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Novel writing and religion tend not to go together well

Believers ought not to be self-obsessed, but novels are about self-obsession

By on Friday, 18 November 2011

Rufus Sewell and Kate Beckinsale star in Cold Comfort Farm, the 1995 adaptation of the novel

Rufus Sewell and Kate Beckinsale star in Cold Comfort Farm, the 1995 adaptation of the novel

Most people have a favourite novelist and even a favourite novel, something that they come back to again and again. And there are some novels that are polarising: some people love a certain book, and others loathe it. I myself could never see the real attraction of Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm, which some friends of mine think is the funniest thing ever written. It is very funny, I admit, and there are some immortal lines, particularly about what it was that Great Aunt Ada Doom saw in the woodshed, but it does not quite, as they say, float my boat.

I used to feel the same about Evelyn Waugh’s Helena. The wise Master of Campion Hall, Fr Paul Edwards SJ, held that Helena was the greatest of all Waugh’s works. He could quote long passages and he asserted that it was, of all the author’s books, the best written. But my tutor the great Mrs Bednarowska used to damn Helena with faint praise. What puzzled me was that Waugh himself considered Helena his favourite novel.

Helena is the most specifically religious and Catholic of his works of fiction. The Loved One is set in a cemetery and deals with death, and even features a non-denominational clergyman, but has absolutely nothing to do with religion. Mrs Bednarowska’s view was that Waugh was absolutely no good in writing about matters of faith: he was a profound believer, but he wrote almost as an atheist. His greatest work, perhaps, is A Handful of Dust, which is a very bleak book indeed – a book about human depravity, which carries within it no hint of redemption.

I sort of agree. Novel writing and religion tend not to go together very well. Novels are solitary productions; they are all about the individual consciousness; they arose in the time of the enlightenment. Religion and faith are corporate matters. A religious person ought not to be self-obsessed, but novels are about self-obsession, surely.

Which means that to me Helena is a puzzle – a religious novel, a book that fails as a novel, and fails as a religious tract too. And yet, and yet…. I find it creeping up on me more and more with the passage of the years. I have all but forgotten about Mrs Beaver and Lady Brenda Last, Lady Marchmain and Charles Ryder…. But the old Empress who goes in search of the Cross “because it states a fact” and who then disappears into the mists of history – I find myself thinking about her more and more.

Perhaps Helena is the greatest of Waugh’s works. Perhaps the rest is mere flimflam (though flimflam of the highest quality) and Helena is what really matters. Maybe a hundred years from now Waugh the novelist will be forgotten and Waugh the religious prophet remembered – because Helena’s message seems more pertinent now than when it was written in 1950, concerned as it is with the historical truth of the Catholic faith. If Waugh’s novel comes to the fore in the future, he of all people would love that, I am sure.

  • John Lipnicki

    Graham Greene was a good novelist, most would agree, but somehow managed not to write ‘about’ religion. ‘Cold Comfort Farm ‘ was a nasty piece of work designed to mock the far more naturally gifted and inspired writing of Mary Webb. As with almost everything in this country there is a deep rooted antipathy to anything coming out of a Catholic tradition or sensibility.

  • Parasum

    “[N]ovels are about self-obsession”. Then self-obsession has to be interpreted so losely as to be without meaning.  “The Loved One” is very funny – but not self-obsessed. “The Fall of The Sparrow” by Nigel Balchin is semi-biographical in form; and wholly free of self-obsession. Where’s the self-obsession in the historical novels of Jean Plaidy ?  

    Novels may be self-obsessed now, but if so that may be, not because they are novels, but because they are written in a self-obsessed age.    

  • Otro_Padre

    Novels are not “ABOUT self-obsession.” A good novel has the power to mimic the pretenses of solipsism and release its reader for community and reality, and possibly, dispose him toward the ultimate Author–whose mind is the measure of all that is.

  • W Oddie

    To call the war trilogy, Sword of Honour or Brideshead “mere flimflam” is surely a grotesque misjudgment. These are deeply religious novels (the final scene of Brideshead, in which Ryder, now a convert, discovers the sanctuary light burning once more before the tabernacle in the Brideshead chapel, is surely one of the most moving passages in all 20th century fiction). I  do not believe that Waugh, the Catholic  novelist, WILL be forgotten in a century; if he is seen as a religious prophet, it will be mostly because of his final 4 great novels.  

  • Apostolic

    The Sword of Honour is not only a great trilogy with a religious theme, but the finest British novel(s) to come out of the Second World War.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    The late Mrs Bednarowska used to say that she simply could not beleive in the Marquess’s conversion. And she also thought the trilogy, like Brideshead, deeply compromised by snobbery. But before Dr Oddie, i fall silent……

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    You know, I think the three books dealing with the War in A Dance to the Music of Time better in every way…. The real theme of the Waugh trilogy, it seesm to me, is snobbery, and his hatred of Trimmer.

  • W Oddie

    I agree entirely

  • W Oddie

    Snobbery be damned. What Triimmer partly exemplifies is the vulgarity of the modern world, about which Waugh was right in every particular. In fact Waugh is quite sympathetic to Trimmer personally, e.g. over his forcible haircut. It’s the commanding officer who orders his humiliation who is the snob: and Waugh utterly despises him precisely for his snobbery, a snobbery which he partly shares but also just as importantly repudiates. There is a wonderful irony, to which Waugh is by no means unsympathetic, in the fact that it’s Trimmer’s child who becomes the heir to the ancient Catholic family of Crouchback. This is, don’t forget, presented as a happy ending. The message here is that there are mysteries in God’s economy of salvation which wholly transcend our own earthbound social ideas, including those of class and politics. It’s Guy’s father who is the key to the trilogy. I think you have  misread the Trilogy and also Brideshead.

     As for the idea that Powell was a superior novelist, about the war or anything else, I don’t even know where to begin, so I won’t.

  • W Oddie

    But you didn’t. See above.

  • W Oddie

    I have, in responding too quickly and unreflectively,  of course confused Hooper (of the haircut) in Brideshead with the rather similar, equally comic, but much less attractive Trimmer in Sword of Honour. But actually, this blunder apart, my response is remarkably unaffected. Both Guy Crouchback and Charles Ryder are snobs, as Waugh undoubtedly was: but the snobbery of both characters is understood by Waugh and transcended by him. 

  • Apostolic

    PS I would also strongly recommend Ian Ker’s outstanding if insufficiently publicised The Catholic Revival in English Literature.

  • Oconnordamien

    The bible is considered as fiction, dress it up as you may with words like parable, poetry or allegory, it is shown as a much edited piece of fiction none the less. So if the O.T. is like a fictional history, surely the N.T. is like a novel based on a rabbi’s life. Of course there were quite a few writer’s trying to write the best novel.

  • Anthony

    I read your headline…shall I inform Mssrs. Tolkien and Lewis, or should I?

  • Guest

    Several years ago in church I felt I was being given a distinct message by God to (at least for me personally at the time) avoid fiction and read non-fiction, be it of the saints, or history or learning.  I know at least one other person who felt this.  That said, I have enjoyed some fiction, but usually not as much as non-fiction.  I like Mere Christianity better than Narnia though as a kid I liked Narnia I guess.  What is the good in fiction and can it be found better elsewhere?  Below are some thoughts…

    1.  There are good ideas, connections, archetypes, emotions (sometimes truly touching stories that make us cry).  I think all these things can be good.  But perhaps some writers are more gifted and worth reading.  Today there is such a proliferation of books.  In Ecclesiastes “the making of books is many.”  No one can read them all and there is only so much time in the day.  Perhaps like twitter in the future people will demand more shorter stories and the essential nuggets without all the fluff of many (not all) fiction books.

    2.  Is fiction a way to keep “mentally active” like sudoku?  Ok, but you can read non-fiction for that too, including news and the online wealth of information on science or history.

    3.  Is fiction an “escape?”  I don’t know.  This is one advantage that fiction has we can even think about things like death, the end of the world and other things in a place that perhaps makes it easier to deal with?  I’m really not sure though.  Personally I can be distracted easily by many things, lol, and enjoy a good day in the park without reading, or a real topic.  In the old testament it specifically says trust not in the human imagination! 

    Finally, I will say I believe some people have been caught up in a competitive game.  They think having read more fiction proves something.  They plow through Dan Brown best-sellers and literally people in my own family let be known (its obvious when you observe them) how proud they are and then check with you to see if they’ve read more than you which is apparently the point.  But try to engage them in a real conversation about Da Vinci or Jesus Christ and it is more difficult.  Ok, sorry for the many words, life is short!

  • Brid

    I agree with you, therefore I was surprised to read a novel by a Catholic novelist which upon reflection turned out to be a spiritually life affirming read.)Killed By A passing Snowflake) I say surprised because the subject matter was grim in places and the language strong but it was only upon reflection that I realised I had just read the most fundamentally Christian book with references to the Gospel and implicit faith by a seemingly bruised and cynical hero.

  • Janet

    Oh my! The premise is so wrong! Since when are novels about self-obsession? Have you read Sigrid Undset’s epics?  Have you ever read a political novel in your life? Have you read South African Nadine Gordimer’s dissections of apartheid and communism both?  And wait until you read mine, Catholics in outer space (“Run,” due out any day now)! To write, you must be in love with a vision, only that much is true, and it feels just like the opposite of self-obsessed. Perhaps that’s the novel you’d write, and if so, that’s why it isn’t written yet. No fire.

  • AidanCoyle

    The author of this piece may not have encountered Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 Pulitzer prize-wining novel ‘Gilead’ or her 2008 Orange Prize-winning novel, ‘Home’. The two are closely linked with the former focused on a Congregational minister and the latter on a Presbyterian minister and two of his adult children. Their prose is luminous: not only is religion there as a topic but ‘Gilead’ particularly is a profoundly spiritual meditation. Far from ‘self-obsessed’…

  • Anonymous

    I hope your novel will be over 300 pages :) – I hate short books. All the best with it anyway.

  • Anonymous

    “The bible is considered as fiction, dress it up as you may with words like parable, poetry or allegory, it is shown as a much edited piece of fiction none the less.”

    That’s as much an oversimplification as to say it is all history. The Bible is not one book, but many – to call the whole history or fiction is as unreasonable as calling Wisden, The Communist Manifesto & “Paradise Lost” epic poems, on the ground that one of them is. Many books contain several genres, at different levels – whether Biblical, or not. It’s a form of Philistinism to insist that everything in the Bible belongs to a single genre, as this completely untrue.  STM this tendency may arise from a failure to treat the books as books – Fundamentalists show this failure, and so do many atheists: perhaps because many of them are former Fundamentalists; not that a lack of literary appreciation helps. As to the source of this failure – maybe it comes from the traditional one-sided (&, in the circumstances, perhaps unavoidable) tendency to look at the books not as human productions, which they are, but as Divine productions, which they are. The right view is to “allow” the Bible to be fully human, & fully Divine. This leaves all the room one could want for the human side of the Biblical books to be recognised – and part of the human aspect of the Bible is that it grew up in specific set of cultures, who cultivated certain literary genres, and not others. And since the cultures in question employed both myth & historiography, it should not be surprising to find both of these among the literary genres in the ancient Semitic that form the Bible.

    So the realities of the Biblical books, their parts & their meanings, are far more interesting and far more complex than attempts to reduce them all to a single genre or two allow for. They are very different in their genres & in many other ways. Humanly speaking, there is no reason why a secular love-lyric such as the “Song of Songs” should be in the same collection of books as prophetic oracles such as those of Isaiah. The tendency to see them all as “Holy Writ” was a late development, which seems to have begun with regarding the Torah as Holy Writ, and proceeded to attract other books into its gravitational field; and the status of the most highly-regarded books came to be shared with very different ones, so that the whole lot came to share a Highest Common Value as “Holy Scripture”. Most of the books grew over time – it’s misleading to speak of the Book of Zechariah, because the 14-chapter Zechariah of the Bible is only the final product, insofar as there is such a thing – it has at last two authors, who seem to have lived generations apart. Even in the NT the final form of a book may be the work of more than one generation. Quite apart from the fact that having the books of the Bible available between two covers is apt to obscure the fact that the books were written over a long period of time. To say nothing of the fact that the books of the Bible are not presented in order of composition. And all of this is only scratching the surface.

  • Anonymous

    The Brontes are fun, if one likes that kind of thing – since not everyone does. Does Agatha Christie count as a novelist – or is the “Queen of Crime” too *infra dig* to count as a “proper” novelist ?  And where do people like Rider Haggard, R. L. Stevenson, & Jules Verne go ? Those three all created memorable characters, and they all knew how to tell a story. Do modern novelists know how to tell stories ? Do novelisations of the doings of Dr. Who, Superman, or other such characters count as novels ?

    Talking of converts – has anyone read Newman’s novels “Loss and Gain” & “Callista” (I’ve not, hence the question) ?

  • AB

    I have read Newman’s novels. They are more explorations of the process of conversion in fictional form than novels in the ‘pure’ sense (written for the sake of telling a story or exploring character, etc.) but well worth reading (like anything by Newman!), especially “Callista”, which is about a convert from paganism. “Loss and Gain” deals with the conversion from Anglicanism of a contemporary university man, so some of the issues discussed have only historical interest now, but there is a hilarious passage towards the end where the hero, who has decided to become a Catholic, is visited by representatives of various new sects such as the Truth Society (which professes that the truth cannot be found, but that man’s dignity consists in pursuing it – “As philosophy is the love, not the possession of wisdom so religion is the love, not the possession of Truth”).

  • Deacon Chris

    I find it hard to believe that a literate person could be so shallow. I also found it equally hard to believe how long it took for mention to be made of JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, and stunned that no-one brought up the name of GK Chesterton, in order to refute the blogger’s assertion. Not only are novels not by nature “self-obsessive” (not the good ones anyway) but novel writers are often people of deep and sincere faith.

  • Mary O’Regan

    Are novels meant to represent life as though we are all sin-free saints – or our lives as sinners who must painfully learn from our mistakes?

    A Handful of Dust details a decaying marriage and the pain of Mr and Mrs Last who, by their own fault, let their marriage wither and become dust. It offers no hint of redemption and is a pessimistic work because it aims to capture that sense of absolute failure, loneliness, the crushing of the human spirit into dust and despair. Before I’m reminded that despair is a mortal sin – it is – and precisely this novel gives us an achingly accurate account of Mr and Mrs Last’s marital misdemeanours and simultaneous soul-destruction.

    And the punch of A Hand of Dust is all the more swift because its characters are the upper class – the affluent may not use their moneyed means to escape the consequences of their actions.

    Fiction succeeds where factual-life-histories have failed – how much of factual historical record really captures the murky details of our existence as fallen creatures? Would the private life of Brideshead Revisted’s Julia really appear as fact in the social gossip columns of newspapers? Her reasons for breaking off her passionate, two year relationship with Charles Ryder will never be fashionable or the stuff of a Cosmopolitan editorial. But Julia’s character, the picture of her as one who was – to use her own words – “living in sin” – allows us a medium where we might discuss the sensitive issues of cohabitation, marriage break-up and the Church’s teachings.

    If novels are about ‘self-obsession’ – that is because they allow a more intimate portrayal of life than art or film can create – and we can discuss the problems of literary characters without discussing ‘real people’ and falling into the trap of gossip.

  • Anonymous

    That’s very informative. Thanks :)  They sound like “novels of ideas”.

    His Truth Society may have a point: not that “to travel hopefully is better than to arrive” (an attitude Lewis pillories), but that even if one thinks can’t find, at least one is searching, and may find.

  • Anonymous

    OTOH, the same emotional & moral equipment is used for objecting to “real people”, and fictious ones. So if a character like Mrs Reed in “Jane Eyre” awakes strong dislike, does this constitute a real moral issue ? One can’t wish real evil to a fiction, however loathsome as a person – but while one cannot hate “Dirty Den” in “Eastenders”, there seems to be wrong in the attitudes of hate a fictional person may inspire.

    It’s very nice to be able to have this kind of discussion – for people in the US  don’t seem to be able to distinguish between an author’s moral intentions as a human being, and the intentions of the author’s characters within the narrative fiction. One sees this conflation of “voices” all the time in discussions of Harry Potter. Why this distinction is overlooked, it would be interesting to know.

  • Oconnordamien

    So still edited works of fiction written in different styles and genres, by many authors edited over centuries.

    The main thing here is… Fiction….

    The three most dominant religions we have to deal with are based on untrue stories.