Seeing Things: Literature Regained

Why is so much modern literature disappointing? One plausible answer is that most literature in any age is mediocre and that our sense of the emptiness of a large percentage of what comes from the publishing houses merely reflects the fact that there are few geniuses alive at any moment. A fair assessment. But contemporary fiction and poetry typically display certain kinds of weaknesses that are rarely noticed in literary criticism, because the critics move in the same narrow orbits as the writers themselves.

This situation has existed for some time. In the 19th century, the French novelist Joris Karl Huysmans reflected on the predicament of the modern novelist 20 years after he had written what may very well be the single most successful decadent novel, Against the Grain. Huysmans had, in the meantime, become a Catholic, and it was from that perspective that he saw the self-imposed limitations of modern literature.

Great naturalist figures, like Zola and Flaubert, he said, were barred by their very worldview from dealing with virtue: “Virtue seemed the attribute of creatures devoid of intelligent curiosity or wanting in common sense—hardly a stimulating subject, in any case, to treat from the point of view of art.” The Romantics such as Balzac could deal with vices—pride, envy, and anger—but also in a highly limited way. Lacking any deeper appreciation of human depravity, both naturalists and Romantics were hamstrung: “Not one of us was qualified for the task. We were therefore driven to handle and rehandle the sin of all others most easily laid bare, Lust, in all its various manifestations; God knows we did our best, but this amusement was in the nature of things short-lived.”

Perhaps it had a short life for Huysmans, who turned to the better angels of human nature. But it would be difficult to say that literature since then has changed very much, despite occasional forays into the stylistic and thematic pyrotechnics of postmodernism. What we have essentially—to use Dante as a benchmark—is more than a century of writers who can only descend, over and over, a few steps into hell or go around and around the lower cornices of purgatory. A whole world of higher and lower things remains outside their view.

Which brings us to today’s sermon. The award-winning Czech novelist Ivan Klima has just published a novel, No Saints or Angels (Grove Press, 2001), which, despite its title, suggests some new literary opening to transcendence. Klima mines the usual subjects—infidelity, depression, drug abuse, anomie—which are as rampant in the Czech Republic’s highly secularized post-Communist society as they are in western Europe and North America. But his characters are full human beings who are set in a very rich historical, intellectual, and even spiritual world.

The primary character, Kristyrna, is a dentist in the grips of despair. Her family was divided during recent Czech history between Christian and Jewish members (several of the latter, including her grandmother, died in the Shoah), and repulsive Stalinist figures, such as her father. Her marriage fell apart just before Czechoslovakia did, and her attempts to give her teenage daughter more freedom than she herself enjoyed as a child have resulted in the daughter’s promiscuity and drug abuse. All in all, the basic story falls within the usual modern naturalist confines.

But Kristyna is more reflective than most of her Western fictional counterparts. Early on, she states the deepest question that has bothered her ever since she can remember: “I always used to ask why I was alive. Mum and Dad would never give me straight answers. I expect they didn’t know themselves. But who does?”

Put this way, of course, it appears that there are no available answers in the modern world. But the closest thing to an answer Kristyna gets comes from a Father Kostka as he’s sitting in her dentist’s chair waiting for the novocaine to take hold: “My dear young lady…people expect a priest to put everything down to a lack of belief. But belief isn’t the only important thing. The apostle Paul spoke about faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of the three, he said, was love. It’s not easy to believe in the Bible message in this day and age, but young people don’t just lack belief—they lack love.”

Kristyna herself has had a hard time finding love. She has had several lovers but despises those men who professed love in order to make love with her and then forced her to have abortions. It is telling that this woman’s perspective, which might seem obvious to anyone who thinks clearly about current sexual mores, never appears in the allegedly bold work of writers in New York, Hollywood, and London. Only a central European writer working late enough in a distinguished career that it won’t cost him anything with the Western literary censors seems able to state the obvious.

But Klima has some other unpalatable truths to tell. His despondent dentist, who at least can claim to help alleviate suffering, knows that in current circumstances, men will be little use in alleviating her own pain. Her former husband, bound by no religious or ethical standards, simply moved on to a younger woman when he felt like it. Kristyna has started an affair with one of her ex-husband’s former students, who professes undying love—and then betrays her when an old girlfriend offers the chance. If old Father Kostka is right that the biggest hole in the modern world is the absence of real love, then at least one knows what’s needed: “Some love that won’t come to nothing, like love between people.”

Like Solzhenitsyn and Vaclav Havel, Ivan Klima is able, from a position slightly outside the West, to see more clearly into the Western crisis than most Western artists. His great skill as a narrator enables him to do all this without resorting to any unusual literary artifice—except for the fact that the sections of the story are told by different characters without any announcement of who is talking, a technique that shows us how life unfolds in a multitude of individual minds. The approach is humane and modest. The only real reconciliation in the book takes place in a ruined church near a sanatorium where Kristina’s daughter is being treated for drug problems. The director of the sanatorium is a churchgoing young man who deals with the usual psychological and social problems of his patients but also has a deeper view of them: “They are simply sensitive to that emptiness which we close our eyes to. Unless we are able to fill that emptiness, we won’t cure them.”

The story ends in another church, this one still functioning, still celebrating the Mass. Klima does not make this into a full-bore affirmation of faith in the Dostoyevskian mode. He feels his way toward certain conclusions in a tentative way. But there is no mistaking the general direction. And Klima does it all with the humble old elements of literary fiction, renewed and returned to their fuller and more noble purposes.

Robert Royal

By

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of TheCatholicThing.org, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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