A writer needs mythology. A writer cares about this world first, but he cares about representing it by means of signs and symbols which reveal this world to be both itself and more than itself: a fantasy or, better yet, a theophany. Some New World writers have not let the clear light of history stop them from building a new mythology. Though most people would not call it that, I would say that Thoreau was embarked on this task, teaching himself, especially in his posthumous books, to create the primary material for a later American mythos
Today, in honor of the new Nobel laureate, I’d like to look at the first of Jon Fosse’s works of fiction that I read, back in 2016, Aliss at the Fire. The most salient features of Fosse’s writing are present in this short novel from 2004. When I read Aliss at the Fire, Fosse’s monumental, mystical, prayerful Septology had not yet been published, but I knew Fosse had converted to Catholicism. I wanted to see if I could catch a glimpse of what led to that conversion by reading the earlier work.
I’m going to have to bow out for a little while. In the middle of life’s way I have suddenly returned to school to study environmental science and law. Whether this is wandering in a dark woods—and if it is, whether I will emerge on the right side of the woods—time will tell. I don’t think of this wandering as a complete career shift, as I still have literary work to publish.
When Karen Armstrong writes “Nature does not figure prominently in Judaism and Christianity,” in a chapter which looks mainly at Islam (she goes on to imply this is not the case in Islam and that in that religion, unlike in the other two, nature is a revelation on par with the Qur’an—which is of course also what Jews and Christians believe about the Bible and nature)—when she makes such a sweeping statement, I balk.
I am always troubled by two things which are really one thing. One thing, or one part of this big thing, is religion: Why does it seem so broken now, so impossible? And the other part is the ecological crisis: How can my work as a writer, teacher, or father answer to these uncanny times?
The Ukrainian-Russian writer Eugene Vodolazkin, an Orthodox Christian and professional medievalist, is preoccupied by history. A History of the Island is Vodolazkin’s latest novel to be translated into English and the most overtly concerned with the idea of history. I’m not sure I would describe any of Vodolazkin’s work as historical fiction. I would call it revisionary, allegorical, and neomedieval.
In her new books The Scandal of Holiness and Reading for the Love of God, Jessica Hooten Wilson writes as a lifelong Christian to other Christians. She would like more people who profess the faith to immerse themselves in reading works of imaginative literature. This duology is part of new widespread interest in Great Books curricula.
One of the reasons I’m drawn to fantasy is that I believe it offers the deepest sense of place that art can express. The criterion of fantasy is geographical. Fantasy is that form of storytelling which engages with the world that in the West for almost the past thousand years has been called Faerie (variously spelled). Faerie both is and is not this Earth.
Jane Clark Scharl’s one-act play Sonnez les Matines has just been published by Wiseblood Books. It is with some trepidation that I venture to say anything about drama. I don’t know that I’ve ever studied drama properly. What I mean is that I’ve always studied it as literature. Judging by the paucity of drama I’ve engaged with in the eleven years of post-secondary literary education I’ve received, there would seem to be something like a consensus that drama isn’t exactly literature.
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.
The earth is dying in a way that it was not (or we did not know it fully) when I was a boy, a way that is different from what is meant when we acknowledge that this world is always, as the Bible puts it, “passing away.” And this fact changes everything. Yet the earth is beautiful and will remain so. How can I show my children this goodness despite what threatens it?
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.