Preparatory to discussing Cormac McCarthy’s new fiction, a duology comprising The Passenger and Stella Maris, with Greg Wolfe via Zoom on January 25th, I’d like to offer a few ways into the books. The surname of the main characters, siblings Alicia and Bobby, is Western. Novelists do not name characters carelessly. Bobby and Alicia are the children, born in the late 1940s and early 1950s respectively, of a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project which built the first atomic bombs.
Gawain and the Green Knight begins in Christmastime, the turning of the year, historically a time of revelry and mischief. I like to read Gawain in this season, but this year I decided to watch the film The Green Knight, which came out in the summer of 2021, after observing on social media that it is apparently divisive, people either love it or hate it.
Henry David Thoreau was a profoundly religious man. He is called a Transcendentalist, and the term is taken to mean a kind of hippie or New Age guru, perhaps something like the founders of the Deep Ecology movement. That’s nonsense. Thoreau was a Yankee, the near descendent of (the grossly misunderstood) Puritans, and he comported himself as such in his life and thought.
I have been a reader of Hölderlin for many years. I took down his collected poems and read his hymns to the Virgin Mary and Patmos, his elegy “Bread and Wine” and his river poems (on the Main, the Neckar, the Rhine, the Ister).… They are fraught, paradoxical poems that display majestic architecture, and they brought me some peace.
I heard of shy Caedmon, sneaking out of the feast before the harp was passed to him, for he could not sing, and he fell asleep in the barn by the animals he was charged to keep and dreamed of an angel who told him to sing, so sing he did, of the creation first and then of every other holy tale until no great thing God had done had failed to find its way into English.
Music was easily the most enjoyable aspect of writing my novel Absolute Music. I mean the sheer amount of contemplative time spent listening to the great range of music mentioned in the novel, all of which I’ve assembled in a Spotify playlist. Not included in that playlist is nearly an album’s worth of Bob Dylan songs which are only alluded to in the text, not mentioned outright.
A couple of months ago I re-read some of the work of an anonymous fourteenth-century figure known as the Pearl Poet or the Gawain Poet. There is little poetry in the English language that affects me so profoundly as that of the Pearl Poet. His two chief works after which he is called, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl, form the bedrock of my understanding not just of fantasy literature, but of fiction generally.
By exploring the consciousness of a narrator—which, as I say, is depicted as a landscape and its human families, a consciousness which he calls the invisible world or the mind, not limited to the individual perspective of an octogenarian Australian—novelist Gerald Murnane discovers that reality is much larger than the one described by the disenchanted materialism of contemporary culture.
I’ve just finished After London; or, Wild England by Richard Jefferies, published in 1885. The story follows the protagonist, almost the only significant human character, Felix Aquila. The jacket copy declares that this book “pioneered the post-apocalyptic genre of science-fiction,” and cites a critic calling it the most beautiful Victorian novel. The story is indeed post-apocalyptic. But the correct term for this fiction is romance.
Recently my wife and I packed the kids up and drove to the coast by Savannah, Georgia, to attend the wedding of my wife’s lifelong friend. The house where we stayed was a five-minute walk from the beach. There, I thought of the greatest lyric poet of the sea to write in English, and specifically about one of his poems.
I don’t think I memorized those opening lines of Edwin Muir’s “The Annunciation” chiefly because of their prosody. What would have caught my attention is the emphasis on the earth and embodiment. I am if anything more committed now to these themes than I was as a young graduate student who was increasingly mortified by what seemed the disembodied and even (as I would now say) the anti-incarnational mental acrobatics of contemporary intellectual culture.
I picked a hell of a time to try to write about a Russian author. As I type this, the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine has been going on for a few days. I was going to write about a man named Vladimir Soloukhin, in particular about his fascinating book Searching for Icons in Russia. But I don’t have the heart to write what I had been planning to write.
Lewis the Apologist has never interested me.… Lewis the Storyteller is another matter. His Space Trilogy is excellent and haunting. I would sooner re-read Perelandra than its model, Paradise Lost. The final book of the trilogy, That Hideous Strength, only seems more prescient as we slouch further toward a posthuman future. It is also one of the most unique and ambitious modern contributions to the Arthurian tradition.
I think one of my favorite publications of 2021 was Isabel Fargo Cole’s translation of nineteenth-century Austrian author Adalbert Stifter’s collection of short fiction, Motley Stones. These stories fit into a collection of books I’ve been assembling for over fifteen years, writing I call hypethral.… Hypethral writing finds the natural world iconic or sacramental.
I have only lately been more conscious of reading compilations. Since the beginning of my formal, post-secondary study of literature, I have relied on the compilation. Education in any culture has always done this, because the compilation (or the anthology or florilegium—these two mean the same, a collection or bouquet of flowers) is the natural genre of tradition.
In recent years Dante’s Comedy has been important to my thinking about high fantasy. That phrase, as far as I’m aware, appears for the first time in Western literature in the middle of the Purgatorio and at the very end of the Paradiso. L’alta fantasia. It was a turning point in the history of the idea of fantasy, because now fantasy could be high—that is, heaven-sent, theophany.
Agnon’s Days of Awe is not fiction, though it is a pastiche of different kinds of narrative in the manner of the Talmud. What is it, then? Despite having read Agnon’s Days of Awe around Rosh Hashanah every year for the past five years, it’s hard for me to say. It’s like a machzor, the prayerbook for the High Holy Days, if a prayer book were an anthology of…fiction.
I’ve begun re-reading the work of David Jones, the Anglo-Welsh poet and artist and champion of the sacred and the crafted (what he called the extra-utile). Jones was a proponent of sacramental poetics, among the few really able to behold art as efficacious sign—the symbol that is also what it symbolizes, or a window upon that other world that art allows to show forth.
I’ve been thinking about joy in writing. I believe I know by now what it feels like for the writer to be working joyfully. Can you detect it in someone else’s writing? I think so, and I think I know the first time I saw it on the page, and knew that that was what I saw.
Maybe one of the most Catholic things about Kirstin Valdez Quade’s novel The Five Wounds is the overall feeling you may have watching these characters stumbling through their lives that obtaining happiness is not the point of those lives. Loving is the point. And loving means self-sacrifice. One thing that is incredibly hard to sacrifice is the idol.