June 20th, 2008
Alas, due to a recent series of travels and laptop woes, I haven’t had time to post about Ron Hansen’s new novel Exiles, which interweaves the story of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the stories of the five nuns who died in the shipwreck commemorated in Hopkins’s early poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” Now, suddenly, my library copy is due, and I find that I still haven’t written about it!
Since I’m limited in time and since my laptop is still defunct (Its current problem? It literally has a screw loose.), I’ll start off by posting an email exchange between me and Mink about our reactions to the novel:
Otter: Short answer: The first few pages were really dull. The Hopkins bits never seemed to rise above what a biography would do. The nun bits were more interesting, but still kind of meh. Together, the nuns and Hopkins did give a powerful sense of apparent waste . . . that might not be waste in heaven’s economy. Still, I really wanted a more interior portrait of Hopkins–not like Henry James psychological realism, but something reflecting the EXTREMELY INTROSPECTIVE nature of Jesuit spirituality. Hansen knows about Jesuit interiority–he wrote a long essay on Ignatius, for goodness’ sake.
Mink: My response [to the novel]: “Um, okay. Why?”
I could not tell what Hansen was trying to create by fictionalizing an historical account while slavishly inserting historical artifacts and facts into a fictional account. By telling the Deutschland account and Hopkins’s bio parallel, while cautiously adding fictions to both, he did not manage to transmute the facts into meaning beyond what they already carry. It seemed neither historical enough nor fictional enough to be historical fiction, and as a result, I was an uneasy reader.
What you say about interiority is something I felt missing too. Instead of giving us an insight a novelist rather than a biographer can give, the book seemed useful only as an untrustworthy biography – not very useful.
On the positive side, I’ve been inspired to ILL Hansen’s sources (none of which, I was dismayed to find, were terribly primary – I was at least hoping there’d be *something* new in the book) as I suspect they are a more interesting read, as well as less timid in their characterization of Hopkins, at least.
Well, I like Hansen’s Mariette book; here’s hopin’ the next one’s interestinger.
Incidentally, most of what we say has already been well stated by Linda McCullough Moore in her Books and Culture review of Exiles.
Hansen’s essay on Ignatius of Loyola is in his collection called A Stay against Confusion: Essays on Faith and Fiction, a read I found much more worthwhile than Exiles. There’s an essay called “Affliction and Grace: Religious Experience in the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins” that, oddly, provides a more in-depth look at the poet’s interior life than the 200-page novel.
Glory be to God for breaded things—
Catfish, steak finger, pork chop, chicken thigh,
Sliced green tomatoes, pots full to the brim
With french fries, fritters, life-float onion rings,
Hushpuppies, okra golden to the eye,
That in all oils, corn or canola, swim
Toward mastication’s maw (O molared mouth!);
Whatever browns, is dumped to drain and dry
On paper towels’ sleek translucent scrim,
These greasy, battered bounties of the South:
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