Last year for the Robertson Davies readalong, hosted annually by Lory of The Emerald City Book Review, I reviewed Fifth Business, the first volume in The Deptford Trilogy. This time I chose to read the first volume in The Cornish Trilogy, The Rebel Angels (1981). Published 11 years after Fifth Business, it shares a number of that book’s features, including a campus setting and a preoccupation with good and evil. If I can generalize about Davies from having read just two of his books, I would say that his novels engage with philosophy and the Christian tradition, and though he dives into the dark things of life his is an essentially comic vision, giving his work an attractively puckish air.
Maria Magdalena Theotoky is a 23-year-old graduate student at the College of St. John and the Holy Ghost (nicknamed “Spook”) in Toronto. She slept with her advisor, Clement Hollier, precisely once in his office last term. Two events spark the plot: the return of Brother John Parlabane, an ex-monk and -drug addict, and the death of Francis Cornish, a local patron of the arts. Parlabane becomes a university parasite, sleeping on couches and hitting up Maria, Hollier and Anglican priest Simon Darcourt for money. Along with Darcourt and Hollier, Urquhart McVarish, Hollier’s lecherous academic rival, is a third co-executor of Cornish’s artworks and manuscripts. Rumor has it the collection includes a lost manuscript by François Rabelais, the subject of Maria’s research, and Hollier and McVarish fight over it.
They also fight over Maria – no fewer than five male characters fall in love with her over the course of the novel. A sort of Helen of Troy (her first names bring to mind the presumed harlot from the Bible, while her surname means “God-bearer”), she is so beautiful that she sows conflict and heartache wherever she goes. Maria narrates about half of the novel – the other half, in alternating chapters, is by Father Darcourt, who’s writing an everyday history of the university inspired by Aubrey’s Brief Lives – and her coming to terms with her Gypsy heritage is a key element: Maria’s mother, Mamusia, is an entertaining character who tells fortunes and administers love potions, but Maria mostly finds her embarrassing.
Gypsy culture recurs in the book. So does poop. Professor Ozias Froats does research into what effect body type (endomorph, mesomorph, ectomorph) has on fecal samples. Rabelais was a notably scatological writer, and Maria’s mother repairs subpar stringed instruments by storing them in barrels of wool and horse dung. Hollier has an academic interest in medieval excrement therapies, and asks to go see Mamusia’s folk remedy in action. I found this strand very amusing, but it’s further evidence that this novel is not for the squeamish – it also includes one of the most hideous murder methods I’ve encountered in fiction, so beware.
The title refers to angels thrown out of heaven, and is Maria’s shorthand for the trio of Darcourt, Hollier and Parlabane. Parlabane is explicitly likened to Lucifer and Satan, making him an embodiment of evil. For much of the book the homosexual hedonist seems harmless, yet he does engage in all the deadly sins. Gluttony and pride, especially: he has two enormous meals on Maria’s dime, and is determined to get his dense, pretentious autobiographical novel published by any means necessary. However, he carries the book, and I wanted even more of him. (They say Satan is the most interesting character in Paradise Lost, too.)
“To thine own self be true” is a message one might extract from the novel – phrased subtly differently in the Paracelsus quote that gives Parlabane’s novel its title, Be Not Another. Accepting all parts of oneself, even the hidden ones, prevents an inconvenient return of the repressed. Davies’s exploration of the types of human relationships, chaste versus base, suggests that true friendship is superior to sexual love. I greatly enjoy his novels of ideas and would recommend them to readers of Michael Arditti, Julian Barnes, D.H. Lawrence and Iris Murdoch. Shall I go straight on to the Booker-shortlisted What’s Bred in the Bone? I’m intrigued to see what characters and themes will carry over into the second volume.
Some favorite lines:
“The house stank; a stench all its own pervaded every corner. It was a threnody in the key of Cat minor, with a ground-bass of Old Dog, and modulations of old people, waning lives, and relinquished hopes.”
(this seems apt for Davies’s work in general) “some grotesquerie, some wrenching originality, is a necessary part of real scholarship, and brings a special glory with it.”
Source: Oxfam charity shop, Newbury
[Note: A shortened, edited version of this review appeared in the June 15th, 2018 issue of the Church Times.]
Proctor McCullough isn’t a churchgoer. He’s not even particularly religious. Yet somehow he senses that God is calling him to build a chapel, with a little house beside it, on a cliff in the southwest of England. It’s a source of bewilderment for his partner, Holly, and their London friends. Is Mac mentally ill, or having a particularly acute midlife crisis? He’s handed off from a minister to a therapist to a neurologist, but no one knows what to make of him. This forty-four-year-old father of two, an otherwise entirely rational-seeming advisor to the government on disaster situations, won’t be deterred from his mission.
It’s important to get a sense of the way this character speaks:
I want a structure that will move people to contemplate something other than all the obvious stuff … to be confronted with a sense of something and only be able to define it as Other.
God is the transcendent Other for whom creation, what we know as life, is a gratuitous act of love, a dispossession of a portion of His infinite creativity given over to our thriving. It is a gift from His infinite excess. That we can know Him at all is because of the possibility of this excess within us, which we experience as love, art, great feats of the mind. Our bounty is Him.
Down at the project site, Mac acquires four young workers/disciples: Rebecca, Nathaniel, Terry and Rich. Rebecca is a sarcastic, voluptuous teenager who will be off to Cambridge in a few months. She perhaps represents vanity, temptation and judgment, while the other three are more difficult to slot into symbolic roles. Terry is a dreadlocked lager lout who takes care of a mother with early dementia; contrary to appearances, he’s also a thinker, and takes to carrying around a Bible along with a collection of other theological works. Nat and Rich are more sketch-like figures, just ciphers really, which became problematic for me later on.
With Mac we shuttle between the building site and his home in London for weeks at a time. The idea of incorporating Pascal’s mystical hexagon into the church design captivates him, and the costs – initially set at £100,000 – balloon. Meanwhile, his relationship with Holly is strained almost to the breaking point as they each turn to alternative confidants, and there’s a renegotiation process as they decide whether their actions have torn them apart for good.
Like Sarah Moss, Neil Griffiths realistically blends serious concepts with everyday domestic tasks: sure, there may be a God-ordained chapel to build, but Mac also has to do the shopping and get his six-year-old twins fed and in bed at a decent hour. If Mac is meant to be a Messiah figure here, he’s a deeply flawed one; he can even be insufferable, especially when delivering his monologues on religion. If you’re like me, you’ll occasionally get incensed with him – particularly when, at the midpoint, he concocts a Clintonian justification for his behavior.
All the same, the themes and central characters were strong enough to keep me powering through this 600-page novel of ideas. Mac’s violent encounters with God and with the nature of evil are compelling, and although some of the events of the last third push the boundaries of credibility, it’s worth sticking with it to see where Griffiths takes the plot. There’s no getting past the fact that this is a dense theological treatise, but overlaid on it is a very human story of incidental families and how love sustains us through the unbearable.
If I had to point to the novel’s forebears, I’d mention Hamlet, A.S. Byatt’s The Virgin in the Garden, Michael Arditti’s Easter, and even Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. If you’ve read any Dostoevsky (I haven’t, yet) or Iris Murdoch, you’ll likely spot philosophical echoes. The title itself is from Wallace Stevens. It’s all unabashedly highbrow, and a greater than average familiarity with the Christian tradition is probably key. For the wary, I’d suggest not trying too hard to read metaphorical significance into character names or chapter and section titles – I’m sure those meanings are in there, but better to let the story carry you along rather than waste time trying to work it all out.
While reading this novel I was bitterly regretting the demise of Third Way magazine; it would have been a perfect place for me to engage with Griffiths’ envelope-pushing theology. I was also wishing I was still involved with Greenbelt Festival’s literature programming, as this would make a perfect Big Read. (Though however would we get people to read 600 pages?! In my experience of book clubs, it’s hard enough to get them to read 200.)
I’m grateful to Dodo Ink (“an independent UK publisher publishing daring and difficult fiction”) for stepping into the breach and taking a chance on a book that will divide Christians and the nonreligious alike, and to publicist Nicci Praça for the surprise copy that turned up on my doorstep. This turned out to be just my sort of book: big and brazen, a deep well of thought that will only give up its deeper meanings upon discussion and repeat readings.
As a God Might Be was published in the UK by Dodo Ink on October 26th. This is Neil Griffiths’ third novel, after Betrayal in Naples (2004) and Saving Caravaggio (2006). He says that this most recent book took him seven years to write.
Unlike Christmas, Easter is a holiday that might not lend itself so easily to reading lists. December is the perfect time to be reading cozy books with wintry scenes of snow and hearth, or old-time favorites like Charles Dickens. Christmas-themed books and short stories are a whole industry, it seems. Lent and Advent both prize special foods, traditions and symbols, but beyond devotional reading there doesn’t seem to be an Easter book scene. Nonetheless, I have a handful of books I’d like to recommend for the run-up to Easter, whether for this year or the future.
I hadn’t heard of Michael Arditti until I reviewed his novel The Breath of Night – a taut, Heart of Darkness-inspired thriller about a young man searching for a missing priest in the Philippines – for Third Way magazine in late 2013. He deserves to be better known. Easter (2000), his third novel, earned him comparisons to Iris Murdoch and Barbara Pym. His nuanced picture of modern Christianity, especially the Anglican Church, is spot-on.
I’ve just finished Part One, which traces the week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday in a fictional London parish, St Mary-in-the-Vale, Hampstead. Structured around the services of Holy Week and punctuated with bits of liturgy, the novel moves between the close third-person perspectives of various clergy and parishioners. Huxley Grieve, the vicar, is – rather inconveniently – experiencing serious doubts in this week of all weeks. And this at a time when the new Bishop of London, Ted Bishop (“Bishop by name, bishop by calling,” he quips), has announced his mission to root out the poison of liberalism from the Church.
So far I’m reminded of a cross between Susan Howatch and David Lodge (especially in How Far Can You Go?), with a dash of the BBC comedy Rev thrown in. Reverend Grieve’s sermons may be achingly earnest, but the novel is also very funny indeed. Here’s a passage, almost like a set of stage directions, from the Palm Sunday service: “The procession moves up the nave. The Curate leads the donkey around the church. It takes fright at the cloud of incense and defecates by the font.”
In this peculiar novel-cum-biography, Beard attempts to piece together everything that has ever been said, written and thought about the biblical character of Lazarus. The best sections have Beard ferreting out the many diseases from which Lazarus may have been suffering, and imagining what his stench – both in life and in death – must have been like. (“He stinketh,” as the Book of John pithily puts it.)
Alongside these reasonable conjectures is a strange, invented backstory for Jesus and Lazarus: when they were children Jesus failed to save Lazarus’ younger brother from drowning and Lazarus has borne a lifelong grudge. A Roman official is able to temporarily convince Lazarus that he needs to take up the mantle of the Messiah because he came back to life: he has the miracle to prove the position, whether he wants it or not. The end of the novel follows the strand of the Passion Week, though in a disconnected and halfhearted fashion.
Beard’s interest is not that of a religious devotee or a scriptural scholar, but of a skeptical postmodern reader. Lazarus is a vehicle for questions of textual accuracy, imagination, and the creation of a narrative of life and death. His unprecedented second life must make him irresistible to experimental novelists. Beard’s follow-up novel, Acts of the Assassins, is also Bible-themed; it’s a thriller that imagines the Roman Empire still in charge today.
No matter your current thoughts on the death penalty, you owe it to yourself to read this book with an open mind. I read it in the run-up to Easter 2007, and would recommend it as perfect reading for the season. As I truly engaged with themes of guilt and retribution, I felt the reality of death row was brought home to me for the first time. Many of the men Prejean deals with in this book we would tend to dismiss as monsters, yet Jesus is the God who comes for the lost and the discounted, the God who faces execution himself.
The film version, which conflates some of the characters and events of the book, is equally affecting. I saw it first, but it does not ruin the reading experience in any way.
Marcus Borg, who just died on January 21st, has been one of the most important theologians in my continuing journey with Christianity. His Reading the Bible Again for the First Time and The Heart of Christianity are essential reading for anyone who’s about to give up on the faith. In this day-by-day account, mostly referencing the Gospel of Mark, Borg and Crossan convey all that is known about the historical Jesus’ last week and death. They collaborated on a second book, The First Christmas, which does the same for Jesus’ birth.
And now for two more unusual, secular selections…
Call me morbid, but I love English graveyards. My most enduring Easter memory is of dawn services at the country church in my husband’s hometown. In the weak half-light, with churchyard rooks croaking a near-deafening chorus, the overwhelming sense was of rampant wildness. The congregation huddled around a bonfire while a black-cloaked vicar intoned the story of scripture, from creation to the coming of Christ, as loudly as possible over the rooks – trying to win mastery over the night, and score a point for civilization in the meantime.
This anecdote goes some way toward explaining why I rather enjoyed Bellman and Black – but why many others won’t. Setterfield’s second novel is a peculiar beast, a bit like a classic suspense story but also an English country fable. Protagonist William Bellman is part Job and part Faustus. At age ten, he makes a catapult that kills a rook. Thereafter, his life is plagued by death, despite his successful career as an entrepreneur at a cloth mill. Can he make a deal with the Devil – or, rather, the sinister Mr. Black – that will stop the cycle of deaths?
Bellman’s daughter Dora is a wonderful character, and because I love birds anyway and have strong, visceral memories involving rooks in particular, I enjoyed Setterfield’s symbolic use of them. However, many will be bored to tears by details of cloth-making and dyeing in early nineteenth-century England. Setterfield evokes her time period cannily, but in such a painstaking manner that the setting does not feel entirely natural. Here’s hoping for a return to form with Setterfield’s third novel.
This was the first book I ever borrowed from the Adult Fiction section of the public library, when I was eight years old. It quickly became a favorite, and though I didn’t reread it over and over like I did the Chronicles of Narnia, it still has a strong place in my childhood memories. Why have I chosen it for this list? Well, it’s about rabbits: a warren comes under threat from English countryside development and human interference.
I loved a little story Rachel Joyce inserts in her novel The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy. Taking over from another nun, a young, air-headed nurse at Queenie’s hospice resumes reading Watership Down to a patient. At the end the patient cries, “Oh, it’s so sad, those poor rabbits” and the nurse replies, “What rabbits?” (You’d think the cover might have given it away!) It’s a good laugh, but also reflects how carefully Adams characterizes – one might say anthropomorphizes – each rabbit; you might forget they’re actually animals.
Do you have any favorite books to read or reread at particular holidays?
Happy spring reading!