Magazine article Commonweal

The Catholic Novel: Is There Any Such Thing?

Magazine article Commonweal

The Catholic Novel: Is There Any Such Thing?

Article excerpt

Richard A. Rosengarten's review of Graham Greene's Catholic Imagination by Mark Bosco (Commonweal, January 26, 2007) raised interesting questions about the relations between faith and fiction. In his first sentence Rosengarten refers to "Catholic novelists" and in his second to the "Catholic novel," as if the one implied the other.

The idea of a Catholic novelist seems straightforward enough; several of them were writing in the twentieth century--in England, the United States, and France--and Rosengarten names some of them. Yet one of the most celebrated, Graham Greene, disliked being called a "Catholic novelist," and preferred to regard himself as a novelist who happened to be a Catholic. His friend Evelyn Waugh was happy to appear before the world as a Catholic novelist and tried to present Greene and himself as literary upholders of Catholic truth and faith in the face of an unbelieving world. Still, Greene resisted these pressures, and in later years Waugh came to regret them.

Like most English Catholic writers and thinkers, Waugh and Greene were converts, who came into the church in mature life as a matter of choice. They lacked the cradle Catholic's early experience of family and parochial life and schooling, which provided material to be drawn on in later years, even if the adult writer gave up Catholic belief and practice. James Joyce is a famous example of an unbeliever whose imagination never escaped from the Catholicism of late nineteenth-century Ireland in which he had been raised. In Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a fellow student says to Stephen Dedalus, the author's persona, "It is a curious thing ... how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve." And what was true of Joyce has been true of many later Irish writers.

Among Americans, attempts have been made to trace elements of F. Scott Fitzgerald's abandoned Catholicism in his novels. John Braine and Anthony Burgess were lapsed members of Catholic communities in the north of England whose novels reflected their religious origins. Burgess, who maintained a severely Augustinian view of life and world, took a disapproving interest in later developments in the Catholic Church and satirized John XXIII in his Earthly Powers. David Lodge is unusual in being a cradle-Catholic writer who still regards himself as a Catholic, though he admits that his present beliefs are a long way from traditional orthodoxy. And throughout the English-speaking world there are women writers who abandoned Catholicism but whose novels look back on their convent education with resentment or affection, or elements of both. Mary McCarthy, for instance, wrote in her Memories of a Catholic Girlhood that she was grateful for a religious formation that had given her a sense of the past and an understanding of intellectual history. There are, it seems, many ways of being a Catholic novelist, and not all of them involve still being a Catholic (even if one does not pursue the distinction between the defiantly apostate and the merely lapsed).

If the idea of the Catholic novelist offers difficulties, the "Catholic novel" presents many more. At one end of the scale there are books that are concerned with Catholicism as a social and historical phenomenon and the ways in which it affects the lives of individuals. One good example is Lodge's How Far Can You Go? (called Souls and Bodies in the U.S. edition). This looks at the fortunes of a group of middle-class English Catholics, from the 1950s, when they are students, to the 1980s, when they are facing middle age. It covers the disturbances and transformations brought about by Vatican II and ends with the portentous appearance of John Paul II. This novel effectively performs one of the genre's traditional functions, of imaginatively providing information about changes in the world, but it provides no clue to its author's attitudes: it could have been written by an ex-Catholic, or even by a sympathetic and well-informed outsider. …

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