In 1962, Time Inc., parent corporation of Time magazine, launched the Time Reading Program, inexpensive reissues of books, eventually almost 100 titles, some of literary worth. One can hardly imagine a news magazine sponsoring such an endeavor today. In these editions, with their kitschy cover art, I first read Nabokov’s Bend Sinister, Eric Hoffer’s The True Believers, Marquand’s The Late George Apley and J.F. Powers’ Lions, Hearts, Leaping Does and Other Stories. Many of the volumes came with new introductions by the author or an admirer. Nabokov was in classic ornery form when he wrote:
“There exist few things more tedious than a discussion of general ideas inflicted by author or reader upon a work of fiction. The purpose of this foreword is not to show that Bend Sinister belongs or does not belong to `serious literature’ (which is a euphemism for the hollow profundity and the ever-welcome commonplace). I have never been interested in what is called the literature of social comment (in journalistic and commercial parlance: `great books’). I am not `sincere.’ I am not `provocative,’ I am not `satirical.’”
The Powers volume is a selection of his stories about Roman Catholic priests in the Midwest culled from two earlier collections, Prince of Darkness (1947) and The Presence of Grace (1956). I’m not certain I concur with Joseph Bottum in First Things --
“The finest Catholic writer of the twentieth century was also, in some very important way, a failure. Who now reads J.F. Powers?”
-- but I suspect Powers may have been the century’s finest American writer of short stories, better even than his coreligionist Flannery O’Connor. Such distinctions are less significant than the fact that readers have so many contenders to choose from.
The introduction to Lions, Harts, Etc. was written by another forgotten writer, one also very funny, interested in religion and associated with The New Yorker – Peter De Vries (about whom Nige has written enthusiastically). De Vries disputes Evelyn Waugh’s claim that Powers’ “whole art is everywhere infused and directed by his Faith.” Instead, he argues that “religion is not the portrait that Mr. Powers paints; it is the frame for the portrait.” The dispute is pointless. One need not be a Catholic or a believer of any species to love and admire Powers’ art. Few writers are funnier (not even De Vries).
Let me cite an example from his first novel, Morte D’Urban (1962), which I reread this week. About midway through the book, Father Urban, already banished to Minnesota, is temporarily assigned to a rural parish. In Chicago, he was a popular speaker and minor media celebrity. Now, for the first time, from the pulpit of rural St. Monica’s, we hear him deliver a sermon. He calls God “the Great Cartographer” who alone knows the “`true nature of the spiritual universe that is this parish, of the little world that is your soul’”:
“`…as a priest, one of God’s poor surveyors, I beg you keep your rivers and lakes unpolluted. If swamps there be, drain them, for God’s sake and yours, and do not wait. Where swamps were before, let there be gardens and orchards. Gardens and orchards and parks! How does your garden grow? With the silverbells and cockleshells of faith, hope, and charity? Rid yours gardens of the ragweed of covetousness, the dandelions of pride, the crabgrass of indifference! And clear your orchards of the rusty tin cans and broken glass of avarice, the old rubber tires of self-indulgence! If necessary, plow up your gardens and orchards! Plant your gardens and orchards with the good seed and the green saplings of pious works, attendance at Holy Mass, regular confession, frequent reception of the Sacrament of Sacraments! Do these things, and leave the rest to God!”
Fulsome rhetoric is hardly confined to clerics or Catholics.