Sunday, October 31, 2010

Here Is Our Tiny Infant in His Swaddling Clothes

Like Betty Duffy, I have been reading Edwin O'Connor's novel, The Edge of Sadness. In fact, after several tedious false starts, I began and finished it while Helier was in the hospital;  it was something to look at other than Nick, Jr., on the television overhead, which was what kept Helier in bed and anchored to his various tubes and cords for two days straight.

It is the kind of quiet, meditative novel I most love, in a class with the much-shorter but equally penetrating A Month in the Country, by the English writer J.L. Carr. In both novels, the protagonist-speaker is an introvert, wounded in some way -- Carr's restorer of medieval doom paintings by war and the desertion of his wife, O'Connor's parish priest by death and alcohol -- who seeks to wrap himself in solitude, thinking that therein lies survival, if not actual healing.

Father Hugh Kennedy, the precariously-recovered alcoholic, has returned from four years' rehabilitation in the Southwestern desert to the parish of Old Saint Paul's, a down-at-heel pile in an even downer-at-heel section of Boston, at an enormous remove from the comfortable, familiar, prosperous Irish-Catholic-Boston world in which he once circulated. Baptised, as it were, into suffering by the death of his father, driven (as much by the Bishop as by the Spirit, though they may amount to the same thing) into the desert, then recalled to ministry, Fr. Hugh returns slowly, reluctantly, to life. The temptation of drink he finds easy enough to resist;  on the other hand, the temptation to dwell in a kind of between place, neither dead nor entirely engaged with the living, masters him with such powerful subtlety that it is not until late in the novel, when a friend accuses him of withholding himself from his parish, that he even realizes that he has succumbed to it. It is this self-realization which breaks him open, as a cast is broken from a mended limb, and enables him both to turn his back on old ambitions and accept, with certainty and hard-won happiness, the life and the vocation which he has been handed.

There's a lot to say about this novel, and I hope Betty is going to pick up the conversation. I'm eager to hear her thoughts. Meanwhile, what I'd like to talk about now may seem like something of a sideline. While Fr. Hugh is undeniably the novel's protagonist and the lens through which we view the world he moves through, I want to think about a character who appears minor -- certainly Fr. Hugh regards him, initially, as a minor character in his own drama -- but who in the course of the novel, while not changing himself in any fundamental way, transcends the role of comic foil to which Fr. Hugh has consigned him.

Fr. Stanley Danowski, the curate:  twenty-five years old, ponderous in person and in expression, a caricature so easy it almost writes itself. Here he is, in a Christmas homily to a handful of communicants, many of whom, like the perpetually-enrapt Mr. Yee, understand no English:

I beg of you, my beloved people, to try to conjure up in your minds the joyous feelings of that great occasion. Recall, I beseech you, your own most pleasant sentiments when, in the bosom of your own home, you have perhaps gazed fondly down upon a small crib, and have remarked proudly to your good spouse, "Well, here is our tiny infant in his swaddling clothes . . . "

There is something perfect in the ridiculousness of this delivery. But it occurs late in the novel, and though Fr. Danowski himself remains static from beginning to end, Fr. Hugh's own vision is beginning to clear.  "The style was familiar," he muses, watching Fr. Danowski from the rear of the church, "It was vintage Danowski."

And yet for once I didn't smile, because as I looked around the church and saw all the people who had come here this morning, I knew that it all had very little to do with me, and that the credit for whatever change there was belonged almost entirely to this broad, bustling, zealous, slightly ridiculous boy, of whom it was always so easy to make fun . . .

This little scene is the prelude for a revelation, the epiphany -- if that's not mixing metaphors too much -- of the goodness of  Fr.  Danowski.  When he appears early in the novel, it is as a buffoon;  Fr. Hugh regards him as, simultaneously, a bit of private comic relief and a benign species of millstone, part of his drowning in obscurity, there in his hopeless parish. But as we and Fr. Hugh come to realize, not only has Fr. Danowski breathed life into the parish by loving its people, but in imitation of that "tiny infant in his swaddling clothes," he sacrifices his own happiness on Christmas Day so that Fr. Hugh will not have to be alone. At their shared dinner in the rectory, Fr. Danowski recalls the humiliations he has endured on his road to the priesthood:

[The seminary] was of course very hard for me, as I have just said, and sometimes the fellows who were there as my classmates would play pranks upon me. For example, Father, there is what is known as 'the apple-pie bed.' In which the sheets are short. So that one is unable to retire properly . . .

"Yes, yes, I know," responds Fr. Hugh inwardly.

. . . Does my curate ever suspect that I am his fellow countryman? From time to time he courteously interprets for me American customs and traditions, much as if I were a visitor from some distant land and ancient times:  a courier, perhaps, from the court of Kubla Khan . . .

What Fr. Hugh is shortly to stumble on is that he has, in fact,  been an emissary from the enormous distance of himself:  detached, unengaged, profoundly self-protective and selfish in his non-dealings with the people around him, the sheep of his pasture. He catches Fr. Danowski interpreting not only the familiar world, but also the lives of these people whom he himself has not bothered to know, in such a way as to protect Fr. Hugh's own fragile dignity. "Surely you know, Father . . . " "You will remember, Father . . . "

As his vision clears, Fr. Hugh regards the pathetic spectacle of himself;  conversely, in his eyes and ours, the pathetic one-note spectacle of Fr. Danowski puts on flesh, is incarnated in the imagination as a human being at once utterly humble and utterly motivated by love and mercy. The personage who in another of my favorite speeches dresses down the excitable, unreliable sexton who thinks that he has killed a man by looking at him --

Come come, Roy . . . That is not quite normal talk. We do not live in medieval times in these days. We do not believe we can look at a man and he dies. That is nonsensical, Roy. That is weird. If you go around talking like that, do you know what people will say of you? They will say, "Why, Roy is quite a foolish person!" Do you wish people to say this of you, Roy?

-- also spends hours each week in ardent letter-writing, the correspondence of deep friendship, with the very priests who as seminarians tormented him with "what is known as the 'apple-pie bed.'" He is the personification, in other words, of forgiveness, of charity.

I have also been reading, by the by, another book entitled Deep Conversion/Deep Prayer, whose author, Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M., meditates on the oddness of Jesus' injunction, in Mark 1:15, to "Be converted, and hear the Gospel." As Fr. Dubay points out, the logical progression of events would seem to be that one would first hear the Gospel, and then be converted by it. But, he argues, the reality is that the ears of the heart must first be opened, so that the good news can be heard.

So, it seems to me, the unavoidable presence of Fr. Danowski works on Fr. Hugh:  he comes to see in Fr. Danowski the person he is not. As an other, Fr. Danowski provides Fr. Hugh with a comfortable, ironic sense of superiority. But as the novel progresses, Fr. Hugh's eyes are opened, his ears made to hear;  he is converted;  he sees and hears the truth of what he is not, and also of what he can be, if he will.

There's much more to be said about this novel, but it seems to me that this relationship, of all the web of relationships which drive the narrative, lies at its heart. It's this relationship which, though the curate's utterances and his pastor's wry inward commentary on them are frequently hilarious, in the end moved me to tears. Because frankly, it is a novel about the sort of person I am myself:  an introvert, a protector of the self, the sort of person who's often only half-present in a situation, watching it while private thoughts unspool themselves like a filmed autobiography more real than the concrete world. It is at this that the bumbling tendentious character of Fr. Danowski strikes -- and he strikes with such ineffable love.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. It gives me some things to think about, because I see a lot of myself in your description of Fr. Hugh too. God help us! -- Sarah J.

Sally Thomas said...

He does! Which is the point this beautiful novel makes, and manages not to make fatuously or facilely. If you haven't read it, do. (and if you haven't already, read A Month in the Country while you're at it).

BettyDuffy said...

Gosh, I loved this book. O'Connor should be studied in every writing workshop for how to draw living breathing characters. Aunt Julia gives five lines in the whole book, and I knew her in an instant when she said the stew was "nourishin.'" Reading it back to back with Franzen's "Freedom," is probably what made Franzen's characters so bland and dispicable ot me.

Loved the part at the birthday party when the old people are talking, and delivering politically incorrect assessments of what's wrong with the world, and Father Hugh muses on how foreign the conversation is for the young--because they belong to a generation that has never known a world where directionless conversation is the primary source of recreation.

And I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of Father Danowsky. I KNOW him, somehow. I have met that person before somewhere.

Probably my favorite part, however was Father Hugh's description of addiction--how it played out as his seeking solitude, turning away from the community, having no reason for his isolation, but desiring it nonetheless--and I think this self-isolation is the bottom line on dangerous addictions, and I 've never heard it described so accurately.

Loved the book. And glad for your positive review.

Anne said...

Great review! I have the feeling that if this book were made into a movie (God forbid-we all know Hollywood would ruin it!) Fr. Danowski would be the star behind the star, the Oscar winner of the best supporting actor!

The image that keeps running through my mind happens towards the end, that of Mary driving the big car and exasperated Charlie being at her mercy. It's an almost "he deserves it!" moment for all of the exasperation that he put his children through!

Sally Thomas said...

Anne -- yes! Except he's still victimizing her, even though technically he's at her mercy, and her driving is utterly a function of her fear of him.

My favorite Julia-ism: "Dwarfs do a lot of harm . . . In their own way."

Sally Thomas said...

My husband had to read this novel for a seminar he went to this summer. Other people at the seminar, he was telling me tonight, *loved* Charlie Carmody and claimed to know people just like him, but he (my husband) *hated* him and felt he was utterly evil. I'm not sure I think he's utterly evil, but on the other hand, the novel is littered with his victims, and Charlie goes marching on.

BettyDuffy said...

I admit to having a little bit of affection for Charlie. Villains are always the most interesting characters--especially when there's a bit of duplicity in there--like Charlie's playing Father HUgh, and hinting at the idea that he wants to change, but he feels it's too late, and no one would let him be a different man--but then when he recovers, he pretends it never happened. And I love that, because it's exactly what would happen. If he admitted to having that conversation with Father HUgh, then he would really have had to change. He would have been accountable to someone. And no one wants to change on a dime, just because they admitted that it's the secret desire of their heart to be a better person. Don't we all sort of hope it's enough just to WANT to be a better person?

Sally Thomas said...

True enough. And there's something both maddening and affecting about that scene near the end, after the heart attack, when Fr. Hugh happens on Charlie as he's standing gazing at one of his derelict buildings. The slumlord who's managed to delude himself that what he has to offer other people, at a price, is something eminently desirable. That's a marker for a greater level of self-delusion if ever there was one.

Anne said...

Favorite character only had a minor moment: the fruit seller who kept his head buried under the blankets during the hospital visit! No wonder he had nobody to visit him!

Also loved bus-riding Bucky and his secretive plan to hurt Fr. John by having his funeral at Old St. Paul's.

I can't say that I know anybody in real life like either of these two, but I wish I did! I find them both to be so charming!

Sally Thomas said...

Oh, I love P.J. and Bucky, the chorus on the sidelines of the Carmody drama.

And that fruit seller is a brilliant detail: that he's anonymous, but then anonymous on another level to Fr. Hugh. His presence is a significant marker of what's wrong at the core of Fr. Hugh's character.

I am also enamored of the celebrated Father Clement Cassidy, the Whistling Priest. What Fr. Hugh has to say about Fr. Danowski's inability to discern between the Cure d'Ars and the Whistling Priest probably deserves its own essay -- and it is a detail of Fr. D's character which both gives his boneheadedness some dimension (about some things he really is boneheaded) and keeps him from being revealed as too perfect a Christ figure, however well he plays that role for Fr. Hugh.

Anne said...

Yes, the whistling priest-too funny! And another great minor character was the priest who met Fr. Hugh at the door upon his arrival at Old St. Paul's and couldn't get out of there fast enough! Marvelous touch!

Kathleen said...

The scene where Fr. Hugh refuses Ted's request to gladhand after Mass is so nuanced and so wise (and relevant to our day).
Thank you for recommending this book.