The Bonzo Dog Band: Look At Me I'm Wonderful
52 Authors: Week 48 - Mary Renault

52 Authors: Week 47 - Walker Percy

I've read all of Walker Percy's books, some of them two or three times, with the exception of the non-fiction Message in the Bottle. (I consciously chose not to read it because I was under the impression that it was a fairly technical piece of philosophy and linguistic theory, but I've been told that I'm mistaken about that and should read it.) But it's been quite a few years since I read most of them. The most recent was Love in the Ruins, and that was ten years or so back. So what follows represents views formed ten to thirty-five years ago. I'm just going to list the books in order of publication, with a brief opinion.

First, a very quick biographical note on Percy, because his life is more directly and obviously relevant to his work than is sometimes the case. You can't read more than one of his novels without surmising that his main character is pretty similar from book to book and is most likely pretty similar to the author as well. Moreover, the novels are, as Percy himself said, novels of ideas, and the ideas are also connected to his life in a very straightforward way.

So: he was born in 1916, to an affluent family in an affluent suburb of Birmingham (Alabama). When he was thirteen, his father committed suicide, as had his father before him. When he was fifteen, his mother was killed in an automobile accident that may have been suicide. Thereafter he and his two brothers were raised by "Uncle Will," William Alexander Percy, actually a second cousin, a Southern aristocrat with significant literary talents and interests. Walker Percy went to medical school at Columbia, graduating in 1941. Not surprisingly, he had psychological troubles, and undertook psychotherapy around this time. In 1942 (I think) he contracted tuberculosis while working in a hospital. He spent several years recovering, during which time he did a great deal of reading and thinking.

In 1946 he married. In 1947 he and his wife ("Bunt"--very Southern) were received into the Catholic Church. He never got around to practicing medicine--family money, I suppose--but began writing, and in 1961 published his first novel, The Moviegoer. He published more books over the next thirty years and died in 1991.

One more thing before I look at the novels: Percy's scope is limited, and the Percy Protagonist (henceforth PP) is fundamentally consistent throughout the six novels. He is an upper-class Southerner in comfortable material circumstances but in psychological difficulties, sometimes quite serious. He feels himself disconnected and disoriented in the world, unable to participate in it as other people seem to do, finding himself miserably at sea in everyday life but exhilarated at times of crisis: he often feels bad when he should feel good, and feels good when he should feel bad. And he's trying to figure out what's wrong with the world, and what's wrong with him, all the while observing both carefully with a dry and whimsical humor, and a very sharp eye for the physical detail, not to mention for southern culture and manners. 

The Moviegoer (1961) won the National Book Award. The PP here is Binx Bolling, a New Orleans stockbroker, fairly young and single.

The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie. Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.

The movies are more real to him than real life, but this is not the simple case of escapism that you might suppose. It's not that his life is miserable, and so he prefers fantasy to reality--his life is entirely pleasant--or that he's delusional and can't tell the difference--he is all too well aware of the difference. It's that reality and movies have swapped ontological status. The supposed actual has been emptied of its actuality, which is now possessed by the movies. 

I consider The Moviegoer to be Percy's best novel in purely literary terms. It's not necessarily my personal favorite, but it is a beautifully polished gem.

The Last Gentleman appeared in 1964. It's a much longer and more rambling book than The Moviegoer. The PP is Will Barrett, and he's considerably more messed up than Binx Bolling. 

He began to get things backward. He felt bad when other people felt good and good when they felt bad. Take an ordinary day in New York. The sun is shining, people live well, go about satisfying their needs and achieving goals, work at creative jobs, attend cultural attractions, participate in interesting groups. This is, by every calculation, as it should be. Yet it was on just such a day as this, an ordinary Wednesday or Thursday, that he felt the deepest foreboding. And when his doctor, seeking to reassure him, suggested that in these perilous times a man might well be entitled to such a feeling, that only the insensitive did not, etc., it made him feel worse than ever. The analyst had got it all wrong. It was not the prospect of the Last Day which depressed him but rather the prospect of living through an ordinary Wednesday morning.

He is a southerner living in solitary exile in New York City. Having worked for a while as a "maintenance engineer" running the heating and air-conditioning equipment at Macy's, he is, from the point early in the narrative where this fact is revealed, referred to as "the engineer." I seem to remember that there is some explanation for this, that it's an ironic way of describing his effort to assemble the pieces of his personality and the world around him. Or perhaps that's something a critic said. At any rate, it seems applicable.

It is a strange wandering story which, to tell the truth, I could not begin to reconstruct. It opens with Will at the eyepiece of a telescope through which he hopes to spot a peregrine falcon, but which instead brings into his vision a girl named Kitty. Kitty is also a southerner, and the engineer gets very involved with her and her family, the Vaughts: Sutter, a sort of nihilist who wants to kill himself; Val, a nun; Jamie, the youngest, who is dying. As you might imagine from that setup, the theological and philosophical stuff gets fairly thick, and the engineer ends up in Birmingham dealing with the entire Vaught family at Jamie's deathbed. 

I've often named Love in the Ruins (1970) as my personal favorite of Percy's novels. As a novel it isn't the best, but it's certainly a lot of fun. Subtitled "The Adventures of a Bad Catholic At a Time Near the End of the World", it could perhaps technically be classified as science fiction. It is very much a novel of the 1960s, dealing with all sorts of topical matters: liberal vs conservative politics, race relations, sexual liberation, hippies. The PP is Dr. Thomas More, a Louisiana physician whose wife, now deceased, had taken up spiritual chicanery of the sort that would soon be called New Age-ism. He has invented a device called the ontological lapsometer, which measures how far a person has fallen (from grace?). Unfortunately he goes a step further and gives the device the capability of remedying that fall by tweaking the chemistry of the brain. The story which follows is preposterous but very entertaining, involving the intrusion of the, or perhaps just a, devil, who is very interested in promoting the wide distribution of the lapsometer. A motif which I believe is mentioned in the earlier books comes to the forefront here: the longing of a middle-aged man to escape the dreariness and decay of middle-class life and, with a younger woman, start not just a new life but a new society. (Yes, the recurrence of this motif does cause one to worry a bit for Percy.)

The first three novels are, in my opinion, his best. The remaining ones show a definite falling-off, though they're still very much worth reading if you like Percy, and to my taste much more worth reading that most fiction of our time.

Lancelot (1977) is a very dark book. The PP, the Lancelot of the title, is in prison, and for good reason. The first-person narrative is addressed to a priest who visits him in his cell. Lancelot is angry, disgusted by the emptiness and moral squalor of the modern world--if my memory is correct, there is some pretty effective satire of the combination of moral pretension and corruption which were making the entertainment industry so loathsome by the 1970s. 

The Second Coming (1980) brings back Will Barrett, now twenty years older. He did not marry Kitty, nor did he join the Vaught family's Chevrolet dealership in Birmingham. He married a New York Episcopalian, became a corporate lawyer and made a lot of money, led a normal life, but is beginning to come apart again. His father, like Percy's, committed suicide, and this book deals with that trauma in a painfully direct way. His wife is, like Thomas More's, now dead--conveniently for the younger woman/new world dream--and Kitty has re-entered his life. But middle-aged Kitty is a somewhat crass woman, and it's not she but her schizophrenic daughter Allie for whom Barrett falls. The climax of the book is an elaborate plan set up by Barrett to force God to prove his existence. Leafing through the book now, I wonder if it might be better than I originally thought. But I also notice that it is, as I recalled, more harsh and crude than the first three. I doubt that I'm going to change my view that it isn't quite up to them, but I do want to re-read it.

Lost In the Cosmos (1983) is a delight and a triumph. Subtitled "The Last Self-Help Book", it's not a novel, but a unique mix of psychology, humor, philosophy, theology, and narrative. It is unfortunately not practical for me to reproduce as much of it here as I would like to in order to communicate to you the combination of amusement and enlightenment to be found here. I'll give you a bit of the opening.



The Strange Case of the Self, your self, the Ghost which Haunts the Cosmos


How you can survive in the Cosmos about which you know more and more while knowing less and less about yourself, this despite 10,000 self-help books, 100,000 psychotherapists, and 100 million fundamentalist Christians


Why it is that of all the billions and billions of strange objects in the Cosmos--novas, quasars, pulsars, black holes--you are beyond doubt the strangest


Why it is possible to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus, which is 6,000 light-years away, than you presently know about yourself, even though you've been stuck with yourself all your life...

Most of the book consists of a

Twenty-Question Multiple-Choice Self-Help Quiz to test your knowledge of the peculiar status of the self, your self and other selves, in the Cosmos, and your knowledge of what to do with your self in these, the last years of the twentieth century.

The twenty questions each constitute a chapter of the book, and to communicate the outrageous humor and acuity of these questions would require typing in the entire chapter. But each one begins with a statement of the general ground covered by the question, and here is one:

(9) The Envious Self (in the root sense of envy: invidere, to look at with malice): Why it is that the Self--though it Professes to be Loving, Caring, to Prefer Peace to War, Concord to Discord, Life to Death; to Wish Other Selves Well, not Ill--in fact Secretly Relishes Wars and Rumors of War, News of Plane Crashes, Assassinations, Mass Murders, Obituaries, to say nothing of Local News about Acquaintances Dropping Dead in the Street, Gossip about Neighbors Getting in Fights or being Detected in Sexual Scandals, Embezzlements, and other Disgraces

There is also an "intermezzo of some forty pages" about halfway through, and these are among the most important forty pages in Percy's work. They lay out in a way that the average reader can understand "an elementary semiotical grounding of the theory of self taken for granted in these pages." It is the answer, or at least a crucial component of the answer, to the question "What is Percy driving at, really?" that plagues the reader of the novels. If someone who had never read Percy at all asked my advice, I would say "First get Lost in the Cosmos and read the semiotic primer that lies between chapters 12 and 13. Then take your pick of The MoviegoerThe Last Gentleman, and Love in the Ruins."

 The Thanatos Syndrome (1987) was Percy's last novel. I have to say that I don't remember it very well. I may like it better than The Second Coming, but I'd have to read both again to be sure. If my very general memory is correct, it's different from all the other novels except Love in the Ruins in being about more than the psychology of one man. Both are more external, more social stories, with a stronger component of social commentary--not that it's absent from any of them, but it's more in the foreground in those two. And the PP is the same in both. In Thanatos, Dr. Thomas More returns. He has settled down and married Ellen, one of his three girlfriends in Love in the Ruins. He practices medicine in a reasonably conventional manner (apart from a short prison term, I think for selling prescription drugs illicitly) in a small Louisiana town. He discovers that something sinister is going on. Someone is tampering with the water supply, with the purpose of chemically shutting down those troublesome elements of the human psyche that cause envy, depression, anxiety, reckless love affairs, wars, and all the rest of it. There's actually an element of mystery story here, even a touch of thriller. 

Signposts in a Strange Land (199) is a collection of short non-fiction pieces published over a period of 35 years or more. They're a mixed bag, but while I wouldn't say the book is essential reading for those who are not devotees of the author, many of them are worth reading anyway. And Percy enthusiasts most definitely shouldn't miss them.

To tell you the truth, writing this post has been, is, a frustrating experience. There is just far too much to be said in too little space and too little time. I have about 2500 words already, and I can think of a dozen more points that should be made. And although I've covered all of Percy's fiction I haven't really given you a very good idea of what it's like. I haven't communicated the sheer pleasure of reading him at his best. So I'm going to close by turning the lectern over to Percy. Here is the opening of Love in the Ruins:

In a pine grove on the southwest cusp of the interstate cloverleaf

5 P.M. / July 4

Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself in a grove of young pines and the question came to me: has it happend at last?

Two more hours should tell the story. One way or the other. Either I am right and a catastrophe will occur, or it won't and I'm crazy. In either case the outlook is not so good.

Here I sit, in any case, against a young pine, broken out in hives and waiting for the end of the world. Safe here for the moment though, flanks protected by a rise of ground on the left and an approach ramp on the right. The carbine lies across my lap.

Just below the cloverleaf, in the ruined motel, the three girls are waiting for me.

Undoubtedly something is about to happen.

Or is it that something has stopped happening?

Is it that God has at last removed his blessing from the U.lS.A. and what we feel now is just the clank of the old historical machinery, the sudden jerking ahead of the roller-coaster cars as the chain catches hold and carries us back into history with its ordinary catastrophes, carries us out and up toward the brink from that felicitous and privileged siding where even unbelievers admitted that if it was not God who blessed the U.S.A., then at least some great good luck had befallen us, and that now the blessing or the luck is over, the machinery clanks, the chain catches hold, and the cars jerk forward?

It is still hot as midafternoon. The sky is a clear rinsed cobalt after the rain. Wet pine growth reflects the sunlight like steel knitting needles. The grove steams and smells of turpentine. Far away the thunderhead, traveling fast, humps over on the horizon like a troll. Directly above, a hawk balances on a column of air rising from the concrete geometry of the cloverleaf. Not a breath stirs.

 If that doesn't make you want to read on, I don't know what's wrong with you.


--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

I should reread them all. I teach Lost in the Cosmos most years in a class, and I read The Second Coming around 1983. I think I read Lancelot and didn't like it around the same time.

I do somewhat wonder whether Percy was troubled in his faith in later life and was or fantasized about being unfaithful to his wife. I read another one about Dr. Thomas More and it looks that way to me.

Seems very difficult to avoid those conclusions. Though his bio suggests the '70s were his most troubled time as those novels (L and SC) also indicate. Typing this on phone so won't try to say more.

I did read Love in the Ruins perhaps ten years ago, maybe less, and did not get much out of it. This was my fault though - I really read through it rather quickly without thinking too much about the ideas behind the character and plot. I know I spoke to you at the time and it bummed you out. I will re-read and give Percy another chance; which he deserves.

I feel like I have a problem with contemporary literature - the problem being that I have the authors I like and always go back to them, but rarely do I add another to my canon. I am not open enough to give them a real chance.

I thought The Moviegoer was very good. An easy read that sticks with you and grows in your mind afterwards.

Why it is that the Self--though it Professes to be Loving, Caring, to Prefer Peace to War, Concord to Discord, Life to Death; to Wish Other Selves Well, not Ill--in fact Secretly Relishes Wars and Rumors of War, News of Plane Crashes, Assassinations, Mass Murders, Obituaries, to say nothing of Local News about Acquaintances Dropping Dead in the Street, Gossip about Neighbors Getting in Fights or being Detected in Sexual Scandals, Embezzlements, and other Disgraces

That passage puts me in mind of the martyrologists of the Reformation period enjoining their readers not to read about gruesome executions for fun, but for moral improvement. There's a sort of standard disclaimer in academic circles when talking about martyrologies that this is there and the speaker can't understand why anybody would read about such things for fun. It always strikes me as a rather airy, unconscious admission by the academics in question that they really don't understand the people they're studying, even though they're about to try to explain them to you.

I invariably think about that quotation from Percy when there is some huge disaster which everyone is following on the news and social media, like the current events in France and Belgium. I wonder - and certainly not only about other people, but principally about myself - about how much people feel enjoyment in reading about a disaster. I do not mean to say our feelings of grief and concern are unreal or hypocritical. Just that I fear we also enjoy the relief of the tedium of everyday life.

I need to read The Moviegoer again. It's been a very long time. I read LITR and Thanatos more recently, and liked them both, but LITR better. And I'm a huge fan of Lost in the Cosmos.

I'll probably read Moviegoer again before too long, then The Last Gentleman.

"I feel like I have a problem with contemporary literature - the problem being that I have the authors I like and always go back to them, but rarely do I add another to my canon. I am not open enough to give them a real chance."

In a way I think I'm the opposite -- I tend to keep my eyes open for something new (of quality!) to try. Not many make it into the canon, though, I must admit. A goodly portion of contemporary lit. leaves me flat.

I'm definitely more like Stu wrt contemporary fiction.

Interesting that you mention Paris etc. Grumpy. I happened to have been v busy that day and did not know about it for some hours afterward. I hurried to turn on TV news, which I ordinarily never watch, and was a little horrified to realize there was an element of exhilaration involved.

But what is that exhilaration? I wonder about that quite a bit. I don't think it is excitement at what is happening, because I am horrified by any acts of violence between people, and extraordinarily saddened by natural disasters that are horrific. When I was really young (probably back in my 20s) the idea of friends becoming wealthy was quite unpleasant. Now that I am "grown up" (just about 50) I would like everyone I know to do well and be comfortable in their lives; the competition so to speak is gone.

Well, it might be physical. We have a sympathetic nerve that reacts when we see someone else wounded or badly hurt. That's why we get that stomach-turning feeling when we see blood, or a bone sticking out. (Y'all might be getting it now.) That's not just in your head. It's a real thing. So, perhaps when you hear about a disaster, that nerve causes a jolt of adrenaline or something.

I know what you're talking about and it does happen to me--just that brief reaction--but for the most part I really hate the fact that I have to know about every terrible thing that happens in the world immediately or even at all. No other people in the world have had to bear the weight of so much bad news. It's too much.


Percy was like JF Powers and FO'C in being kind of Jansenist in the sense of being very hard on fallen human nature. But many of us do recognizeourselves in this image of people who lovehesring about disasters

I refuse to admit that I lovehesring.


I saud msny

Grumpy! What the heck is lovehesring? That was a joke.


Love hearing

Anyone here read the collection of correspondence between Percy and his lifelong friend Shelby Foote? I haven't, and am curious to know if those letters shed any light on the questions Grumpy posed above about Percy's faith and marriage.

I'd forgotten about those, actually. My recently deceased friend recommended them highly to me but I never read them. I did read Samway S.J.'s bio but if it was definite about either of those I don't remember. It does specifically mention difficulties in the 1970s but I don't remember any details.

"What is that exhilaration?" I think it's the release from everyday-ness that Percy talks about. That's a separate thing from the envy that he also talks about. I was not secretly glad that people in Paris were murdered, not in the least. I was just excited that there was big news. Good or bad didn't really matter in relation to that effect.

"Anyone here read the collection of correspondence between Percy and his lifelong friend Shelby Foote?"

I read it a few years back. I don't recall anything jumping out at me about either his marriage or his faith.

Re: contemporary fiction -- I usually try something new only when it's recommended by someone whose judgment I trust, either a friend or a reviewer whose tastes seem simpatico with mine. I generally take a look at the major prizewinners each year, but most of the time I find myself uninterested.

I have only read a bit of that correspondence and I believe that most of the letters are Foote's. I did read Jay Tolson's biography--he is the editor of the letters--and I don't remember him talking about that, although it's been a long time ago--but less than 10 years because I know I was commenting here when I read them.

I also read a book of interviews of Percy's family and friends. It was clear that the interviewer was interesting in finding out negative things about Percy--he asked leading questions in that direction--but nobody ever took the bait that I can remember.

I know that when Foote and Percy were young, they used to frequent prostitutes and they were surely otherwise promiscuous, and that, like any other addiction, is hard to rid yourself of completely. So, who knows. You can be like Sebastian Flyte with his alcoholism or whatever your addiction may be, and the fighting of it can be your salvation.

One thing about Percy's characters is that while the PP's are probably all Percy in some way, Tom More of LitR is not the Tom More of TS, and Will Barrett of LG is not the Will Barrett of SC, and Kitty, oh my heavens. I really do not like her character in SC. I know her too well. She abounds in Memphis.

For some reason, I really like The Second Coming. I wonder about the falling--if it is in any way supposed to evoke the falls of Jesus on the road to Calvary, and surely the days in the cave are the Passion of Will. I don't know why the infidelity does not bother me more, because it usually would. I think it's because I like Allie so much and I think she represents something more than an illicit love.


"Is Allie a gift, and therefore the sign of a giver?" A line I think I remember from SC.

I first read Love in the Ruins in college and no other Percy, except Lost in the Cosmos, comes close to it for me. I thought TS was much inferior to LITR--much more preachy.
Percy wrote one of my favorite lines in all literature, from LITR: "Father Kev Kevin sits at the vaginal console, reading Commonweal."

Ha!, Anne-Marie, I think I've quoted that line here before. Absolutely one of my favorites. Unfortunately, my comment about that has been lost in transfer to TypePad.


Maclin, And Allie lifts things.


Yes, I remember that too. And yes, the bit about Fr Kevin is priceless.

I wonder whether Percy can be enjoyed by people who don't, at least to some extent, share his outlook on the world. And perhaps this is especially true of women readers. The PP's take on things is both idiosyncratic and masculine, so it would seem very uncongenial to an unsympathetic reader.

Happy American Thanksgiving to those who celebrate it. And happy Thursday to those who don't.

I felt as if my comment was misunderstood, which is natural given that it had about 15 words in it. I didn't mean to have some anxious gossip about whether Percy in later years sat loose to his faith and had affairs.

Maybe he did and maybe he didn't. I remember at the time that the Thanatos Syndrome came out, there were concerns about 'Thomas More' amongst Catholic reviewers. I do not know on what evidence it is asserted above that 'Thomas More' is not Percy. Of course the narrator and the writer are different. The narrator is an authorial invention. But when an author's narrator has fairly consistently been a kind of self-projection, through a series of novels, it is not unreasonable to assume that the next novel along, say, The Thanatos Syndrome, likewise has a narrator who is modelled on the author.

I'm not arguing that that is necessarily the case here. We don't know. It is striking that Percy moves toward narrators who are ex-Catholics and polygamous or promiscuous. It is not unreasonable to wonder why, and it's not about getting anxious about Percy's faith and morals on his behalf. It's about wondering why he moves toward the fictional device of a formerly believing, promiscuous narrator. I have wondered whether he developed this kind of narrator as a rhetorical device. As I recall, Kierkegaard was an author Percy liked very much, and Kierkegaard used a variety of pseudonyms and different 'persona'. Here is a possibility which I have entertained. Percy wants to say some hard religious truths, but in our time to put those hard religious truths into the mouth of a clean cut solidly believing faithful father of five renders those truths unpalatable. Whereas to put those truths into the mouth of a narrator who has not just a hard time believing them, but currently does not affirm them, makes the truths somewhat more audible.

So here I have thrown out two hypotheses, one that Percy himself moved into a period of religious doubt coupled at least with mental unfaithfulness, and second that he used the doubting, promiscuous narrator as a rhetorical device to address an audience of jaded 1970s and 1980s new agers etc. Note that these two hypotheses are not mutually exclusive and could be combined in a number of ways - eg, very mild doubt in the narrator together with very strong intention to use the narrator as rhetorical device, and vice versa.

What makes it easier for Percy to adopt this stance is his minor key 'Jansenism' as mentioned above. His very dark view of human nature means that his faith and his doubt are not kept in separate compartments.

First, I am a fan of Percys. I teach Lost in the Cosmos year by year, and like Janet I used to enjoy The Second Coming quite a bit.

But I still have some reservations. Two things appeared which help me to express them better than tapping out on my phone 'do you think Percy was unfaithful in later life?'

One is Anne-Marrie's question about whether Percy is more of a man's writer than a woman's writer. Certainly I find that the more feminine kind of girl student strongly dislikes Lost in the Cosmos. The narrator as promiscuous ex-Catholic male is not exactly intended for women readers as the primary audience. To me, that is a bit drippy, but I have to say that I used to find the portrait of the wife in The Thanatos Syndrome rather unpleasant. There she was with the three little kids, just thinking of others in her natural maternal way, while her husband was messing around.
When I say 'used to find' I mean I have not read The Thanatos Syndrome for 25 years and may have got the name of the novel wrong (that is a very funny sentence though I say so myself).

Second thing which helps me to try a second time to express a reservation is this quotation which I came upon in Henri de Lubac's The Discovery of God last night

“But in a climate of unbelief, negative theology has a fatal tendency to drift toward agnosticism, if not towards an altogether negative mysticism, or toward atheism pure and simple, concealed only for a time.”

If you substitute 'dark view of human nature' for 'negative theology' there you might see where I'm coming from here. Or not, but maybe closer than my first comment.

I didn't say that Thomas More was not Percy. I said that TM in LG was not really the same character as the TM in TS.


Ok - retraction.

Well, heck, given that it's Thanksgiving Day and I'm visiting family or in transit till Monday, there's no way I can respond adequately to your interesting remarks, Grumpy. Be doing well to read them carefully, actually. But I'll try.

Thank you, Anne-Marie.

Moreover I only have my iPhone. But anyway, briefly, re the question of Percy's work being enjoyable to those not of similar mind. I know he can be, from hearing him praised by such, but also, judging by very negative remarks on Amazon and Goodreads, there's a sizable number who do not get or admire him at all.

And happy Thanksgiving.

Touching just the one question of WP's female characters, I believe someone asked him in an interview about the charge that those characters aren't handled very well, or aren't convincing, or something. And I can imagine that most of them would not be --to women. There is usually no sense that the PP has much sense of them as being real people in the same way that he is. But from the male point of view it works. It's a very effective picture of the way an attractive woman appears to and affects a man: as a mysterious and magical creature who seems to be another sort of being altogether.

I think there are parts of SC told from Alliie's pov. Been too long since I read it. But if so maybe that's part of why you like it, Janet?

I just really like her character, but that might be part of it.

I didn't remember Tom More running around while Ellen is taking care of the children. So, I've read the first 14% of Thanatos Syndrome and he's recently returned from prison and she is travelling all over the place with a man playing duplicate bridge.


I don't remember children at all from TS, actually. But have not read it since it came out.

Well, I started reading to figure out what Grumpy was talking about and I seemed to be hooked. There's a lot of good stuff in there that I had forgotten, but it's probably impenetrable to anyone who isn't over 60 and from the South.


I wonder which novel I'm talking about? The protagonist was certainly Thomas More.

Well, they have two kids and he is tempted to commit adultery but doesn't. This is at the end of Love in the Ruins.

Ellen, his wife, in The Thanatos Syndrome is one of the people who have been affected by the chemicals in the water, so she is acting strangely. She has lost her “self.”

Maclin, The more I think about it, the more I realize that Allie is more of a real person than any of the other women both from the PP's point of view and the reader's. Maybe this is why I like her so much. And wrt what you say about it working for men and not women, I think that's really it, because most women, especially the kind of women who read serious fiction, don't want to be thought of only in that way.

It doesn't really bother me, though, because I think all the rest is worth it.


I think it's Tom More who asks, "Why did God make woman so beautiful and man with such a loving heart?" That almost sums up the difficulties of Percy for women. As Janet says, most women want to be more than just beautiful, and being referred to that way makes it hard to recognize that the loving heart is more than mere lust.

Grumpy, do any of your male students also dislike LitR because they disapprove of More?

I see your second point.

"I think it's Tom More who asks, "Why did God make woman so beautiful and man with such a loving heart?" That almost sums up the difficulties of Percy for women."

Gosh. I thought this was lovely.

If women can ever get it into our heads that we actually are beautiful and men really do want to love us (rather than be merely motivated by sex) that becomes a very potent quote.

AnneMarie I have only ever taught Lost in the Cosmos in a class

When the protagonist of a novel runs around either committing adultery or talking about it nonstop (it makes no difference which), one gets the impression, however strange it may sound, that the narrator is driven by lust

AnneMarie, in regard to the second point, I remember 12 or so years, I was very much taken by 'negative theology'. I was arguing in the pub with a friend and colleague, a nonpractising Jew. I urged him to consider that the word 'God' refers to something we cannot conceive, something which is not caught in the nets of our concepts for 'God'. He replied that he too had been interested in negative theology for a time and then he had realized that he might as well be an atheist because it did not make any difference - saying we don't know what we mean by 'God' and saying 'God does not exist' come down to about the same thing. That put me off negative theology permanently!

It seems that there is not much difference between the protagonist of the later Percy works and a joking socially-conservative atheist.

He may be driven by lust, but in Love in the Ruins he is not married until the very end--his wife left him for two men--and there is just this one incident I talked about. He is having affairs during the book, though.

In TS, he is more concerned with the condition he is finding in those around him.

Like I said, I don't think a man easily sloughs off a long habit of visiting prostitutes easily.



Of course not. But then lets not say that he loves women, he doesn't lust after them.

Completely off-topic, but have any of you watched the films from Ghibli Studios?


Oh sorry Grumpy, my mistake! Do any of your male students have the same reaction to the narrator of LitC as the female ones you mentioned, or are only the girls put off by his promiscuity?

Janet, I've seen a few: Ponyo, Kiki's Delivery Service, Howl's Moving Castle, and Spirited Away. Some of my kids are big Miyazaki fans.

No, Anne Marie, only girls dislike it. Not a single boy.

I didn't know that was Ghibli studios! I enjoyed Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle.

Well, I'm back, with a real keyboard at my disposal, but I don't think I'm able yet to get many thoughts together.

I think Percy is being a bit dishonest in that quote about men and their "loving hearts", unless it's very different from most of what the PP says most of the time in these novels. That is, "loving heart" is not exactly the right term for it. Not that men don't have a loving heart for the right woman (or woman), but I seriously doubt that he was talking about Real True Love. And y'all are kind of demonstrating the problem by the fact that you're saying "being considered beautiful is not enough." Because what he in fact demonstrates most often in these novels does not even rise to that level. It does not even involve true love and a sort of abstract appreciation of beauty (initially), but something lesser and stranger that I really don't think women can comprehend. It's got a whole lot more connection with carnality than does love alone. I said something earlier about it being provoked by an "attractive" woman, but it requires more than merely "attractive." Maybe a combination of physical appeal, including just plain sexiness, with other qualities that result in infatuation. At the same time, it's not *just* lust. In fact, the lust component can sometimes be fairly small. And it can grow into love. But it's fundamentally based on the way she looks, on her face and body and little mannerisms and ways of speaking, etc.

Janet, I've seen a few of the Studio Ghibli films. They are a nice alternative to Hollywood animation studios. My favourites are My Neighbour Totoro (for small kids), The Secret World of Arriety and Spirited Away (for older kids), and From Up On Poppy Hill (for young teens).

There have also been a couple that I didn't care for: Princess Mononoke and Castle in the Sky. But I think I'm in a minority there.

You say "off topic", Janet, but presumably your question is prompted by something in the conversation?

My daughters' favourite is The Cat Returns (Ghibli, but not Miyazaki). I watched The Wind Rises recently, and thought it was excellent. Grave of the Fireflies (again, not Miyazaki) is one of the saddest films I've ever seen. I don't know if I could watch it a second time.

Re: Ghibli, the recent Tale of Princess Kaguya is outstanding. But watch the subtitled version, not the dubbed one. The dubbed one isn't terrible, but it's too talky compared to the original, and that doesn't match well with the film's simplicity.

Except for "Hollywood", I don't recognize a single proper noun in the film comments starting with Janet's on the 29th.

Ghibli is a studio that produces animated films. A friend suggested that I watch them. I've only seen two, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky. I enjoyed them both. I was just curious because I've never seen them mentioned before.

Paul, It really had nothing to do with this thread. It was just the easiest place to post. I had never seen them mentioned, and I was thinking about the movies next year.


A few weeks ago I decided to try re-opening one of the Undead threads for just such uses as this, but found that it's all or nothing. I.e. I can't open comments for that one post except by opening comments on all old posts. So I didn't.

Btw this week's author post--Anne-Marie on Mary Renault--should be up late this afternoon (U.S. Central time) sometime. Got back too late last night to do it.

Well, I'm a great fan of Ghibli films, and would heartily recommend any of those I've seen to anybody (except Tales of Earthsea, which was a disaster). I'm a little surprised I haven't recommended them to you, Janet.

Just to thoroughly hijack the thread, here's a quick rundown:

Castle in the Sky: fast-paced steampunk; great fun
Grave of the Fireflies: slow-burning tragic tale about a pair of orphans at the tail end of World War II. The most moving animated film I've ever seen. I wept at the end of it and want to watch it again but daren't.
My Neighbour Totoro: fairly light children's fantasy
Kiki's Delivery Service: coming-of-age fantasy about setting up in business and taking responsibility for your actions
Only Yesterday: slow-moving realist back-to-the-land love story that's quite sweet
Porco Rosso: fantasy about middle-aged man who is (literally) a pig, as well as a biplane fighter pilot, but humanizes slightly under the influence of feminine sympathy
Pom Poko: bizarre allegory about cheerful Japanese folksiness (embodied as raccoons) being overcome by urban drabness but surviving beneath the surface
Whisper of the Heart: girlish coming-of-age story, realist but with some fantasy framed as fiction within the story; this one involving boys (or at least a boy), as well as the discovery of artistic vocation
Princess Mononoke: epic fantasy in the Japanese style; much closer to Tolkien in spirit than any of the films based on Tolkien's works (which admittedly isn't hard)
My Neighbours the Yamadas: this one I've never got round to seeing; it's very different in visual style (much more cartoonish) so aesthetically less appealing to me
Spirited Away: fantasy about a girl who has to work in a bath-house for spirits, fairies and minor deities in order to lift a curse that has turned her parents into pigs
The Cat Returns: as I said, my daughters' favourite; another coming-of-age fantasy, this one involving talking cats and learning that finding out who you are is more important than yearning for boys (or even cats)
Howl's Moving Castle: based on a fantasy novel by Diana Wynne Jones; coming-of-age with a vengeance
Tales from Earthsea: attempt to adapt Ursula LeGuin's tetralogy
Ponyo: sort of like the Little Mermaid, only different.
Arrietty: adaptation of The Borrowers; next on my list to see; ordered it last night after reading this thread, just in time not to break my Advent resolution not to order any books or films for myself for the rest of the year
From Up on Poppy Hill: not seen this, but the director is the same as Earthsea, and it's a "high school drama", so I'm tempted to give it a miss
The Wind Rises: biopic about an aeronautical engineer, mixed with entirely fictional subplot about him marrying a young woman with tuberculosis
The Tale of Princess Kaguya: one I'd like to see (Rob G above labels it "outstanding"), but Arrietty and Marnie are higher up my list
When Marnie Was There: next on my list to see, after Arrietty.

They are all films for children or teens, but Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle and The Wind Rises I would recommend simply as good films (not even just "good children's films" or "good animated films"). Grave of the Fireflies is in a class of its own.

Thanks, Paul.


Besides the stories, one of the chief attractions for me is the fact that, afaik, the animation isn't digital, it's all hand drawn, like Disney did it in the old days.

It's jerkier though. They must not use as many images per frame.


Youtube has trailers for most of them (probably all of them if you look hard enough).

Some of them use CGI, but it's always in combination with hand drawing.

Ok, I want to try to get back to Grumpy's long 11/26 comment. To refresh your memory, here is one important piece of what she said:

"I have wondered whether he developed this kind of narrator as a rhetorical device. As I recall, Kierkegaard was an author Percy liked very much, and Kierkegaard used a variety of pseudonyms and different 'persona'. Here is a possibility which I have entertained. Percy wants to say some hard religious truths, but in our time to put those hard religious truths into the mouth of a clean cut solidly believing faithful father of five renders those truths unpalatable. Whereas to put those truths into the mouth of a narrator who has not just a hard time believing them, but currently does not affirm them, makes the truths somewhat more audible."

That is definitely a significant factor. I was pretty sure I remembered him making this point explicitly in an essay or an interview somewhere, but I didn't have much hope of being able to cite chapter and verse. Still, I picked up a book I don't think I've mentioned yet, a collection of interviews called Conversations with Walker Percy, and after glancing at only a few pages I hit on this. The interviewer has remarked on the "absence of practical religion from the novels" and that "religion is there as a theme but with no commitment of the writer in any direction." Percy:

"Well, that is very simple. James Joyce said that an artist must be above all things cunning and guileful and ust use every trick in the bag to achieve his purpose. In my view the language of religion, the very words themselves, are almost bankrupt. If you are writing a technical article on philosophy you can use the correct word for the correct meaning. But writing a novel is something different In my view you have to be wary of using world like "religion," "God," "sin," "salvation," "baptism," because the words are almost worn out. The themes have to be implicit rather than explicit."

And so on in that vein. As Grumpy notes, regardless of how much or how little the failings of the PP are also the failings of WP, the PP makes an excellent vehicle for this strategy. If memory serves, WP mentions that Joyce thing more than once (I think "silence, exile, and cunning" was Joyce's phrase--maybe someone else knows?)

That part of Grumpy's post made a lot of sense to me and I meant to say something, but I have been about as busy as a grandmother on Thanksgiving weekend. ;-)

There's a lot of that MFOC strategy there, right?


Grumpy also suggests that Percy's approach is a species of negative "what God is not" theology, and that negative theology can look a whole lot like agnosticism. I think that's true, both about Percy and in general. I think negative theology is useful within a dogmatic framework. That is, we always need to be reminded that dogma is as much a tool of marking off untruth as defining truth. Negative theology without dogma really isn't of much use.

Percy risks landing in that not-of-much-use territory as far as his ability to point people toward belief is concerned. It may be that only those who are already Catholic really even get what he's talking about. An anecdote: years ago I persuaded a friend who's not Christian but is bright and thoughtful to read Lost in the Cosmos. His reaction was "Walker Percy must be the most cynical person on the face of the earth." He got the negative, but missed the signposts pointing elsewhere.

Percy certainly has his non-Christian admirers, but they seem to miss a whole lot.

Well, there's another MFOC thing.


Yes, you see very few students get what Lost in the Cosmos is doing

Its not that they are not Catholics but they have been taught religion in a pious and sentimental way. They cannot connect their attempts to pretend to have pious thoughts with List in the Cosmos

"Negative theology without dogma really isn't of much use."

I have a cassette lecture from 1995 by P.H. Reardon at which Huston Smith is in the audience. At the end Smith makes a comment to the effect that one of the things he is concerned about is that so much of today's theology and religious philosophy is completely apophatic "with no cataphatic back-up." That has always stayed with me. Even the most "apophatic" of the ancient writers always had dogma to balance their apophaticism out, so to speak. It's only recently that we've attempted the one without the other. Fr. Reardon calls this the via negativa vulgaris -- pop apophaticism.

Ha. Yes, that's it exactly.

"...their attempts to pretend to have pious thoughts..."

Sigh. I know the syndrome you're talking about. I think the problem there is connected with what Percy's talking about: for whatever combination of reasons the traditional language of faith often does not seem natural. And yet it seems required. It puts a great strain on these young people, I think. For that matter it put a great strain on me as a parent.

Regarding MFOC and Percy: I kind of puzzled about that a bit. They do resemble each other in their attempt to break through the exhaustion of religious language. But her practice is often more direct than his. I can't remember to what extent her theory resembles Percy's, but the famous bit about shouting to the hard of hearing is almost the opposite of Percy. Seems like non-Christian readers should have a harder time missing the Christian dimension of her work than his.

Percy risks landing in that not-of-much-use territory as far as his ability to point people toward belief is concerned.

I think that MFOC is in this category, too. It seems that only people who are looking for the Christian message can find it in her work, and even then, many of them cannot.

She says she shouts to the hard of hearing because she uses these grotesque people and situations to say to people who think everything is okay that IT'S NOT OKAY. I don't think that the majority of people take that message to themselves, though.


I think you're right. I was actually considering another post on this general topic. But about MFOC readers in particular, I immediately thought of someone I know who is a militant doctrinaire progressive with no use at all for the Catholic Church, but who is a big O'Connor fan. I guess either they miss the Catholic/Christian stuff, or just take it as a literary device as we might take faster-than-light travel in a sci-fi novel.

In my class at Northwest, my teacher said there was some debate over whether or not she was a Christian writer. Very odd, considering she described herself that way, but I even saw an article somewhere saying that she didn't really mean that.


Sometimes I think that what writers like FOC and WP are trying to do is not so much point folks in the direction of faith but rather to sow doubt in their unbelief, to shine a light on the basic illogic of it.

Yes, especially Percy because he is always asking why we feel a certain way that doesn't make sense about something or other, and talking about losing our "self." Even if this doesn't point someone specifically towards the faith, it can make them stop and think.

And he's funny, so it goes down easily.


The funny part was in large part what I liked so much originally. If I remember correctly, I discovered Percy before I was giving very serious consideration to returning to Christianity, and I remember after reading Love in the Ruins describing it to someone as Southern Vonnegut. Which seems pretty off base to me now. Or superficial, anyway.

I remember picking up Love in the Ruins must have been shortly after it was published and wondering what the heck it was supposed to be. I may have finished the first chapter.


I sometimes wonder if there's any hope in evangelization other than the Percy and O'Connor approach. You can't convince people that Christianity is good by offering them no sex, no lying, weekly required church, etc.--all things that are off-putting to them. Maybe the best we can do is get people to realize that they're not as logical and well-adjusted as they believe themselves to be.

Or novelists can harken back to an earlier time when the culture was (more) Christian. Like Marilynne Robinson and Ron Hansen have done.

Robinson in particular does a very good job of that.

I think Percy would have been pleased to get that much of a reaction, Anne-Marie. He was definitely trying to provoke it.

Janet, I don't think I had much of a clue what Love in the Ruins was really about, either, but I was pretty much enchanted with the southern-ness, the richness and affection of the portrayal of American life, the satire, the humor in general. I thought the old man who "did in fact urinate on Ohio in the Garden of Fifty States" (probably not quoting that exactly), for instance, was hilarious.

I think that unfortunately at that age (21-22?), I was more interested in romance, and I didn't know what LitR was, but I knew that it wasn't that. ;-)

Now, of course, I love all that stuff.


Has anyone else besides me read A Confederacy of Dunces? I'd be interested in your thoughts, considering that WP was instrumental in getting it published.

You were misled by the word "love" in the title, maybe? If you had read on you would have found not just one but three romances. :-) Of a sort...

I've always intended to read it even though I've been warned off of it. I'd be interested in YOUR thoughts.


Ha, no Maclin, it was the three that convince me it wasn't my sort of romance. ;-) We must have cross-posted there.


Yes, we did.

I've read Confederacy and thought it was extremely funny, but at times too gross and crude--ok, just plain disgusting--for my taste. It's probably close to 30 years since I read it and I'd like to read it again. The Crusade for Moorish Dignity!

My first reaction to LitR was like yours, Maclin, except that I was more ignorant than you. But other people I know found it way less funny, often I think because their earnestness prevented them from laughing (e.g. at spiritual seeking or at the black characters).

It's been a few years since I read 'Confederacy..' but I liked it. It was a little ribald in places, and I didn't like the odd bit of potty humor, but on the whole I thought it was extremely funny, sort of a big nose-thumbing at the modern world.

I did, however, think it went on too long, and if/when I read it again I'll skip the chapters that deal with the company owner and his wife. I didn't think they were funny at all, and they didn't really move the plot along. I feel like one could skip those chapters and not miss anything.

I expect, Maclin, that it was you that warned me off CoD.


Could be, although I don't remember it. It is pretty gross in places. Rob's "a little ribald" and "bit of potty humor" don't quite do it justice, in my opinion. Though the gross stuff isn't necessarily of those types: there's Ignatius's endless digestion problems, etc.

I thought the Levy Pants part was pretty funny. I've sometimes feared becoming Miss Trixie (I think that was her name--the senile old lady they wouldn't allow to retire).

Speaking of Percy and the black characters, Anne-Marie, I was and am a bit amazed that Percy got away with some of the stuff in that dialogue between him and the black militant. "You've had Haiti for three hundred years. Look at Haiti."

So many things he says in that book just could not pass muster today. I wonder if they have trigger warnings in the front of the book now. ;-)


Levy Pants -- yes, I loved the bits set in the factory. I just didn't like those chapters that were basically conversations between the owner and his wife.

A few weeks ago on another thread I mentioned this book, which I had just read a review of:

I read the book over the past couple weeks and it is indeed excellent -- the review is dead on (except for the unnecessary jab at Marilynne Robinson's Gilead). In subject matter it is somewhat reminiscent of Percy, but it's more serious, far less playful and humorous. I don't read much contemporary literature, but this one was very good -- rich, complex, readable yet challenging, and wonderfully written.

I remember that review, and the book does sound interesting. At this point in the flood of 52 Authors I'm not going to make any kind of commitment to reading it. But I will file the name away somewhere where I hope I won't forget it. I'm really not in principle hostile to contemporary lit. It's just that what I've seen of it has made me reluctant to invest my extremely limited time in it.

I thought about the jab at Gilead, and although it is entirely unnecessary, it does seem to me to have some merit. Not entirely sure, but there may be some truth in the assertion that in spite of the Christian infrastructure the book is in the end pretty horizontal. Which is not a condemnation. It renders the difference between the expansiveness of the novel and the narrowness of Robinson's political views a little more intelligible.

I watched the Song of the Sea over the weekend - that is an Irish animated film by the chap who did the 'Kells' movie. It is very beautiful. The pace is a bit slow, but the frames are really like watching a moving art gallery.

I'm also most of the way through watching The Man in the High Castle and finding it very gripping.

The author of Bearings and Distances, Glenn Arbery, teaches at Wyoming Catholic College. A few years back he edited a very good anthology for ISI called The Southern Critics, which featured selections from the Fugitives and Agrarians combined with his own commentary. If I remember correctly he had done some work along the way with Grumpy's old prof, Louise Cowan.

"It renders the difference between the expansiveness of the novel and the narrowness of Robinson's political views a little more intelligible."

Yes, that makes sense. I was mainly disagreeing with the "overrated" tag.

We started watching The Man in the High Castle last night just so I wouldn't forget to watch it. This way it will pop up in my list of stuff. We probably won't watch it until after Christmas though. I'm trying to only watch one thing a night and for the present that is Blue Bloods.


I've been wondering whether to give MITHC a try. I guess I will. It's an intriguing premise (to say the least!), and the novel is well regarded in sci-fi circles, although I've never read it.

I assume you're liking Blue Bloods, Janet?

Yeah, "overrated" seems a bit malicious, really.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)