Preaching to the Converted

By Davenport-Hines, Richard | The Spectator, July 7, 2012 | Go to article overview

Preaching to the Converted


Davenport-Hines, Richard, The Spectator


Farther Away by Jonathan Franzen Fourth Estate, £16.99, pp. 321, ISBN 9780007459513 Jonathan Franzen is a pessimist with a capacity for quiet joy. In a revealing passage in this collection of essays, reviews and speeches he writes of his fellow novelist Alice Munro: 'She is one of the handful of writers, some living, most dead, whom I have in mind when I say that fiction is my religion'. Explaining this, he apes the General Confession in a church service. Reading Munro makes him reflect 'about the decisions I've made, the things I've done and haven't done, the kind of person I am, the prospect of death'.

The stealthy theme of Farther Away is Franzen's secularised religiosity. He honours obscure priests of his faith - forgotten novelists such as James Purdy, Paula Fox and Sloan Wilson - and gives exegeses of lesser known tracts (Dostoevsky's The Gambler is discussed in four shining pages). Moreover, Franzen's ornithological enthusiasms - his celebrations of the natural world and indictments of environmental despoliation - insistently recall Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem 'God's Grandeur'.

It is odd to find a smart denizen of 21st-century Manhattan, who calls himself a 'control freak and know-it-all', resembling a 19thcentury Jesuit ascetic.

Although Franzen has none of the brazen exploitation of American preachers, he sometimes yields to an unfortunate pulpit manner. His opening section reproduces that sententious American phenomenon, a college Commencement Address, in which eminent guests present the accumulated wisdom of Polonius in vernacular, even folksy language. Franzen tells the 2011 class at Kenyon: 'I'd like to work my way around to the subject of love and its relation to my life and to the strange technocapitalist world that you guys are inheriting.' This Commencement Address resembles the mellifluous, silky causeries that Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge, used to publish 80 years ago - except that it includes words like 'megapixel', 'technoconsumerism', 'empathy' and 'shtick'. There is nevertheless much to attend to in Franzen's views, even if the tone is sometimes pontifical.

'The ultimate goal of technology', Franzen declares in his Commencement Address, 'is to replace a natural world that's indifferent to our wishes - a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts; a world of resistance - with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self. …

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