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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. 

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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. 


My Heart's One Desire?

There's a worship song (sorry, I don't know its name) used frequently at my parish which has a refrain that concludes:

My heart's one desire
Is to be holy

I cannot honestly sing those words (and I find it difficult to believe that very many people can, but that's none of my business). "one desire"? Hardly.  Usually not even the strongest. For me the truth is closer to "Among many other things, I would like to be holy."

The problem with being holy is that it's very difficult. It requires steady effort and sacrifice, and I do not like either of those things. I like things that are easy and pleasant. I would like to be a really excellent guitarist, too. But here I am, going on sixty years since I first picked up the instrument, and I'm not all that much better than I was when I was twenty. 

About the best I can say for myself with regard to the guitar is that I have never totally or permanently given up on it. Some thirty-five or forty years ago I decided to get a bit more serious about it, and started taking classical guitar lessons at a music shop not too far from where I lived. I made some progress--I could even stumble through an arrangement of Erik Satie's famous Gymnopédie #3 so that it was at least recognizable. I made progress in part because I made myself practice consistently for at least fifteen minutes a day. That's not much, but it was enough to make a difference, and every week or so I could tell that I was a little bit better than I had been the week before.

But then, as usual with me, my resolve collapsed. I started skipping my practice sessions, blaming work and family life, though laziness and inconsistency were at least equally to blame. Eventually I had gone several weeks without practicing and dreaded going to my lesson. The teacher had been a little impatient with my lack of ability to begin with, and I was embarrassed to show up not having practiced, and therefore not having improved, at all. And clearly the lessons were a waste of money if I wasn't going to work consistently, at least, if not all that hard. So I quit them. But I didn't quit playing altogether, and I still do play (not classical music), and I still don't practice regularly, and I'm still not very good.

I'm not doing very well at all with my Lenten observances this year. I set the bar pretty low and still have fallen short of it. About the best I can say for myself, both with regard to Lent and to the pursuit of holiness in general, is that I have never totally or permanently given up.

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Apart from the words, I'm not very fond of the kind of music which that song represents. But our choir is really quite talented, they work hard, and they do that sort of thing very well. And sometimes they venture into older and better music. This Lent, for instance, they have been ending Mass with an arrangement of this chant:

They harmonized it for their six or eight voices, and in addition to the basic Latin chant, they added a sort of descant in English, by two (I think) sweet, yearning female voices. It's the last thing we hear at Mass, and is for a moment or two almost unbearably moving.

I'm a little puzzled by their translation, though. The Latin is:

Attende domine
et miserere
quia peccavimus tibi

which is something like "Hear us, Lord, and have mercy, for we have sinned against you." But the choir sings "Burdened with sin, we implore you" (or was it "thee"?) which doesn't seem a close translation of anything in the text. So I'm wondering if this is some traditional English version, possibly something from the Book of Common Prayer or some other Anglican source. But I haven't been able to find it. I like it better than the more literal translation, actually. It's more desperate.

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Here's the Gymnopédie, by the way, played by Christopher Parkening. As you can hear, it's not that difficult, and of course very pretty, so a nice thing for a not-very-advanced player to work on.

 


Laudamus anyway

The "Laudamus" from Mozart's Great Mass in C minor, K 427. (The "anyway" is because I've been in pretty low spirits, and listening to this Mass, especially this section, was beneficial.)

This is not the performance I listened to last night, which was a 1982 performance conducted by von Karajan with Barbara Hendricks. But I just found this one on YouTube and really like it. I think I'll try to find the whole recording.


A Maronite Mass

(As you probably know, but just in case you don't, the Maronite Church is one of the eastern Christian bodies that are in communion with Rome--see this Wikipedia article for more information.)

Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend a Maronite Rite Mass. (I suppose "Mass" is not the right term, since it's a specifically Latin one, and in my opinion a somewhat unfortunate one, having less to do with what it names than it might.)  I've long wanted to do that, but as far as I know the only Maronite parish anywhere near me is in Birmingham, four hours at least away from me, and though I drive through Birmingham fairly often it's never at a time when the liturgy is being celebrated. 

There really should be a Maronite parish, or perhaps several, in Mobile, as it's the rite of many (most, I guess) Lebanese Christians and there is a sizable Lebanese community in Mobile, arising from immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (I still haven't quite gotten used to the fact that "the last century" now refers to the 20th, not the 19th as it did for two-thirds of my life.) I've been told that there were some not-very-nice machinations on the part of the local bishop and clergy (Latin of course) to prevent the establishment of a Maronite presence back then, which is a shame, not just because it was not very nice but because it deprived the whole Catholic community, not only the Lebanese, of an important tradition.

If I were more of a liturgy nerd (such a rude term, but it has its use), I would have managed to get to it. As it was, I had to wait until it came to me, at a parish in Mobile, with a visiting celebrant in the person of Fr. Mitch Pacwa, S.J., whose name you may recognize from his work with EWTN and Ignatius Press. It was impressive, and I think any Latin Rite Catholic who is a little, or maybe more than a little, dissatisfied with the Novus Ordo would find it so, and perhaps be a bit envious. If you search for "Maronite Mass" on YouTube you'll find a number of videos which are the next best thing to attending it. In fact, here is one celebrated by Fr. Pacwa. A certain amount of it is in English but the core is in the ancient language, or languages--some was referred to as Aramaic and some as Syriac. (Personally I find it rather weird and bordering on irreverent to watch a liturgy on video, and so did not watch all of this one.) 

But it was not any particular features of the liturgy that struck me so much as the sense of its antiquity. Parts of it are in Aramaic, and it gave me a bit of a shiver to think that I was hearing the liturgy in the very language that is, if not identical the one that Jesus spoke, then close to it, and certainly far, far closer to it than any modern European language. And afterwards it led me down a line of ecumenically incorrect thought. I mean "ecumenical" in its typical current sense, the "mere Christianity" sort of sense, referring to the attempt to find comity and common ground among Christian communities, including the Protestant ones.

If I were a Protestant, especially if I were an Evangelical, low-church, more or less congregational Protestant, the fact that all the Christian churches that can with any plausibility trace their lineage back to the origin of the faith celebrate a liturgy which is recognizably the same basic thing would give me pause. Anglicanism and its descendants, and I think also Lutheranism, preserve it in greater or lesser degree--I realized, in retrospect, that its faint outline was visible in the Methodism of my youth. But the more radically Protestant churches don't. There is nothing in any of these forms of worship that bears much resemblance to that of, for instance, a Southern Baptist church, still less the newer free-lance non-denominational churches that are more or less of the evangelical stripe and have gone in very much for rock music and stagecraft and such (or so I hear). 

I would think that any Christian who looks into the history of the Church, the one that can actually be seen to have existed, as opposed to the one that is inferred from brief mentions in the New Testament seen through a very Protestant lens, would almost (almost!) necessarily move toward one of the ancient Churches. I don't mean that he would inevitably become a Catholic, as it's entirely possible to believe that Catholicism went fatally astray at some point even though it preserved the basic elements of worship. Maybe he would become a Copt, or join the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. But he would recognize the radically non-liturgical Protestant churches as distinctly modern phenomena (as is Protestantism in general, but that's a whole 'nother matter), severed from Christian history.

I don't say this with any triumphalist intention. It's a tragedy, because there are so many serious committed Christians in those groups. It's a great loss on both sides. 


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.)


Peter Hitchens Muses on the Wind

His latest post at The Lamp's blog is a jewel:

What is it about the wind? When I am watching some piece of ancient black-and-white archive film, imprisoned in the time when it was made, a gust of wind will lift a person’s hair or shake the trees in the background, and the whole thing will spring to fierce life. For the moment when the wind blows, it is freed from the past and is happening now. I do not know why. It just is so.

Something similar happens when the wind comes into poetry or prose....

It's not very long, but read it when you're not distracted and are at liberty to take it slowly. As those who have read this blog for a while know, I live on the hurricane coast and am all too well acquainted with truly terrible and dangerous winds. Yet even at times when I've lain in the dark wondering if a tree was going to fall on the house, or the roof come off, I couldn't help feeling, in addition to the fear, a degree of awe bordering on admiration. And I've been close enough to a tornado to hear it, and have seen the damage. Hitchens notes

I was once on a train between Denver, Colorado and Omaha, Nebraska, halted for hours by tornadoes. The small towns through which we crept, when we at last moved, looked as if they had been visited by war.

That's no exaggeration. After one tornado in Huntsville, Alabama, in 1989, I went to help with the cleanup. I saw, among other things, cars that had been picked up and dropped upside down, completely flattening the top, or right-side up, warping the wheels. Not the tires, the solid steel wheels. A wind that can pick up a car and throw it around. 

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A couple of other things worth looking at on the web:

Slant Books is doing some great things. Among their recent offerings is a collection of three plays by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. The title play is about a family of Elizabethan recusant Catholics who...well, here's the description:

Shakeshafte imagines an encounter between a young sixteenth century Englishman with a faintly familiar surname and an undercover Jesuit missionary. Two visions of how words change the world collide and converge and slip away again.

You can read an excerpt here. Also, at this link, you can register for a December 28 online book launch for Shakeshafte which will include performance of a scene from the title play and a Q&A with Williams. 

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The Friday Links at the Dappled Things blog usually include some interesting stuff. In this case it's all of them. I haven't watched that video about the hermit yet but I intend to. I wonder where Liechtenstein is. 

Not so sure I want to read the entire piece by the young women who says "Over time, though, I outgrew the conversion narrative as a genre." Yeah, I hear you. I'm pretty sick of the one I wrote. 


Kind Words for Some Unpopular Christians

Very early in my life as an adult Christian I realized that I had to come to terms with the fact that a lot of my fellow Christians were really Not My Sort. More significantly, they held views, or at least expressed them in ways, with which I disagreed significantly. I have in mind a particular incident: it was around 1979, and I had a friend who, like me, had recently joined the Episcopal Church. He mentioned that he had just heard on the radio a hick preacher who denounced homosexuality in terms that to say the least showed no charity or kindness.

My friend was outraged. I remember him saying vehemently "I have nothing whatsoever in common with that guy. Nothing." As far as I can remember I didn't make any reply, but I remember thinking that as unpleasant and just plain wrong as the preacher was in his approach to that particular subject, I almost certainly agreed with him on the basic tenets of the Creed (though he probably disavowed creeds in principle), and even on the fundamental question of the morality of homosexual acts, and that I had to accept the fact that in becoming a Christian I was joining myself to him and others whose company I didn't especially want. I now had more of the most important things in common with him than I did with my non-Christian friends.

The Gospel, unfortunately, is like that. It's the one thing needful, and those who accept it are united to each other in a way that they can't be with non-believers. Often over the years I've found myself defending people whom I find unsympathetic in one way or another, saying "Well, he or she or they are wrong about that, but right about the One Big Thing."

I still feel that way about fundamentalist Protestantism, though, now, forty years later, a majority of Americans are more of my friend's mind than of mine. It is certainly despised by our upper classes. And there are a lot of people out there who grew up in that culture who now despise it and blame it for their problems.

More or less the same goes for those who are sometimes called fundamentalist Catholics, who are zealous in their commitment to orthodoxy and swim hard upstream against the secular culture which is ever more hostile to them. Since the '70s and '80s there have been a fair number of Catholic families in this mold, and now many of their children are grown, and as with the Protestants some (many) are now ex-Catholics who are bitter about various things that were wrong with that subculture. Sometimes it's personal, some particular situation that was really unhealthy. Sometimes it's a general rejection of the whole mindset. Sometimes it's justified, sometimes not.

EWTN is one of the central institutions of these Catholics, and it is much despised by progressive Catholics. Pope Francis even went so far recently as to say the devil is at work in it (which is true enough, just as he's at work in the Vatican). I have to admit, with a twinge of guilt, that I've never really cared much for EWTN. I'll leave it at that, because I don't want to write a thousand words on the subject. Suffice to say that it's really not my cup of tea, and I would agree with some of the criticisms of it. But I have seen it work real good in the lives of real people, and I think it's much more a good thing than not.

So I was glad to read, a week or two ago, two pieces that came out pretty close together, by relatively young people defending these unpopular Christians. One is a Catholic convert writing in National Review. She's an instance of what I was just saying, someone on whom EWTN exercised a significant influence for the good.  The other is a Protestant (Anglican) writing in The American Conservative. I found them heartening, especially the Protestant, because the milieu he describes is the one I grew up in. Here's the Catholic: "In Defense Of EWTN", and here's the Protestant: "I Survived (Because Of) Bible-Belt Religion".

By the way, here is what the pope actually said:

There is, for example, a large Catholic television channel that has no hesitation in continually speaking ill of the pope. I personally deserve attacks and insults because I am a sinner, but the Church does not deserve them. They are the work of the devil.

This was, all too predictably, reported as "Pope Francis says EWTN is the work of the devil." Obviously the antecedent of "They" in the third sentence is "attacks and insults." I don't know what these attacks and insults are so am not expressing an opinion on whether his complaint is justified.


Another Liturgical Note

"Bishop Steven J. Lopes, the bishop of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, was elected to head the Committee for Divine Worship by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) at their annual general assembly in Baltimore."

Full story at the web site of the Anglicanorum Coetibus Society.

My master plan for the Ordinariate is a slow infiltration of the Novus Ordu by the language and other elements of the Anglican tradition. So far so good. I don't really know what this means, and have not seen any commentary. The vote was as close as it could be without being a tie: 121-120. I don't know what that means, either. Does it reflect a more-traditionalist vs. less-traditionalist split? Maybe some of those folks who follow these things closely will provide some insight.

I read somewhere or other a speculation that what Pope Francis is really up to in suppressing the traditional Latin Mass is to drive those who want a more reverent, beautiful, and traditional liturgy to work with the Novus Ordo. I'm inclined to doubt it, but I guess it's possible. Anyway, the Ordinariate's liturgy is just what is needed to get us beyond the post-Vatican-II conflict. On that matter, anyway.


Olav Audunsson and Undset Translations

I recently read Vows, the title given by translator Tiina Nunnally to the first book in the tetralogy previously known as The Master of Hestviken, called in the new translation simply by the name of the main character, Olav Audunsson. From the book's brief Wikipedia entry it's not clear to me whether Undset gave titles to the individual books, but apparently the English translators and publishers have felt free to choose their own. I will say that the new title of the tetralogy seems more fitting than the old; if nothing else it makes for an appropriate juxtaposition with Kristin Lavransdatter, as both are principally concerned with one character. And as for Vows, it's as fitting a title for the first book as the older translation's The Axe. I lean toward the latter as being a more potent title, and as you know if you've read the book, an axe is a very significant part of the story, but so are vows, at least as much so.

At the moment other books have taken priority over continuing with this one, or four, but I'll get back to it, or them. Right now I just want to say something about the translations. I sat in on a series of online lectures on Vows last month, and Tiina Nunnally also attended. Of course people had questions for her, and one of them was about titles. Nunnally said she didn't care much for the titles of the earlier translations, which she thought overly masculine. Well, I don't especially agree, but I get her point. Her second volume is called Providence; the older title is The Snake Pit--there's clearly a pretty different sensibility at work. Personally I suspect Undset would have favored the concrete title over the abstract, but obviously that's only a guess, and, again, there's nothing inappropriate or unfitting about Nunnally's title. 

The differing titles, though, are suggestive to me of other qualities in the new translation, qualities which make me unable to be as enthusiastic about it as most contemporaries seem to be. Last spring when I was reading Nunnally's translation of Kristin I made a number of comments on the translation question. They're in three different posts, so I'll repeat the main points here. 

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Nunnally's prose is certainly simpler and more clear, but it's also without [distinctive ] character. I don't recall encountering anything in this volume which would be out of place in an ordinary magazine or newspaper story of our time. But neither do I recall lingering over any sentence for its elegance or flavor. I won't say it's clumsy, but I won't say it's graceful, either. Maybe I would think the same of the original; maybe Undset wrote a straightforward and not particularly rich prose. 

Nunnally's simplicity certainly makes for an easier read. Archer's prose can be something of a struggle, but I breeze right through Nunnally's without conscious effort. Whether anything is being lost I really can't say with any authority, but as the two sentences above indicate, there are often differences of nuance: "got leave to go" and "was going to accompany" are not interchangeable. 

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In poking around on the web for information about the Kristin translations, I've found that it tends to be taken for granted that the new one (Nunnally) is not just superior to the old one (Archer) but has definitively replaced it, liberating a great novel from a terrible translation. Not so fast, I say. There are many reasons to be grateful for Nunnally's, most especially the restoration of some significant passages mysteriously (as far as I know) omitted from Archer's. But I have reason to think that Nunnally's is also some distance from ideal. I will have more to say about this when I've finished the last volume, but consider the bit I just quoted: "Saint Olav had brought Christianity to the valley...." That sounded off to me. I of course have no idea what Undset actually wrote, but I'm pretty sure that medieval Christians in Norway and everywhere else did not use a term like "Christianity." So I looked at Archer, and found that he says that Saint Olav "christened" the valley. Much truer, I'm sure, to the medieval mind.

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I agree that Archer's attempt at an antique effect is awkward at best, and not even historically appropriate.  But I'm not content with Nunnally's translation...

I can't speak to the rhythms of Undset's prose--but Nunnally's reads like ordinary contemporary American English. The word "weight" keeps coming to mind: Harbison's description makes me think that Undset's prose has it, but Nunnally's does not. Maybe that's not Nunnally's fault, or only partly; maybe it's just the nature of the language of our time. But it's light, almost breezy in comparison to Archer. There's nothing much poetical, nothing much memorable, in it, and by that I don't mean that I think it should have some kind of ostentatious lyricism (which I don't like), but only that there should be something there which makes us re-read a sentence or a paragraph, not because we want to be sure we understood it fully or for any other, so to speak, practical reason, but because its language pleases and touches us....

By the way, Nunnally's inclusion of passages said to be too sexually explicit for Archer, which of course arouses all sorts of tingles in the typical contemporary critic or reader, turns out to be a big nothing. The differences are pretty trivial, apparently consisting only of a few sentences. I would not have been able to identify the passages if I hadn't seen a review which quoted them side by side.

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I couldn't shake the feeling that Nunnally lacks some kind of basic sympathy with Undset's view of the world.  In Olav Audunsson I found something that rather brought this home to me. I neglected to mark the passage, so my quotation may not be precisely accurate, but it's something like "Suddenly the foetus moved vigorously inside her." 

I don't know Norwegian, contemporary or ancient, so I suppose I could be wrong, but I find it hard to believe that a medieval Norwegian would have had such a clinical word, or that Undset would have used it. The earlier translation has simply the natural word, "child." I can't hear the use of "foetus" as anything but an anachronism at least as egregious as "I trow," and moreover reflective of the political-cultural controversies of our time. I don't accuse Nunnally of being deliberately ideological here--perhaps it's just the circles she moves in--but the term is certainly loaded; to say "foetus" instead of "baby" is a deliberate choice for many people, for reasons which I don't need to go into.

So, to sum up: one translation is fusty, giving us an attempt at antique dialog that's really more of the 19th-century than the 13th, like a tea shop in 1900 calling itself Ye Olde Tea Shoppe. (To me it's mainly the dialog in the older translations that often sounds stilted and unreal; the narrative and descriptive passages don't have that problem, and indeed are often richer.) And rightly or wrongly many contemporary readers find it too difficult; one young attendee at that online series I mentioned thanked Tiina Nunnally for "making it possible for me to read Kristin Lavransdatter."

And the other translation is all too much of its time. One owes too much to the 19th century and perhaps earlier, one is too much of the 21st. Why do I harp on this? In part I suppose because I think I may be missing something, that neither translation really does the best possible service to Undset. And even if I wanted to learn Norwegian it's a bit late for me to get started. There will certainly not be another translation in my lifetime, probably not until 2100 is a lot closer than 2000, and who knows what the cultural and linguistic condition of English will be then? 

I feel rather churlish in complaining about translations that certainly involved an amount of labor and knowledge that I can't really imagine doing and possessing, and which may very well have, as the person I quoted above said, "made it possible" for people who otherwise would not have known the work of a great novelist to do so. I really am grateful for that. It's just...well....

By the way, the earlier translations of Kristin and Olav are not by the same person. One is Charles Archer, the other Arthur Chater. But they are similar, though I think Chater's has less of the questionable antique in the dialog. 


Liturgical Note

I went to a traditional Latin Mass last Sunday. Three observations:
 
(1) I prefer the Novus Ordo (assuming no gross abuses thereof).
 
(2) Of the roughly 50 people who were there, by far the majority were no older than 40-ish.
 
(3) Traditiones Custodes was a mistake.
 
I've done my share of griping about the liturgy over the years. But really I'm content with my suburban parish and its Novus Ordo Mass. The one I normally attend has a "folk," actually pop, band, and though it's not my choice of music they do it well. 
 
More importantly, I very much agree with the basic principle of having Mass in the vernacular. It is in a sense a very different and even revolutionary approach to the liturgy. I could not hear 80% of the Latin spoken by the priest during the Latin Mass, and gave up trying to follow along in the Mass book. And it seems to me that until relatively recently that inaccessibility was not considered a problem. The ritual of the Mass was something that the clergy did; for the laity, the point was to be there, and to pray. I've noticed in books written even up until 1960 or so little indications that for the laity to pray the rosary or engage in some other form of private prayer during Mass was normal. 
 
This is a vastly different approach from the congregational participation which we now have and assume to be correct. And I prefer the latter. I'm not making any doctrinal assertion here. I'll assume for the sake of discussion that there are reasonable justifications for both approaches. But I think the Council was right to allow this change. The Mass book used by the congregation at the Latin Mass, which includes side-by-side Latin and English, strikes me as a not very successful attempt to bridge the two approaches. Unless you've studied Latin at least a little, it's difficult and distracting to follow. I suppose it was a stopgap, not entirely satisfactory from either point of view, and not especially conducive to worship.
 
I wish the language of our English Mass was more elegant. I really wish that we had, in general, better music at Sunday Masses. But it's okay. The Catholic faith that's preached at my parish is orthodox. The two priests, one middle-aged and seemingly hardly aware that the Latin Mass ever existed or why, one young and the celebrant at the Latin Mass I attended, are solid and committed. There's nothing bizarre, nothing that would constitute abuse, in the way Mass is celebrated. I am, as I say, content with it.
 
One thing I've often wondered about is whether the scripture readings in the traditional Latin Mass were in Latin. That, I have to say, I would definitely consider an undesirable practice. At the Mass I attended they were in English. Doing a quick search for the answer to that historical question, I came across this from Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J.:

After the Pauline reforms of the liturgy, it was presumed that the "Tridentine" or Latin Mass would fade away. Bishops were given the authority to suppress it in their dioceses, but some people clung to the old liturgy to the point of schism.

Benedict took away the bishops’ authority and mandated that any priest could celebrate the Tridentine Mass whenever he pleased.

It is time to return to bishops the authority over the Tridentine liturgy in their dioceses. The church needs to be clear that it wants the unreformed liturgy to disappear and will only allow it out of pastoral kindness to older people who do not understand the need for change. Children and young people should not be allowed to attend such Masses.

Well, there (and elsewhere in the same piece, which you can read here) is the voice of compulsory progress ca. 1975. It was written in April of this year. I wonder if he knew Traditiones was coming. It's a good instance of what I'm referring to when I say I've always been puzzled by the desire, the apparent need, of so many clergy, theologians, and such to stamp out the Latin Mass. If you read the rest of the piece you get a sense of how it fits into the overall progressive Catholic program. The title is really enough, if you're familiar with these controversies: 

Vatican II made changes to the liturgy. It’s time to think about making more.

p.s. I really, really doubt that Ratzinger/Benedict "insisted that liturgical texts be translated word for word from the Latin."