Friday, July 31, 2009

`Damnable Hard'

I sat reading in the cool lobby while my kids had their swimming lessons in a pool heated to 96 degrees Fahrenheit, almost human body temperature. At another table sat a woman several years my senior, reading what appeared to be one of the newer black-covered Penguins, though the title was obscured by her knee. I excused myself and asked what she was reading. “The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. Have you heard of it?” she asked.

That was not among the replies I expected. My maternal grandmother gave me an illustrated edition of Bunyan’s allegory, first published in 1687, when I was about 10. The pages were already brown and brittle, as it had been a gift from one of her brothers when she was young. I’m ashamed to say I no longer have the book and cannot remember how I lost it.

The book’s full title is The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come, and for a churchless, unbelieving kid it proved unexpectedly compelling, rather like science fiction or a good adventure story (both of which I was reading at the time). I found it – and here I will use a word guaranteed to rile the sophisticates – consoling. I’m not alone, of course. The Pilgrim’s Progress has never gone out of print (of how many 17th-century books can that be said?), has been translated into more than 200 languages and is said to have been second only to the King James Bible in popularity among English-language readers.

I asked why she was reading the book, hoping not to sound surprised or condescending, merely curious, as I was. She had enjoyed The Shack, a novel I had never heard of, and a reviewer had judged it “a modern Pilgrim’s Progress.” I suspect The Shack will not join the stack on my bedside table but I was impressed by her enterprise in taking on a 331-year-old book written by a theological Puritan – one she seemed to be enjoying. We spoke of the phenomenon of writers who write in great quotations – “Slough of Despond,” “Vanity Fair,” “House Beautiful” – and agreed it was a splendid gift. She left when her grandson had finished his swimming lesson.

The next morning a friend in New York City sent an e-mail with the subject line “consolations of literature.” His best friend, with a history of cancer, has been diagnosed again with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Could I suggest a book that might offer consolation (to him, not his friend)? I thought of L.E. Sissman, the American poet who suffered cyclic bouts of Hodgkins disease and died in 1976 at age 49. He was a great poet less of death than of living with the knowledge of imminent death. His poems are not maudlin, not rah-rah inspirational, always witty and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. They are, thus, consolatory. David Myers, informed by his own experience with cancer, has written of Sissman here and here. Myers cites lines from “Dying: A Resurrection, 1969,” and I’ll cite others from the same poem:

“Sheepish revenant,
I crept back into life as into much
Too large a pair of trousers. Evident-
Ly even desperation leads a charmed
Life, valetudinarians go unharmed
At times, self-sorrow often sobs in vain,
And morrows rob us of our moral pain.”

No soft-soaping, dishonest glibness or sentimentality – precisely the qualities that betray most attempts at consolation. When I’m dying I don’t want lies, however soothing and well-intended. I’d rather read Sissman – or Bunyan:

“Then [Christian] went to the outward door, that leads into the Castle yard, and with his Key opened the door also. After he went to the Iron Gate, for that must be opened too, but that lock went damnable hard, yet the Key did open it.”

ADDENDUM: A retired professor of English among my readers writes: "When I was teaching the English novel I always began with The Pilgrim's Progess. The students seemed at first surprised (this is a novel?) and then, for the most part, delighted. I remember someone writing that for two centuries the education of the English middle class came from four works: The King James Bible, The Book of Common Prayer, Foxe's Book of Martyrs (`Acts and Monuments . . .') and The Pilgrim's Progess. One could do worse."


Levi Stahl said...

The New York Times covered The Shack last summer, after it quietly crept up best-seller lists (and right after I came across it on my grandparents' coffee table!). It's unquestionably not my thing, but it's been interesting to watch it grow from word-of-mouth recommendations, just the way us people who work in book marketing dream about!

Anonymous said...

Here is what C.S. Lewis has to say in an essay about Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress:
"The greater part of it is enthralling narrative or genuinely dramatic dialogue. Bunyan stands with Malory and Trollope as a master of perfect naturalness in the mimesis of ordinary conversation....In dialogue Bunyan catches not only the cadence of the speech but the tiny twists of thought." ("The Vision of John Bunyan")

In my own recovery from cancer surgery a few years ago I found the consolations of music to be superior to the consolations of literature. In particular, Beethoven's piano sonatas provided unequalled emotional and spiritual sustenance.


mel said...

It is funny I read Pilgrim's Progress twenty plus years ago sort of out of a sense of literary duty. Samuel Johnson admired it greatly. I was very struck by Bunyan's artistic control and the change of tone from one part of the book to another. I have also not read "The Shack" but perhaps I will get to it-but maybe it will be out of the book stores by then. It would be a mistake just to see Pilgrim's Progress as a work for academics to read because they must.