Friday, May 25, 2007

More Powers to Ya!

John Derbyshire also wrote a thoughtful essay about Powers's work in 1999. (The archived link doesn't load, so I'm sending you to a cache. Be patient, it takes a while to load.) It's very different from Bottum's because Derbyshire is English and not a Catholic, but he still appreciated Powers. This passage complicates Bottum's reasoning about Powers being too clerical for the modern reader:

Peter De Vries thought that Powers was not really a religious writer at all. I don’t agree, but I see what he means. There are no angels in Powers, no miracles, no sudden shafts of light breaking through overcast skies. The supernatural, in fact, is entirely absent. The world of Powers's books is the world we all inhabit: the world of bills and assessments, of irksome duties, comforting habits and tiny pleasures, of tiresome colleagues we have no choice but to get along with, of dead-wood subordinates who must be found something to do and cloth-eared superiors making all the wrong decisions. The work of these priests resembles very closely, in fact, the work most middle-class Americans do in corporate offices or public bureaucracies.

Sounds about right to me.

The novel for which Powers won the National Book Award, Morte D'Urban, is very funny, unlike "Lions, Harts, Leaping Does," but in its final chapters it too becomes a moving treatment of mortality, perhaps a more moving one because it comes so suddenly. Father Urban is another great character because he's very likeable, but his single-minded desire to raise funds is troubling, and unlike Didymus he doesn't seem to have much of a spiritual side. The novel suggets that Powers was really troubled by the place of money in the Church and priestly life, a problem to which he returns in his final novel, Wheat The Springeth Green. (Note to self: start a literate Catholic rock band, the Smiths meet Jars of Clay meet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Name it Wheat That Springeth Graham Greene. Speaking of Christian rock, here's a link in case the allusion in this post's title is too obscure, which I really hope it is.)

Some other bits from Derbyshire's essay that make me appreciate Powers even more:

If he is ever canonized, Powers could serve as the patron saint of slow writers. Katherine [his daughter] said, “He had powers of procrastination that went far beyond the merely amateur.”...Powers took infinite pains with his work. He deplored writing that was careless or inflated, or even just verbose. He did not like the great English novelists of the last century because he thought they used too many words to say what they wanted to say. God, said Powers, has demanding standards. “We couldn’t have art unless there were some higher authority that says, ‘Yes, that’s right’. God gave us that mentality, that kind of judgment. I don’t think God likes crap in art.”

I can't help but think of Chris Ofili when I read that last line.

1 comment:

Meg Q said...

Powers rocks. Morte d'Urban is one of my fave books - others are great, too. I made a priest laugh once at a dinner party - he was complaining about some "modern" problems in his parish and I said, "I guess clerical life isn't always a J. F. Powers novel." Cracked him up.

Petra - yikes. I had a super-crush for several years in the early-mid-80's on an evangelical boy who was so into Petra. Steve Taylor was more my speed.