FICTION: The Penitent is Mightierby David Varno
Ron Hansen, Exiles (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008)
Religious devotion is a sacrifice and artistic pursuit is a sacrifice, and when an artist’s spiritual vocation supplants his or her work, the difficulty to grasp that person’s life becomes two-fold. The social, romantic and family aspects put on hold by aesthetic determination are veritably forgotten, as ilustrated by Gerald Manley Hopkins, the Victorian experimental poet who became a Jesuit priest who transferred all of his creative energy to biblical study and prayer.
Ron Hansen’s novels often use historical settings, and have been increasingly concerned with Catholic themes such as faith and unconditional love, and his latest effort is one-third riveting historical drama and, essentially, two-thirds religious meditation. Exiles opens with Hopkins sequestered in a seminary in Wales, where life appears dull and his fellow theologians less quick-witted; nonetheless, he is convincingly grateful to be there in service, having renounced the worldly calling of poetry. Here he comes upon a London Times story of a shipwreck off the eastern coast of England, in which a passenger ship bound to the United States from Germany ran aground in the Thames estuary and eighty people died, including five nuns exiled by the Falk Laws. The account of the nuns moves him to write a long poem, titled “The Wreck of the Deustchland,” which in part becomes the framework for the novel’s narrative and themes.
The long, difficult poem, full of wordplay and Christian references, was initially dismissed by Hopkins’ old Oxford colleagues, and by the editors of journals who once published him. Hansen does a nice job of setting the poet against the grain, in a scene where lines from Longfellow’s popular “Wreck of the Hesperus” irritatingly run through his head, their “stupefying awfulness” an example of poetry’s generic sing-song meter. Hopkins overcame this by establishing a new rhythm that represented the way people actually spoke. Lines of his own poem will now echo in the heads of Hansen’s readers, as certain lines and stanzas are used repeatedly in the novel. We’re fortunate to have Hopkins’ words, here as well as in correspondence, because as a writer Hansen often falls short with character and dialogue.
The five German nuns are each given a semi-fictitious backstory, told in a repetitive structure that feels somewhat liturgical, which may indeed be the intention. The repetition is picked up again, as each of their deaths on board the sinking Deutschland is re-enacted in turn, one passage culminating with the Bible verse “Jesus wept,” the next following with “she slept.” Hansen’s insistence on giving them each equal screen time in a two-hundred page novel that’s also about a meditating, guilt-stricken poet results in somewhat crass one-dimensional characterizations. We have the parSimious, responsible nun, the old-soul nun, the hot nun (“a lithe, beautiful, unsmiling blonde with stunning eyes…that inspired heartache and hankering in men”), the bitchy nun, and the wide-eyed blissfully ignorant nun.
The shipwreck is where Exiles really comes alive—the technical aspects of the ship in general, and the background on the hubris of 19th-century steamship travel, when a captain who couldn’t make out the stars through a heavy fog could only guess at his coordinates, drifting in the night towards unknowable dangers, while two hundred people would drink wine and dance in the ballroom below. This is also a more effective metaphor for the questioning of faith, which comes straight from the opening lines of Hopkins’ poem:
Thou mastering me
giver of breath and bread;
World’s strand, sway of the sea;
Lord of the living and dead.
Faith can easily dissolve with the realization that God may be nothing more than a lost sea captain, or, in losing belief in God altogether, the sense that we’ve become lost at sea on our own. Hopkins’ poem sought redemption for the perished nuns, but he also wished to honor his gift as a poet, which he believed could be employed to serve God. And if there’s any redemption in this book, which the author clearly strives so hard for, it’s in the fact that at least the man turned back to poetry.
DAVID VARNO's writing has appeared in BOMB, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Electric Literature, Paste, Tin House, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere.