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Sigrid Undset: In the Wilderness

(mild spoilers)

This is the third book in the Olav AudunssonMaster of Hestviken tetralogy. (See this for comments on the second book.) It's in two parts, "The Parting of the Ways" and "The Wilderness." The first part is shorter and I take its title to refer primarily to Olav's parting from Ingunn. They were of course parted by death in the previous volume, The Snake Pit, but the separation is made definitive here, with Olav adjusting to life without Ingunn and the state of anxiety and anguish in which he had lived for most of their many years together. As is necessarily the case with the death of someone close, however much the loss may continue to be felt, the shape of day-to-day life re-forms itself, filling in the empty space and becoming normal. 

Olav makes a journey to London and spends (I think) most of a summer there. It's ostensibly a trading voyage but it's at least as much an excuse for Olav to get away from the burdens and sad memories of Hestviken. In London occurs an event which I mentioned in the last post, on The Snake Pit, as one of the few which I remembered vividly from my first reading of the tetralogy. 

At Mass in a London church, he sees a woman who looks uncannily like Ingunn--the young, healthy Ingunn who has not existed for many years. He can't take his eyes off her, can't get her out of his mind; it seems that Ingunn is being offered to him all over again--a new and improved Ingunn, perhaps. A silent flirtation and seduction takes place between them, as they see each other repeatedly at the church. She is married, to a blind man. She arranges, through a servant, a tryst, to take place in the garden of her home, and Olav goes to her. As he takes her in his arms a warning comes to him:

No, this was not [Ingunn]--and it was as though he heard a cry coming from somewhere without; a voice that he heard not with his bodily ears called to him, aloud and wild with fear, trying to warn him. From somewhere, from the ground under his feet, he thought, the cry came--Ingunn, he knew, the real Ingunn, was striving to come to his aid. He could tell that she was in the utmost distress; in bonds of powerlessness or sin she was fighting to be heard by him through the darkness that parted them....

Ingunn called to him, she was afraid he would not understand that this stranger was one who had borrowed her shape, seeking to drag him under.

Well, for the sake of those who haven't read the book but may do so, perhaps I shouldn't quote that. But then you still have to read the book to find out what happens next.

The whole London sequence is especially memorable to me, and I think part of the reason is the essentially minor fact that it is London. It occurs to me now that almost none of the action in Undset's two major works takes place in a city of much size. From time to time someone goes to Oslo, but it isn't portrayed as being very large. London seems clearly to be larger, though much smaller than any contemporary city, with the heart of the city and its waterfront not very far at all from farms and open country, and in fact a certain amount of what we would consider rural life occurring within the city proper. At any rate the somewhat awed perspective on London of Olav and his companions, and perhaps the fact that it's summer and quite a distance south from Norway gives this episode a fresh and almost holiday-ish quality, notwithstanding the fact that not everything that happens there is pleasant. 

One of the decisive spiritual events--and in Undset's vision these are as real as any physical events--is Olav's realization that even many of his sins are less grand than he liked to think. In doing such-and-such, did he sin out of essentially noble motives? Or was he at bottom only driven by the same common, base, and petty appetites that drive men whom he held in contempt? As in Kristin, the process of self-knowledge is at the heart of a lifetime's journey, and one of its essential goals.

Much of the second part, "The Wilderness," involves the gradual shrinking of Olav's life to a joyless routine of managing his estate, Hestiviken. His foster son, Eirik, Ingunn's illegitimate child whom Olav has passed off as his own, now a young man, departs, at least in part because Olav drives him away. Then comes a war which gives him, at least fleetingly, a sense of purpose, a glimpse of a way out of the wilderness. The martial joy with which he plunges into this conflict is something which our time does not readily grasp, except by way of fantasy, as in the Marvel movies and video games. Undset's rendering of the battle in which Olav takes part is remarkable simply as a piece of historical re-creation--I am assuming that she is accurate, and by all accounts that's a safe assumption--and also as a vivid narrative. It's also, I'm sure, accurate with regard to the bigger context of the wars that were taking place in Norway at the time. (In fact the first book of the tetralogy opens with a description of that context.)

But the war ends with Olav gravely wounded, recovering but permanently disfigured. He returns to Hestviken for the last act of his life's drama, in his forties, growing old by the standards of the time, still hiding the sin which he believes will cost him his soul, but which he cannot bring himself to confess.

I've seen a few comments here and there from readers to the effect that this is the least interesting of the four books, and overall they have a fair point. Nevertheless the eighty or so pages of "The Parting of the Ways" remain for me among the most profound and moving of the almost one thousand which make up the whole. 


Sigrid Undset: The Snake Pit

This is the second book in Sigrid Undset's tetralogy which, depending on the translation, is called either The Master of Hestviken or Olav Audunsson. The latter title is from the newer translation by Tiina Nunnally, and is in my opinion a handier title, if only because it creates a justifiable symmetry between Undset's two great works of medieval Norwegian historical fiction, and is convenient when discussing the two.

This is my second reading of the tetralogy. I began this traversal with Nunnally's first volume, Vows (The Axe in the old Chater translation). However, for reasons which I've previously discussed, I've returned to the Chater translation for the remaining three books: I find it, in a word, richer, whatever the arguments about fidelity to the original may be.

The translators also disagree about the naming of the individual books, neither's names tracking the original Norwegian edition as far as I can tell, which was published in two volumes. Nunnally's Providence strikes me as less apt than The Snake Pit. The first book tells the story of Olav Audunsson's efforts to marry Ingunn Steinfinnsdatter, the woman to whom he believes himself to be betrothed (a dispute about that is at the heart of the story), in spite of major obstacles put in their way by various kin and by consequences of their own actions. In The Snake Pit they are married and able at last to return to Olav's ancestral manor, Hestviken. It is of course not going to be happily ever after, not even very often happy at all. Ingunn is sickly and not generally very capable as the mistress of a substantial estate. Olav often refers to her, tenderly and pityingly, as being almost useless, and soon ill health makes her even less capable. Both she and Olav are tormented in various ways, both practical and emotional, by the mistakes and sins of their earlier years. In the early pages of the book Olav, arriving at Hestviken, which he has not seen since he was a child, encounters a thing he had forgotten:

Olav Audunsson knew it again the moment he stepped into his own house, which he had not seen since he was a child of seven years. Never had he thought of this carving or known that he remembered it--but the moment his eye fell upon it, recognition came like a gust of wind that passes over the surface of a lake and darkens it: 'twas the doorpost of his childhood. The image of a man was carven upon it surrounded by snakes; they filled the whole surface with their windings and twistings, coiling about the man's limbs and body, while one bit him to the heart. A harp lay trampled under his feet--it was surely Gunnar Gjukesson in the snake pit.

A footnote explains:

This is Gunnar of the Volsunga Saga, the husband of Brynhild. Gunnar was thrown into the snake pit by Atle (Attila); his sister Gudrun, Sigurd's widow and Atle's wife, secretly sent him a harp, and by his playing he charmed all the snakes save one, which bit him to the heart.

That's pretty much Olav's situation. He is a solid and honorable man, and has charmed all the snakes save one, and it has bitten him almost fatally: the guilt he bears for a murder committed in the first book. . He knows that he must confess it, but if he does so he will be required to do public penance, and that will involve Ingunn and all their kin, more or less ruining his life, and Ingunn's.

Toward the end of the book Ingunn lies dying after long suffering, her always-frail body broken in some unspecified way by childbirth. (I suppose the people of the time had no way of knowing exactly what was wrong.) Olav is away from home, and when he gets the news that Ingunn is near death he is helped on his way by a young couple, Lavrans Bjorgulfsson and his wife Rangfrid. Those who have read Kristin will recognize these as Kristin's parents, still young, strong, and cheerful; it is a poignant moment.

In a profound and powerful scene, Olav's night journey through bitter cold brings him to a sort of epiphany in which he sees his situation and resolves to clear his conscience and live with whatever follows. But this resolution falters when he gets home, as he believes Ingunn to be begging him inarticulately not to expose them.

And so we are halfway through the story, and Olav has been married, then widowed, and still the serpent is biting at his heart. As I write this I'm well into the next book, and though I recall the end of the tetralogy I didn't retain many specific events from the third volume, except for one, which if my memory had not become so unreliable I would say is now permanently sealed there. More about that in a few weeks, maybe.

There are works of art that make me feel, among other emotions, a strong sense of gratitude for their existence, and toward their creators. This is one. Sigrid Undset was in her early forties when she wrote this, and already had the wisdom of a long life., no doubt born of some bitter experiences. Moreover, she was still new to the Church, but she understood the faith deeply, and the wisdom she puts into the mouths and minds of some of her characters is deep and mature. Here is Olav talking to his friend Arnvid about the murder, committed while he travelled alone with the man he would kill:

"And then it all came about as easily as if it had been laid out for me--he begged me to take him on that journey; no man was aware that we set out together. But had God or my patron or Mary Virgin directed our way to some man's house that evening and not to those deserted saeters under Luraas--you know it would have fallen out otherwise."

"I scarce think you had prayed God and the saints to watch over your journey, ere you set out?"

"I am not so sure that I did not--nay, prayed I had not truly. But all that Easter I had done nothing but pray--and I was so loath to kill him, all the time. But it was as though all things favoured me, so that I was driven to do it--and tempted to conceal it afterwards. And God, who knows all, He knew how this must turn out, better than I--why could not He have checked me nevertheless, without my prayers--?"

"So say we all, Olav, when we have accomplished our purpose and then seen that it would have been better if we had not."

Fortunate, or blessed, are those who have no similar accomplishments. Elsewhere, in a sentence which I can't locate at the moment and so will quote as best I remember, Olav recalls the wisdom of a priest:

He who follows only his own will discovers in time that he has done that which he did not will.

Among the relatively small group of people who have read both Kristin and Olav, there seems to be a preference for the former. If that's indeed the general view, I dissent. I won't necessarily say that Olav is better, but it's every bit as good. In any case I'm more certain than ever that Undset is among the truly great novelists.

The_Master_of_Hestviken

This seems to be the cover of the original English translation (source: biblio.com). It's the cover of my copy, which somehow came to me from a parish library in Falls Church, Virginia.


The Fatal Bent

I was discussing C.S. Lewis's Perelandra the other day with someone who considers it the weakest of Lewis's science fiction trilogy, in fact pretty much forgettable. I disagree, and find it eminently memorable. And one thing I always recall vividly is the opening, in which the narrator takes a twilight walk from a railway station to Ransom's cottage three miles away. I've always thought that scene, and the narrator's steadily increasing sense of dread, one of the most effective openings of a novel I've ever read. 

Thinking of it, I picked up the book and read that opening scene again. It really is quite good, as good as I remembered. But one thing jumped out at me, not necessarily part of that incident proper but a bit of explication by the narrator as he thinks about Ransom's revelation that our world is ruled by evil angels who

...are the real explanation of that fatal bent which is the main lesson of history.

That does seem to be the general drift of history, and I'm afraid we're seeing that fatal bent in operation again. Those who've been reading this blog for a while know that I've been concerned for many years about whether the United States can survive the cold civil war that's been in progress since the '60s, if not longer. We call it "cold" in the sense that the Cold War was cold--that it did not involve physical violence. But the emotions involved are very hot and getting hotter. I hope I'm wrong, but I find it difficult to imagine our ever being truly one nation again. Each side of the culture war now believes that compromise is a lost cause, and that its survival or at least its well-being can only be achieved by the decisive defeat of the other.

Few nations can match the combination of material prosperity, personal freedom, and stable, reasonably democratic government that we have achieved. Setting aside all the valid criticisms of the thinking and practices that brought about these things, and of the injustices and other defects that were and are part of it, the achievement remains astonishing in the broad context of human history. And few serious people seriously want to give up all its benefits.

Yet here we are: rich, angry, ungrateful, stupid, ignorant, as impassioned as we are irrational, indifferent if not hostile to the foundations on which the achievement rests. The most egregious and fundamental of these is the attack on the constitution, which amounts to a rejection of the rule of law, of the whole concept of a government of laws and not of men, upon which rests the structure of representative government.

Most often the attack is implicit, but sometimes it's explicit. I'd be willing to bet that no more than one out of ten of the people currently protesting the possible reversal of Roe v. Wade understand the constitutional question, or even in general the way the whole system works, with its complex balancing of power. And, worse, I'd bet that zero out of ten care. And, to be fair, there's a similar indifference in some quarters of the right.

What went wrong? Well, I could go on at length about that, and have done. And I certainly have strong ideas about which side is more at fault. But beneath those details I see the fatal bent in action, the universal tendency which is independent of places and times. There's still room for hope that it won't accomplish the ruin toward which it tends, but that probably requires a level of awareness of what's happening that doesn't seem to be very widespread at all. 


Why Didn't They Ask Evans?

The title belongs to an Agatha Christie novel and to a three-part television adaption of it which recently became available on BritBox, and which I strongly recommend to anyone who likes This Sort of Thing.

The sort of thing is a murder mystery featuring: an English village in the early 20th century; much beautiful photography of the village, the countryside, and great houses; a beautiful, witty, and brave heroine; a handsome and brave hero; the village church and its vicar; sinister aristocrats; a sinister doctor; names like "Bassington-ffrench"; a highly improbable story with a satisfactory resolution. And a light touch throughout.

I haven't read the book, but the series strikes me as being just about perfect as a Christie adaptation. It doesn't involve Poirot or Miss Marple, but rather two young people, Bobby Jones and Lady Frances ("Frankie") Derwent, the hero and heroine mentioned above. It's directed by Hugh Laurie, who also appears as the sinister doctor. Apart from Laurie, the only name I recognized among the cast was Emma Thompson, but they are all excellent. 

I found it completely delightful, as did my wife. The only falling-off from this near-perfection is one utterly incongruous use of the f-word. I suspect that in the book it's "bloody" or something of that sort that was pretty strong language in Christie's time, and that the writer(s) or Laurie thought it needed updating to something at least mildly offensive to 21st century ears, as the character who says it immediately apologizes. Or maybe there is a formal requirement in England that every program must include at least one instance of this word. Anyway it seems impossible that Christie would have used it.

There was one other small thing that struck me as slightly off: Bobby's friend "Knocker" Beadon is played by an actor who seems to be Jamaican (or some other formerly British West Indies place). That seems unlikely given the time and place, but I suppose it was not impossible, and in any case the character fits in very well. 

Here's the trailer. I had not seen it before watching the series, but it would certainly have made me do so. I cannot abide most trailers these days, which give you only a series of jerky quick cuts showing sensational moments which add up to nothing more than a rough impression. This one, in contrast, gives you a complete little scene, and a real sense of the characters.

There must be something about the book that makes it seem suited to dramatization, as this is the third one, fourth if you count one episode of a French TV show. One, from 2011, is reworked to include Miss Marple. That was unnecessary. Bobby and Frankie are just fine.


Seán Ó'Faoláin: Newman's Way

My first impulse was to begin this post with "If you only read one book about Newman...." Then I realized that I'm not in a position to say that, as it is the only book about Newman that I've read. But I will say at least that I don't feel any need to read another.

I'm not fond of biography as a genre: it tends to be dully written, and to include more mundane detail than I really care to bother with. I'm looking across the room right now at a biography of Auden that I picked up off the discard shelf at the library, and asking myself whether I really want to read it, or perhaps should return it to the library to be re-discarded. This one, however, like the Knox brothers biography that I wrote about a while back, is the work of a very good writer and is enjoyable on its own merits. (I base "very good writer" on this book alone--I recognized Ó'Faoláin's name as a writer of fiction, but had never read anything by him.)

It's not a full biography. It's primarily the story of Newman's departure from the Church of England and entry into the Catholic Church at the age of forty-four, with the almost forty-five post-conversion years seen only in a brief and poignant epilogue. One doesn't even need to have read the Apologia to know that basic story, and even if one has, there is (of course) a great depth which is not sounded there. Ó'Faoláin shows us Newman in the midst of a family to which he has deep emotional ties and a continuing direct involvement with his siblings and other relatives up until his conversion, when a deep and permanent estrangement took hold.

The Apologia is mainly a religious and intellectual autobiography--not exactly a spiritual autobiography, either, as it does not emphasize Newman's interior spirituality. I'm tempted to say that Newman's Way complements the Apologia as an emotional biography, but that's not exactly right. Though it does emphasize the emotional currents that helped to propel Newman on his way, the portrayal of those is closely integrated with the man's pursuit of the great question, and the great decision that was the end of it. The Little Flower's title fits: this is the story of a soul. The influence of personal matters is not trivial in itself and not insignificant in a consideration of Newman's thinking. I think I know enough of that to say that his own life was in a sense an instance, or an example, of the concept of development as revealed in the Essay On the Development of Doctrine. His abstract thought was not really, or not only, abstract, but rather a manifestation of his very life in its fullness, comprehending not only reason in the narrow sense, but the entire web of perception and the mind's working thereon. He only seems abstract because he happened to be a man to whom thought was as real as walking. 

It was a little surprising to me to learn that Newman's family was not especially well-off. It had come up considerably in the world over several generations preceding his own, and his father had risen as far as becoming a banker. But the bank failed in an economic panic, and the family fell back to a sort of lower middle-class level--I mean that not in the sense in which we use it now, but relative to early 19th century England, when "the middle class" was considerably more affluent than most, only not part of the aristocracy--the sort of families portrayed by Jane Austen. This relatively less-well-off position seems to have been something of an embarrassment to Newman, especially when among his fellow fellows at Oxford; Ó'Faoláin recounts a cruel moment when a don embarrasses Newman by correcting his choice of serving utensils in front of the whole table, an ugly example of formal etiquette serving bad manners. 

It was also surprising to learn that Charles Newman, one of J.H. Newman's two brothers, was eccentric to the point of near-madness, and spent his whole life bouncing from one difficulty to another, frequently bailed out financially by John and the other brother, Francis (Frank). It was less surprising that Frank was a low-church Anglican clergyman, and that past a certain point in John's evolution the brothers could hardly speak to each other, and then only by sticking strictly to everyday matters and avoiding the big questions--a situation familiar to many of us, now probably more often due to politics than religion (but then part of the problem is that politics is religion for many). His relationship with his sister Jemima, seven years younger, seems to have been, at least in adulthood, the closest and most durable of his sibling relationships (there were three sisters, one of whom, Mary, also the youngest of the children, died at nineteen). But even Jemima ceased to invite him to her home after he became a Catholic.

I had read somewhere, perhaps in the Apologia, Newman's lament that he had given up almost everything dear to him when he left Oxford and Anglicanism. But I had not grasped the full pathos of it. Ó'Faoláin vividly communicates the deep attachments which Newman knew himself to be severing when he took the big step. And, just as vividly, he communicates the theological issues, which, abstract though they may seem to one who doesn't understand the stakes, were for Newman as dangerous and painful and as powerful to alter his life as would have been the decision facing a Virginian in 1860; only the physical violence is missing. That late-in-life epilogue begins with this:

There can have been few more lonely men in the world than the aging Newman.

Actually, on reflection, and leafing through the book again, I think I will, after all, say that if you only read one book about Newman, this is, if not the only reasonable choice, a leading candidate. There can't be many that are at once so pleasurable and illuminating. It appears to be out of print now, but used copies are available at Abebooks and Alibris. 

*

This book came into my hands more or less accidentally, as part of a deceased clergyman's library intercepted on its way to Goodwill. It was published in 1952. Stuck between the pages I found this seventy-year-old postcard supplied by the publisher, perhaps used by the original owner as a bookmark, as it now is by me:

Devin-Adair-Postcard1 Devin-Adair-Postcard2
It's oddly poignant to me--as a relic of the book's original purchaser, and a relic of a time for which I'm not ashamed to say I feel some nostalgia. "New York 10, N. Y." The ZIP (for Zone Improvement Plan) code was not introduced until 1963. 


P. G. Wodehouse: The Mating Season

Hence, loathed melancholy. Something like that is what I'm thinking when I pick up a Wodehouse book. And it works, for when I'm actually engaged in the reading loathed melancholy is banished to its uncouth cell. (See the opening of Milton's "L'Allegro.") I feel the way champagne looks.

I can't remember where it occurs or even which of them said it, but either Lewis or Tolkien made a memorable response to the charge that the kind of fiction they wrote was escapism. Since I don't have it at hand, I will paraphrase broadly: people who want to escape are prisoners, and the people who don't want them to escape are jailers. And there are many good reasons why one wants, even needs, to escape.

There's a further point, which Tolkien at least made: that the world which he created was not safe, which one might expect (or at least hope) an escape to provide. On the contrary, though his work, and some of Lewis's, are set in nonexistent worlds, those worlds are hardly an escape from dark things. The central drama in their work is the conflict between good and evil, and the evil is real, serious, and deadly. Nor are the fictional situations idyllic: no one would want to be in Shelob's lair.

Wodehouse's work, on the other hand, can be fairly called escapist--pure escapism, in that the escape is complete, because his world is entirely apart from the one we shuffle around in. There is no real evil in it at all. At most bad things are glimpsed from a great distance, as in the character of Roderick Spode, a would-be fascist, based on Oswald Mosley and introduced in The Code of the Woosters. But nothing is said of the actual evil that he represents; he is simply mocked as a ridiculous figure: "Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags!"  (football, i.e. soccer, shorts--his gang is called the Black Shorts, in mockery of Mosley's Black Shirts). 

Nothing really bad ever happens in Wodehouse's world, and in fact a significant element of the humor is the disparity between Bertie's view of his really quite trivial troubles and reality--his fear of Aunt Agatha, for instance, or his desire to escape marriage--in the midst of which he fancies himself living up to a heroic family name (as The Code of the Woosters suggests). 

Bertie as a satirical representation of an upper-class Englishman belonging to a club called The Drones is devastating, but when I'm reading about him I don't think of that connection to reality; I only see a goofy, bumbling, quotation-mangling young man of, as Jeeves puts it, negligible intellect. He  and all the other Wodehouse creations live in a world which has only enough relation to reality to make it intelligible to us. This world and these people never really change across the decades and numerous novels in which they occur. And normally one might consider that to be a fault in a novelist. But they remain fresh because Wodehouse's gift for comedy never failed. So many artists (I think of pop musicians especially) have one or two spectacularly excellent works, but don't succeed either in getting out of their original pattern or equaling their best work in it, so that there are a few brilliant things and a string of others of which one says they are similar, but not as good. With Wodehouse it's as if the Beatles continued making albums similar to Revolver, yet of comparable quality, for decades. Somehow he managed to keep it fresh.

Waugh said it best, in a remark quoted on the dust jacket of all the Overlook Press editions:

Wodehouse's idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.

And which cannot be inhabited by melancholy; that's taken at the door when you enter. It will be a sad day for mankind when the only people capable of reading Wodehouse will be scholars of 19th and 20th-century English literature and culture.

So, about this particular book: it was published in 1949, well into Wodehouse's career, and by my count is the ninth of the Jeeves and Wooster series. I have to wonder whether Wodehouse, perhaps a little bored with the act, deliberately set himself the challenge of juggling as many balls as possible. In the other novels there is usually at least one romance to be threatened, rescued after many complications, and sent on its way to the altar. And frequently there's an anti-romance involving Bertie's attempts to avoid marriage. In this one there are no less than four romances, therefore eight lovers, with Bertie in danger of being captured by one of them, Madeleine Basset, if her engagement to Gussie Fink-Nottle falls through. The plot is wildly complex. Besides the four romances, Bertie and Gussie are obliged to impersonate each other, old friend Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright to impersonate Jeeves, Jeeves to pass as Gussie-Bertie's "man" under another name. And five aunts, not Bertie's but a menace to him nevertheless, in addition to Aunt Agatha. And a pest of a child, Aunt Agatha's son Thomas. And a dog named Sam Goldwyn. And a policeman. 

It's a delight, as usual. I feel rather glum. Maybe I'll just read it again.  TheMatingSeason

The cover of the Overlook Press edition. That's Bertie, drinking port and singing.

TheMatingSeason(Original)

The original cover. That's Bertie behind the sofa. 


P.D. James: The Black Tower

To my taste there's not a great deal of charm in the writing of P.D. James, at least in comparison with some other female British writers of detective fiction. She's not the kind of writer who makes me think "that was a nice stroke" at some turn of phrase or bit of wit. There's a somber quality about her prose, though it is smooth and graceful; the word "careful" comes to mind. And the plots are slow-moving and low-key--also careful, you could say. But of the four of her mysteries that I've read, three have stuck with me pretty well, which is certainly not always the case for me, with fiction in general and particularly with detective fiction. (However, the fact that I remember vividly at least a few important things from those books is not saving me from the inability to recall the names of two of them. That's age at work. The one title I do recall is A Taste for Death.)

One of those is a fairly early book which I remember because the identity of the murderer quite surprised me, not so much as a result of the intricacy and subtlety of the clues as that I was surprised that the character, who had certain qualities not ordinarily attributed to fictional criminals, in fact generally regarded with some sympathy, was in fact pretty vicious at heart. The other, a late one, is set among conservative and somewhat eccentric Anglo-Catholics, and the portrayal of the milieu was interesting in itself. (I suppose "eccentric" is almost redundant there: Anglo-Catholics are now almost by definition eccentric in the sense of being unusual in relation to Anglicanism at large.)

So now The Black Tower joins these other three, and one of the reasons is that it, too, is set in a small and somewhat odd more or less Christian community. In this case it's a nursing home for critically ill, mostly terminally ill, patients who require a lot of care. And I say "more or less" because its founder and head seems to be somewhat vague about his beliefs--or maybe that's just the Anglicanism (he said mischievously). At any rate it exists because of the founder's conviction that he had been miraculously cured at Lourdes, and he takes the patients who are able to travel on an annual pilgrimage there. Police Commander Adam Dalgliesh gets involved because an elderly priest (Anglican), chaplain to and resident of the community, has written to him asking for help with a situation the nature of which he does not disclose.

The role of the priest in the book is relatively small in scope, but quite important. And it's he who pretty much guarantees that I'll remember at least something of it. His original connection with Dalgliesh is that he had been curate to Dalgliesh's father, who was rector of a parish in a Norfolk village. And Dalgliesh remembers a conversation, in which he, age ten, had inquired about the daily diary kept rigorously by the priest:

"It's just an ordinary diary then, Father? It isn't about your spiritual life?"

"This is the spiritual life; the ordinary things one does from hour to hour."

James was in fact an Anglican, and not in a merely nominal way. She was a "lay patron," whatever that means, of the Prayer Book Society. And I think it's at least in part her serious Christian sensibility that gives her work, not explicitly Christian, its depth. 

As any fan knows, ITV (British) did a series of adaptations of several Dalgliesh novels back in the '80s. Roy Marsden played Dalgliesh in these, and I saw most (or all?) of them at the time (including The Black Tower, which I did not remember at all). I enjoyed them greatly, but whether it was Marsden's work, or the director's, or a difficulty in transferring the interiority of the character to the screen--probably the last--I found Dalgliesh a pretty vague character. Not so with this book. He seems very much alive, and more interesting than I remember. He's a quiet and close sort of person, and if you had to work almost entirely with his actions and speech it would be difficult to make him distinctive.

There is a new Dalgliesh adaption out, by the way. It's on the Acorn streaming service, which I don't have, so I haven't seen it. 


Katy Carl: As Earth Without Water

This novel, by the editor of the Catholic literary magazine Dappled Things and published by the Catholic press Wiseblood Books, has gotten a good deal of favorable attention that's very much deserved. For several reasons, including the scripture reference in the title and the fact that it comes from an explicitly Catholic author and publisher, I was more or less expecting it to be a conversion story. And in some respects it is--let's say that conversion is an important element--but it is far from formulaic, which--let's face it--conversion stories can be. I'd say rather that it's more fundamentally a love story, beginning with the human and rising into the divine.

It's set in a milieu that I know nothing of, that of the contemporary visual arts world. I know little of the visual arts in general, and much of what I hear about its contemporary practitioners and patrons can be summed up in the word "bonkers": part hustle, part snobbery, part cold finance. But when I read an account of some nutty piece of putative art I remind myself that without a doubt there are many very serious and gifted artists at work in that milieu. This is a story of two of them.

One is the narrator, Angele Solomon. (I know, because we're told in the second paragraph, that "Angele" has three syllables and the accent is on the first, but I don't know whether it's pronounced as we normally would pronounce "Angela," or in some other way. I settled on "Angela" as I read.) The other is her sometime lover, friend, and, it's fair to say, obsession at some points, Dylan Fielding. Dylan is the more gifted artist (or at any rate is generally seen so, which is another matter). And when the story opens in July 2010 he is having a great deal of success, while Angele has more or less given up her artistic ambitions and taken a job at a commercial graphic design company. At this point they have been apart for some time, and Angele is not especially pleased, though she can't help being excited, by an out-of-the-blue phone call from him. He is in town (Chicago) for a show and wants to see her. 

From that point the story moves back and forth in time, as far back as 2001, when Angele and Dylan have just met as college students, and forward to 2017, when...well, when many things have been resolved, and some things are beginning.

After only fourteen pages we jump to November of 2015, where, I would guess, half or more of the story occurs, but not consecutively. And even when we are in that time there are flashbacks (perhaps some flashforwards, too--I don't remember for sure). In November of 2015 Angele is visiting Dylan at the monastery (which seems to be in all but name Gethsemani in Kentucky) where he is now the novice Thomas Augustine. His conversion has taken place offstage, and it is not the specific event of the conversion as much as something that took place after it that is the central crisis of the story.

I don't hesitate to say that this is a very good book, but am a bit undecided as to just how good. Leafing through it now, I think I would need to read it again to come a more definitive conclusion on that score. No doubt as a result partly of the time-jumping and partly of my own fragmented reading habits (I can't seem to stick with a single book from beginning to end), I don't have a very clear view of the narrative line, and I think that reduces for me its dramatic effect. And there is a surprising development at the end which I didn't find entirely convincing. 

The prose is excellent, especially its precise and detailed visual descriptions. As a rule I tend to be impatient with elaborate description--as I said, I'm not oriented to the visual arts or to the visual in general. But Carl's descriptions have a great deal of life in them and keep my attention. I can't help wondering if perhaps painting was (is?) her first love; she certainly convinces me that her protagonists are painters.

And that evident love is, I think, the key to the novel. Dylan loves what he paints--that is, he paints things that he loves. One of these is Angele, in a portrait which becomes a point of distress for her in part (I think) because their relationship does not fulfil the promise of the painting, and in fact becomes a mere commercial object. Angele loves Dylan as well as his work, and, like him, paints what she loves. Since the act of seeing is pretty much a prerequisite for painting, and is also an act of knowing, seeing, knowing, and loving become inextricable for these artists, in relation both to their subjects and to each other. This nexus of vision, love, and knowledge pulls in, and is pulled into, the divine, and is itself the picture with which the novel leaves me. And maybe--this thought occurs to me on the fly, as I'm revising this note after a first draft--the narrative technique gives us the story more as picture than sequence, and is a strength, not a weakness. I really will have to read it again, which is not something I do very often with fiction. 

AsEarthWithoutWater

One relatively unimportant thing which I am not the only reader to have singled out as especially strong: the all-too-convincing depiction of Dylan's parents, who are rich, godless people, the mother a bit of a monster. In general I found vivid and believable the portrayal of the monied and fashionable upper reaches of the art world--not the highest, I suppose, but high: the combination of aesthetic refinement and venality. 

Angele tells us that she's from Sepal, Mississippi, a little town not far from the Gulf Coast. As far as I can tell there is no such town, but there is a little town called Petal, which is more or less a suburb of Hattiesburg. (I live in that general area, so these are familiar names to me; I've wondered how Petal got its name.) Not much is said of Angele's earlier life except that she was unhappy and desperate to escape. I would have liked to have heard more of that. Perhaps it belongs in another book. 

The new Catholic literary revival hasn't yet given us a Percy or an O'Connor, but it is very much alive and in good hands. If you're interested in it, you'll want to read this novel. (Is it really new? Haven't there been good Catholic writers all along, since, for instance, Walker Percy's last novel in 1987? Well, that's another topic. But either way a surge of capable activity is in progress, for which we can be grateful. And supportive.)


On Not Watching Amazon's New Tolkien Series (probably)

There never was much chance that I would want to see this. As I've said before, probably to the point of tedium, in the end I was more negative than positive toward the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings, in spite of there being many good things about it. I won't bother to go into all that again. And I didn't even see the Hobbit movies, which seem to have been a fundamentally terrible idea, no matter how they were executed. And even if there were no other reason to avoid this new thing, I don't want a Hollywood spectacle burning its Tolkien-based imagery permanently into my brain.

The new series is based on stories mentioned in the appendices of LOTR and told in more detail in The Silmarillion. Within broad parameters, the writers are free to make things up. That's okay, but a year or so ago word got out that Amazon was advertising for an "intimacy coordinator" for the series, so that seemed to be pretty much the end of the matter.

Still, I can't help following the story. A few days ago this piece appeared at National Review. It in turn is based on an article in Vanity Fair which reveals more than had previously been known about the plans for the series. The NR writer thinks it gives cause for both hope and alarm. I don't see a whole lot of the first.

Then, while watching the Super Bowl (or rather the last half of it), I saw Amazon's "teaser trailer," and all detailed considerations about fidelity to Tolkien and so forth went out the window. It appears to be a big, loud, action movie, seasoned with cuteness and sentimentality, and that's enough to know about it.

Still, I add the "probably." It's unlikely, but I won't totally rule out the possibility that I might give in to the temptation to check it out. A well-imagined and constructed Numenor, for instance, might be a grand sight....

This article at Crisis is a pretty good appraisal: negative, but judicious and reasonable. 

A question for anyone who's more familiar with The Silmarillion than I am: is the portrayal of Galadriel as a warrior justified? I don't remember anything in The Lord of the Rings that would warrant it, but perhaps in earlier ages she took part in physical combat. I only read The Silmarillion once, and it was several decades ago. 


What's In These Names?

Just humor, I guess:

Allen Doss, Darron Tuff, Jan Fugg, Russell Fiery, Angelo Legend, Amy Haggis, Andreas Weeder, Jasen Foul, Adolfo Slaughter, Daron Matins, Seneca Zen, Curtis Isogloss, Curt Hubble, Shea Roo, Charles Heavy, Jamie Bovver, Brant Verve, Dominick Thrawn, Jayson Nil, Hassan Sass, Jamil Point, Doyle Dyke, Bennie Fleer, Moshe Fraud, Kimberly Waker, Martin Beth, Rex Pochard, Jeffery Croon, Louis Kauri, Kenneth Disc, Bryce Fedora, Scott Grocer, Marcus de Brief, Maurice Jar, Guillermo Balk, Andy Pitt, Sammy Gearing, Leon Brandish, Norman Purple, Harold Dazzle, Esteban Woolly, Jeremie Cue, Erwin Antics, Brent Clean, Brandon Fretsaw, Cristopher Homely, Paulo Sketch, Marlin Haymaker, Derik Cayman, Mickey Mustang, Loren Sequin, Jorge Pure

I've been trying out a writing tool called Scrivener. It includes a good set of word processing tools, but goes beyond that with tools for managing a book-length project. You can have lots of separate pieces of text, from a paragraph to a chapter or whatever, and move them around easily, and these components are not separate files but are all right at your fingertips. This is a bigger deal than you might think if you've never tried to write a book and had trouble organizing it. 

And there's much more. I think it's going to be a big help to me, but right now I'm still trying to adjust to it and figure out what it can do. Poking around in the menus, I found, several levels down, something called Name Generator. I looked at it and it's exactly what the name says:

ScrivenerNameGenerator

Of course I had to try it out, although I'm not writing a novel. And the names above are what I got. I couldn't understand why it would propose such weirdness for someone writing a novel. Then I realized that though I had set the first-name type to "Popular US Names (Male)," there is no corresponding list of surnames, so I checked "Potential  Dictionary Surnames." (There is a "Popular British Surnames" choice, and, oddly to an American, also "Popular London Surnames." I'll guess that it includes more non-English names.) I'm pretty sure no more than a third or so of these have ever existed in real life, though there is one that's only one letter off from that of someone I know. I suppose you might use some of them if you were writing some kind of Douglas Adams type thing. "Maurice Jar" seems un-randomly close to "Maurice Jarre". 

So if you ever come across a fictional character called Mickey Mustang, you can figure the writer used Scrivener.