InsideCatholic Book Club: ‘Exiles’

What is “Catholic” fiction? Is it fiction written by a Catholic? Must it include Catholic characters and treat distinctly Catholic themes? Does it reflect a “Catholic sensibility”? Should the reader even bother with such questions?

To try to sort through some of these issues, Amy Welborn, Matthew Lickona, Bishop Daniel Flores, and Joseph O’Brien spent a week discussing them in relation to Ron Hansen’s latest novel, Exiles.

 

The story, in brief: Gerard Manley Hopkins is a young seminarian in Wales when he reads of the wreck of the Deutschland, a ship bound for America whose passengers — and ultimate victims — include five religious sisters exiled from Bismarck’s Germany. Unusually touched by the story, Hopkins sets about writing perhaps one of his most famous poems, “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” Hansen weaves the story of Hopkins’s struggle between his poetic gift and his priestly duty with that of the five sisters and their comrades in their final hours aboard the ship. Though separated by circumstance, Hansen explores the threads that bind them — exiles all in “this valley of tears.”

Each day this week, three entries from our group’s discussion will be posted. Though the members completed their conversation in advance (to keep the commentary running smoothly), they will regularly appear in the comments box to continue the discussion with you, the reader. We encourage everyone to respond, critique, ask questions, and post thoughts of your own in the comments section to add to our conversation, and help us move toward an answer to that initial question: Just what is Catholic fiction?

One final note: Reading the book is not a prerequisite for participating in the discussion. The conversation here goes far beyond the contents of Hansen’s book. However, as this is a discussion and not a review, there will be spoilers in the commentary. Proceed with caution.

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Matthew Lickona writes:

Forgive me, author. . . I confess I went into Exiles weighted with the soft bigotry of literary expectations. The last time Ron Hansen wrote a novel involving nuns, we got Mariette in Ecstasy, a story boasting a facility and loveliness of language and imagery that bordered on poetry (here, the genuine poets in our midst may feel free to correct me):

Sister Anne and Sister Agnes heave heavy avalanches of wash onto a gray wool blanket and then go inside for more, and Mariette hangs sweet wet sheets on the clotheslines until she is curtained and roomed by them. Sister Agnes slinks through a gap in the whiteness with a straw basket of underthings that they silently pin up in the hidden world inside the tutting, luffing, campaigning sheets. . . . Sister Agnes aches from reaching. . . . She watches the postulant as the tilting sheets wrap around her and shape her. She watches the girl as she tenderly releases herself, as though tugging a ghost’s hands away.

Mariette featured Christ speaking directly and audibly — to Mariette, at least. It told the story of a visionary, one who experienced ecstasies of passion in her communion with the divine. Hansen’s image is perfect: Mariette the would-be nun, handling these intimate garments, garments that cover but also touch her sexual regions, regions she has at least spiritually given to Christ in becoming His bride. And as she does so, she is moving in a hidden world, obscured from ordinary sight, just as a cloistered nun’s life is hidden from the world, where she is caressed as if by the hands by a ghost. And then there is the sound of it, the delight in sounding out those “sweet wet sheets,” those “tutting, luffing, campaigning sheets.” I read the book out loud to my wife, in part because she likes me to read to her, but in part because reading it aloud was such a pleasure, a supervening virtue to the prose that brought on my comparison to poetry.

Exiles is different. I confess to suspecting that Hansen, in writing a book that was, at least in part, about the writing of a poem — “The Wreck of the Deutschland”–had decided to veer his prose as far from poetry as possible. Here’s his description of the poet Robert Bridges:

He was over six feet tall and wide-shouldered, a man’s man who had played football and cricket and was the star oarsman of the Corpus Christi College rowing team; at Oxford he’d been considered so stunningly handsome that some classmates could not take their eyes off him. And if he was cold, secretive, aggressively intolerant, and given to petulant exhibitions of rudeness — or, put kindly, “delightfully grumpy” — he was also softhearted, considerate, and highly musical.

I read that, and I couldn’t help but hear the voice of the guy who narrated Ken Burns’s documentary The Civil War. I couldn’t help but imagine such a description as words spoken over the visual of an old photograph — a sketch of a character, one that might provide a helpful dose of color as the documentary told its tale, but one that, in the context of a novel, ought to have been only a back-story, a tool to inform the author of how Bridges would appear, speak, and act. I had the same reaction to the stories of how the five nuns made their way into religious life.

Put bluntly and not at all kindly, when I read bits like this, I thought to myself, “These are not parts of a novel; these are the notes for a novel.” In the “Author’s Note,” Hansen writes, “The characters finally represent my own interpretation of people who actually lived more than a century ago.” After my first read-through, I found myself wondering, “What interpretation? This is barely removed from journalism. The novelist’s imperative is ‘Show, don’t tell.’ This book features great swaths of telling. It even lets us know that Hopkins, the son of the man who wrote A Manual of Marine Insurance, ‘grew up in a world wet with marine accidents and was especially attentive to them.’ Couldn’t he have gotten this across more artfully? What happened to the man who gave us Mariette?”

 

But of course, Mariette isn’t Exiles, and it’s not fair to criticize something just because it isn’t something else. I resolved, on my second read-through, to try harder to take the novel on its own terms. I sought to be more docile to the text, to assume that Hansen knew what he was about. As Joseph O’Brien noted to me in an e-mail before this conversation began, it wasn’t that Hansen had lost his fastball when it came to building a sentence. It was just that most of the poetry seemed to be lavished on the storm and the cold and the weather. (“Along the dock the snow was gliding over the tarred planks in white wisps that between trailing and flying shifted and wimpled like so many silvery worms.” Perfect.)

The question then became: What was Hansen up to? Was it just that he was bucking expectations, writing unpoetically about the story behind a great poem? If not, then what?

Please permit me another look back at Mariette in Ecstasy: “You’re my sister,” says Mariette’s biological sister (and a nun herself), “but I don’t understand you. You aren’t understandable. . . . You may be a saint. Saints are like that, I think. Elusive. Other. Upsetting.” Because of her visions, Mariette is Other even in comparison to those who have withdrawn from the world and into religious life. In this, she’s a little like Hopkins, who describes himself when he describes Duns Scotus:

Scotus saw too far, he knew too much; his subtlety overshot his own interests. A kind of feud arose between his genius and his talent, and those who could not understand him voted that there was nothing important to understand . . . .

“The pestering originality of [Hopkins’s] intellect” proves to be Hopkins’s ruin within the Jesuit order; he is Other even among those who are already Other themselves — English Catholics, priests, Jesuits. But unlike Mariette, his Otherness isn’t supernatural; it’s intellectual and artistic — something altogether more ordinary.

The five nuns are also Other, but even more prosaically so — they are Catholics in anti-Catholic Germany who have chosen to live “this odd, hard life of denial.”

It’s that very prosaic Otherness that turns them into exiles and gets them on board the doomed Deutschland — and, ultimately, joins them to Christ. (As Sister Aurea notes, “Christ was an exile, too.” In Mariette, union with Christ was a matter of uniting with Him in spiritual ecstasy, and possibly even sharing His wounds. Here, it’s a matter of humble, even humdrum imitation: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before you.”) Suddenly, a less exalted prose style seems more fitting.

And again — Mariette actually heard Christ telling her that He loved her even as He allowed her to suffer. Here, our nuns have only Scripture for comfort, and it’s a cold sort of comfort, too: the story of Christ stilling the waters of the storm, even as the storm outside the Deutschland threatens to destroy them. Theirs is a much more “normal” sort of spirituality, one shaped by their own decidedly human stories (and this is a fertile topic for later, I think). When Hopkins is reading about the wreck, he learns that “the chief sister” was “calling out loud and often, ‘O Christ, come quickly!’ till the end came.” The soul calls for the unseen Christ, and it is death who answers. This is surely a more common account of faith than that of Mariette, and so, it might be argued, justly receives a more common style in its recounting. Christ isn’t talking here, and I can recall only one moment where God is treated as a real and certain and active thing: when Hopkins goes before the Blessed Sacrament and “grace as soft as a dove’s wing floated over him, calming him . . . .” (Why here? Anyone?)

So yes, I would have preferred that Hansen find a more “show, don’t tell” way of letting us know that Poet Laureate Bridges “could not have foreseen how interest in his own poetry would languish just as interest in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s grew.” I wish he had felt free to go further in making “dramatic what is otherwise contained in Hopkins’s letters and journals.” But I think maybe I can see part of the point: Besides the journalistic vibe brought on by his “duty to their memories,” Hansen is fitting his prose to the character of the story.

Well, I think I’ve made enough mischief for one opening comment. Final thought, regarding the whole “show, don’t tell” criticism. On second perusal, I’ve started thinking that maybe Hansen is playing a bit — that he’s telling, yes, but that he’s telling to show;he intends what’s told to point to something further. When the pilot of the Deutschland decides to anchor for the night, saying “I have only my eyes to go by, after all,” that’s a lovely bit of show — an intimation of the story’s treatment of faith.

Later, Hansen gives a detailed account of the way a ship figured its location under stormy skies. He concludes this bit of telling-heavy description by writing, “With the skies clouded, the trigonometry of sextant and chronometer was impossible. Voyages in 1875 sometimes involved a ship simply blundering from one place to another.” Ah. Another intimation of the experience of faith. Telling to show. It doesn’t quite account for a description like “[Hopkins] was a gregarious loner, an entertaining observer, a weather watcher, etymologist, cartoonist, and nature artist,” but it’s something.

Anyone?

Matthew Lickona is a staff writer for the San Diego Reader, a weekly newspaper. He is also the author of the 2005 memoir Swimming with Scapulars: True Confessions of a Young Catholic. He lives in La Mesa, California, with his wife and children.

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Bishop Daniel Flores writes:

But it rides time like a riding river. I am grateful for Matthew’s confession of “the soft bigotry of literary expectations,” as it makes it easier for me to admit to a similar fault. When I finished the first read of Exiles, I was puzzled by the story, perplexed, even annoyed. But I must further (and happily) admit that I appreciate the story all the more for having had this initial reaction. I will try to explain.

The expectations I brought to Exiles were more shaped by Atticus than by Mariette in Ecstasy. I so appreciate the graceful way Atticus led me to the joy of a convenient ending. By “convenient,” I mean the artful reassembly and convergence of divergent threads. Like when Owen meets the nuns at the end of A Prayer for Owen Meany, or — more overtly theological — when Augustine the preacher tells us at the end of a long digression that he was not digressing at all, he was merely uniting Isaiah and Paul to clear up a muddy passage in John. Reading Atticus was like that, all the more enjoyable because the twists in the story came unexpectedly, and the neatness of the ending seemed both credible and fitting: Dignum et iustum erat.

Such expectations proved injurious to my first reading of Exiles. To be frank, I expected the nuns (and Hopkins) to die with more literary grace. When writing a story about an event that everyone already knows will end sadly, the art is usually in the rendering of the human grace attendant at the moments leading to the end. I wanted these spiritual children of St. Francis to leave this world more artfully. I wanted a sign — subtle yet perceptible — given to me, the reader, that despite its harshness, theirs was a fitting fate, that indeed it should so be that they were there on that ship.

But, at least initially, I perceived no such effective sign. I was left with the literary equivalent to the night of the senses. Mother Henrica was washed away so quickly, never really able to fulfill any real role as shepherdess of this tiny flock. Sister Aurea died in childishness, as she had lived; and Sister Norberta died with her self-preoccupations still occupying her. Sister Norberta was not even granted the grace of an act of contrition coaxed by Sister Barbara. At least Aurea was helped in this way by Sister Brigitta. Such depictions of a Christian death left me discomfited, on aesthetic grounds.

It struck me while reading the narrative that Hansen, in places, seemed deliberately to shadow the style of Hopkins’s use of English. Hansen writes early in Chapter 1:

The limekiln under a quarried cliff sent out yellow smoke that dimmed the distance and made the stack of Denbigh Hill a dead, mealy gray, but the sun was sparkling through gaps in the raveled clouds . . . .

I had to read that aloud to myself a couple of times to catch the rhythm and sense. But then I have to do the same thing (only many more times) when I read anything Hopkins, be it a poem or a letter. But if Hansen at times consciously conforms his prose style to the linguistic twists, prolixity, and fluid austerity of Hopkins himself, then I suspect the whole of the story in some way tries to conform to the same kinds of rhythms and austerities found more generally in Hopkins’s view (and experience) of providence.

With this in mind as a hunch, at least, I could settle to re-read this story more as a narrative commentary on “The Wreck of the Deutschland” itself, a commentary that in turn uses the poem as an interpretation of Hopkins’s life and death. Exiles, it seems to me, like “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” has as its principal object the merciful ways of a harsh providence, accepted (if not understood) in the darkness of faith in the Lord who is “Thou mastering me God.“How does He master us?

Looking first to the sisters, they die as they lived: imperfect, at times startlingly petty, and seemingly so ill-prepared. Yet the Master works all the while to master them; sometimes we perceive it, most of the time we do not. “But it rides time like a riding river.” It is the manner and fierceness of His coming. And it comes to them with sudden dispatch, and we are left to ponder how this is a merciful mastering.

Upon reading the death scenes a number of times (and they merit innumerable readings), the convenience is there, only it comes much more subtly than my Atticus-trained eyes expected: not in the manner of Atticus at peace with his sons, not in the arc of convergent lines made nicely, in the end, to touch. It is rather the convenience of an un-converging convergence, a glimpse of the grace that makes no sense to observers, but which a man who knows “of his going in Galilee” can nonetheless embrace in hope and love. His coming, when at last He comes, is a coming that to our soft eyes often seems so heartless. But if it so seems to us, the problem, Hopkins would say, is with our eyes, not His coming.

To die as the sisters do is an ugly thing. It is an aesthetic that must traverse the forbidden lands of the death that seems so meaningless; it must confront in particularity the fact that “His ways are not our ways,” and this conjures the questioning of Job. Sister Norberta poses it well when she asks the kindly Brigitta: “Why do you think God is doing this to us of all people? His devoted and adoring daughters?” (185). No doubt my first read was influenced by an unconscious kinship with Norberta, for I thought they deserved better than a death depicted so harshly. Not even an act of contrition for Norberta…

There is nothing poetic about the circumstance of Norberta’s or anyone’s death (the Tower of Siloam comes to mind). There is grace, though, in the surrender to the One who comes in it: “And here the faithful waver, the faithless fable and miss.”Hopkins wrote to his mother that “it is our pride to be ready for instant dispatch”(172), and though speaking of the Jesuit vocation, and his own frequent transferrals, he doubtless intended also the transitus toward which all changes of address tend, and which they all foreshadow. We can hope that Norberta knew this as well, and could silently offer it to the “Father and fondler of heart thou has wrung.

If hope is not enough for us in reading this end — I speak for myself, at any rate — then we are like those whom Hopkins describes as “trenched with tears, carved with cares.”And we are thus shown to be in further need of the Master’s particular touch, coming as of “an anvil-ding.

The Most Rev. Daniel E. Flores S.T.D. has been an auxiliary bishop of Detroit since 2006.

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Amy Welborn writes:

Many thanks to Matthew and Bishop Flores for starting the conversation off so beautifully. My first entry, written on the fly, on the road, will, I hope, be followed by more substantial thoughts. For now, I will do what I seem to do best: toss out some seeds. Or small explosives? You decide.

Like everyone else so far, it seems, I was a bit taken aback by what initially seemed to me to be a reportorial tone in Exiles: notes for a novel, as Matthew mentioned, or even a literary essay weaving together Hopkins’s biography with the events described in the poem.

It is, indeed, very different from Mariette in Ecstasy and Atticus, but perhaps not so different from Hitler’s Niece — a similar, it seems to me, historically based novel. And one that I was not crazy about.

I’m suspecting, however, that as both Matthew and Bishop Flores have suggested, there is more than meets the eye here, for I did enjoy the novel — I think it’s important to say right off, before the questions and discussion. And I don’t think that is simply wishful thinking, either. It’s something that I’m sure we’ll develop as the week goes on.

One thought: I wonder, for example, if Hansen’s reserve about Hopkins’s inner life — and particularly his spirituality — is rooted in the respect of an author for the integrity of a real person. Perhaps he went as far as he felt he legitimately could? Here, I’ll just muse.All of us involved in this conversation are writers of one sort or another. We all confront various obstacles in our writing — innumerable ones, barriers real and imagined we can blame for all sorts of things. And who among us has not thought, “My writing could be so much more real and authentic if I could write freely about Ms. X.” Or without fear of hurting another’s feelings, or — even worse — doing real damage. We look with a combination of envy and horror at writers who simply do as they will, who employ a scorched-earth policy in writing about other real human beings.

But then, grappling with the interior duel between imagination and fidelity to truth, even as we know the imagination can tell the truth, we pause. Perhaps out of fear, or perhaps out of simple Christian charity and respect, we step back and decide to tell the story in another way — just as true, we hope, but one that will not do violence to who people really are.

So the point of that excursion is twofold: to posit a theory about the rather cautious tone of the Hopkins material in Exiles and to throw out the question to writers: Do writers striving to live as disciples of Jesus confront the challenge of writing imaginatively about real people — either contemporary or historical — in any kind of unique way?

Perhaps Robert Olen Butler’s latest collection, Intercourse, in which he imagines varied real historical figures (and not all historical — some living) doing just what the title indicates (and I don’t mean “social”), provides a helpful contrast. A wildly apposite contrast, true. But I think the question is part of considering Exiles. Are there boundaries? Do Christian writers — or any writers who share that basic respect for other human beings — run up against those boundaries with particular force? Is that to our loss or to our credit as artists?

 

Finally, playing a bit of Bishop Flores’s eloquent survey of the deaths in this novel:

As I began to read the novel, I thought, “Oh, how sad this is, following the nuns around on their preparations for the journey, knowing what happens to them in the end.” It was almost unbearable.

But then I had to consider this: We know what happens to all of us in the end.

It may be less horrific or more painful, or be a moment of greater peace than freezing and drowning as the consequence of a terrible, blundering accident — so beautifully and powerfully narrated by Hansen — but this much is so true. We know what happens to all of us in the end.

What narrative of our own lives does that leave us with, here, as we all are, in exile?

Amy Welborn is a prolific and popular Catholic author and speaker who blogs at amywelborn.wordpress.com.

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Joseph O’Brien writes:

I too would like to fall back to the soft verges of my own literary expectations. As an interloper from Parnassus (well, at least its foothills), I enter this discussion on fiction from a mostly poetic motive (a further discussion on the differences and similarities of poetry and fiction suggests itself here, but I will resist — at least for the moment).

I was primarily excited about Exiles because it proposed to present Hopkins, who led mostly a hidden life as it was, in the full light of one writer’s imagination — one whose acumen for bringing historical figures to life has already been vouchsafed in his other works of historical fiction. As one who has spent a good deal of time reading poetry (Joseph Brodsky, at one point in his life, wryly observed that he read only poetry because he could read more poems in the time he had left on this earth than he could novels. More literary bang for one’s buck, I guess. Well, I won’t go that far!), I am fascinated by the motivations of composition and the machination of the muse.

As I see it, fiction provides a perfect picture window into these elements of the poetic arts. Jane Alison’s The Love-Artist comes to mind — Alison’s novel is a fictional account of Ovid’s exile by order of Augustus Caesar, one of the greatest unsolved literary mysteries. Even among those poets who have left an intricate record of their experiences, motivations, etc., they do not always add up to the sum of their self-revealing parts. A. S. Byatt’s fictional retelling of the Brownings, Possession,comes to mind.

But before going any further, since Mr. Lickona alluded to it, I might as well let you all in on my first impressions. I sent these offhandedly to him, as a postscript even (I hope it wasn’t cheating to discuss it beforehand):

I enjoyed the novel, but as I was reading it, a little voice in the back of my mind kept saying, it’s not really a novel. Have you read anything by Erik Larson (Isaac’s Storm; The Devil in the White City; etc.)? It really reminds me of the kind of things he does — history with lyric speculation between Clio’s silences.

I think Hansen should have brought Bridges more into the work as a foil for Father Hopkins, and not just as a correspondent. Some baddy from Otto’s Empire should have been on the ship, as well. We need some Iliad in here for the sisters — a Hector for their Achilles — and some Odyssey for Father Hopkins — an account of his wanderings to someone through storyline (and who better than a friend who thinks your poems are terrible, goes on to become the poet laureate of England, and, despite himself, almost singlehandedly drags your poetry into the light 30 years after you’ve died — and ten or so years before he dies himself?). At any rate, in either case, something human to bring out the excellences. The characters go too silently, in many ways, into the night.

 

So much for first impressions. Now, to explain some of these impressions in more detail. Both to show which of them remain with me, and why, for that reason, the work fails as a novel; but also to show which of them have led me to conclude that someone of Hansen’s caliber could not possibly have — excuse the pun — missed the boat on such a fundamental level.

I tend to agree with Bishop Flores, that if Exiles doesn’t work on the level of a novel, it works on some other level. That like Dostoevsky or Walker Percy, Hansen is using the novel for his own purposes. While it retains the bare bones of the novel form, Exiles is perhaps closer to a work of nonfiction about a specific historical moment — or moments. In fact, it appears to be a work of correspondence — not only the letters or news bits between characters, but the living narrative moments between characters.

One of Hansen’s better-wrought scenes appears twice in the novel — I think for the purpose of intoning these correspondences. The first time the scene appears, Sister Henrica is looking out the train at the passing landscape:

There were fields of shorn barley or wheat, now blond and fallowed with winter, Jersey cattle sedately chewing silage in their pens, their hides ruffed like hackles in the cold, sodden, pillowy gray quilts of cloud hanging so close they seemed just out of reach of her hand (37, emphasis added).

The second time we see this scene, part of it duplicated verbatim, Father Hopkins is looking out another vehicle hurtling him toward his own fate as “he glumly watched England slide past his window: snow in the fields and sodden, pillowy gray quilts of cloud hanging so close they seemed just out of reach of his hand . . .” (175, emphasis added).

There are other correspondences, as well — Sister Henrica and Father Hopkins both wrote poetry, and both were literary before they were religious, etc. In the hands of Joseph Conrad, Sister and Father would become two sides of the same psychological coin, as in The Secret Sharer; in Dickens, it would have been A Tale of Two Poets; in Dostoevsky, they would have been philosophical kin; and so on.

At any rate, what came to mind when I saw these correspondences was the sense of “exile” being at the heart of it all. We’re all exiles, after all, and sojourners in this world. Some of us will be reminded of that exile by boat wreck, some by literary rejection. But the correspondences also reminded me of a work which, 25-odd years before Flannery O’Connor came on the scene, was already playing with the idea of violence and the sacred: Thorton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Like in Exiles, Wilder’s novel takes disparate lives and ties them together in an intimate moment of violence. The correspondences are more apparent, and not nearly as subtle as in Hansen’s case, but they seem to anticipate many of the same themes — the great crying “Why?” of existence can only be answered, ultimately, by our own fiat. The novelist, meanwhile, can show us how that fiat can play out in surprising and revealing ways. I’m just not convinced (by Hansen) that Exiles succeeds.

 

Also, I can’t say I agree with Ms. Welborn’s estimate: I don’t think his bone-dry storytelling method is due to reverence (which isn’t to say that’s not there!). I did like Hitler’s Niece for all the same reasons I found Exiles lacking: It gave you Hitler not in facts and dates and testaments, but in what Herr Hitler would do — “lightly touching [Geli’s] hand when he wanted the butter or salt,” etc. In other words, Hansen “did” Hitler well — showed his reader the private man as consistent with the public man. To be certain, there are similar moments in Exiles, such as the Christmas Eve skating party at St. Beuno’s:

Hopkins became so fascinated by a kind of Sanskrit in the ice itself that he fell to his knees and crouched over green ice that was like a book of slow freezing, his face inches away in his reading of jots and burst and traceries that he considered exquisitely beautiful.
“Are you alright there, Hop?” Gavin called.
Hopkins faintly waved a hand but stayed hunched in his enthralled scrutiny. And he smiled as he heard Rickaby shout, “Oh, it’s just another of his salaams to nature.”

This scene was wonderful — and gave a bristling sort of satisfaction, showing the poet of pied beauty once again rapt by dappled things.

But in describing the style of Exiles, Ms. Welborn hit upon the right word: reportorial. In fact, I didn’t think to connect the dots until she used this word, but perhaps there is poetic method to the prosaic madness after all. As the novel weighs anchor (OK, that one I meant), the narrative frames in Exiles begin to stack up like Russian dolls — letters and back-stories and newspaper accounts and what have you. I would propose that there is perhaps an ultimate correspondence between the initial frame in which the story of the wreck was told to Hopkins — the London Times newspaper account — and Hansen’s recreation of that same sensation for the reader in his account of both the wreck and its effect on the poet. After all, since Hopkins re-found his muse in the London Times,perhaps Hansen wants the reader’s experience to approach that of Hopkins’s by prizing the fiction from between the lines of the journalist’s account. I offer this as a hypothesis, not a solution.

And as far as traditional fiction goes, I think Mr. Lickona hit upon the key principle around which this work turns, or fails to turn: the implicit “show, don’t tell” demand that the reader makes of the novelist. But what does that mean?

I like how the late John Gardner explains the principle in his Art of Fiction: The novelist must present fiction as if it were a dream. When the novelist fails to maintain the continuum of dream-as-real, such as we experience in our own dreamtime, then the narrative is interrupted, the illusion destroyed, and we as the reader become irritated, if not downright disgusted, with the work. That disruption can happen in many ways, but suffice it to say, it mostly comes down to some sort of self-consciousness on the part of the writer, which infects the reader’s own sense of the fictional reality. On a very basic level, this means the writer (not the narrator) makes his presence known in the work — intrudes unnaturally either through some factual error or aesthetic misjudgment. It is the literary equivalent of the first-chair violin blowing a kazoo at a climactic moment in a symphony.

In Exiles, if we take these interruptions at face value, a good part of the string section is blowing kazoos; the interruptions are aesthetic misjudgments — that is, if we assume the purpose was to write a novel according to the “show vs. tell” dichotomy. The interruptions happen so often — the un-cited quotations are the worst, I think — that the reader’s imagination just about gives up trying to look at the work as a traditional act of fiction.

 

It would be more vulgar, and not playing Hansen fair, to compare what goes on in Exiles to those television shows that seek to solve the crime with real actors recreating actual cases of the various hypothetical accounts. “No, Kennedy was killed this way . . .” “Here’s how we think Jimmy Hoffa died . . .” “This is what really happened to Jim Morrsion,” etc. A better and more just approach to figuring out what Hansen’s up to would be to first compare what he’s done here with his other works.

Hansen works best in the historical context — his most successful novels (in no particular order) are Hitler’s Niece, The Assassination of Jesse James…,and Mariette in Ecstasy. (While this last is the least historical of the three, the story still plays out against the historical facts of turn-of-the-century religious life.) There is certainly something provocative about the footnotes of history that can make for a great story, and — as these three novels testify — Hansen excels at subordinating the history to the drama. For example, the genius of Hitler’s Niece is the way Hansen makes Hitler a believable human being: not any less evil (and in a certain way, for that, more so) than the connotation-laden historical figure with the Charlie Chaplain mustache. In Hansen’s hands, he is not a cipher; we hear his heart beat behind his words, the sweat form on his brow after each ellipsis. Hansen almost even tricks us into sympathizing with the dolt. The same is true, though to varying degrees, of Robert Ford and Dr. Baptiste.

But, except for certain significant exceptions, not so in Exiles. The characters do not come alive in the way we’re used to seeing in Hansen’s other brilliant elaborations of fascinating historical footnotes. By way of exceptions, the beginning of Exiles is a case in point. In one sentence, he manages to limn the sacred and profane in one fell swoop of a sentence: “Lying in bed in his nightshirt and black woolen stockings, Hopkins recited his Morning Offering, then stood to use the chamber pot.” Like a weak radio signal, this sort of writing fades in and out throughout Exiles. I wanted more and didn’t get it.

So the question remains — and I look forward to getting to the bottom of it — why? Was Hansen not in tune with his art, or are we just not attuned to Hansen’s art?

Joseph O’Brien is a freelance writer living on a rural homestead near Soldier’s Grove, WI. His poetry has appeared in the literary journal Dappled Things, and he is host of Catholic Radio International’s Cover to Cover program.

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Bishop Daniel Flores writes:

Our friend from Parnassus wishes that Hansen had “brought Bridges more into the work as a foil for Father Hopkins.” I take this to be exemplary of the kind of trouble he had with Exiles, because he notes later that in his previous historical novelsHansen excels at subordinating the history to the drama.“It is with this crisp observation in mind that I would make a brief comment on Amy’s well-crafted question: “Do writers striving to live as disciples of Jesus confront the challenge of writing imaginatively about real people — either contemporary or historical — in any kind of unique way?”

In his essay “Afflictionand Grace: Religious Experience in the Poetry of Gerard Manly Hopkins,”found in A Stay against Confusion (thank you, Amy, for prodding my memory in some mysterious way to scan my bookshelf for my copy), Hansen invites us to consider his own profound respect for Hopkins and his literary and spiritual debt to him. I suggest it invites us also to consider how that same respect might have affected this novel.

Speaking for myself, I could not write a story about Blessed Miguel Pro, S. J. (someone to whom I feel I owe a great deal), without sensing strongly the need to present the story in a way that did not get in the way of a reader’s contact with the man himself. In such a writing, my first precept would be “do no harm.“And I would not want to read a story about Miguel Pro that I suspected was enhancing the drama, for it would disappoint me to think the drama needed enhancing. I have no such scruple when reading a story about Hitler — and here I readily admit that affect has its effects. Hence, to respond to Amy briefly, let me say: It depends on the person of the main character.

Mariette in Ecstasy and The Power and the Glory have this in common: They conjure an era in images and give us much detail and drama. Each in its own way makes it possible for us to think about Thérèse of Lisieux and about Miguel Pro, respectively. But the stories are not about them, and thus we are mercifully spared having to imagine these two blessed souls as this particular dramatic novelist imagines them. As a reader this is important to me, and were I more of a writer, I would let this kind of consideration bear on the unfolding of the tale.

 

There is a danger of too much specificity when dealing with a revered character. Had Hansen devised a novel about a poet in the time of Hopkins, a story that invited us to explore similarities and differences with what we know about Hopkins himself, than the dramatic intensity Joseph speaks about would be more in order.

But as a reader I would not have preferred the subordination of history to drama in this story. The addition of foils to this novel would have created a different kind of story, more like Evelyn Waugh’s Helena, a novel I enjoyed, but not too much. I hold the figure of Hopkins in too high regard, both for his literary prowess and for his fidelity to his vocation, to prefer a dramatization.

Perhaps Hansen placed upon himself a literary burden greater than we initially imagined. He chose not to write about a poet like Hopkins (who could be like Hopkins?), and he chose to write about the Hopkins he (and we) love and admire. Reticence is called for, even before the computer is turned on and the first word written.

Given the choice between a dramatic story about someone like Hopkins, or a reticent story about Hopkins himself, I would prefer an austere narrative. In this way I can at least consider the limits of my interpretative abilities. (Elaborating on those limits will have to wait another day.)

The Most Rev. Daniel E. Flores S.T.D. has been an auxiliary bishop of Detroit since 2006.

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Matthew Lickona writes:

Bishop, I’m tempted to let you have the last word on the question of writing imaginatively about real people. But see what you make of this: My father was deeply upset by Amadeus, because he regarded it as ahistorical, a made-up story about real people that besmirched the names of both Mozart and Salieri. To which I imagine the author might reply, “I did not set out to write a play about either Mozart or Salieri. I set out to write about the peculiar blessing of genius, the way it alights on souls seemingly without regard for worthiness or even goodness. Mozart and Salieri were here merely characters. You will note that it was a play, not a history. I could say the same thing about A Man for All Seasons. Bolt did not set out to give a perfectly accurate account of Sir Thomas More et. al., nor even to perfectly account for the events that led up to his death. He set out to write a story about a man who would not surrender his self, and found in More a suitable starting point for that project. It is only piety that criticizes the liberties taken in Amadeus and celebrates them in A Man for All Seasons. If Hansen had wanted to explore the subject of the poet straining against his times and even his own convictions about the goodness of self-immolation, well, why not use Hopkins?”

Amy: You mentioned writers who employed a scorched earth policy in writing about other real human beings. Makes me wonder about Flannery O’Connor, who more than once referred to the author’s obligation to describe the concrete realities she sees around her. She depicted some doozies in her time. But there, I suppose, she didn’t actually name names, the way Hansen does here. She could say, “Oh, Mrs. Nastypants just provided a few ticks and quirks; I never intended for people to think that she was the Warthog in Revelation.”

Or something like that.

Bishop, you and Amy both mentioned the deaths of the sisters. Amy, reading your line about the way the story ends for all of us gave me chills, thankyouverymuch. “You fool! This very night, your life will be required of you.” The Lord comes like a thief in the night — unexpected, unwanted, and intent on taking from us what we tend to regard as our own. In other words, it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Good night, kids! Pleasant dreams!

You ask, “What narrative of our own lives does that leave us with, here, as we all are, in exile?” A scary question, because the mind loves stories, and wants very much to place a narrative on its own experience. When it finds that this is impossible, when it finds that God’s ways really aren’t our ways, then it is tempted to regard life, the story without a narrative, as absurd. And then it starts drinking absinthe and reading Sartre. Or else it casts out into the deep . . .

The bishop notes that there are differences between the deaths of the sisters and that of Hopkins. Here’s a big one: The sisters’ deaths inspired Hopkins to write perhaps his greatest poem. Not exactly laying down one’s life for one’s friends, but it does give some larger meaning to their story. I think it helps. Hopkins’s death, on the other hand, would not have signified beyond itself, or at least, not as clearly. That’s why it required more narrative closure. Imagine if his parents had never made it, if his last words hadn’t been, “I’m so happy. I’m so happy.” Imagine if he’d spoken, “For naught, this sojourn,” into his empty room and slipped away. Even if that was in fact the way it happened, we would have been horrified, no? Especially if his poetry had followed him into obscurity. The only way we could make sense of it would be to think, “Well, at least it served to inspire Hansen . . .” And even then, if the story had ended with, “Hopkins died, and his poems disappeared into some Jesuit’s filing cabinet in a school that would be destroyed by a German bomb in 1941,” we would be in the realm of early Waugh, where horror was the intended effect.

 

But let’s get back to those sisters. Bishop, you write, “I wanted these spiritual children of St. Francis to leave this world more artfully. I wanted a sign, subtle yet perceptible, given to me, the reader, that despite its harshness, theirs was a fitting fate . . .” I want to dig into the sisters’ stories, see what I can find.

Sister Henrica gets washed overboard:

Her black veil smothered her face, her black cloak furled around her like the strips of burial cloths binding Lazarus in the tomb . . . she was burdened and yoked by her habit, and demanded by the sea. She remembered as she sank: Jesus wept.

Remember what she said when she discovered her vocation? “I feel I finally have let go of heavy weights and found out I can float.” In reply, the foundress “quoted the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus spoke of his yoke being easy and his burden light, noting, ‘When our vocation is from God, no matter how difficult it may otherwise seem, it is not a burden. We feel light.'” The outward sign of her vocation yokes her and drags her down into salt water. I will let the poets take it from there.

Sister Aurea, one of nine children, found at age 19 that God had named her Little One. One of the lines she finds in Scripture relating to this name is this: “Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” Though she is little (childish), though she is one of many, this verse tells her that she is loved precisely in her littleness, and that she is special. As she is freezing to death, she remembers getting scolded for getting into a hot apple pie, “wearing a stained apron that she tripped over. Children used to laugh because [she] wore hand-me-down clothes.” Her apron is too big — her littleness is a problem. She wears hand-me-downs; she is not special. But then: “Sister Brigitta was close as a memory now, and softly saying, ‘Sister Aurea? Shall we pray an Act of Contrition together?'” Close as a memory — replacing those bad old memories with a loving approach that singles her out and leads her in the prayer as a mother leads a child. “Sister Aurea couldn’t understand, but it was like a sweet lullaby, a song urging a little one to sleep. And she was always such a good child. She slept.”

Sister Brigitta helped the nurses in the children’s infirmary, and died after wading through the chest-deep water to comfort a screaming child. That’s a bit weak, I know. What about this? As a child, “Her Christian faith was authentic, but she knew only how to talk in the catechetical language of others. The most difficult question anyone could ask [her] was, ‘How do you feel?'” And how does she die? Unable to remember the words to the “Hail, Holy Queen.” Instead, she seizes on one phrase: “this, our exile.” “The prayer was meant for a world sour with sinning. Exiles, then, not from Germany, not from Europe, but from Paradise, from Heaven. And the others were no longer exiles. She slipped helplessly underwater, and joined them.” Her faith breaks free of the catechetical recitation of prayer; she meditates; and I don’t think it’s stretching the text too far to suggest that as she goes under, she feels that she is going home.

Sister Barbara is tougher, or maybe it’s just that my brain is weak. Reading is hard! She decides at 19 that she wants to go to the convent. “Only there can I be fully alive.” She is pleased to receive the name Barbara, “because she learned that the name was derived from the Latin word for ‘wild, rough, and savage.'” Here is her death:

Sister Barbara could be self-sufficient and taciturn, masculine and pitiless, and some nuns presumed that she was without emotion. But in truth emotions could so rule and overwhelm her that she’d learned to dam them up.

She compares herself to Peter, with “contrary emotions spilling out of him whenever Jesus was around. . . . Wasn’t she Peter now?” She recalls Peter in the water, crying, “Lord, save me.” And immediately Jesus stretched forth His hand.

And she screamed into the night overhead, “O Christ, Christ come quickly!” But in their long ordeal on the Deutschland, she’d given up too much vitality, and she sank to her knees. “Even so, come, Lord Jesus,” she said. Soon after that she died.

Barbara is like Peter; Peter has contrary emotions whenever Jesus is around; Barbara goes from screaming entreaty to gentle, accepting invitation. Therefore, the text suggests, Jesus is around. Further, when she screams, she breaks through the dam she has built around her emotions — she becomes wild, rough, and savage, living up to the name given her when she entered the convent where she would be fully alive. Not with earthly life — she has lost that vitality. But with the life to come.

But Sister Norberta? She’s a tough one. I’ll have to think about her some more. If anyone else wants to take a shot at it in the meantime, please do. And please consider these literary fumblings as my attempt to, as Joseph put it, get attuned to Hansen’s art.

Matthew Lickona is a staff writer for the San Diego Reader, a weekly newspaper. He is also the author of the 2005 memoir Swimming with Scapulars: True Confessions of a Young Catholic. He lives in La Mesa, California, with his wife and children

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Joseph O’Brien writes:

“She wanted to become possible again.” This is Sister Norberta’s response to her father’s frustration at her irascibility. A funny way to describe the moment of grace for Sister Norberta –but it was this moment that led to her entering religious life and eventually boarding the Deutschland to meet her own death. I always think we’re meant to pay attention when a writer does something funny or strange with language. I think this case is no different.

In a sense, her response is a consistent part of Sister Norberta’s character — her terse, impatient flippancy. But it’s also something else. I think it offers a key to knowing how her fate is fitting, as Bishop Flores queried. Taking up Matthew’s strand, I suppose the fittingness of her death is found in the complete “serenity of countenance in the woman. She’d been so hard on others. She’d seemed so cantankerous and unhappy, so little at peace. But this was how she looked when at rest.”

Of course my knee-jerk Aristotleanism came to the fore when I put these two passages together. How does Aristotle define motion in the Physics? “It is the fulfillment of what is potential when it is already fulfilled and operates not as itself but as movable.” Or, more simply, “the actuality of a potential (or a possibility).” Hoping that you’re all staying with me on this and taking it a step further, rest, then, is that same actualized potential perfected — that is, it is the end, the death, if you will, of motion.

I seem to remember St. Thomas saying somewhere that there is no motion in heaven. I’ve probably botched St. Thomas and sent us back to the dark ages with that botching, but I think the general gist stands pat. At any rate, it would be fair to say, I believe, that we are all at rest in heaven.

May the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace. God rest ye merry, gentlemen. Rest in the peace of Christ. The peace which passeth all understanding. And so on.

Sister Norberta wanted to be possible — and she wanted to perfect that possibility not with death but rest. She became possible — and when she was at rest, she became actual. I know I’m jumping tall syllogisms in a single bound here, but the main point to keep in mind is that Sister Norberta was motivated by a desire to be “possible” in life — but possible for what? Her father implies as anyone who uses the idiom would: that she is impossible to live with in Christian charity. (But don’t take only dad’s word for it. Sister Norberta, recall, demands of the Russian at dinner in the Deutschland’s dining hall, “And what am I?” and “Procupi Papolkoff was stymied for a moment, and then feebly tried, ‘Angry?'”)

It is clear that this was her lifelong struggle: to love her neighbor as herself. In death she finds rest and (we assume by the look on her face) peace in the arms of her sister. It is important, I think, to note this detail. I couldn’t help but picture her death in tableau: a very soggy, very cold version of the pietà, showing both a reconciliation — if only symbolically — with her neighbor, “lying with shut eyes against Sister Barbara’s chest,” and with Christ Himself. She became, in the end, “loveable,” as Hansen writes, “Christ’s bride.” Her father on earth found her impossible. Her Father in heaven will find her not only possible, but loveable — and at rest.

So Sister Norberta, who was impossible to live with in life, found at the last that charity made it possible for her to push past death and into the loving arms of her Groom . . .

 

But in pushing past death, the sisters have left us behind to make of it what we can. Those who climb the masts, it seems, are not merely denouement for the story but also the necessary contrast. How does one survive if one does not die? How do we survive death at all?

By way of a round-about answer, I would bring W. H. Auden’s “Homage to Clio” into the discussion. My own mention of the muse of history led me to recall Auden’s take on the tall silent beauty:

You had nothing to say and did not, one could see,
Observe where you were, Muse of the unique
Historical fact, defending with silence
Some world of your beholding, a silence
No explosion can conquer but a lover’s Yes
Has been known to fill . . . .

Now, Auden went from bad-boy hedonist in youth to reverted High Anglican in his old age. His poems are filled with a particularly Catholic (English, albeit) understanding of history as being a finite thing — one of God’s finer tools. One of his most sacred mediums, for sure, but not the final arbiter of things in this world.

Clio will have her silences, it is true. But between those silences, man’s works and days, deeds and doings find their meaning. As Matthew notes, a life is not a narrative — and those who seek to make it so become stark-raving Frenchmen or stark-raving Nietzsche (because there can be only one of him, right?). Yet Hansen, I believe, is taking just the same tack (I really can’t help myself on these nautical puns) as Auden.

Perhaps Hansen is unable to get any closer than he has to filling in Clio’s silences — regarding the “world of your beholding” that is the sisters’ and Hopkins’s. Perhaps he cannot get any closer because he wants us to see that the “lover’s Yes” of sisters and Hopkins is close enough. Again, this does not satisfy the fiction reader, and that’s too bad, because I believe that there is plenty of room to play around in when it comes to a “lover’s Yes” in fiction. But if we can arrive at the point where Hansen wanted to answer as much as Hopkins did to the mystery of the moment that was the wreck of the Deutschland and “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” perhaps we will arrive at the nut resting at the center of all of Exiles‘s clustering shells.

In fact, I would slightly modify what I asserted earlier: Amy is right in a certain sense. Hansen is approaching Hopkins/sisters and Deutschland/“Deutschland” with a certain reverence — but I believe it is not a reverence to Hopkins, but to his text:

Ah! There was a heart right!
There was a single eye!
Read the unshapeable shock night
And knew the who and the why;
Wording it how but by him that present and past
Heaven and earth are word of, worded by? (29)

Here’s Hopkins own homage to Clio — that muse who controls time, “present and past” — but as Hopkins points out, it is “a single eye” alone that can encompass time and its metaphysical counterparts, “heaven [present] and earth [past].”

Again, the reportorial approach Hansen uses becomes the vehicle for the narrator. But for all that, his omniscience is just history (newspapers, letters, biography, etc.) swirling around the immovable bulk run aground in the Thames estuary and the equally immovable bulk run aground (finally) in Dublin. Hansen does no more than infer what the last things that both bulks deal with are “word of” and “worded by” — in other words, he makes no greater claims than Hopkins, that the mystery of the final things must remain intact for the eye to read some sort of meaning into the “unshapeable shock night,” which for all of us is death.

Furthermore, he will show us what these things are through the blinds of history in the moments of poetry. To do more, to invent or elaborate on the final moments beyond the correspondences of life and death that we’ve been discussing, would be to do a violence to the history as it exists in memory (the past) — of Hopkins, the sisters, the survivors, and yes, even us the readers, since we enter into the history as much as the poetry of the account.

 

OK, heady stuff, I know. But I’ll return us to earth by citing Aristotle again, this time in the Poetics. He states somewhere that poetry is more philosophical than history because it deals with what is possible, while history only with what is. So when the two — poetry and history — meet, as in Hopkins’s poem and, more importantly (for our purposes, anyway), in Hansen’s novel, history is the framework that encloses the mystery of existence, and poetry is the rubrics by which one can approach the mystery in a meaningful way. It seems that Hansen does what he can to approach the sanctuary, describe it, and allows us glimpses of those who have assented to its mysteries.

In fact, returning to Auden, I think it’s fair to say that the historian has only the facts at his disposal, but the poet has the facts and then some. History remains deaf to the poet, but the poet is always, it seems, imploring history:

Approachable as you seem,
I dare not ask you if you bless the poets,
For you do not look as if you ever read them
Nor can I see a reason why you should.

Auden recognizes that while history remains deaf to the poet, the poet must constantly address history (though he never “dare” do so directly) — even if Clio remains closed-lipped to the end. So too Hansen doesn’t seek so much to be consoled as to console in Exiles. He does not look for history to guide him, but takes history at its silent face value and offers fiction at a greater price. History, to paraphrase Matthew’s point, is not a narrative, and so has no concern for narrative as such. Paradoxically, though, as Hansen and Hopkins demonstrate and Auden points out in his homage, only poetry can make a narrative of history:

Woken at sun-up to hear
A cock pronouncing himself himself
Though all his sons had been castrated and eaten,
I was glad I could be unhappy . . .
To visit
The grave of a friend, to make an ugly scene,
To count the loves one has grown out of,
Is not nice, but to chirp like a tearless bird,
As though no one dies in particular
And gossip were never true, unthinkable:
If it were, forgiveness would be no use,
One-eye-for-one would be just and the innocent
Would not have to suffer. . . .

Indeed, though the cock of time sings to himself, we humans must sing to one another — even through our “not nice” tears — if only to become, like Sister Norberta, possible to live with one another.

Joseph O’Brien is a freelance writer living on a rural homestead near Soldier’s Grove, WI. His poetry has appeared in the literary journal Dappled Things, and he is host of Catholic Radio International’s Cover to Cover program.

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Amy Welborn writes:

Joseph, thank you for your previous post. The bare facts of it all are dreadful and tragic. But the relating of bare facts has no intrinsic, immediately evident meaning. So the poet — the person of faith, any human being — draws out the meaning.

Is that close? — in my simple (hopefully not simplistic) way of understanding?

The power at my house was out for seven hours today, so I had plenty of time to sit with all of this, free from the temptation of various technological distractions. As I re-read the poem itself, what I think Joseph is saying became very clear to me. In the Hopkins sections, there are no clearly drawn lines indicating why Hopkins wrote this poem, except that he was deeply moved by the nuns’ deaths. (And perhaps that is enough.) However, the answer to that question is answered in the poem itself, if we trust that the poet is telling the truth about himself in the writing.

And so what I was left wondering about the Hopkins material was: All of that reveals no more, and perhaps less, about the mind, heart, and soul behind the poem than the poem itself. So what is its purpose?

I also mused on what a doubter — or even an atheist — would come away with after reading Exiles. In fact, if I were leading an actual, physical reading group centered on this novel, I think I would bring that up as a discussion question. Imagine you are a non-believer. When you consider the events described in this book, what do you see?

A group of women who have denied themselves marriage and family life in an answer to . . . something. Who get on a boat on a dangerous voyage in further response to this . . . something. And while begging for this . . . something . . . to whom they have given their lives to save them . . . die.

And then a brilliant, yet strange little man writes about them, never sees the poem published, and . . . dies.

Why write about that? Why read about it?

And yet here we are. Why?

Perhaps our answer to that question sheds light on why Hopkins wrote the poem at all.

It also pointed me back to the much-discussed question of “Catholic” fiction. What is it? Do we need more of it?

As we’ve all seen in discussions of the topics, there are varied views on what people say they want in Catholic fiction. Is it high literature we’re looking for, or simply stories with Catholic characters that affirm the truth of the Catholic faith by portraying lessons learned and dots helpfully connected?

Would Exiles please that last group or leave them cold? It seems to me it would have been so easy to put one toe over the line and render these events in a sentimental manner, with the nuns martyrs to Kulterkampf, sacrificial lambs for the New World; Hopkins’s life as a Catholic in 19th-century England and, as Matthew pointed out, a Jesuit to boot; all beautifully drawn to point us to some clear conclusions about purpose and meaning.

But Exiles doesn’t, I think. I am pretty convinced that both the believer and the doubter could read this novel and come away, partly confirmed in their own convictions, but both still a little shaken, wondering, each from a different perspective about the death of the nuns (and the rest), “Hmm . . . was there a point?”

I know this because both of those readers live in my head.

 

I’m going to end this by throwing out two aspects of both ends of the story — Hopkins and the nuns — that I thought did indeed bind them together, despite their initial apparent distance.

1) As everyone has mentioned: exile. Obviously. I see this very much a reminder of who we all are, myself. It is at the root of the Christian sensibility. We are not home, but we are going home. The journey might be awful at times, but in the end, Christ waits, as we call out to Him.

2) Serendipity, chance, and circumstance. I have to admit that this is an abiding fascination with me — to ponder how a wrong turn, a quick decision, a change of mind, can change a life. For both Hopkins and the nuns, this is bound up not only in their own decisions but in the decisions of others: In a way, their deaths can actually be blamed on the decisions of others to send them into even greater exile — to America or to Ireland (no offense!).

I was particularly interested in the nuns’ response to this. To my recollection, as they suffer in the midst of this horrific tragedy, none of the nuns ever utters a “If only we hadn’t been sent on this journey.” They certainly pray for rescue, and put up the good fight, but there is also a bracing lack of wishful thinking — something I am not sure would be the case were I in that situation.

Now I’m veering from the literary into spiritual considerations, but it’s the direction I tend to veer. That question of the tension (or is it balance?) between what seems to be chance or the vagaries of human decisions and God’s will and purpose is a sticky one, and I think Exiles gives a good foundation for exploring it. Here I am, where I am. I may be sinking, I may be swimming, I may be clinging to the mast. Should I be eaten with regret about where I am, am I finding someone to blame, or is there another way?

A final note for this attempt: The scenes of the shipwreck were terribly difficult to read, as you might expect. While I can read about or view a lot of things, one thing I tend to avoid, if I can, are depictions of children suffering. When, as the awful events are progressing, Hansen takes us from the upper decks back to the lounge where the nuns are, I dragged my mental feet. I didn’t want to go because I knew there were also children down there, and the thought of it tore me up.

But then, if I may get moralistic (even if Hansen doesn’t — as well he shouldn’t), confronting these moments — and even as they come from a fiction writer, I cannot forget they were real moments, and his prose in these sections gives those moments a vivid reality –is necessary for me. It is why, we used to be told, we have crucifixes in our homes — in every room, if we can — because as we endure our relatively small sufferings, we can look to Christ to put it all in perspective, a perspective that includes not only the child frozen in death in its mother’s arms on the Deutschland, but in Christ suffering in children right now, closer than I could imagine. Even if I don’t want to.

Amy Welborn is a prolific and popular Catholic author and speaker who blogs at amywelborn.wordpress.com.

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Bishop Daniel Flores writes:

The comments that Matthew, Amy, and Joseph have put forth are so rich that I wish I had a way to linger over any number of provocative points raised. As it is, I think I shall have to limit myself, trying to direct my thoughts to just a few that press on my mind.

Amy sums up nicely the thrust of some of Joseph’s most important observations about the reportorial style of Exiles when she says: “The bare facts of it all are dreadful and tragic. But the relating of bare facts has no intrinsic, immediately evident meaning. So the poet — the person of faith, any human being — draws out the meaning.”

This, in turn, leads her to ask about the aims of Catholic fiction, and its possible effects on believers and non-believers: “Is it high literature we’re looking for or simply stories with Catholic characters that affirm the truth of the Catholic faith by portraying lessons learned and dots helpfully connected?” And as Matthew highlighted in his second intervention, the scenes of death are drawn with bare, but truly present, indicators of significance. He suggests this is more noticeable in the case with the sisters than with the portrayal of Hopkins.

A few comments: The author allows us to hear the thoughts of the sisters as they die, and this privilege bears the weight of pointing us to the significance of these events. I suppose a non-believer (to reference Amy’s question) would read those thoughts and be content to say, “Well, at least they had the consolation of their faith, though whether it is true or not is another issue.“A believer, reading the same thoughts of the sisters laid bare, would likely recognize in them the signifying words that point to the reality embracing the sisters. If that sounds like a description devised out of deference to the Catholic Tradition of the Sacraments, it should. For I think sacramental signification is relevant here.

Thomas Aquinas says somewhere in his treatise on the Sacraments that the matter itself of a Sacrament is not sufficiently specific to signify the purposes to which the Lord, in instituting them, wills to put them. (He is elaborating Augustine here.) Thus, the words the Lord uses in instituting the Sacraments, the words the Church has custody over, are necessary in order sufficiently to signify the intended use of the matter.

Hence, in the Sacraments, if the matter is corrupted, even the addition of the words cannot supply for it; and if the form of the specifying words is so botched that the specification is lost, then the sign fails to signify, and the sacrament is invalid. (Think of the recent intervention from the Holy See indicating that baptisms performed in the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier are invalid: The form is corrupted, and so the divine intention is not signified.) Remember also that every deliberately conceived combination of event and word has an intended audience, for who signifies meaning into the air?

In any event, a Catholic author works in the world of things and events that signify in themselves, but not sufficiently clearly for us to catch their full intended significance. So the words an author uses are at the service of signifying the intentionality of life as guided providentially by God. But without the event, there is nothing for the word to specify, and without the word, the event flounders as a vehicle of meaning.

All this is simply to say that Catholic fiction is in some sense a work that participates in the dynamic of matter and form, thing and word. And the success or failure of a work of Catholic fiction depends on how well, how fluidly and effortlessly, the combination of event and word conspire to lead the reader to ponder the meaning of the intended sign. (In the world of an author’s sub-creation, the author is lord of the matter, form, and intention, but not without responsibilities to the intended audience.)

 

We are, I think, wondering how Exiles works as a narrative of events conveyed to us with a minimum of words, that is to say, a minimum of intentional indicators of high meaning. Matthew did us a favor by marshaling the death scenes of the sisters, bringing to the fore in a very deliberate way the words Hansen used to specify the meaning of the event. As I already admitted, I did not initially fault the novel for lacking significant indications of meaning; rather, I wanted them to look differently than they did. In a word, I wanted more noble external signs. (I am not willing to defend the justice of my initial desire). The signs were almost all interior words put into the minds of the sisters and, in the moments leading to their deaths, very little was given us in the world outside their minds. “She remembered as she sank: Jesus wept.”

Hopkins, I think, is more willing to give us the scene of death in noble terms (the lioness that “arose breasting the babble, / A prophetess towered in the tumult, a virginal tongue told”) than Hansen is. The best light afforded me during the saloon scene is the light of the six tapers: “Six tapers were found and lit and stuck in their wax to the highest shelves.“I do not know if this is a detail someone in the newspaper accounts remembered or a feature of interpretation insinuated by the author. Either way, I know that it took six candles to say a High Mass (a seventh only — forgive me for saying it — if a bishop were present), placed indeed on the highest shelf, the altar itself. The sacrifice was prepared in that saloon, and the wine and hosts awaited transferral through the action that would both extinguish and complete them. Perhaps I am floundering here, looking for an image to give my feet a footing from which to see more clearly in the dark; perhaps I am searching to see something noble so I can rest my imagination as it cringes to summon the scene of cold death.

Whether I am or not, this novel bravely bids us swim at the deep end of the pool, where the unfathomable ways of providence can be seen in their stark particularity — that Scotistic thisness of which Hopkins was so fond. Perhaps it is necessary to keep noble imagery at bay in a novel built around anything that even touches Hopkins on the inscrutable providence of God. Maybe the aesthetic austerity permits us to confront with minimal decoration the rushing force that underlies all particular ends, so that the realism of the theme might emerge all the more starkly.

Such questionings lead me to an abiding sense that the overall sway of the novel would not have us linger overmuch at the level of secondary causes, but to pass with them and through them to the level of the final cause. (Pardon my scholasticisms, but I find them acutely clear.) And it is at that final level that we are helped by the tale to confront the Master of all ends as He comes for the sisters and for Hopkins (as one day for us).

 

I myself think Exiles is quite successful at directing us toward the consideration of human finality, and that Hansen’s reticent refusal to introduce too much noble imagery and ahistorical drama (i.e., no representative of Otto’s empire on the boat) served this end.

The success was surreptitiously insinuated, in that I did not realize its force until I was jarred out of the elfin spell by what I will call the unexpected hypothetical that appears on page 195 (there where it says “Imagine it otherwise”).Of all things in this novel, this single paragraph puzzled my mind the most, and even now vexes me after the re-readings. Here we have a paragraph of pure what ifs. It is the kind of intervention that Joseph so accurately described in his first contribution to this conversation as “the narrative interrupted, the illusion destroyed.” The paragraph seems out of place here or anywhere in the novel. Let me try to explain.

This narrative tale touches on the early death of a genuinely noble figure, a literary genius, and by all accounts an authentically spiritual man, one inured of his own free and loving will in the hard grace of the Ignatianway: “I did say yes / O at the lightning and lashed rod.“This man, Hopkins, died of an illness that (so the hypothetical suggests) might have been successfully treated had those responsible not prolonged his exilic existence in Ireland.

In the order of discernible secondary causes (most emerging as a result of the decisions made by men), it may well be true that Hopkins could have recovered, led a happier life, influenced a generation of Catholic writers, and died peacefully in some far off 1929. We shall never know, for a recovered Hopkins might also have lost his soul to fame, something he at least saw as a specter worth fleeing. The hypothetical paragraph took my eye off the real issue: May we hope that this man did, in the end, have the grace to invite the mastering Master to embrace him in death? “Make mercy in all of us, out of us all / Mastery, but be adored, but be adored King.” On the strength of the novel’s predominant telling, we are permitted so to hope. That this was the predominant telling, I say, is all the more clear to me by the jarring effect of the unexpected hypothetical.

If I am anywhere near the ballpark on this kind of reading, then I am amazed again at the burden the author accepted in writing this tale. All novels dwell in the world of the secondary cause; their vigor draws life in this ocean. A novelist that sees with a Catholic eye has a further, particularly difficult task, though — that of trying to render the visible world of form and motion in such a way as to help us see the unseen real through it, to help us contemplate the possibilities of grace and a significance beyond sense.

The task of Exiles, it seems to me, is more daunting still, for the author puts the timely action to work in such a way as to bid us pass over it, through it, and well beyond it; to bid us imagine, with sparse but real help from him, how eternity is not so much something we fall into, but is something that is rushing toward us even now. Sister Barbara may have slipped, finally, into the water, but I think Hansen wants us to see that the Master came for her on the waves, picked her up by the arm, and brought her, like Peter, to walk on the water. Hopkins slipped into death in his exile, but the happiness of which he truly spoke came toward him from the other side. I could not see the advent in the scene, but I think I saw it through the scene.

Forgive me, I have written too much, and have not held at bay the seminary professor in me. Finally, did I mention I enjoyed reading Exiles? I really did. And as Flannery O’Connor would say, that is a very important thing.

The Most Rev. Daniel E. Flores S.T.D. has been an auxiliary bishop of Detroit since 2006.

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Matthew Lickona writes:

Yes, that’s a very interesting paragraph on page 195. “Imagine it otherwise” — precisely what, as Amy notes, the sisters do not do. They have already offered up their lives in sacrifice; this is merely the last full measure. They died in a boat, far from their daily duties — indeed, in the midst of what was for them unusual opulence and worldly comfort — but they died carrying out their vows and their work on behalf of God. They had already given their lives to Christ, and they do not flinch from that when death comes calling — not even in their imaginations. (And great catch, Bishop, on the six candles for Mass. “Pray brethren, that our sacrifice may be acceptable to the heavenly Father . . . .”)

Hopkins, though, Hopkins is different. From the outset, he struggles with ambition — the desire to be what he is not yet, what he might be — a dangerous hypothetical if ever there was one. He quotes Shakespeare to a fellow Jesuit, but of course, the line is really aimed at himself: “As he was valiant, I honour him; but, as he was ambitious, I slew him.” Just a page later, he is noticing a cloud of starlings making “an unspeakable jangle,” moving in unison, their “singularities forgotten . . . like his classmates waiting lunch.”

What he does with words is precisely the opposite of an unspeakable jangle, and it is in precisely this that he is singular. It’s telling that he does not include himself in the lunch-waiting crowd, no? It’s why he gave up writing poetry in the first place, to “relinquish ‘disordered attachments’ that would impede his freedom and availability for a variety of ministries as well as tempt him to the sin of pride. . . . And yet . . . there was always an interior and hard-to-quell ‘and yet.'” Here, as perhaps nowhere else, Hansen makes bold to depict Hopkins’s interior life.

Cardinal Newman provides Hopkins with the model of acceptance: “Without a sigh, Newman said, ‘Oh well . . . it may be that I’m out of joint with the times. Perhaps it’s God’s will that my writing and intentions only be accepted a hundred years later — disappointing as it is to be snubbed and stopped in so much that I attempt.” But the model isn’t always enough: “He became the prey of fantasies of a London life without restrictions . . . where one . . . chose which of the world’s library of books to read and how the hurly-burly of the night would be spent.” And it is in response to this that he flees to the tabernacle, and this is the moment where Hansen chooses to name God’s action, the one I mentioned at the outset: “And then Hopkins said yes to whatever Christ would next ask of him, and grace as soft as a dove’s wing floated over him . . . .”

Even so, the demon haunts him. He stops thinking about his rejection from The Month, but only “at some cost to his vanity and notions of excellence in the arts.” He has to remind himself that he should not prefer “honor to dishonor,” but choose “what is more conducive to the end for which we are created . . . to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord.” When Hopkins is visiting Robert Bridges, he thinks, “Christ tempted in the desert . . . this could all be yours.”

And then, after all that, we are asked to imagine it otherwise, to do what Hopkins struggled so mightily against doing. “Imagine it otherwise . . .” But look what Hansen does here: He paints a world in which Hopkins flourishes within the Jesuit order, gets his poems published in The Month and dies the same year that Bridges, “the Poet Laureate of England, is featured on the cover of America’s Time magazine.” “This could all be yours,” promises Satan — but not really. Sure, you get your poems in print during your lifetime, but Bridges’s star outshines yours as the sun outshines the moon. Your ambition, that ravening wolf, would not be satiated by such an outcome, not nearly.

Instead, look what really happens. Hopkins dies a failure, unpublished, and Bridges lives to enjoy outrageous worldly success. And today, Hopkins is immortal — that is, enduring — while Bridges is dead — that is, all but forgotten. Hopkins, who resolved to sacrifice his worldly ambition, sees it fulfilled a hundredfold. “He who loses his life for my sake will gain eternal life.” How’s that for a Catholic narrative? And if we read Newman’s line as being, in actuality, about Hopkins, then we get God’s own narrative — the will of God played out through worldly events.

 

Whatever else might be true of Catholic fiction — or at least, of fiction that involves Catholic characters — I like that it deals with our particular monsters. That is, the beasts that roam the Catholic countryside, and that can best be understood by those living within that country’s borders. (Which is not to say that the outsider will not have valuable insights as he or she peers over the fence –I think of Mark Salzman’s Lying Awake.) For instance, the notion that the desire for literary excellence might somehow be problematic — a disordered attachment that feeds the sin of pride. Or the idea that we are forever surrounded with the grace of a loving God who cares infinitely for our particular person, even as we freeze to death alongside a dying child. Or the notion that we are in exile while we live on earth.

Fiction can’t hope to defeat those monsters, of course, because the monsters are mysterious. If they come across as anything less, I think we should be wary. The death scene in Brideshead Revisited comes to mind: Is there anyone else out there who gets nervous at what looks like the naked action of grace depicted in fiction? (I say this as someone who loves the book.) I liked very much Amy’s image of readers “partly confirmed in their own convictions, but . . . still a little shaken,” and also the bishop’s line about fiction helping us “to contemplate the possibilities of grace and a significance beyond sense . . . trying to render the visible world of form and motion in such a way as to help us see the unseen real through it.” I think Hansen manages that here.

Now to close with an entirely less serious question: What’s up with the punning? Joseph, you mention that we ought to pay attention when the author does something unusual with the language, and I agree. So what are we to make of the puns? I mean, it starts on page one: “‘Eats like a parakeet,’ Cyprian Splaine had said just last night, and Rickaby joked, ‘Eats like a single keet.'” On page six, a man falls in the river while hauling in a fish. “Hopkins shouted, ‘Has it dampened your enthusiasm, Bill?'” On page nine: “He wryly misquoted Tertullian’s praise for Christian love. ‘Look,’ Hopkins said, ‘how they shove one another.'” Nine pages, three puns — and two of them from a master of wordplay. What gives? Speak, you wise!

Matthew Lickona is a staff writer for the San Diego Reader, a weekly newspaper. He is also the author of the 2005 memoir Swimming with Scapulars: True Confessions of a Young Catholic. He lives in La Mesa, California, with his wife and children.

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Joseph O’Brien writes:

Yes, Matthew, the puns are interesting indeed. Exiles could have just as well been called “Once U-pun a Rhyme . . .”

But allow me to delay addressing the puns for a bit, and take stock of where we are. At the risk of simplifying both Amy’s and Bishop Flores’s points, which is not my intention, it sounds like we’ve moved on to motives and intentions — of the characters, the author(s), and the narrator of Exiles. Let me try to throw my two cents in, and in the process address or at least underscore what’s already been said.

While by no means simple itself, the motive of the sisters — with slight variety in the degree of comprehension (e.g., Sister Aurea vs. Sister Barbara) — seems straightforward enough. Amy deftly points out that there was no sense of second-guessing on the part of the nuns — which isn’t to say that their deaths were thereby any less horrible. If anything, the struggle to maintain a hold on their faith was all the more difficult — at least for the reader, atheist or believing, to comprehend. But the absence of hesitation on the sisters’ part reveals how well they possess the habit of obedience to God’s will obtained through their religious formation.

That leaves us with Father Hopkins:

But the scruples to which he was prey caused Hopkins to consider the worldly pursuit of poetry writing in conflict with his vocation to the priesthood. Just before entering the Society of Jesus in 1868, Hopkins resolved to pen no more verse unless his religious superiors requested it, and in a theatrical act of renunciation he incinerated some copies of his Oxford poems in a secret ceremony that he inconspicuously noted in his journal simply as “the slaughter of the innocents.” And that act of renunciation was confirmed for him when, as a novice Jesuit, he was urged to relinquish “disordered attachments” that would impede his freedom and availability for a variety of ministries as well as tempt him to the sin of pride . . . .
And yet . . . there was always an interior and hard-to-quell ‘and yet.’

I find this passage the most telling when it comes to Hopkins’s motives and ambitions — here we do have some second guessing. His own death, of course, is another matter, and clearly he embraces his eternal destiny at the end of the book. Although, as Bishop Flores notes, even there, some second-guessing on the part of the narrator (are we to assume Hopkins’s as well?) at least implies that Hopkins’s own life was not as self-possessed as that of the sisters.

Much can be made, of course, of the ambiguity with which Hopkins was “requested” to write “The Wreck”:

Hopkins held open the newspaper so [Rector] Jones could see the multiple articles on the Deutschland shipwreck. Hopkins told him, “The nuns have been laid out for viewing in the Convent of Jesus and Mary near Stratford. I would guess they’ll be interred in St. Patrick’s cemetery, just a mile from where I was born.”
When the rector’s interest seems to wane, Hopkins reads the account to him.
Jones sighed, Requiescant in pace,” but then glanced over at his underling. Hopkins was so greatly affected by the account that he was close to tears.
Jones kindly considered him and said, “Perhaps someone should write a poem on the subject.” And then the Rector gently patted Hopkins’s forearm and got up to heartily greet some theologians who’d just entered.

The ambiguity is so thick you can cut it with a parenthesis — that is, my first read of this passage had me chuckling at the craftiness of Hopkins. The novice Jesuit is learning to be, as the old Protestant term goes, Jesuitical: “I’m not actually asking the rector to be released from my vow of literary poverty, but if I just place enough reminders in front of him, perhaps he’ll get the idea in his head to request a poem from me, and I’ll be free and clear . . .”

Reading the section through a second time, though, left me with more unease than anything. For, as the rector only counters with more ambiguity, Hansen leaves it to the reader to decide who’s got the letter and who the spirit on his side — Hopkins or Jones? Indeed, to redouble the ambiguity, the most striking element of the passage is its conclusion:

Hopkins touched a handkerchief to each eye and left The Times for others on a gleaming library table as he walked out. Although he’d at first intended to visit the main chapel for his nightly prayers in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, his thoughts were racing, and in the rapture of inspiration he hurried up the stairs to his room in “The Mansions.” And though his “hand was out at first,” as he later admitted, Hopkins managed by midnight to pen eight lines . . . .

Blessed Sacrament vs. poetry. I guess we see who won out — at least for the moment. And so begins the composition that would allow him to take his place as one of Clio’s literary darlings.

 

I think this is about as close as Hansen comes to something ignoble about, as Bishop Flores says, Hopkins’s “noble” character. It is bound up in layers of ambiguity, and for that reason cloaked well enough to leave all to the reader’s discretion — and for all that, a true marvel of Hansen’s pen (which itself seems to be dancing around the line between letter and spirit, although perhaps in a different way!).

This passage tells us more, for sure, than the historical facts of the case — but it also leaves more questions than answers. Especially if you couple this exquisitely drawn passage with the lingering “And yet” in the previous passage and the rueful “What if” at the end of the book. Can a case be made that Hopkins does not find obedience to God’s will as easily as the sisters? Can a case be made that Hopkins is not in fact preferring Parnassus to Mount Zion?

If this is the case, then we are dealing, after all, with a moment of fictional interest, and if that’s the case, then Hansen has given us something more than the facts. Indeed, the above passages only further confound things when, toward the story’s conclusion, the reader arrives at his deathbed confession:

Reverend Tom Finlay heard his confession, and included in it was Hopkins’s confession not just of sins such as petulance, laziness, and rash judgment but of shutting off the grace of inspiration by not paying enough attention to his poetic gifts (emphasis added).
The confessor stared with confusion. “I didn’t know you wrote poetry.”
“I don’t,” Hopkins said, “but I did once.” And then he looked away.

Did he not pursue his talents enough? Or in the wrong way? Or was it just that he was confusing what he wrote with not being recognized by critics (thank you, Mr. Bridges!) for what he wrote? In this case Clio is silent once again, and Calliope (epic muse) seems to be speaking out of both sides of her mouth.

 

But on another level, there’s something about Exiles that makes one sit up and take notice. Again, I think a good deal of this has been drawn out of the book in our discussion, but I’d like to reiterate: Hansen seems to be playing a game with history, as if he’s daring history to betray something with his fictional nudges.

Let me put it this way, and in the process try to answer Matthew’s query regarding punning: Hansen portrays his poet in the act of composing. How does one do that successfully in such a way that is both believable and meaningful to the story as a whole? I want to quote Auden one more time, this time in an essay he’s written on Isben, “Genius & Apostle”:

Actors . . . can toy with cucumber sandwiches, but they cannot eat a hearty meal because a hearty meal cannot be imagined taking less than three quarters of an hour to consume. Dramatists have been known to expect an actor to write a letter on stage, but it always looks ridiculous; on stage a letter can be read aloud but cannot be written in silence.

While Auden’s essay is speaking specifically to stagecraft, it strikes me that, in part, what he has to say can be equally applied to fiction. A novelist who spends his time narrating every action of a hearty meal (unless of course that action is pertinent to the plot) will usually lose his readers somewhere in the middle of the second course. Furthermore, what Auden says about Isben’s “artist-genius” can apply equally to the artist-as-hero in fiction:

It was inevitable that, sooner or later, a dramatist would ask himself if the artist genius could be substituted for the traditional man of action as a dramatic hero. A sensible dramatist, however, would immediately realize that a direct treatment would be bound to fail.

This “direct treatment” is exactly what Hansen manages to avoid — but for all that, Exiles still comes off sounding less like fiction, more like history. Why? Auden lists three technical pratfalls that the playwright should avoid (and I would insist these also hold, more or less, for the novelist). Some of these Hansen avoids, some he doesn’t.

First, Auden points out, the artist is not a doer like Achilles or Othello; he’s a maker, and as such, adapting what Auden says about the challenges to the playwright, what the artist makes cannot easily be rendered part of the narrative framework. Second, Auden points out, the audience needs to be convinced through the actions of the character that he is a genuine artistic genius. Again, I think Hansen does a fairly good job of at least showing where Hopkins’s genius is authentic.

It is interesting to note that, as an illustration, Auden chooses a playwright who has a poet as his artistic genius:

If he is a poet, for example, the poetry of his that the audience hears must be of the first order. But even if the dramatist is himself a great poet, the only kind of poetry he can write is his own; he cannot make up a special kind of poetry for his hero, unlike his own yet equally great.

Again, Hansen avoids this hazard by writing about a character who is also fictitious, and comes with his lines already written. Hansen’s job is merely to fill in the spaces between the lines, as it were; show us how these lines pertain essentially to the subject at hand, namely, the German religious exiles bound for America. Bishop Flores noted that there seems to be a correspondence between the sprung rhythm in Hopkins’s lines and Hansen’s handsomely galloping prose. I agree it’s probably there — and maybe I’m also suffering at the soft verges of literary expectations here — but Hansen needs to show more of the necessity involved in writing these lines. Why these and no others? What makes it difficult to fathom, admittedly, is the notoriously dense character of Hopkins’s gifts.

 

But we’ve already seen in the passage quoted that Hansen has a preternatural fascination with nature — the ice-skating party comes to mind, as do the landscapes Hansen shows us Hopkins looking at. The operative word, I think, is shows. Hansen shows us the landscapes in his novel — perhaps the most prevalent “showings” in the novel — to show Hopkins’s talent in its inchoate form. The puns are yet another way of getting at these first bursts of inspiration. It’s almost as if Hansen is showing us: Look, the man can’t help himself — if he tries to dam up the poems one way, they’ll come spilling out in another.

Hopkins’s second attempt at composition is equally telling. Compared to his first passionate swipe at the poem, Hansen portrays Hopkins’s more tranquil recollection of emotion after kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament (reversing his earlier, more rash attempt at composition):

Without giving up on the stanzas he’d completed, Hopkins went up to his room in The Mansions one night and began his poem again, writing ten introductory stanzas of autobiography and homage to the Trinity: God who is “lightening and love” and “Father and fondler of heart thou has wrung.” With a pun on “mastering” as owing and controlling skills or talents but also captaining a ship, Hopkins initiated “Part the First” of “The Wreck of the Deutschland” with these stanzas . . . .

Nature, the puns, the first burst of inspiration, and now, weighing anchor, Hopkins himself is poised to set sail on the seas of composition. But without those earlier signals to the reader through Hopkins’s own perception, we would never have the sense that the stuff was floating around and only needed the tranquility of grace to draw them together like bootlaces.

It seems Hopkins received the green light from his superiors — well, from his ultimate Superior — after all.

I’ve gone on far too long, so will end with a question: Does Hansen meet with equal success in Exiles itself? In other words, does he, like Hopkins, in fact pull the strings together successfully? Given contrasts between the sisters and the priest-poet and the tension of nature and grace, of literary fame and eternal salvation, of obedience and inclination, does Hansen present us with a work of Catholic fiction? Beneath all the explicit Catholicity of the work, is there an implicit Catholicity in the approach to and execution of the themes?

Joseph O’Brien is a freelance writer living on a rural homestead near Soldier’s Grove, WI. His poetry has appeared in the literary journal Dappled Things, and he is host of Catholic Radio International’s Cover to Cover program.

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Amy Welborn writes:

It’s very gratifying to look back over the past week of discussions, isn’t it? Exiles certainly provoked a great deal of thought and conversation — what a good book should do.

I was struck in this last round by how we seem to be settling down with such strongly Catholic themes — most profoundly the paradox of the self and, as Bishop Flores so powerfully described, the sacramentality of this life on earth and of the creative act. I think the bishop’s exploration of the saloon scene, lit by the six candles, will stick with me for a long time. I also think that his words about writing — “The success or failure of a work of Catholic fiction depends on how well, how fluidly and effortlessly, the combination of event and word conspire to lead the reader to ponder the meaning of the intended sign” — stand as perfect companions to two of my most trusted writing guides: Flannery O’Connor, who advised the writer to leave the preaching to the preachers and stick to describing what he or she sees, and Dorothy Sayers, who, in her essay “The Image of God,” described human creativity in light of God’s creative nature.

Matthew and Joseph have both teased out that first element: the paradox at the heart of the Christian life, the paradox that is about losing one’s life in order to gain it, the Pauline assertion that it is no longer I but Christ who lives in me.

In Hansen’s tale, Hopkins certainly grapples more with this than the sisters do, but the struggle is not absent from their lives, either. Each of them answers what they see as a call to leave behind various certainties, confident assertions about who they were and what would bring them happiness and answer a call that would demand abandonment of so much.

But it remains a struggle for all of them to live with some sort of balance, to discover what it means to abandon the self in answer to Christ’s call, which we trust is in our best interest and will bring us greater joy than we could find, left to our own devices.

When I look at how this issue emerges in the lives of Hopkins and the sisters, it seems that the struggles of every Christian are reflected there. They may be religious — and further, 19th-century religious, where formation was marked by a suspicion of individuality and an emphasis on obedience — but we contemporary laity are no more exempt from this paradox if we are trying to follow Christ seriously and totally, in obedience, willing to leave all behind.

But neither are we dull, homogenous automatons. God created each of us with various gifts and capabilities . . . but how to use them? I am called to give my best to the Lord, but how can I keep pride at bay? How can I discern when this stops being about God and starts being about me? I may be tempted to pity these religious for that old-fashioned oppressive obedience culture in which they lived, but should I? Do my strivings actually put me under obedience to forces even more oppressive than Mother Superiors and Father Generals?

Most importantly, in sorting all of this out, how can I avoid falling into the trap of cheerily and vapidly celebrating my “gifts and talents” as the goal of my spiritual life? And inscribing it all on felt banners? (Or on my blog?)

 

Which brings up a talking point about the predominance of religious members in so much of “Catholic” fiction. From Greene’s whiskey priest to Bernanos’s country priest to Rumer Godden’s nuns — they are everywhere, in every genre, even in science fiction (A Canticle for Liebowitz) and mysteries (Father Brown, Brother Cadfael, and many more). Why are they such compelling — almost, it seems, necessary — figures?

It is not, as some might think, simply because religious men and women are so much more intrinsically interesting than the laity or because they hold positions of “honor” or tend to wear interesting clothes or because their sins are so much worse than anyone else’s. It is because their lives embody a radical and stark commitment to the gospel — a gospel that we are all called to follow, but that, in the vows and promises of a religious, is dramatically magnified. They promise to be dependent on God, obedient to him, body and soul.

But you know what? So are we.

So in great writing, when a priest “falls,” the reader does not gawk. When, in the compelling and beautiful prose of Exiles,suffering priests and religious women suffer and confront death, the reader does not sigh at a pious distance.

Amy Welborn is a prolific and popular Catholic author and speaker who blogs at amywelborn.wordpress.com.

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Ron Hansen writes:

I confess to some uneasiness about inserting myself into the discussion of Exiles. Earlier I wrote Matthew Lickona that reading the comments was a little like blundering into a room at a party and finding that you were the subject of the conversation; you simultaneously want to flee in embarrassment yet wish you were invisible so you could hear what they were saying. I have achieved a full measure of invisibility with this online discussion, and must say I feel honored and humbled to have my novel given such close and astute attention by a panel of smart readers. It’s the kind of scrutiny Hopkins himself would have welcomed but never seems to have received.

There were moments, of course, when my face was screwed as tight as a wrung-out washrag as I encountered judgments that I felt were frustratingly wrong, but that happens to me at faculty meetings, football games, and with the frequency of commercials when watching television. But for the most part I felt complimented by the panel’s comments and was lavishly pleased when they caught onto some element — such as the bishop noticing that the six candles burning in the ship’s saloon hinted at High Mass — that I planted there just to amuse myself.

The greater reading audience I imagined for this book was not necessarily religious, let alone Catholic. They would have heard something but not much about Hopkins and may have read a poem or two and found him difficult. If they ever tried to read “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” they were likely put off by it. In spite of Hopkins’s dedication of the poem “to the happy memory of five Franciscan nuns,” those readers would have known nothing about the sisters and may have even suspected the sea-going tragedy was largely made up.

Tackling the subject, various boundaries and limits were ethically imposed. I would never be at variance with the history, insofar as I could determine it. I sought to give life and personality to Gerard M. Hopkins, S.J., while avoiding the harmful and presumptuous conclusion that I had figured him out, which is something I cannot claim for either my family or friends. My aims were to entertain by means of suspense, and to educate and edify simply by honestly representing admirable lives. And for those familiar with Hopkins, I scattered lines from his poetry, letters, and journals throughout the book as a sort of treasure hunt, while hoping that my own prose would provide the gingerbread base for his candies. I say all this not defensively, but in a try at illuminating my motives. But no one is ever completely expert on their fascinations or impulses, or in this case why a particular topic arrested me and seemed to need to be written.

I’m very grateful to InsideCatholic for this forum, and to all who have complimented me in an extraordinary way just by reading Exiles.

Ron Hansen’s novels include Desperadoes, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Mariette in Ecstasy, and Atticus, a finalist for the National Book Award. He teaches at Santa Clara University in northern California.

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Matthew Lickona has been a staff writer for the San Diego Reader, a weekly newspaper, since 1995. From 1999-2008, he wrote Crush, an interview-driven column about wine and the wine industry. Since 2006, he has written Sheep & Goats, a review of worship services around San Diego County. He also writes regular cover stories for the paper. In 2005, Loyola Press published his memoir Swimming with Scapulars: True Confessions of a Young Catholic. The book chronicled his efforts to engage the Catholic faith of his youth, and to make it more fully his own. His work has appeared in Here Comes Everybody: Catholic Studies in American Higher Education, Faith at the Edge: A New Generation of Catholic Writers Reflects on Life, Love, Sex, and Other Mysteries, and the forthcoming Young and Catholic in America: Sex, Sacraments, and Social Justice. One of his favorite pieces ran in the quarterly magazine Doublethink: a pop-culture reverse gloss on Pope Benedict XVI

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