Friday, May 25, 2007

Some Thoughts on J.F. Powers

Most discussions of great Catholic fiction writers of the 20th century revolve around Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, yadda yadda yadda. They really should also include J.F. Powers. In the 50s and 60s especially, he was the man, winning the National Book Award in 1962. (The winner the previous year was The Moviegoer by Percy the Papist.) Though he’s still celebrated by fiction writers (and not just Catholic ones), few others read him. Joseph Bottum (who praised him at last year’s Mahwah workshop) offers this reason for J.F. Powers’s lack of staying power:

His specialty was scenes of clerical life, especially at mid-century, especially in the bleak, wind-swept parish houses of the Midwest. And the major reason for the fading of J.F. Powers is the decline of his topic once the reforms of Vatican II took hold—or rather, once what was perceived in America to be the “spirit” of Vatican II had destroyed the setting of his fiction. Powers had a uniquely talented eye for the little negotiations, compromises, and squabbles of bachelors living together—but such things cannot in themselves carry a story. What gave his fiction its force was the contrast between those little foibles of priestly life and the constantly looming reality of what a priest actually does in the sacraments.

That seems as good an explanation as any. In the piece (and at last year’s workshop) Bottum praised the story “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does.” He’s right to say that it “can stand beside anything by Flannery O’Connor,” and that it is a very “moving interior description of dying.” It’s about a lot of other things, including the concern of the main character (a Benedictine named Didymus) that he does not sacrifice enough, and the consequences of his attempts to compensate. And like many of O’Connor’s best characters (very few of whom are explicitly Catholic), Didymus struggles with pride. There’s a great moment when he wonders whether he’s right to have chosen to teach geometry when other vocations were more obviously humble.

Was Didymus wrong in teaching geometry out of personal preference and perhaps—if this was so he was—out of pride? Had the spiritual worth of his labor been vitiated because of that? He did not think so, no. No, he taught geometry because it was useful and eternally true, like his theology, and though of a lower order of truth it escaped the common fate of theology and the humanities, perverted through the ages in the mouths of dunderheads and fools.

He also worries that the three vows of the Franciscan order just aren’t difficult enough: poverty in the modern world “was no heavy cross,” and chastity and obedience were no longer difficult for him in his old age. So when he received a letter informing him that his brother (also a monk) was dying, Didymus to resist his desire to visit him. “Therein, he thought, the keeping of the vows having become an easy habit for him, was his opportunity—he thought! It was plain and there was sacrifice and it would be hard. So he had not gone.” Of course he regrets his decision. When he learns that his brother has died, he goes to the chapel to pray…and falls asleep. (The scene is explicitly compared to the apostles falling asleep in the Gethsemane, but without being heavy handed.)

After this, the story becomes more about Didymus’s own mortality. As a result of what his doctor diagnoses as just “one of those things,” he is confined to a wheelchair, and concludes that the confinement was God punishing him for having “gloried too much” in not visiting his brother: “The intention—that was all important, and he, he feared, had done the right thing for the wrong reason. He had noticed something of the faker in himself before.” He also ruminates on how to deal with his sickness: “Humbly he wished to get well and to be able to walk. But it this was a punishment, was not prayer to lift it declining to see the divine point?...By some mistake, he protested, he had been placed in a position vital with meaning and precedents inescapably Christian. But was the man for it? Unsure of himself, he was afraid to go on trial.”

It’s an incredibly rich story (and beautifully written, though too many sentences begin with adverbs), and I could go on with examples of the depth, complexity, and frustrations of Didymus’s faith. He’s a great character because he’s both very devout and very flawed. Most of Powers’s best characters are like this, including Father Burner (more on him in later posts, I hope) and Father Urban of Morte D’Urban.

Fortunately, his short stories and two novels are back in print, in nice-looking but very fragile editions published by the New York Review of Books.


Anonymous said...

I like Adverbs !



C. Seamus said...

Here are a couple of his adverbial offenses: "Grayly the sky promised more snow..."; "Gauzily rain descended in a fine spray..." That just strikes me as too precious.