is about a “wood-sprite,” some sort of fairy or diety who has been chased out of Russia, presumably by the Bolsheviks, and meets with an exile, the first person narrator.  Nabokov was also chased out by the communists.  The story I believe, though I could not verify, was translated by Nabokov himself.  It was Nabokov’s first published short story. Here is the first quarter of the story.

I was pensively penning the outline of the inkstand's circular, quivering shadow. In a distant room a clock struck the hour, while I, dreamer that I am, imagined someone was knocking at the door, softly at first, then louder and louder. He knocked twelve times and paused expectantly. 

"Yes, I'm here, come in..." 

The door knob creaked timidly, the flame of the runny candle tilted, and he hopped sidewise out of a rectangle of shadow, hunched, gray, powdered with the pollen of the frosty, starry night. 

I knew his face - oh, how long I had known it! 

His right eye was still in the shadows, the left peered at me timorously, elongated, smoky-green. The pupil glowed like a point of rust....That mossy-gray tuft on his temple, the pale-silver, scarcely noticeable eyebrow, the comical wrinkle near his whiskerless mouth - how all this teased and vaguely vexed my memory! 

I got up. He stepped forward. 

His shabby little coat seemed to be buttoned wrong - on the female side. In his hand he held a cap - no, a dark-colored, poorly tied bundle, and there was no sign of any cap.... 

Yes, of course I knew him - perhaps had even been fond of him, only I simple could not place the where and the when of our meetings. And we must have met often, otherwise I would not have had such a firm recollection of those cranberry lips, those pointy ears, that amusing Adam's apple.... 

With a welcoming murmur I shook his light, cold hand, and touched the back of a shabby arm chair. He perched like a crow on a tree stump, and began speaking hurriedly. 

"It's so scary in the streets. So I dropped in. Dropped in to visit you. Do you recognize me? You and I, we used to romp together and halloo at each for days at a time. Back in the old country. Don't tell me you've forgotten?" 

His voice literally blinded me. I felt dazzled and dizzy - I remembered the happiness, the echoing, endless, irreplaceable happiness....

You can read the entire story, a very short read, at A Longhouse Birdhouse, here  or you can hear the story read on Youtube here.  Or listen as you read along.  I enjoy a good oral presentation with the words right in front of me.