FROM THE PRESIDENT'S KITCHEN TABLE
Recently someone emailed asking for recommendations for good Catholic fiction. It got me thinking about books that have influenced me over the years and were, as they say, “a good read.” First, a book is only worth reading if it’s worth reading twice, and I don’t shy at dumping a book after a few chapters. Also, many books, even written by atheists, can offer a Catholic profound insight. Let me say up front that my suggestions are in no particular order and the list is by no means comprehensive.Three novels I think are important for understanding the destruction of the culture are Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, 1984 by George Orwell, and The Ugly American by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick. Huxley, a secular humanist, admired Margaret Sanger; but also had a healthy skepticism of utopian societies based on scientific advances and consumerism. He was also incredibly on target with his imaginary future. One can easily see the parallels to the United States in his hedonistic, sex-saturated, contraceptive world with test-tube babies, soma (think Prozac), motion picture “feelies” (virtual reality), etc. all keeping the populace “happy” and in line. Orwell’s novel is another prescient view of culture with its “newspeak,” verbal engineering where words often mean their opposites (think choice), revisionist history (dropping inconvenient facts down the memory hole), and political correctness. Hate speech laws and the national ID card (including the implantable chip) would fit nicely in the 1984 worldview. The Ugly American, written by two experts on Southeast Asia, shows how America loses respect through foreign policy that ignores the culture and customs of other nations. (Consider our imposition of abortion and contraception on Catholic third-world countries.) The title is ironic since one of the few good Americans in the book is physically ugly while the “beautiful” people exhibit ugly actions. None of these books is Catholic, but each is profoundly relevant to Catholic thinking. Among the Catholic authors I enjoy are Thomas Costain (The Silver Chalice), George Bernanos (Diary of a Country Priest), Sigrid Undset (Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy), Edwin O’Connor (The Edge of Sadness), Walker Percy
(The Thanatos Syndrome), Evelyn Waugh (Brideshead Revisited), Rumer Godden (In This House of Brede), and Louis de Wohl’s fictionalized stories of the saints. Chesterton and Tolkien, of course, belong on any Catholic reading list. And, as a fan of science fiction I can’t leave out Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson (Lord of the World) and Walter Miller (Canticle for Leibowitz). Benson, who wrote in the early 1900s, couldn’t predict modern technologies, but he foresaw the culture of death clearly. Among his other novels is one about St. Edmund Campion, Come Rack! Come Rope! that reads like a thriller. And I like Canticle for Leibowitz so much I reread it periodically. From a pro-life perspective there’s much food for meditation in its portrayal of man’s inevitable cycle of sin and destruction.
Many people don’t appreciate Flannery O’Connor, but I find her work, short stories and two novels, fascinating. They’ve been described as “weird,” but they all deal with a moment of grace, an invitation to redemption, and how the characters respond to it. The sun and moon are often Eucharistic symbols. Her collected letters, The Habit of Being, show the wit and courage of this delightful Southern lady who died of lupus at only thirty-nine.
Another group of Catholic writers whose works are epic in dimension are the great Eastern Orthodox Russian authors: Dostoevsky (The Brothers Karamazov), Tolstoy (Anna Karenina), and Solzhenitsyn (The First Circle and The Cancer Ward). I don’t suggest them for the beach; the themes are serious and heavy. They invite readers to explore the meaning of life and God’s persistent invitation to conversion. Solzhenitsyn’s works, particularly, arise from a life of sacrifice and suffering. To understand him better see his 1978 Harvard address where he challenges western materialism and “irresponsible freedom…[which] has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil.” He and John Paul II have a lot in common in their critique of capitalism run amok.
Another “Catholic” writer is Oscar Wilde who converted on his deathbed. He once quipped that Catholicism was the only religion worth dying in and he managed to do it.
His life illustrates the parable of the vineyard with Wilde squeaking in at the eleventh hour. Despite his sinful life (he served two years at hard labor for sodomy) he had a Catholic mind. You don’t see it much in his farcical plays, but it’s obvious in his one novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, whose characters, Wilde said, reflected himself. It gets to the heart of what sin does to the soul even if the body retains its beauty. His children’s stories, The Selfish Giant and The Happy Prince among others, are charming tales of love, sacrifice, and conversion. Wilde’s jail time was probably a blessing. He read Augustine, Dante, and Newman which, perhaps, germinated as the seed of his later conversion. Interestingly, many of his other sinful associates converted to the Catholic faith as well. Wilde’s life illustrates the capacity of grace to overcome sin. A fascinating essay, The Long Conversion of Oscar Wilde, is definitely worth reading.
When I started searching my mind for recent Catholic American fiction, I had a hard time coming up with any. The closest I could get was Michael O’Brien, a Canadian, one of my favorite modern authors. His novels, Fr. Elijah and the Children of the Last Days trilogy (Strangers and Sojourners, Plague Journal, and Eclipse of the Sun),entitle him to a place alongside the best Catholic novelists of the 20th century. So far he’s in a league of his own in the 21st. I recommend him highly and look forward to reading his latest book, Island of the World.
The best Catholic fiction explores the meaning of life; sin, suffering, grace, and redemption are its themes. Unlike Brave New World and 1984, which depict godless societies offering only despair, they are filled with hope. Pope Benedict’s recent encyclical Spe Salvi, Saved in Hope, is a fitting companion to these Catholic novels.
May 2008 be filled with great Catholic books that draw you closer to the Author of life. Resolve to share good fiction with your children, especially the older ones. It’s a great way to foster family togetherness, and what a fun way to end the day! One is never too old to enjoy reading or listening to a good story.