I once hoped to study Catholic novels in a doctoral program, and so went to theology school to bump up my grades and, as I rationalized it to myself, get the theological background for the works I wished to study.
In hindsight that was naive, for the novels I wished to study were written before the Second Vatican Council, and I was taught theology in the light of the Second Vatican Council. However, I took many courses in the theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and echoes of Aquinas can be found in Catholic authors as disparate as James Joyce and Muriel Spark. Happily, I also took a course on Job, a book of the Bible which particularly interested Spark. At least two of her books, The Comforters and The Only Problem, were inspired by the Book of Job.
Theology is very much a part of the work of Alice Thomas Ellis, only in her case, it is a theology of loss, particularly for the loss of the culture she knew before the Second Vatican Council. In her 1991 introduction to The Summerhouse Trilogy, Ellis wrote that when she wrote it she “had been in a bad humour since the 1960s, particularly since the Second Vatican Council, and the action of the book is set in the 1950s when Christianity, specifically Catholicism, still had relevance, for there would have been no point in describing religious intimations, aspirations and subsequently much derided scruples at a time when, for most people, they had lost all meaning.”
The sense of sin that pervades The Clothes in the Wardrobe is preconciliar; it is hard to imagine the following passage in a contemporary homily: “[Life] for me was being a vessel of evil afloat in sea of evil. If I broke, it would take the power of God to separate my elements from the elements of the sea–why, I asked myself, should he bother, since if I took my own life it would be in the full knowledge of what the act entailed?”
I can see how this would be bewildering to anyone of my generation or my schoolfellows’ children’s generation of Catholics brought up to reminders that we are an Easter people and Halleluja is our [only?] song. On the other hand, I can remember once feeling much as Ellis’s youthful narrator did: dragged down by sin, disgusted by myself, far from God, one self-murder away from hell.
One of the comforts for me in the texts and prayers of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass is the frank and frequent staring of sin and death in the face. I remember once being horribly shocked by a jolly priest who announced in his homily that he wanted to take every statue of the Sorrowful Virgin and paint a smile on her face. This was an industrial town; not far from the church a figurative statue of a crushed steelworker expressed a mother’s agony at the death of her strong son almost as well as a statue of the Sorrowful Virgin.
Novels written from a Catholic perspective are novels that reflect that reality of human experience, the love of God and the existence of sin, joy and pain. One can write, if one chooses, of the destruction of the environment–although that is a big subject for one little novel. Novels lend themselves more easily to stories of the loss or redemption of a human soul.
I read my first “Christian novel” this week. That is, I read a novel aimed at the “Christian fiction” market.
Christians have written novels for as long as there have been novels. Fyodor Dostoyevsky is the first who comes to mind, but of course the Western Canon is overwhelmingly populated with Christians.
Evangelical Christians may be underrepresented in the 18th and 19th centuries, for there persisted a stream of Evangelical thought that tarnished fiction as “lies.” That said, Jane Austen herself, an Anglican, gradually became more Evangelical towards the end of her life.
Christian beliefs and characters have flourished in Western literature and beyond. Where they are currently missing, I suspect–only suspect, for I am not a habitual reader of light fiction–is in contemporary genre fiction, e.g. mainstream romance novels, mainstream detective novels, mainstream science fiction. And if this is so, it may be so because Christianity itself is becoming less and less mainstream, less and less part of the landscape in which Western societies live. Christianity is seen as boring and out of date; university freshmen flounder in lectures about literature written before 1970, lost before any reference to the Faith on which Western civilization was built. Absalom who?
And so some Christians demand contemporary Christian fiction–fiction about them, fiction that boldly proclaims Jesus of Nazareth Lord and Savior, fiction that won’t scandalize them or corrupt their children. Thus the “Christian fiction” market.
The only novel I have read aimed at the “Christian fiction” market is called The Defilers by Deborah Gyapong. (Full disclosure: I know Deb and very much admire her work in Canadian Christian journalism.) The Defilers was published in 2006, but I avoided reading it then because I flinched at the stark title and the theme: sexual abuse of children.
By 2006, I had heard quite enough about the sexual abuse of children, thank you very much. I was living in Boston, and Beantown was still seething with anger, hurt and betrayal. However, thinking The Defilers was a Catholic novel, and seeing that I now write about Catholic novels, and feeling I could bear to read such a story now, I recently bought it on Kindle.
The story opens in Boston, and the scene is set beautifully and believably. We are introduced to a devout Catholic family: a loving couple, their widowed policeman son, and the narrator, his tomboy child. Linda’s childhood is halcyon until her father meets his Canadian second wife and moves with her to Nova Scotia, leaving inconvenient Linda behind. Tragically, this betrayal coincides with the arrival in their Boston parish of a hip, charismatic, guitar-playing priest with a penchant for 13 year old girls.
This could be tough stuff for Catholic readers, but we know what we know. Clerical sex abuse is a reality of our fallen world, and it’s good that Gyapong writes of the damage it does, including to her narrator, who grows up to be an angry, bitterly anti-religious woman ready to suspect any clergyman of sexual abuse.
Linda joins the Royal Mounted Canadian Police, and after an unhappy stint in British Columbia, moves to rural Nova Scotia. Once again, Gyapong does a great job of describing place and characters. The narrator’s disgust with the squalor in which the area’s poorest residents live is palpable. The dialogue is believable too.
Where the novel falls down, though, is in the pacing of the plot and sub-plots and in telling, not showing. The narrator is prone to informing us over and over again how she feels, as Botox survivors are said to have to do: “I was happy.” I was furious.” “I hated him.” Linda can go from “I felt happy” to “I hated him” in the same paragraph. She spends most of the story on stress leave, and no wonder. The unexplained mystery is how such an emotionally unstable woman was allowed to join the RCMP in the first place.
The other difficulty is that a novel that began as a Catholic story, with the betrayal of a Catholic community by a Catholic priest, morphs into an Evangelical novel, with Evangelical preachers and elders, and Evangelical worship, depicted in an increasingly attractive light. And with the history of anti-Catholicism in Evangelical communities, I am uncomfortable with the depiction of a vividly evil Catholic priest in a novel written for the Evangelical Christian market.
Gyapong is now in communion with Rome, so I do not mean to imply that Gyapong herself harbors anti-Catholic sentiment: she certainly does not. I know her to be a loyal daughter of the Church. And it is a sad fact that evil Catholic priests have indeed preyed upon Catholic children. Moreover, Gyapong underscores in her novel that sexual abuse of children happens primarily in twisted families, that economically disadvantaged children of all faiths or none are at terrible risk, and that child abuse is endemic to the porn industry. Although the first rapist depicted is a Catholic priest, Gyapong’s story is clear that this is not solely a Catholic problem.
All the same, I find myself wishing that Gyapong had continued her story as if she were intentionally including Catholics among her readers, according to Catholic sensibilities, and with a Catholic resolution. My thoughts keep returning to her excellent preface describing life in Boston and her clear-eyed depictions of material and cultural poverty. There is good stuff here.
I realize that this is a “genre” and “Christian market” novel, but I think Gyapong should aim beyond that and write as she believes. G. K. Chesterton wrote detective novels out of his increasingly Catholic faith, and although his detective was an Roman Catholic priest, Chesterton wrote for everyone.
N.B. Because of the subject matter and approach to Catholic apostasy, I do not recommend this novel to young or sensitive readers.
Apparently it is unusual for one Ignatius novelist to review another, but I cannot resist chatting about Fiorella de Maria’s excellent legal thriller Do No Harm. This is partly because, like De Maria, I am a Catholic migrant to the United Kingdom and, to a certain extent (for I live in Scotland, not England), the legal, medical and ecclesiastical systems she describes affect me, too. And as I read her story, I began to recognize other aspects, and perhaps actual personalities, of Catholic British life. Only a million Catholics in England and Wales bother go to Mass on Sunday; British Catholics live their devotional life in a small pond.
For my birthday I received a copy of the recently released Ceremony of Innocence by Dorothy Cummings McLean. I’d read the synopses and was intrigued, but wanted to find out just where the author went with all those elements in her debut novel. I was pleased by the quality of the writing – the story drew me in easily and engaged me in the plot and characters. This is important, because if “Catholic” authors are going to escape the “Catholic literature ghetto” (you know – that place where people buy “Catholic works” in order to support the authors, not because they necessarily enjoy the stories), then first and foremost the authors need to be high quality artists. If this is what McLean can do in her first novel, I have high hopes for her later efforts.
“He offended me with his terrible taste!” —Barry in the film High Fidelity
You probably know the scenario. Somebody sent you a link to an upcoming movie or TV series. “We NEED to support projects like this!” Or somebody passed along a Catholic novel to you. “We need to support Catholic writers like this!” But then you went and saw or read and it didn’t move you. Maybe you didn’t even like it. Are you a bad person?
One of the more noxious ways that political “culture wars” have been insinuated into everything is how seeming anything can be made into a political signifier. Grow your own arugula in a home garden? You must be a left-winger. Like to hunt deer with a black-powder rifle? Must be some right-wing gun nut. Watch Colbert? Liberal. Duck Dynasty? Conservative.
As a part of this classification of everything into political categories, what can often happen even among the well-meaning is the attempt to classify art as part of Our Culture of The Good Guys and then to make that art obligatory. But art doesn’t work that way. Art is to a certain extent subjective; making it obligatory takes what should be an opportunity for discovery and enchantment and makes it into a dreary exercise in taking your medicine because it’s good for you.
It can also create further divisions as people start to appropriate other elements of culture to bend it into being part of Our Culture. So you have people wielding things like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings as cultural clubs; if you do / don’t like Harry, you are / aren’t a good Catholic. Tastes differ, and trying to make what you like obligatory for others or suggesting that someone else’s taste is wrong or immoral isn’t a great method of persuasion. (Obviously some things are objectively bad, like Fifty Shades of Grey or the art of Thomas Kinkade*, but there’s vast amounts of worthy art out there that you may or may not like simply based on your personal taste.)
Perhaps a better way for persons interested in promoting culture is to sidestep this. We surely could use more people out there pushing Catholic literature, but there’s a less divisive method than insisting that others read it or they lose the war. Do you really love a recent Catholic novel? Write a review on Amazon or Goodreads, share a copy with friends, post some of your favorite passages from the book on Facebook or Tumblr. If you read a Catholic book and it didn’t strike your fancy, don’t sweat it. Find another and don’t let anyone make the experience into a medicine-taking moment.
The only way people are really going to connect over books, music, film, or other form of art is if your genuine love and enthusiasm drives them to seek it as well. Trying to force enthusiasm for something because you’re told it’s essential to a movement is a surefire way of ending up with people not only having less genuine enthusiasm for the promoted art, but also casting a pall of political projection over the art as well.
* I kid. Or do I?
If you’ve thought of starting an Ignatius Press Book Club or bringing an Ignatius Novels title to your existing book club, now is a good time to revisit the Book Clubs page. We’ve just added a discussion guide for James Casper’s Everywhere in Chains (info|buy) to the list, on top of other new titles like Dorothy Cummings McLean’s Ceremony of Innocence (info|buy).
Also, note that you can still get some titles from our recent book sale for $3.00. That includes these two titles currently in the Book Club: T.M. Doran’s Terrapin: A Mystery (info|buy) and Fiorella de Maria’s Poor Banished Children (info|buy).
P.S. The Discussion Guides for each novel are linked to at the bottom of their individual descriptions, along with ISBN and format information. That’s also where you can add the book to your Goodreads shelf and see what other people are saying about it!
by Ignatius Press Novels
February 20, 2014 10:42 am 2 Comments
Reader Ellen Amland sends this review of Everywhere in Chains:
I kept paging back to the home page on my Kindle to check that the title of James Casper’s book was indeed called Everywhere in Chains. The title suggests a story filled with dark imagery, a violent plot, and more than a bit of suffering. And while the story’s plot does indeed revolve around the suffering of its characters, both hidden and obscure, it does so in way that left me feeling so joyful and full of hope. I cried when the book ended, because the people were so real, so flawed, so sinful, yet so loveable. “Chains” made me want to go Star Island and experience the atmosphere that the author so richly and hauntingly describes. I would love to meet Penelope, the lynch pin of the story, because she is like me, a person who strove to be true to herself, yet while embracing that decision is seen as an outsider, even maladjusted, when she is in fact, the most well adjusted of them all, lonely but not really alone.
She is what it means to be truly human. Casper’s cast of characters that revolve around Penelope are just as rich and comforting. They are like the people you have met in your own life, who, through God’s benevolent hand, have had a profound effect on your view of the world. The kind of people that give you hope even when you are surrounded by vestiges of evil. People who have an innate sense of their own dignity as well as others. To follow Casper’s melancholy yet whimsical journey of a teenage girl as she seeks to discover a past that her mother does not want to discover is time well spent. You feel like you have taken a mini vacation and your spirits will be uplifted for some time to come.
Readers: if you have a review you would like to share, let us know in the comments!
Yesterday I was in the North York Passport Office explaining what I claim to do for a living.
“So you’re a novelist,” said the passport examiner.
“Yes,” I said, blushing modestly. “And a freelance writer.”
“So you’re self-employed.”
“How long have you been doing this?”
“Um…Over in the UK? Five years.”
I used to BE a Canadian passport examiner, and I don’t remember grilling anyone on their job. On where they were born, yes. On where they lived, sure. But not on what they did for a living.
Writers are plagued with enough self-doubt as it is. I have written six novels, and one has been published. Was it incorrect to claim to be a novelist? Three of the six could be called novellas, to be honest. Am I really a novella-ist?
“Do you have an office, or do you work from home…?”
“From home,” I confessed and came clean, “Really, I’m a housewife who writes.”
Actually, I’m a writer who housewifes, as my beleaguered husband might tell you, were he not so loyal. But I would not have all the time I have to write (with occasional bursts of housewifery) if my husband were not slaving away at a 9 to 5. I suppose, though, that I could apply for grants.
(“Apply for grants,” I hear my husband hiss from over the ocean. “Apply for grants!”)
When I was a child, I imagined that authors could live and write in complete seclusion, needing only to finish their manuscripts to earn vast amounts of money. In reality, writers have to write a lot of self-promoting letters and flog our own wares in the marketplace. And although it’s true that it’s “who you know”, it’s also “how many you know.”
I have two events to promote my thriller Ceremony of Innocence in the next six days, one public and one a semi-private party. The public one is a reading sponsored by Crux Books at the University of Toronto on Monday, February 24 at 4:30 PM. This Saturday’s semi-private party is in Toronto’s most northern borough, North York, thrown by a professional publicist who, some years ago, took me to the prom.
My parents (and my prom date-publicist) have called North York home since the mid-1970s, and my Toronto Catholic Register column has appeared on North York’s Catholic coffee tables for six years. If I can’t make it there, I can’t make it anywhere. It’s up to you, North York, North York.
Seriously, though, if you want to fill a room with book-buying people, you cannot leave all the heavy lifting to your publisher’s sales team, if your publisher actually has a sales team. You have to go out and get the people yourself.
I know many Toronto poets, and for twenty years these poets have been attending poetry nights, organizing poetry nights, supporting each other’s poetry nights and promoting each other’s work. In this community, a book launch is a communal celebration, with poets and poetry fans crowding dark rooms to hear a well-known-to-them poet read and, crucially, to buy their books.
Selling as few as two hundred copies is considered a wonderful success in the Toronto poetry world. And the work of selling those books begins long before the books are written. It takes networking, supporting others and showing up in person to other people’s literary events. There is no such thing as overnight success.
Catholic writers are fortunate in that our lives as Catholics necessitate leaving the house on Sundays: we have to go to Mass within a Catholic community. Although we may not have thought about this, we have been developing ties in the Catholic community from the day we were baptized or began making inquiries into the faith. Many of these people enjoy reading books.
As a Mass-attending Catholic who lived in Toronto for most of her life, went to a Catholic elementary school, high school, college and theologate, I have dozens of ties in the Archdiocese of Toronto. As a graduate of the Toronto School of Theology, of which my Catholic theologate is a part, I have ties to other Christian communities. The wonderful Crux Books, for example, is attached to TST’s Evangelical Anglican Wycliffe College. And not only does Crux sell theological books at a discounted rate, it supports the Christian theological community with book launches and readings.
Meanwhile, I owe my wider visibility in the Archdiocese to my writing in the Toronto Catholic Register. Catholic newspapers are often looking for new voices, especially new young voices, and thus I recommend to all Catholic writers to submit ideas for articles or book reviews to their diocesan papers. Don’t demand a column or expect big cheques; just prove that you are a good and reliable writer who knows how to turn a phrase, use spell-check and meet deadlines. If you are consistent, readers will begin to recognize your name and editors may consider you for additional work.
Meanwhile, go to literary events–not to promote yourself, not (heaven help us!) to ask busy literary strangers to read your manuscript, but to show support for other writers and to ask them insightful questions about their work. When you have become part of a literary community as a well-read supporter, the time will be ripe for you to present your own efforts.
Our yearly Ignatius Press Lenten sale has begun, and this year two novels are included as well as a number of other books on literary topics! These books (hardcopy only) are on sale for only $3.00 each until April 19, 2014. Also available are two audio books by Chesterton for only $5.00 each!
Here’s the partial lineup:
Terrapin: A Mystery by T.M. Doran
Poor Banished Children by Fiorella de Maria
Remembering C.S. Lewis edited by James T. Como
C.S. Lewis: The Man Who Created Narnia by Michael Coren
Narnia and Beyond: A Guide to the Fiction of C.S. Lewis by Thomas Howard
The Innocence of Father Brown: A Dramatic Reading by G.K. Chesterton
Manalive: A Dramatic Reading by G.K. Chesterton
See more by visiting the Catalogue page on our website and downloading the Lent 2014 Catalogue.
by James Casper
February 13, 2014 12:54 pm Leave a Comment
Readers of fiction involving ordinary people, everyday life, and easily imagined predicaments, often suspect such stories must be autobiographical. Sometimes this is a correct assumption, as in the case of Charles Dickens’ classic David Copperfield, and often it is not, as in the case of another classic, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Both novels seem true-to-life and believable, though we cannot be certain that Defoe even knew how to swim, so adroitly did he blur lines between fact and fiction.
Everywhere in Chains, my recently published Ignatius Press novel about a family with a mentally ill loved one in prison, has already invited speculation that I must have had firsthand experience with prison life. No one has gone so far as to ask me – yet – if by chance I am an ex-convict or if I have a close family member behind bars, an arsonist perhaps. Given the harrowing prison conditions described in Everywhere in Chains, I do not blame them for wondering, and yet if we insist that writers limit themselves to firsthand experiences, most of us would be restricted to writing about breakfast, etc. Sometimes careful research, logic, other people’s experiences, and a bit of imagination will suffice.
It often happens, though, that a metaphorical fire recalled from long ago, years later will ignite a creative spark. For my novel, the fire from long ago was an interlude when my father, a shattered World War II veteran, spent a few months in a county jail on the very street of a nearby Catholic school where I was in the second grade struggling with cursive writing and a rather out-of-sorts novice teaching Sister.
I have vivid memory of walking past the jail twice each day with my much more pleasant sibling sister, then in the first grade. We would often stop while going and coming, and briefly stare across the street at the gray stone building whose windows were too obviously barred. It was as close as we could come. I am sure this was one of those moments calling to mind Felix’s spider in my novel, too frightening to view for long and yet holding us in its grip with its strange, compelling attraction. Dad was in there somewhere. Months went by before we actually saw him again.
You never forget moments like that. No matter how old you are, they never go away, and this particular memory years later led me to Everywhere in Chains. The circumstances of my protagonist Penelope and her family are very different from those of my family at that time, and so in that sense the story is not the least autobiographical, but my childhood experience is certainly there somewhere.
As Penelope’s Aunt Charlotte says, speaking to Father Ulrich of her brother, “When someone you love is in prison, your heart goes there with them and stays there as long as he is there.” This sentiment was the spark from a long ago fire. From that point onward I could feel at home with my touchstone emotion, because day by long-ago day our hearts had also been behind bars with our dad. Brief as it was and young as we were, that feeling from a distant past melded with the novel just begun. Penelope’s heart never drifted far from her father’s despite attempts to keep the truth from her. It was easy to imagine what followed: in that sense we all had spent time in jail. We were all victims of punishment.
I should add that my father was suffering from what today is called post-traumatic-stress syndrome. He had survived some of the bloodiest action in the latter stages of World War II. In those days, people did not thoroughly grasp how those experiences could affect not only the veteran, but his family when the war came home with him.
Dad was an amazingly courageous man, a much decorated soldier with two Purple Hearts. The offense that confined him to a county jail for a few months, non-violent and minor as it was, these days might have sent him to prison. A man adrift in memories that would never leave him, he simply and understandably lost his way in a world that seemed unprepared to know what he had been through. Veterans, in fact, would gather around tables in servicemen’s clubs to exchange stories they could share with no one else. With the war over, those on the so-called home front were eager to put it all behind them. It was far less easy for those who had seen action. That the war had come home is an idea we have only caught up with these days in the midst of more recent conflicts.
Nevertheless, in some ways – as my priest character Father Ulrich points out – the world of the early fifties, was a kinder, gentler world than this one. For example, judges had more freedom to consider all the circumstances, not simply the cold facts of a law that had been broken by a broken man. In my view, that was more the way a merciful Christ looked at things when he challenged the men intent on stoning the adulterous woman.
Thanks to a judge who had the freedom to be Christ-like, my family’s story had a happy ending. Dad was returned to a family he loved and who loved him. He was never again behind bars. Though memories of the war gradually receded but never went away, at least he was home again for breakfast.
I suppose I should say, for the benefit of those who have read Everywhere in Chains – as a famous radio broadcaster used to say – “Now you know the rest of the story.”
I’m still in Canada, visiting family and friends and preparing for the University of Toronto launch of Ceremony of Innocence at my beloved Crux Discount Theological Books (Feb 24, 4:30 PM). I had a wonderful weekend in the French Canadian countryside, and now I am back in Toronto, cultural capital of English Canada.
While in Quebec, I had the opportunity to see some wonderfully bright and vigorous paintings by Belgian-born Françoise Pêtre and to speak with her about them. And this morning I went to the Art Gallery of Ontario to see a special exhibit of paintings on loan from the Guggenheim and then old friends in the permanent collection.
I’m not a naturally visual writer; I used to skip over long passages of description in novels to get to the parts the interested me most: the dialogue and the plot. Today I mourn over my high school diaries, for although I wrote down what people did and said in the ’80s, I didn’t write much about what we and our surroundings looked like. Perhaps I thought photographs would record all that. Ha!
As an adult, I have taught myself to notice details and to write them down. And the great schools of vision are the art galleries. Everyone who wants to infuse their writing with life and colour should go to their local art galleries.
Ah! Colour. Notice that I have spelled the word with a “U”. This is because I am Canadian, and Canadian spelling is a hybrid of British and American usage. We Canadians are very proud of our writers and artists, and as a child I was taken to the Art Gallery of Ontario on school trips to see our art. The AGO has a huge collection of the work of Henry Moore, and you could have knocked me over with an eagle feather when I discovered he was not actually a Canadian.
In fact, very few of the works I remember from childhood are Canadian. My favourite, the flame-haired Marchese Casati by Augustus John? Welsh! The terrifying green-eyed Dr. Heinrich Stadelmann? German! The mysterious, masked “Woman with Jewel”? At last, Canadian. But what strikes me most is that, of all the huge collection of the AGO, these are paintings that have stuck with me through the decades. Why them, I wonder. I suspect it was the colours: the contrast of the Marchese’s bright hair with her dark brows, the eerie three-dimensional quality of Dr. Stadelmann’s bloodshot green eyes, the Woman’s red mask and sleeves.
On this visit, I was delighted to make the acquaintance of a Canadian Catholic painter–a blatantly Catholic painter, a convert–named William Kurelek (1927-1977). Catholic readers think a lot about Catholics in the literary world; I imagine there must be even tougher challenges for Catholics in the art world. And yet Kurelek painted images like this and has an entire room in the AGO dedicated to his work.
I had never heard of Kurelek before, but I hope to learn more about him soon. Not only was he a devout Catholic, a Canadian and a colourist, he seems to have had a wonderful sense of humour. Take, for example, his painting “The Batchelor”. The subject of the work is obviously an easily distracted man. He has laid out a wounded sock for mending alongside the medicinal wool and needle, but they all lie forgotten. The subject’s right boot drips on an old issue of “The Catholic Herald”; the left is still on his foot. The subject is too absorbed in his magazine and hot drink to notice.
The AGO played host to many schoolchildren today, and I was glad to witness yet another generation of Toronto children being introduced to our wonderful art collection. Do you remember any works of art from your own childhood? What were they? And why do you think they stuck in your memory?