Flourishing fully in the 19th century, with Darwin and Marx ascendant and Freud in the wings, the novel matured as a very worldly art from. A kind of heightened journalism, the art of Dickens, James, Balzac, and others chronicled society while examining class, romance, war, and politics.
The great Russians—Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, the latter the novel’s sharpest psychologist and strongest spiritual force—grappled hotly with God, but they were exceptions. As the century turned, so did the novel, toward experiment, abstraction, self-reference. Catholic truth celebrates creation but abhors materialism, and its timelessness scorns novelty. It’s not surprising then, that Catholics make uneasy novelists.
That unease, however, can prompt greatness. Catholics bring to the form the spirit that completes the flesh: attentive to the Word beyond the world, they make fictional life fully-dimensional. Originally the province of the French visionaries Mauriac and Bernanos, the Catholic novel has found exponents as various as are the many roads to Rome. What unites them, though, is their insistence that the novel ultimately be realistic: that it heed, that is, the whisper of the soul above the clamor of the streets.
Here follows a sampling of great Catholic novels, listed solely in the order of my preference. Try them all; each is life-changing.
Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory. Action-packed, violent, their settings fascinatingly seedy, Greene’s existential thrillers are philosophical brain-teasers you can’t put down. Anticipating postmodernism’s blurring of high art and pop culture, the English convert juxtaposes politics and age-old faith, the primal skill of storytelling with a technique that mimics the jump-cut editing of film noir. In this 1940 wonder, thugs have seized Mexico and, as all totalitarians must, outlawed the Church. Resisting alone is Fr. Montez, the most pathetic of Christ figures, a whiskey priest, a bastard’s father. He’s a broken vessel, to be sure, but through him flows divine love, antidote to the revolution’s monstrously misguided humanism. At the end, Montez wears the martyr’s crown; that the crown is, metaphorically, barbed and fly-specked underscores Greene’s incarnational message: the Jesus in us is broken, disgraced, and triumphant.
Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood. Even today, O’Connor’s native Georgia remains, for Rome, missionary turf. And from the tension between her environment (Baptist, poor in spirit, rich in character) and essence (Catholic, complex, mystical) her vitality springs. Suffering from lupus erythematosus, she identified with the lame and halt and shunned: her characters are hurled, hurt, toward heaven. Hazel Motes, prickly star of this 1952 tragicomedy, may be the misfit who haunts us longest. Fanatically fundamentalist, ultimately he acts on the biblical injunction that he who has a mote in his eye must cast it out: he blinds himself. Such a shocking finish befits a yarn whose cast includes racketeering preachers, a mummy, and a rascal in a gorilla suit. Finally, however, it’s Motes’s grabbing for God that startles most: like Kierkegaard, O’Connor’s target is the complacent Christian. And, by any means necessary, she insists that we remember: Faith is a matter of life and death.
Jose Maria Gironella, The Cypresses Believe in God. In the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway and Malraux joined the Republican ranks, Gironella didn’t. While it’s hard to countenance his Fascist sympathies, it’s harder to deny the power of his 1952 rendering of the brutal, baffling rehearsal for World War II. The first of five books about Spain’s conflict, this thousand-page epic recalls Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, that other 20th century masterwork that renders the pathos of tradition besieged. As it surges toward the outbreak of fighting, it tells the tragedy of a priest felled by a firing squad while mobs torch churches, and of his brother, anguished over the abuses of the old order of Church and State, but terrified of anarchy’s approach.
Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest. Neglected nowadays even by his compatriots, Bernanos deserves a revival, if only for this uncommonly lovely 1937 gem. An encomium to communion and sanctity gained through commonplace struggle—a kind of Zen Catholicism, a realization of Therese of Lisieux’s “Little Way”—it achieves sad, simple beauty by conveying in vernacular, an ordinary cleric’s transcendence. Brilliant for realizing that ennui may lend Satan his easiest entry, the tale depicts a pastor’s exhaustion. Warily regarded by spiteful parishioners he hopes only to help redeem, he’s insomniac, forgetful, sick, and not above complaining. But, heartbroken, he endures their suspicion and his own insufficiency—and in so doing wins God.
J.I. Powers, Wheat That Springeth Green. Satirizing American clergy—the bull necks squeezed by stiffened collars, the all-too-human saints—Powers flashes wit and scalpel. But his surgery on the Church’s body politic is loving: he knows how priests dress, talk, err, joke—and pray and serve. This 1938 high comedy gives us a Father Joe Hackett, a lapsed idealist, green and oily, now “a good hard worker fond of the sauce.” An all-pro suburban pastor, guardian angel of the collection basket, he renders easily to Caesar. Arriving none too soon is a younger, Sixties-happy assistant. For all his naiveté, Father Bill is the tender mystic Joe once had been. From the pair’s enforced fraternity arises compassionate compromise that revitalizes their very real-world parish. It’s a measured grace and completely convincing.
Shusaku Endo, Silence. In 1966, Endo scored popular and critical success with this story of the persecution of Jesuit missionaries to 17th-century Japan. In a land nominally Buddhist but overwhelmingly secular, this was no mean feat. Endo has gone on to become one of Japan’s literary titans, but Silence remains his finest work. It’s a rendering, ultimately, of kenosis, the Christian giving up of power for love. Forced to witness the torture of converts, Father Rodriguez, the young protagonist, is told that their agonies will cease—if he renounces our Lord. Refusal, and his own martyrdom, appears inevitable, but he realizes that even such hard heroism would be self-seeking.
Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter. Undset, a Norwegian of genius, won a Nobel for this trilogy, its last volume published in 1922. Fourteenth-century Norway, Christian but bloodied by its pagan past, provides her background; this is historical fiction grounded in period detail but supercharged with passionate immediacy. A celebration of woman’s strength, it portrays the life-passages of its hero: love, motherhood, hard rural work, retirement to convent prayer, and death from the Black Plague. Kristin herself is more of a flesh and blood (and soul) character than most modern protagonists; like all of us, she spars with heaven and with earth. The world Undset recreates very nearly throbs on the page.
Francois Mauriac, A Viper’s Tangle. Catholicism of the severity Mauriac prized is a relic today—and his readers are almost as rare. It’s not hard to see why; few writers are less ingratiating. But Mauriac, a 1952 Nobel recipient, rewards us with pitiless insight, with clear, dry judgment. French village life, in Mauriac’s eyes, is seen through a glass darkly: flinty peasants squint, smug bourgeoisie preen. Ensnared among them, Louis, an ailing miser, undergoes domestic hell, his family the very vipers of the novel’s title. Creeping deathward, he at last forgives them, but his journey toward love is a long walk, hard, on shattered glass.
Julian Green, Moira. His life at least as darkly tumultuous as his fiction, Julian Green was born in 1900 to American parents. But the language he commands with such panache is Moliere’s. Even while chronicling the American South, his sensibility is European, and very Catholic. But his faith is leagues removed from conventional pieties; in his best work, the action takes place in an invariable time-frame the dark night of the soul. In this strange, overheated work of 1950, a student strangles the girl who tempted him down from the cross of his moral arrogance. He gives himself up, but not before Green subjects him—and us—to the full terrors both of lust and guilt.