Friday, May 22, 2009

`Terribly Funny Like Life'

Among my readers is a Canadian who wishes to become a priest and will enter a Roman Catholic seminary in Wisconsin in September. The alignment of a priestly calling and the upper Midwest brought one writer, the late J.F. Powers, to mind. I asked my friend if he knew Powers’ fiction, and of course he did. Most recently he read the second novel, Wheat That Springeth Green:

“It was the right book to be reading while thinking about the priesthood, for it does not romanticize spiritual life. I especially liked those episodes where the priest has failed and I the reader am prepared to judge him, but then find on reflection that he has acted thoughtfully and with a wish to do well, though perhaps giving too much thought to his dignity. Then I am inclined to not pass blame; but then I see again how failure still hangs over him. His selfishness and selflessness are mixed together. It seems to me to be very like life. Terribly funny like life, where terribly is not merely an intensifier.”

If my Canadian friend’s plans should change, he might contemplate a career in literary criticism. He thinks before he writes – a novel pleasure – and appreciates “the intersection of books and life.” I asked him why so many of the funniest fiction writers were Catholic, citing Joyce, Waugh, Flann O’Brien, Flannery O’Connor and Powers. In his reply he added two names I had neglected, Muriel Spark and Walker Percy, and wrote:

“If there is a talent for being funny that is especially Catholic, could it have something to do with the Catholic genius for seeking the world of spirit and meaning without dissolving the world of matter and sense? Perhaps dogmatic belief that Creation has its own being is a foundation for a habitual attention to detail. And perhaps dogmatic belief that this world of details is upheld and infused with the order of Personal Love produces the conviction that the details matter, that there is an underlying story and moreover a comedy. For it seems to me that what I find most funny are events or saying that are truer than they know; as, for instance, when Flannery deliciously lets her character name herself Hulga, or when John writes of Pilate parading out a beaten man in bloody purple and saying, Here is your king. I have to take care not to snicker when that text is read during the Good Friday liturgy.”

My friend may be Powers’ ideal reader, situated by temperament and spiritual configuration to get the novelist’s best jokes while appreciating their true-to-life humanity: “Terribly funny like life, where terribly is not merely an intensifier.” In an early Powers story, “Zeal,” a Bishop accompanies a contingent of Rome-bound pilgrims on a train between Minneapolis and Chicago. In their company is a self-dramatizing priest, Father Early, whose on-the-make vulgarity the Bishop dislikes intensely. The train follows the course of the Mississippi River, past a wall of limestone caves:

“The Bishop, spying a whole row of caves, thought of the ancient Nile. Here, though, the country was too fresh and frigid. Here the desert fathers would’ve married early and gone fishing. The aborigines, by their fruits, pretty much proved that. He tried again to interrupt Father Early. `There must be a cave for you up there, somewhere, Father.’”


worm said...

when I read about catholicism, Canada and comedy, the first thing that springs into my mind is Robertson Davies and The Deptford Trilogy, one of my all time favourite reads

jim prentiss said...

A good story about the priesthood is, "The Edge of Sadness" by Edwin O'Connor.

Nige said...

Your friend's comments about the Powers book put me in mind of Eca da Queiros' The Illustrious House of Ramires. Another great Catholic humorist?

David Murdoch said...

I think the Irish are traditionally a witty people. Many of the names you've mentioned are Irish, and Irish are mostly catholic. I don't know if there is really a catholic appreciation of humour which is generally existent, and I say this as a catholic.

God Bless,

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

Frank O'Connor's "First Confession" leaves me laughing aloud every time I read it - this from someone with few experiences with or in the Catholic Church.