Quo Vadis

Quo Vadis
by Henryk Sienkiewicz
Translated from the Polish by Jeremiah Curtin
Little, Brown and Company, 1943


Quo Vadis is an interesting book. It is first interesting as a case in book history. Although it has fallen out of favor in the present day, it was sensationally popular in the United States in 1896 at the time of its publication in English, selling over a million copies. It remained a best seller for at least the next twenty five years. The film version, produced approximately fifty years after the print publication, was one of the most expensive films made up to that date. The film was also quite popular when it was released, and years later it had frequent showings on late night or Sunday afternoon movie slots. Even now the Curtin translation is reprinted by some publisher every couple of years. So the question is what about this novel causes its continued popularity. Probably not the language of the Curtin translation which is stiff and formal in modern ears and not notably beautiful. The characters are not complex nor do they have great emotional depth. However, this is not necessarily a criticism for characters in many broad, sweeping, epic 19th century novels are not particularly complex or multi-faceted (think Dickens), but that does not mean they are not well drawn and interesting. Many of the secondary character – Nero, Petronius, Chilo – engage both reader interest and emotions. The plot centers on the love story of a Roman soldier Vinicius and Lygia, a beautiful daughter of a conquered Polish ruler who, unfortunately for him, is Christian. Nero’s increasing hatred of Christians parallels their story. But Sienkiewicz’s major gift in Quo Vadis is his ability to bring alive scene after scene through physical and sensual description – particularly the decadence of Ancient Rome. If a reader prefers character driven novels, this book might be a tough read. But once one gets used to the unfamiliar style of language, those of us who enjoy becoming part of story by being immersed in sensuous detail will enjoy the sweep and scope of Quo Vadis.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey
by Thornton Wilder
Perennial Classics, 2003

The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a modest yet clever book and, for me at least, a genuine lost treasure.  In other words, I knew nothing about the book and had never heard of it until I read it at a Fides et Ratio seminar put on by the Faith and Reason Institute even though as an American Literature scholar I had done some study of Thornton Wilder.  Most of what I knew concerned Our Town, of course, and I was also vaguely aware that his The Merchant of Yonkers (later revised as The Matchmaker) was made into the musical Hello, Dolly.  Imagine my surprise to find this sweet, little gem of Catholic fiction.  The Bridge of San Luis Rey (and that’s “of” not “over” as in “Bridge over Troubled Waters” or The Bridge over the River Kwai) is set in Peru in the 18th century; the bridge was real but its collapse was invented by the author.  Wilder’s tale begins in July of 1714 as the bridge over a cavernous gap in the cliffs above the Apurimac River outside of Lima collapses.  Five people plummet to their deaths.  Their intertwining stories of how they came to be on that bridge are told through the eyes of a well-meaning, if somewhat naïve monk.  This kind of event makes people question either God’s existence or God’s goodness, and Brother Juniper is determined to prove that not only did God intend for the bridge to collapse, He causes it for the good of all, especially the five who die.  The book is an easy, quick read and highly entertaining.  However, as one begins to think about the narration of the tales which are filtered through the participants and then through witnesses and then through Brother Jerome, the complexity of the work and the artistry of Wilder become plainly apparent.  And the easy interpretation of the book becomes as shaky as walking across a rope suspension bridge high above a raging river.

2011 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,800 times in 2011. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy
by Rumer Godden
Viking Press, 1979

The best book I read in 2011 was Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy by Rumer Godden.   At the beginning the novel seems sensational rather than metaphysical even though the title refers to the fifteen decades of the Roman Catholic rosary.  And the culminating crisis in the novel is a little melodramatic but by then as a reader I didn’t care.  Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy is such an engrossing novel that all I knew was that I couldn’t stop reading.  And I left the novel filled with a sense of peace and beauty that doesn’t usual come in a novel of prostitutes, poverty, prison, and murder.    The basic plot entails the story of a French Madame and manager of a whore house who kills her lover and goes to prison for ten years and then becomes a nun in the order of Dominicans, the Sisters of Béthanie.  The main character Elizabeth Fanshawe becomes Madame Ambard, also known by the name of La Balafrée (The Branded One), and eventually Sister Marie Lise of the Rosary.  Falling into a novel and being consumed by it is an experience that I, as an academic librarian who reads for a living, don’t often have anymore. But the worlds of the story are so beautifully created that it’s impossible not to.  Although the entire novel takes place in the years following World War II, the whore house sections feel like the 19th century French nightlife represented by the artist Toulouse-Lautrec while the convent scenes transport the reader to a mysterious medieval world, and the prison scenes could have taken place during pre-revolutionary France.  Not until the very end of the novel does it strike the reader that the story is taking place in the modern 1970’s.  This sense of timelessness and time are because Sr. Maria Lise of the Rosary gives her self up completely – and eventually to God.  God does not live within time – all time is one to Him.  Our lives, like that of Sr. Marie Lise of the Rosary, move seamlessly from joy to sorrow to joy again, and within the joy there is always sorrow and within the sorrow is joy.

The Moviegoer

The Moviegoer
by Walker Percy
Knopf, 1961

Some people love Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and some people hate it. Some find the book a comedy (both in the classical and the modern sense of the term) and some find it full of nihilism and despair. Why do I like it? I like Binx. I like that he struggles against ordinariness in a search for something, some greatness, some significant or dramatic meaning in life. And I like that he rejects his Aunt’s version of greatness. The greatness of monetary and career success, the greatness of being a genius at research or being a “Creole Cato.” Binx eventually finds his greatness in ordinariness. He sees his step-brother’s greatness in ordinariness. He experiences the greatness of the ordinariness of flawed love. This is the spirituality of the 20th century. Our saint is not Teresa of Avila but Therese of Lisieux. The Dark Night of the Soul is beyond our abilities; only The Little Way is within our grasp.

The 20th century is also the age of fracture. The fracturing of society and our sense of self after World War I, after the Crash of 1929, after the dropping of the atom bomb, after the Vietnam War and Free Love. Rather than face our shattered lives, we hide behind a façade of gaiety, glamour, and lots and lots of money. If you like the cable TV series Mad Men, you will probably like The Moviegoer, for though set in New York and New Orleans respectively, they both expose the first cracks in the veneer of one era’s prosperity, sophistication, and complacency.

Wise Blood

Wise Blood
by Flannery O’Connor
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1962

Wise Blood, like most of Flannery O’Connor’s works, is not an easy, comfortable read. O’Connor’s short stories (the most famous of which are “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “Good Country People”) are often assigned in high school English classes and introductory college lit courses. The stories are bizarre, grotesquely funny, satirical of almost everything, and appeal to the ironic tastes of late adolescence. They are also full of the symbolism and imagery so dearly loved by English teachers trying to lead class discussions. Wise Blood, while having much in common with its short story cousins, is unlikely to be assigned to the typical high school reading list – particularly in the South. If it was, it would probably be banned faster than Harry Potter meets Holden Caufield. Here the critique of simple minded religion, played out by (fake) evangelical, fundamentalist preachers, is even more evident. The disdain of religion by the major characters is strong. The sex is more prominent. The violence, as usual, is, well, pretty violent. O’Connor called the book a comedy, but it’s not comic in the sense of causing laughter. It’s not a comedy in the Shakespearian sense where all the characters marry at the end. It’s dark, but not darkly funny, like “Good Country People” is. Of course, after one has stepped away from the book, remembering scenes such as the theft a mummified corpse from the museum or a character running through the city dressed in a gorilla suit do seem absurd and bizarrely humorous. Trying to describe what the book is about, particularly to a non-reader, one is faced with the faced with the completely absurd plot line. On the other hand, while reading it, one has a parallel, more serious, experience, of facing the darkest elements of the human condition. Do I recommend Wise Blood? I’m not sure how I feel about it. As I said, it made me uneasy. O’Connor thinks that’s good for us.

Mystic River

Mystic River
by Dennis Lehane
William Morrow, 2001
ISBN 9780688163167

Mystic River is a dark, somewhat creepy novel. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops film reviews said of the movie (starring Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon, directed by Clint Eastwood) that is it is “morally unsatisfying.” This is an apt description of the novel as well. All the loose ends are not tied up; not all the good are rewarded; not all the bad are punished. If you like your detective fiction where the detective brings all the suspects into a room, points out the guilty parties who then confess and are met with both appropriate punishment and mercy and order is restored to the world, this book is not for you. If you like your fiction more realistic and gritty, this is definitely a book you will like. Here sin is not ambiguous but the guilt of the sinners is. Here the questions of where does evil come from and how responsible is a man who sins because he himself had been sinned against are raised but not completely answered. This is not great, Pulitizer Prize winning literature, but it is definitely above most best-selling novels. In some places, the language reaches the level of lyrical. Most of the Catholicism in the book is cooincidental to the characters; however, it is always interesting to see Catholics practice their faith in form (go to Mass, participate in the Sacraments) and then move easily into a world dark with sin and wonder how easily would I do the same and what provocation would it take?


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