Saturday, August 31, 2013

Ag ith císte de mhionta le Kendal

Nuair bhí mé deich mbliana d'aois, chuir mo mháthair baistí orm leabhar chomh brontannas ar mo lá bréithe. Is cuimhne liom é fós. Scríobh sé faoi dreapadh suas Sliabh Everest le Edmund Hillary agus Tenzing Norgay i 1953.

D'fhoghlaim mé an focal "laconic" le Hillary faoi a rath.  Léigh mé fíoris faoi milis i n-phacáiste den dha dreapadoirí freisin. Thúg siad rudaí lomharaí leo.

Rinne císte de mhionta le Kendal siúcra, glúcós, uisce, ola lus a phiobair amháin. Fhílleadh Léna air ais go dtí abhaile go Londain leis é le Romney. Shíl mé faoi an leabhar sin agus scéal go laithreach.

Tá blás géar agus glan é ann. Is cosúil le "York Peppermint Patties" ach gan seacláid. Is maith leo le dreapadoirí mar sin a bhfuil siad lán le fuinneomh ann.

Is cosúil an t-oighear soléir féin. Tá sí ar cheann níos mo ar bunaidh agus ceann siúcra donn. Measaim ní bheidh ar beith ann le fada. 

Eating a Kendal Mint Bar.

When I was ten years old, my godmother gave me a book as a present on my birthday. I remember it still. It was written about the climb up Mount Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953.

I learned about the word "laconic" from Hillary about his success. I read a fact about a sweet in the two climbers' pack. They carried a precious thing with them.

Kendal Mint Cake is made of sugar, glucose, water, and peppermint oil only. Layne returned home from London with it by Romney. I thought of that book and story immediately.

It's a sharp and clean taste. It's like "York Peppermint Patties" but without chocolate. Climbers like them because they're full of energy.

It resembles the clear ice itself. She has one more original and a brown sugar one left. I reckon they will not be there for long.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Katharine Anne Powers' "Suitable Accommodations": Book Review

As the oldest child of a long-suffering writer bent on evading any 9-to-5 routine, Katharine Anne Powers presents her father, J. F. (James Farl known also as Jim) Powers, in a sensitive yet honest "autobiographical story of family life" between 1943 and 1963. He never finished the fictional depiction of his real-life predicament, always chafing against conformity as a conservative Catholic intellectual during the war and the boom years, but as Katharine shows, Jim channeled self-pity and satirical send-ups into his correspondence. From thousands of his letters and some of his journals, she depicts how Jim "worked up the theme of life mowing him down" (xx).

Resigned but never stoic, bitter yet motivated, J. F. took life's difficulties personally. Born in 1917 in small-town Illinois, grandson of an Irish immigrant, early on he opposed giving in. Encouraged by pacifists, inspired by the little-known Detachment movement within the mid-century Catholic counterculture, the Powers family tried to turn away from the capitalist, consumerist, materialist, and militarist majority of FDR's deals and Ike's likes. He dropped out of night school at Northwestern. He groused while catering to a rich man as a chauffeur. Fired from a bookseller's job for refusing to buy war bonds, denied his conscientious objector status as a Catholic (due to "just war" theory), indicted by a grand jury in 1943 for refusing induction, he served thirteen months in a federal penitentiary. His children found out about their father's conviction only in 1959, when a classmate called him a "jailbird".

Certainly, reticence combines with frankness in the Powers clan. These letters reveal a young man determined to go his own way, somehow wrangling the respect of others who would support his desire to simply hide away in the woods, to farm (not a likely vocation), and to write stories. Paroled, assigned as a hospital orderly in St. Paul, he yearns to quit, "But I know it's a forlorn project. I have only my reasons. I can't think of a single one of theirs--and them's the ones that count." (13) This snippet shows Powers' hop between introspection, stubbornness, and slang. Like his characters in the deft short stories, spare and cutting, that he began to publish in literary magazines, their creator enjoyed examining his pain, and expressing his quiet desire for release from his pal, dissatisfaction.

Chief among his targets, and characteristic of his best fiction in story or novel form, the Church and its complacent clergy compelled his sharp gaze. The Church Jim wanted would challenge the secular powers; the Church he found perpetuated its foibles, "second only to Standard Oil", sunk into corruption and incompetence. Powers refused to take a steady paycheck: "eight hours out of my life daily so the system may prosper and the crapshooters running it". (40) What Katharine labels as her father's "intransigence" against working for a living (in a steady job) sparked tension with his wife, Betty Wahl. A diligent writer herself, fresh out of a Minnesota Catholic college, she attracted J. F. He proposed to her two days after he met her. They wrote each other nearly every day before their marriage less than six months later. But, they had met only five times during their courtship. 

A few days before their nuptials, Jim lashes out at Betty by letter after she demurred sharing what would be their first small dwelling with Jim's longtime pal, now a priest. A miscarriage soon after their wedding, a desperation in his letters whenever he and Betty are apart, and Jim's insistence on moving away from the city led to evident stress. Raised first in a dugout with a tar-paper roof, in a Minnesota November, Katharine was born in 1948. The Powers dwelling was set into the ground, fifty degrees inside, barely heated, but with much damp and no running water.

Jim resents sharing Betty's parents' summer cabin--loaned out to the newlyweds despite the Wahls' suspicions about their gangly in-law as an ex-prisoner, pacifist, and  deadbeat--with her family. The Powers return to St. Paul, but the new father finds no contentment. Doggedly impecunious, he bemoans his thrift. But he refuses a job, teaching creative writing now and then if he has to; he turns down an offer at Bennington. When Betty wants to spend five dollars on a cabinet for Katharine, Jim complains in a telling phrase drawn from their religious inculcation: "if we are two in one flesh, we are not yet two in spirit" (98) While their daughter keeps her own italicized commentary spare, one wonders when reading these letters her own reaction to the revelations of one parent to another here.

Katharine's editorial asides tend towards her father's own reticence regarding the inspiration let alone content for his stories. The family appears detached. This may frustrate readers new to Jim's fiction. While all of it is back in print in the NYRB Classics series, neither father nor daughter mention much to clue us in. One of J.F.'s best submissions to The New Yorker is dismissed as "another cat story" as its sole detail; normally Jim satisfies his correspondent with "a story" as the entirety of its reference.

Instead, his letters fill with homely and exasperated content. By the 1950s, Powers attained respect (and among clerics and some outraged faithful, notoriety on a small scale) as a leading writer, however humbly paid, of Catholic mores in the short story form. He longed to work on a novel. Both of his novels draw from his stories, most of which appeared in the postwar decades. His best work limns in spare, direct prose many seething or ambitious characters in the imaginary Ostergothenburg diocese. Put-upon curates, preening pastors and business-first bishops contend against meddling housekeepers, sly nuns, and their pious, annoying, and inept parishioners in small-town, German Catholic and Scandinavian Protestant Minnesota. Jim's fiction presents the petty chancery conflicts and rectory politics within the environment whose liturgically reforming, rural counterculture in a conservative Catholic community had attracted Jim to find Betty (her brother was a monk at the center of this movement, St. John's Abbey and University) and try to live for a while in that dugout.

Unsurprisingly, Jim tensed up. The letters to his bride-to-be demonstrate this. Confronted by responsibility, he resented his procrastination. Children soon followed, five over a decade beginning with Katharine Anne. While Marquette and later Ann Arbor provide him with part-time and sporadic teaching, he rejects a steady position elsewhere. He visits the most frequent recipient of these letters, Fr. Harvey Egan, often staying with him on extended stays, as well as with his parents, who had moved to Albuquerque with a sister. Meanwhile, Fr. Egan keeps supporting him by writing checks.

In between Jim's Minnesota stints in St. Cloud--writing, browsing at Gopher Surplus, watching minor league baseball, listening to boxing matches, and teaching only if he must--the Powers clan lived in Ireland as long as their breadwinner could support them, on the sales of his stories. They moved back and forth a total of four times; three of which are documented by wry Katharine in the span of these letters. This peripatetic decision to keep uprooted attests to both Jim's small budget, in an era when Ireland was affordable compared to the U.S., and to the patriarch's own knowingly romanticized but also realistic appraisals of his ancestral homeland. He longs for Ireland but his visions soon fade. As he silences his local parish priest after the family relocates the first time to staid Greystones to rent a home south of Dublin: "I knew the torture of marriage, had dreamt of the beauties of celibacy." (187)

Yet, from afar (a pattern that seems to increase with time), he writes to Betty--with three small youngsters to care for--on her birthday in 1953: "It's a sad state of affairs when a man's most carnal thoughts are of his wife. See that you are worthy of them." (169) Within whatever these letters disclose or hint, he remained skeptical that marriage or fatherhood would fulfill him. He mocks himself for the lack of "sex" in his fiction, and titles himself "America's Cleanest Lay Author". He longs to run off to a cabin, to keep writing. "I am not by nature cut out for this life, as it's defined in these parts by the chamber of commerce and our bishop, who is devoted to Christian family living, as everyone knows." (212) This deadpan tone suits Powers and his conflicted, capitalist priests well.

On a side trip to St. John's, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton summed up astutely his host for dinner in St. Cloud for his "mixture of dryness and spontaneity, a thin sensitive person whose vocation is to go through many unbearable experiences". (qtd. 228) But by 1957, with a Kenyon Review fellowship, J.F.'s letters express hints of satisfaction. His affection for his greatest fictional creation, Fr. Urban (whose name before he entered the Clementine Order was Harvey Roche), begins to emerge.

The Powers had rented the "red house", St. Cloud's oldest, but when that site was targeted for expansion of the state college, Jim had to carry out a second "removal" of the family to Ireland.  While moving from Greystones to Dalkey nearby, they learned Betty was pregnant with their fifth child. They pass Ireland's coldest Christmas in sixty years, without central heating, in a drafty place.

At 40, despair deepens, despite Jim's recourse to a favorite pastime, sometimes in the company of writer Seán O'Faolain, betting on the horses. He rents a Dublin office only to fritter away most of his time writing letters as well as going to estate auctions, bookbinding, and gluing old furniture. He confides in Fr. Egan: "I personally dislike this stretch of life ahead of me: the father of numerous children; the husband of a woman with no talent for motherhood (once she's conceived); and with the prospect of making no more money than in the past." (294) Yet, he will not let give up his office. He insists that Betty, about to give birth, forget about vacating what she calls a "freezing mausoleum".

He avers that he and Betty will not realize each mistake until they make it, not in the least surprised by each of them. A few of Betty's terse journal entries intersperse with a few of her husband's: "Jim as divinely inspired gadfly" sums him up in his wife's phrase. He abandons trying to make it abroad. Back in St. Cloud, seven Powerses share for awhile another house with Betty's folks.

The Powers move, but Jim loses chapters of his Fr. Urban novel in progress. He tells his confidante Fr. Egan: "You see I have this parrot, who lives in a rectory, and says: God love you!" The Great Plains, as usual, wear him down. Powers hates poses by Twin Cities literati as if poetry matters more than museum fundraisers "hobnobbing with the wives of chain drugstore magnates".  He laments to Betty that he'd rather have good reading vanish than sustain the farce that highbrow culture trumps lowbrow. Shutting himself up rather than retort at a Catholic Worker talk by Dorothy Day, his journal records he has "little faith in the common people to save themselves from themselves". (349)

The slow pace of producing quality fiction defined Powers' long career. Three short story collections total thirty stories over four decades; his two novels in 1962 and 1988 expand some of the clerical settings. Morte d'Urban, the first published, was mishandled by Doubleday. Misprints and text breaks cluttered it; few copies were kept in stock. Evelyn Waugh's blurb was bungled. Still, it won the National Book Award, beating out not only John Updike's Pigeon Feathers but Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, and Ship of Fools by Jim's friend and his daughter's namesake, Katharine Anne Porter.

He tells Fr. Egan ten days before the award was announced how he turned down lecturing at Columbia and the University of Chicago; he tried on "used dress cloth-lined" galoshes at Goodwill. He dismisses St. Cloud to novelist Jack Conroy: Morte shares the bestseller list there with Happiness is a Warm Puppy. He meets Walter Winchell and Hedda Hopper at his acceptance speech, but the awardees' appearance on the Today show is cancelled. He rejects more job offers, dreaming of  buying an Irish house on royalties. Sales of Morte in hardcover by the following summer tally 25,000, half of what he had estimated.

Naturally, the Powerses move back to occupy a drafty hotel in Greystones. This experiment led to the only story Jim wrote about Ireland, "Tinkers" (1975) and to Betty's only novel, Rafferty & Co. (1969). (I critique both in a recent article published before Jim's letters were compiled in the galley proof I review here; Katharine Anne Powers' long-awaited edition of her father's correspondence enriches the limited source material previously available on J.F. Powers and Betty Wahl.)

Katharine shares an afterword, reacting to reading twenty-one years of letters. Jim's droll wit and turns of phrase "won me over"; she felt a distance from herself and the situations described. Her sister Jane, while "bowled over" by J.F.'s warmth in the early letters for Betty, ultimately felt saddened. Their father's "truculence" rankled, and the extent of his determined impracticality rouses uneasiness.

His oldest daughter cuts off her father's garrulous or telegraphic reminiscences at the end of 1963. She conjectures this as when and where the "family novel" mooted by Jim would have concluded. He had moved to Ireland to evade popular culture, but as his children matured during the 1960s, Katharine predicts that J.F. could not have handled their evolution during this--of all decades. She alludes to a crucial fact downplayed tactfully by Betty's fictional counterpart in her own family novel: "it was based in a gentle way, far too gentle, I would say, on life in Ireland with a man something like Jim". (420) Katharine's mother tried to write daily when she was not cooking, cleaning, scrimping, and saving. A shy or evasive sense within these letters, I add, is the tacit presence of Betty's devotion.

While Jim frittered away years, Betty followed a strict schedule and tried to bring in some money by stories in The Kenyon Review and The New Yorker. They share with Jim's stories economic prose, no sex, and a bemused eye cast upon domestic distress, greed, folly, fate, and gullibility. Thrift, schemes, and restlessness characterize both writers. Her satirical, poignant, if a bit uneven (a subplot sprawls) Rafferty spun off her shorter fiction, similar to her husband's stories extended into Morte and Wheat That Springeth Green. That appeared the same year Betty died of cancer, 1988. Jim held out to 1999. A professor at St. Cloud State, the college whose expansion uprooted the "red house" and sparking "removal" two to Ireland, told me that he feared approaching Jim, who suffered no fool gladly. (To Amazon US in shorter, revised form 8-20-13; as above 8-13-13 to RePrint/ PopMatters)

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find": Book Review

Thirty-odd years after I first read these stories, I heard them read aloud. Marguerite Gavin, who often brings her supple, adept voice to mysteries, is well suited to dramatizing for Blackstone Audio the eccentrics, bigots, and drifters of Southern Gothic, who populate these stories published in the mid-1950s.

Many of Flannery O'Connor's stories were assigned in my college course on Religious Themes in American literature, and Theology and Literature, unsurprisingly. Those in the know with Scripture, and also with Protestant down-home versions of how it's interpreted as opposed to (at least pre-Vatican II) Catholic orthodoxy can draw out strands of the rich intellectual and spiritual traditions inspiring O'Connor, which her letters document well published as "The Habit of Being." Some also are in the handsome Library of America edition of her writings.

Yet, these often lively stories remain entertaining and thoughtful for all. They're accessible for those without religious grounding, even if such an audience will miss many references and allusions, in a time when fewer are raised with such literacy. I've tried to teach "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" with its grim, bespectacled Misfit and its desperate, caricatured, but in the end oddly endearing if no less annoying grandmother. It worked to put off more than it won over. The dark humor of "Good Country People" might be appreciated for those with a taste for bad taste, rather than those mystified by satire with an edge and a disturbing sense of how the transcendent descends. Perhaps such stories are better recommended than analyzed in a classroom--they may lose some energy when taken apart too diligently, however well intended the dissection may be.

O'Connor's craft in such stories, getting us to laugh at those she satirizes, like Hulga in "Good Country People," before going on to reveal her protagonists' vulnerability, reveals O'Connor's considerable talent. Gavin's skill works to enhance those in stories that on paper held less interest for me. "The Artificial Nigger" (Amazon rejected my review when I wrote that noun out) with its relentless evocation of a terrible Atlanta cityscape as seen by a cruel old man and his grandson sizzles. Racial themes simmer in many contexts here, even if they rarely boil over: this tension O'Connor exploits deftly. "A Late Encounter with the Enemy" with its old Confederate as in a museum trotted out works better as a vocal performance than a story, for me; similarly, "The River" felt very symbolic and predestined with its ending, and for me this (as with some others included here) lacks the lighter touch of O'Connor's best stories, but listening to it, it kept my interest more.

"The Life You Save May Be Your Own" cannot be topped for sheer meanness; "A Circle in the Fire" and "A Temple of the Holy Ghost" were both solid stories, even if their plots failed to intrigue me as much as others. "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" with its comedy turned terror by skillful foreshadowing and "Good Country People" with what feels like Flannery's basis in gleeful yet poignant semi-self-caricature remain for me the standouts.

All the same, Gavin's navigation of Irish and Polish as well as diverse Southern accents for "The Displaced Person" enriched this lengthier story. The last in the collection, it tackles issues of alienation, unbelief, and conversion in a more sustained, character-driven manner which displays an intriguing application of Cold War paranoia, post-Holocaust repulsion, and relentless poetic or divine justice as felt by an insecure white woman running a motley crew of field hands. Some stories sticking in the memory more than others. But all merit attention. It's a recommended introduction to her storytelling, followed by the ambitious, tense ones she was working on when she died, "Everything That Rises Must Converge." (Amazon US 7-29-12)

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Edmund Gosse's "Father and Son": Book Review

In 1907, this "study of two temperaments" dramatized religious convention opposed to rational modernism. Edmund's father, Philip Henry Gosse, ran a Plymouth Brethren household. His wife died of cancer, and the son movingly documents her own demise, drawing from her diary, and enriched by his own recollections. After she dies, at twilight, he seeks his father's embrace: "I used to turn my face up to his, patiently and wonderingly, while the large, unwilling tears gathered in the corners of his eyelids." While the severity of his parents' attitudes has been challenged by scholars of Edmund's dramatic and eloquent narrative, the power of the clash of tradition and innovation at intimate levels during the mid-nineteenth century's encounter with Darwin's revolutionary theory can be felt.

As a naturalist, Philip tried to reconcile the new doctrine, arguing in the book "Omphalos" that as Adam added a navel thanks to God's intervention, so His plan allowed for fossils embedded to look as if a more antiquated cosmos had been intended from the beginning. Philip thought his argument would reconcile atheists and believers, but he was shattered when his book met with dismissal and was ignored. He popularized the Devon tide pools, and Edmund recalls with bittersweet detail the wonders that the shores once held undisturbed in his youth--until his father's studies and illustrations convinced many others to visit the beaches, and to ruin the fragile ecosystem irreparably.

Therefore, in its environmental as well as creationist themes, you can see the relevance a century later of this account. He describes the Victorian conventional mindset well. "People would, for instance, go on living over a cess-pool. working themselves up in an agony to discover how they had incurred the displeasure of the Lord, but never moving away." He also engagingly portrays the shift to an "extreme" Puritan and fundamentalist sensibility as he and his father--soon with a stepmother--live in a hamlet in Devonshire. There, away from the city, the foibles of trust in those deemed upright and righteous turns sad, or subtly satirical. A spinning top or a plum pudding, the word "Carmine" all loom large in the young child's mind, and can terrorize as deviations from the approved mentality.

While he's precociously allowed to be baptized before adulthood after being grilled by the elders, he finds the "mechanical address" and empty language of his prayers a telling revelation. Like a pot that surrounds an already growing plant, he feels as if he's trapped, and tries to grow up around the suppressing weight of the pattern imposed. He grows apart from the faith of his father, and in the final section breaks away as a maturing man from Philip. "The incidents of human life upon the road to glory were less than nothing to him," a man of belief.

Seeking a truer criterion of "moral justice" than that of the Christian Judge, Edmund refuses to sanction an Almighty who would condemn millions for "a purely intellectual error of comprehension." So, individualism, the ability to think for himself, takes control. He refuses to compromise, and no truce, he concludes, could have been acceptable between son and father. (Read  via Project Gutenberg for the Kindle. Amazon US 11-9-12.)

Friday, August 23, 2013

Robert Hugh Benson's "Lord of the World": Book Review

This imagines, penned in 1907, the apocalypse as envisioned in the Book of Revelation, with innovative plot twists. While Msgr. Benson's vision of 1971 or so of course could not have predicted the fall of the British or Turkish Empires, or the rise of the Bolsheviks and Fascists, it does set up a convincing lurch to a one-world state under the curious and sudden power exerted by Julian Felsenburgh. This Vermont senator takes over, it seems, nearly every land. Rome stands as a holdout, the Vatican regressing to a pre-modern enclave, while velors (nice steampunk touch--giant propelled dirigible-like transports) and trains globalize the realms freed from royalty, who find refuge in Rome.

Alone, the Catholic Church does not capitulate. Its priests hunted and its followers persecuted, Fr. Percy Franklin represents the indirect first-person narrator for much of the plot. He will face an unexpected duty to carry out far from his humble post. His London-based dystopian yet wondrous city gains Benson's detailed and exciting command of detail. The velo-rides over the Alps, London, and later Palestine as seen from above or afar convey a feverish sensibility, as if hallucinogenic--compare Chesterton's "The Man Who Was Thursday." I've never read in a popular novel as "Lord of the World" such an attempt to depict the dark nights and bright encounters of meditation--both a Catholic mystic and a secular approach interestingly compared via Percy and Mabel, one who struggles to believe in the New Faith under Felsenburgh's ascent to dominance.

Here you gain a sample of Benson's style, as he contrasts the Two Cities, of God and Man, and the Lords over each. Mabel "contrasted the selfish individualism of the Christian, who sobbed and shrank from death, or at the best, thought of it only as the gate to his own eternal life, with the free altruism of the New Believer who asked no more than that Man should live and grow, that the Spirit of the World should triumph and reveal Himself {Julian Felsenburgh}, while he, the unit, was content to shrink back into the reservoir from which he drew his life."

The enemy, socialist and humanist thought turned into anti-religious action under a stern if at first somewhat tolerant regime promoting euthanasia, takes over as in such melodramas its own platform to convince the reader. The pace can get creaky, and the preaching by both the Pope's side and his foes does go on and on. The characters do fall into the patterns of mouthpieces for their causes, but Mabel in the author's climactic scene with her does evoke a fantastic, dream-like aura that compels.

Benson does to his credit (and vocation) deliver a sense of the appeal of an anti-Catholic, pro-liberal set of convictions, and his characters do struggle with Catholic teaching during their own dry spells and periods of doubt. He, in Mabel and the ex-priest (one of many in the Last Days) Francis, reveals how often--as a convert himself to the Church and the son of no less than the Archbishop of Canterbury--Robert Hugh Benson must have heard similar arguments against faith and for reason in his own life and his rejection of his family's religion. The tension of reason and belief continues, and both sides try to reconcile the two modes, to speculative and convincing methods recalling the efforts of post-1789 France to eliminate the clerisy and to establish a rationally based public religion. This can get very didactic and the now-vanished air of pre-Vatican II casts a nostalgic, incense-filled glow over what's turned in our reality as antiquated, but Benson keeps the "steampunk" and political thriller-type of action coming, amidst the expected lengthy explanations by the friends and foes of the Vatican's remnant. 

Some lament what they label as anti-semitism in early chapters, but I found these allusions expected if unfortunate in its typical Catholic tone (the Church after all held that it kept the full revelation and means to salvation) for the time, which also sends up Masons and others deemed doughty foes of the Tridentine Church, which fought Modernism during this era. Careful readers may sense in later scenes a subtle shift, while still "orthodox" naturally or spiritually, to a nuanced appreciation of the Holy Land. Trying to apply this End Times thriller to our times, in a changed geopolitical and religious culture and mindset post-Vatican II, seems about as fruitless as any generation's attempt to link scriptural and coded warnings to current events, but the theme retains inherent interest for a few.

One need not be a Catholic to appreciate the aims of this dramatization of the battle between "Supernaturalism" and "Humanism." As with most artifacts a century old, you can admire parts and discard others. The earnest message, while sometimes declaimed by those for and against the Roman legions at more than necessary length, remains a thoughtful way to speculate on the clash of tradition and progressivism as seen from the early part of the last century.  (I read this for free via Project Gutenberg as an Kindle e-book; Amazon US 11-9-12)

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

John Thavis' "The Vatican Diaries": Book Review

Nearly three decades of reporting from the Vatican, spanning the reigns of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, enliven this insider’s account. Close enough to introduce us to the intrigues, scandals, and idealism mingled in Rome, distanced enough as a Catholic layman, John Thavis fluently interprets the diplomatic phrases and nuanced customs which characterize its clerisy. The Vatican Diaries, despite its somewhat sensationalist title, provides a thoughtful meditation on recent papal administrations, and the bureaucrats, functionaries, and emissaries who advance or thwart Rome’s global ambitions. 

Very readable, Mr. Thavis’ narrative favors opening vignettes that feel more fictional than factual, as he documents everyday life on 110 crowded and ancient acres. Whether discussing bells rung to signal a new pope’s election which contend against human error and technological snafus, the rowdy camaraderie of the volo papale of the jet-age press corps in an age of Internet competition, or the increasingly sordid sexual and financial abuse by the founder of the controversial Legionaries of Christ, Mexican priest Marciel Maciel, Mr. Thavis relates dissension vividly, with telling quotes and thought-provoking asides. 

For instance, he contrasts the need for the press to “eyeball” the Pope for hints of non-verbal as well as verbal confirmation of a particular Vatican affirmation or denial. Expert in such interpretations, Mr. Thavis reminds readers how in a networked age, the need for physical contact persists—not only among those who flock to an audience with the pontiff, but those skilled in unmasking clerical imposters eager to finagle their way to a hearing with John Paul or Benedict. This aspect enriches the behind-the-scenes detail and it humanizes the teeming crowds, and the watchful employees tasked with keeping an eye on the millions.

“The real Vatican is a place where cardinals crack jokes and lose their tempers, where each agency of the Roman Curia jealously guards its turf, where the little guys and big shots may work at cross-purposes, and where slipups and misunderstandings are common. It’s a place where the pope’s choice of a particular hat can become the raging controversy of the day, and where an American cardinal hell-bent on underground parking can evict a two-thousand-year-old necropolis. It’s a place where the carefully orchestral liturgies and ceremonies sometimes become unglued.” 

Unpredictability, with a new pope, challenges the clerics and staff accustomed to a predecessor’s steady style. John Thavis contrasts the two natures of the last two popes. Benedict XVI prefers a detached, perhaps resigned air, while John Paul hosted folk Masses filled with guitars, Third World adaptations of ritual, and sing-alongs with youth. Determined to “shore up the base” rather than embark on globetrotting, Benedict appears to have “zero interest” in glad-handing. 

Whether the fading European core of the Church can revive appears doubtful. A pair of chapters demonstrates this artfully. Tridentine and traditionalist efforts of the Lefebvrist revanchists who oppose Vatican II’s reforms appear to flounder. The Church tries to lure back the reactionaries, but the recalcitrant faction digs in. As one informant, a Vatican official code-named the “Warbler” chortles: “I’m convinced they’re a sect, and when they do come back they’ll need deprogramming, because otherwise they’re useless. They’re troublemakers.”

Ironically, another troublemaker champions Latin against an ebbing interest in the ancient liturgical and diplomatic language once common to all in the Vatican. Fr. Reginald Foster’s profile provides a case study in how a fat Carmelite friar in overalls, a true iconoclast, can anger both conservatives and liberals.  He’s funny and on-target, but it’s sobering how Latin’s erosion undermines continuity among scholars, clergy, and now hierarchy who come to Rome ignorant of its heritage.

Another priest, Jesuit Fr. Peter Gumpel, emerges in a nuanced portrait of him as an “investigating judge” charged with the debate for the prosecution, against a firm front pushing the cause of Pius XII’s beatification forward. The telling detail stands out, under Mr. Thavis’ careful eye: “His vast wooden desk was a landscape of books and mementos. At its center a small wooden crucifix was laid flat, surrounded by porcelain figurines of dogs that looked sadly upon the crucified Christ, a bizarre and touching little tableau.” The comparison with Gumpel’s German family’s fate under the Nazis and the complicated contexts surrounding Pius and his tenure under fascist rule during the same war in Rome offer valuable reflection on the political and ideological currents swirling around the decisions mortal men must make when confirming the canonization of other men and women, now departed, as saints.

More politics crashes in, as in a deadpan recital of George W. Bush’s meeting with the current pope. Despite the “secret” archives attributed to sinister Catholic plots, the fact is that the records are kept closed except to qualified researchers, and the decorum that perhaps President Bush failed to appreciate in the Vatican persists as a manifestation of those quixotic guardians of Rome’s heritage, jealously guarding a two-thousand year legacy. Poignantly, an intricate chapter on an underground parking lot shoved through a Vatican hill by a bottom-line Michigan cardinal demonstrates the efforts of archeologists to preserve remnants of a truly ancient Roman cemetery, already cut in two by impatient bulldozers. 

Often, one reflects on tension between tradition and progress in the Vatican--as throughout the Church. Mr. Thavis listens to how clerics and popes issue statements, and he masterfully explains how a 2009 “condom study” in its theological suppositions belies the popular, anti-papal caricatures post-Humanae Vitae and its unpopular 1968 ban on artificial birth control. Mr. Thavis finds “wiggle room” in one application of condoms, and he keeps this and related topics lively in a chapter on sexuality. While Mr. Thavis’ own sympathies can be discerned, he fairly presents the practical as well as philosophical reasoning on both sides of hot-button issues. 

He also watches the pope when he strolls down the aisle to a wary press corps, the volo papale, in coach class, mid-flight. “As always in his off-the-cuff comments, Benedict spoke rapidly and without much expression, as if he were taking dictation directly from God.” This moment typifies the care with which this veteran bureau chief for the Catholic News Service (a humbler outfit than his title or placement may suggest), assembles telling moments. This sums up the Church’s leaders and the staff who assists and outwits them. One closes John Thavis’ perceptive study reflecting on the Vatican’s challenge: to persist in a secularizing world sometimes fascinated by the pomp and pageantry of St. Peter’s--but often hostile or increasingly indifferent to the Church’s determined mission to harmonize warring factions and bickering enemies, even if both are on the same Catholic side. (P.S. When I reviewed this for the New York Journal of Books 2-21-13, I cited Benedict's "resigned" attitude towards the papacy. Talk about prescient.)

Monday, August 19, 2013

Laurence Cossé's "A Corner of the Veil": Book Review

Very elusive, fittingly or ironically, about the actual proof of God that floors a few Casuists (read: Jesuits) and a French prime minister during the year before Y2K. The Parisian setting is underused, the characters probably stand ins for politicians or pundits that the original audience might recognize, and the tone's droll as you'd expect. Linda Asher's translation captures the worldly-wise ambiance of the original, I assume, and the results entertain.

Able to be perused (small size, big margins) in a single evening, the plot naturally keeps you guessing. As to the proof, the idea that God the Father is exposing Himself by imposing Himself upon man via Christ and the Spirit so people figure out (presumably) that the divine "becoming" permeates all of God's creation sums up the gist of the daring breakthrough. The difficulty is that Laurence Cossé teases us as she does the characters who try to penetrate the mystery of the document's contents. She, too, lifts up the veil's corner but she refuses to let us peek. We must watch others look inside.

This distancing, while it makes sense for her revelations, or their lack for the reader, may please some who wish like some in the pages not to know it all. The advantages of doubt articulated by prominent figures make for an intriguing meditation. I never thought of the shift that would happen if people could know God and how that might diminish rather than increase goodness.

You get some discussion of this scenario as the advisors in elite clerical and state realms battle over the social impacts of this proof. Cossé appears to believe that people would generally favor frugality and compassion, but she along with certain figures warns that brutality and cynicism could grow as "everything is permitted" in the calculating eye of some determined dissenters. I think she gives people too much credit for the positive aspects of a revelation like this, for in a secularized era, it seems many would not fall for this message from above, if theorized by one from below.

It may be a nod to popular sensibilities, but I am unsure the plot needed the thriller aspects that it enters later on. A Corner of the Veil reminded me in its substance, however coyly, of the Jesuit French maverick Teilhard de Chardin's immanent concept of the Incarnation entering the cosmos and the mentality of all created lives and souls. Curious why nobody among the learned mentioned this vision from a bold predecessor who met with his own censure from the powers that be. (Amazon US 5-20-13)

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Christian Wiman's "My Bright Abyss": Book Review

Diagnosed on his thirty-seventh birthday via a “curt voice mail message” with cancer, Christian Wiman confronts his fate, his drift from his West Texas Baptist small-town upbringing, and his decision to revive his “latent” faith, conscious of all its confusions and ambiguities. After twenty years a poet, he analyzes in these spare essays his seven years living with bone marrow transplants, and with his two twin daughters and his wife, as he faces down pain and as he examines belief.

Mr. Wiman warns early on: “if you have believed at fifty what you believed at fifteen, then you have not lived — or have denied the reality of your life”. His life has been a wandering one; he mentions moving forty times in fifteen years. While little of his background or subsequent profession emerges from the few facts he chooses to share, he shares much about his thoughts on death, mortality, and divine presence, or the lack of such when examining the impact of his prognosis. 

The essays, which an acknowledgement notes were published in some form in eleven different publications, may stray from the themes of modern belief. Yet, for all its dispersion, this book roams around a central concern for a contemporary Christian. For one schooled in modernism, and for one committed to the craft of literature, Mr. Wiman contemplates the predicament of those raised after post-modernism, who prefer to believe in -- or argue over -- a good book more than the Good Book. 

Borrowing Paul Tillich’s phrase, Mr. Wiman posits that art replaces death as the “ultimate concern” today. Whereas for Dickinson, Stevens, Beckett, and Camus, a transcendental absence beckoned, for more recent writers, post-modernism “sought to eliminate death in the frenzy of the instant, to deflect it with irony and hard-edged surfaces in which, because nothing was valued more than anything else, nothing was subject to ultimate confirmation or denial”. Certainly, “ultimate” hovers as a telling term here, as Mr. Wiman urges a fresh way “to imagine ourselves in and out of death”, even if “the old religious palliatives” such as the Christian idea of heaven certainly appear inadequate. 

Citing Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mr. Wiman finds a congenial if chilly voice: “The God who lets his love in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually.” 

Yet, like dew, his own faith rests as he awakes some days, full of promise. Then “it gets burned off in the rising sun of anxieties, ambitions, distractions”. Such honesty offers readers skeptical of faith-claims and inspirational bromides a brisk, sobering series of reflections on a mature acceptance of faith affirmed cautiously. 

Alienation permeates many of these short chapters. They may stay calm or they may turn edgy. Language, lies, his calling as a poet, frustration, and death as our inevitable sentence: all crowd these pages with a serious look at faith. “Faith is the word faith decaying into pure meaning.”

After tenderly commending the love and support given by his daughters and his wife, Mr. Wiman in his chemotherapy-induced pain realizes: “It was God straining through matter to make me see, and to grant me the grace of simple praise.” The final chapter of these accessible, yet learned, meditations tries to avoid the tone of an elegy. Still, its author admits, “the very things that have led us to God are the things we must sacrifice”. 

Recommended for readers who prefer poetry and criticism to platitudes or self-help texts, this memoir suits an audience able to balance intelligent insight with open-minded possibility, as a talented poet challenges his own and our verities. (4-20-13 to New York Journal of Books)