Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Best Books of 2006: Novel

The Catholic Readers Society has just entered, if you can believe it, its fifth year. Year 4 was not the best year for books: nothing awful, just little that was memorable. The grand exception was a novel that, while not explicitly Catholic, has enough of the Church's worldview to be useful for presenting a Catholic apologetic. In fact, the book in some ways was suggestive to me of a playing-out of Von Balthasar's Theology of Aesthetics, with themes reminiscent of VB's 'aesthetics founding morality', for example.

Well, the book to which I refer is Mark Helprin's A Soldier of the Great War. The book certainly qualifies as a modern epic, and is refreshing for its sense of moral boundaries and its zest for life. So much fiction today is otherwise. Helprin recounts the career of Alessandro, an Italian of aristocratic background whose youth is interrupted by his service in World War I. Alessandro is one of the most memoriable characters I have encountered in fiction anywhere. The energy he brings to every scene and his unerring nose for what is right and just make him a true hero of an everyman. Story twists that would be downright hard to swallow in other contexts seem plausible, even probable when Alessandro is the protagonist. Another way one might put it is that he has faith: in the value of beauty and of doing something simply because it is right. But there is absolutely nothing of the pedant or scold in him: he genuinely appreciates other people, even when they are wrong.

Helprin's prose is outstanding and carries you along as if you were a passenger in a Jaguar on the Autobahn. His descriptive prose (important for a novel about a man who ends up a professor aesthetics) glistens and captivates. One of our CRS members, Imelda, has seen to it that about twenty other people have gotten copies of this book and my sense is that they all have loved, it, too. A Soldier rivals Kristin Lavransdatter for the best novel that we have read out of about 35 over four years.

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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