Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Modern Novel and Faith

The Catholic Readers Society just finished reading A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin. It is probably the best new novel I have read in three years. Throughout, however, I was haunted by a question, a question that, unfortunately, I haven't quite figured out how to state clearly.

The question is something like this: is there something inherently inimical between the modern novel form and express treatments of faith? Something in me senses that this is largely the case. The exceptions tend to prove the rule. One of the best portrayals for me is Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, indebted in no small part to the serious flaws of the Whisky Priest. The parts of the book I least convincing were the most conspicuously theological. Same with Brideshead Revisited, another favorite. In Brothers Karamazov, another good illustration, the great monk's faith is less theological and more of a kind of faith in Being and renunciation of worldly values that doesn't, in my mind, directly depend on his faith. So his faith, while taken for granted, is not really developed. Alyosha's faith is similarly problematic. I almost tend to think of Ivan as the brother whose faith in God is most explicit--and only by its negative portrayal in his near-possession by the Devil!

I realize that this is hardly a water-tight thesis. But as I was musing on this, I happened to visit the University of Chicago library, in search of a couple of books on the Eucharist by Louis Bouyer. I have recently been informed that this is the largest group of book stacks of any library in the country. This is a great advantage if you like to browse. I happened upon a volume with the strikingly pertinent title Versions and Deconversions: Autobiography and the Loss of Faith, by John D. Barbour. Now autobiography is different from the novel form of course. Yet two important precursors to the modern novel are Augustine's Confessions and Dante's Divine Comedy. Perhaps they are precursors mainly as foils.

One last observation: it matters whether the novel is first-person or third-person. In a third-person story, faith can be treated as merely more lifelike decoration for a character. In first-person narrative, the author needs to produce the goods. Here is where I find the efforts less convincing, I suppose, and it is here that the connection to autobiography is clearest as well. Perhaps I will have more thoughts to add as I read this book.

Peace to you in Jesus Christ!

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