Fiction that takes us a step beyond

There is a genre of fiction with which not everyone may feel comfortable. It either suggests a holier-than-thou sanctimoniousness or worse, a touch of the sect about it. But there is no getting away from it. It exists – and it has to exist. It is the “Catholic novel”.

This not just a genre in which Catholicism is the subject chosen by the authors. It is literature in which the authors, for good or for ill, cannot escape from the Catholic faith – or the culture of that faith and the condition of that culture in the time and place in which they may live. The authors may be practicing Catholics, doubt-filled Catholics, or lapsed Catholics.

What we see in this genre of fiction is a trace in the soul of the author. It is a trace which has enables a writer to tell something of the story of their faith, their vision of what it is to be human – and to be divine. Joyce did this – rebelling against much, but not all, of it; Waugh did it – exuberantly; Greene did it with some kind of a twist all his own. Some did it with a grim preoccupation with our sinfulness, others did it rejoicing more in our redemption.

The English novel in the nineteenth century had a good deal of it, much of it from people who were denominational Protestants rather than Catholics but in whom enough of the old faith still lived to give them a Christian vision of the human condition.  We will find it in Dickens, in the Brontes and in the earlier George Eliot. But by the time of Hardy, James, Conrad and Woolf, we enter into the age of denial – and a denial which is deep in the heart, not just in the head – as it was in Joyce. I don’t think Joyce really believed his disbelief. He had too much affection for the good people whom he loved and who believed. In the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries this is really only be found in Catholic writers.

Ann Patchett is a 21st century novelist who is a Catholic and who really understands how, in her fiction, her Catholic mind and heart are important to her vision of our world and its meaning. That surely is what makes her writing so authentic. She says that she is writing for herself. In an interview she has said that she wondered if people are buying her novels and “using them as building material or putting additions on their house with them or something.” 

“But I know”, she says, “there’s some way in which I don’t make that fundamental connection between what I do in the privacy of my home when I’m sitting in my study working and what somebody else is doing in the privacy of their home years later when they’re sitting in their study reading. I don’t write for an audience.” She writes from within and she expects her readers to recreate within themselves what her writing means to them.

Another interpretation of that position – and one that is founded on the christian experience – is that fiction at this level is nothing more or less than prayer, a conversation with not just the creator of what we are reading, but with the Creator of all things. That is the essence of the Catholic novel, and an essence of which not the slightest trace will be found in the writing of someone whose vision has been obscured or obliterated by the scales of materialism which cloud their eyes. Surely this is what makes so much late 20th century and contemporary fiction so empty and unrewarding for the the human spirit.

What we are looking at in this genre of fiction is not some kind of sanctimonious posturing for a niche market. No doubt that market exists and there are writers who set out to supply it. But when we receive a gift of the genuine product from a writer like Patchett we are in fact receiving a kind of grace, an insight which they give us of a wider world, a world beyond both us and them. The capability of what they give us may be positive and pleasing or it may be negative, showing us something regrettable but none the less real and therefore worth receiving. Catholic literary fiction has about it something of the character of sacred prophesy.

Patchett has said, “Reading fiction not only develops our imagination and creativity, it gives us the skills to be alone. It gives us the ability to feel empathy for people we’ve never met, living lives we couldn’t possibly experience for ourselves, because the book puts us inside the character’s skin.”

To do that I think you really need to know something about the human soul and its destiny. Patchett was once asked why Catholics who both adore and sometimes struggle with their faith play such a major role in her stories? “Because I am one, both adoring and struggling. I went to Catholic schools for 12 years, and it’s just so much a part of the fabric of my life that I would have a hard time picking it out of things. It’s not that I’m trying to put it into my writing. It’s that I would have a hard time getting it out.”

Speaking of the emphasis Catholic morality places on virtue, she explained the influence of her upbringing and education in a recent interview with the London Evening Standard:

“The nuns raised us to believe that poverty was the most noble calling, the very best thing you could be if you were spiritually evolved,” she says. “So I’m horrified by what I have, and as much as I give away and try to do the right thing, I know I don’t try hard enough.” In her most recent book, this virtue is a major theme. “I was coming at it from those two polarities: the worship of wealth and the worship of poverty.”

In The Dutch House Patchett tells a story, and if she allows me the license she gives her readers, I read it as a funny but also a sad, poignant story. It is not so only because of the real, funny and flawed people who populate it, but because of what it tells about the neglect of many virtues in popular Catholic culture today. At the centre of the novel is the eponymous Dutch House and the influence it seems to have on all the characters whose lives it touches. What does it represent? It represents both wealth and beauty and the corrupting power of both. But at the same time the story reveals how good people can free themselves from this influence and let it become something benign and enriching.

It is a story of a girl and a boy growing into adulthood over about four decades. It is the story of their relationship with their parents, a step-parent and step-sisters, the boy’s wife and the children of that family, along with serveral other major and minor characters who play key roles in their story. The non-linear narrative takes us backwards and forwards through the decades with the girl and the boy, Maeve – five or six years older – and Daniel, one or other, never off the pages from beginning to end. None of the central characters is shown to be flawless. Some we experience as irritatingly so, others tragically so. Big mistakes are made by some which end up punishing others and for which the subjects themselves are punished. But there are no villains, they are all simply fallible human beings like ourselves and those we see around us every day. They are also people who, with varying degrees of depth, live with a consciousness that there is a truth beyond this world and that moral values are real – even iif they do not always live by them. Their faith, for the most part Catholic, is a real element in their lives. That a novel set in this context, in our secular age, has resonated so powerfully with readers around the world is remarkable.

But perhaps that very resonance owes something to the way in which this novel also says something to us about the wider picture it gives us of the state of Catholic culture in this age – with not a little suggestion that it is slowly evaporating before the onslaught of the now dominant materialistic and individualistic ethos. These human being could exist anywhere but in this story they exist in mid-twentieth century America. The children’s parents are Irish American Catholics. The children grow up as Catholics, conscientiously go to Mass every Sunday – although as their family begins to unravel the older and more conscientious sibling eventually is unable to persuade Daniel to get out of bed to do so. Then there is divorce, there is co-habitation, contraception – all still with a recognition of the moral waywardness of those things. But as time passes the moral sense weakens and these things become easier to live with. The ease with which the moral environment slowly dissolves is an accurate reflection of the way we have seen it all happen over those decades up to the present age. As we know, we now live in a time when for the children and the grandchildren of the characters in this story, the characteristic response to the question of what religious culture they adhere to is simply “none”.

As I said, I am reading Ann Patchett with the presumed license she gives her readers to to see in her writing a meaning which we cannot presume is her own. But as well as telling the story of the Dutch House and all the characters whose lives it touches, she is also inevitably portraying a culture as it has evolved, for better or worse, over the times she has chosen in which to set this story. For me that broader cultural story is a sad one, devoid of the humour and goodness evident in the lives of the characters she has so engagingly created for us. But that sadness is not something she is responsible for. That is something for which we ourselves have to take responsibility, and, if we take a commitment to our Catholic faith at all seriously, think about the challenge with which it presents us.

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