C. S. Lewis offered as an initial definition of literature whatever we will read again. On that basis I have just conferred literary status on several of my novels that I recently read for the first time since they were published many years ago. Enough time had passed that I found myself wondering what would happen next, so I was more in the position of the reader than their author. When one is working on a novel, when one makes the final revision, one goes over the whole again and again, but then it is something one is making. The reader confronts the made thing; it is already present as a whole, if only potentially, a potential that can be realized simply by turning the pages. The author, of course, has to write those pages before they can be turned.
The Priest was published in 1973. It is the longest of my novels and the only one that achieved bestseller status. I drafted it in Rome where I was on sabbatical and spent much time rewriting it when we came home. Originally, I had planned a fairly brief novel, with everything in it swarming around my central character, Frank As cue. He was a young priest, just returned from study in Rome, and the year was 1968. The appearance of Humanae Vitae in July of that year was the pivotal event of the story. Because of that, I came to think that it would be more interesting to come at the story from a variety of viewpoints. The guiding question was the same: What is it like to be a young priest in the post-conciliar tumult? It seemed better answered by playing his reactions against those of a large cast, and that is what I did.
Connolly’s Life (1983) and Leave of Absence (1986) are short novels that are technically tricky and deal with other aspects of the Church in the years after the council. Connolly is a theologian whose reputation was established as much by the media as by anything he has written. I portray him as a man willing to rethink the articles of the creed in daring ways, and he is particularly notorious for popularizing an interpretation of the Resurrection that floats free of any belief in the actual, honest-to-God rising from the dead of Jesus. And thereby hangs the story. Connolly misses a plane in Chicago, checks into the O’Hare Hilton, and wakes the next day to find that he died when the plane he was supposedly on crashed in Washington, D.C. What would you do with that if you were writing the story? I told it as the first-person narrative of a boyhood friend of Connolly’s, a lapsed Catholic, shades of Graham Greene’s Maurice Bendrix. I found myself reading that old novel with trepidation, lest it lose plausibility or descend into moralizing. I think my younger self brought it off pretty well. But the biggest surprise, and I have to say delight, was Leave of Absence.
The two viewpoint characters are women, and it is told entirely by them. Girlhood friends, one becomes a nun, the other a lawyer. Vera cannot understand why Andrea wants to bury herself in a convent. What I wanted to do was tell a story where they would eventually exchange attitudes toward the religious life: The nun would flee it; her married friend would in midlife feel drawn to it, the catalyst being Andrea’s affair with Vera’s husband. (See Gore Vidal’s preface to his play The Best Man.)
Dissident theologians, nuns gone over the wall I have said a thing or two about them in writings other than fiction, but novels are another matter. In imagination one becomes a dissident theologian, a new nun, a betrayed wife, and the story is meant not to illustrate a thesis but to understand human, all-too-human, fellow creatures. Understanding all does not lead to forgiving all, but Baudelaire is there to whisper in one’s ear, Mon semblable, mon frère, or ma soeur. And one sees one’s non-authorial self through other eyes—not always a pretty picture.
Fiction is a way of meditating on human agents, on persons acting and thereby becoming what they are. The essential drama of human life is played out in a field of contingency, with something less than omniscience. The post-conciliar quarrels that have been the fate of my generation finally turn on the ultimate stakes of life. Why are we here? Where are we going? How do we get there? But life is not an argument to be won over others; it is a common task. The mistranslation of credo as “we believe” has its point. In my fiction, if not always in my prose, I have managed to convey the hope that friend and foe alike may meet merrily in heaven.