Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Way "Past Imperfect" indeed! Or, "Disappointing Novels By A Catholic Author"

A short time ago, a friend of Rich's loaned him a book that advocated (among other things) always "simultaneously" reading several books on different topics - in other words, reading a few pages from several different kinds of books each day.  The author, James Altucher, believes this practice helps us become more creative and dynamic because it fosters unlikely associations in our brains. This week I've been doing just that: reading, all at once, the following:

George Weigel's Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II
Greg Popcak's Holy Sex and also, a companion work of sorts by the same author,
                        Beyond the Birds and the Bees: Raising Sexually Whole and Holy Kids
                        (I highly recommend both of these extremely practical and insightful books!)
Julian Fellowes' first novel, Snobs and his follow-up Past Imperfect
Technically, I was not reading the two Fellowes fictions "simultaneously", but I did blast through both novels in three days total, so it  felt like I was reading them at the same time. I was still digesting the first as I devoured the second. On the other hand, I checked Weigel's dense 864 page text on JPII out of our parish library about five MONTHS ago and have been slowly, steadily, faithfully plodding through ever since. I read it almost every night. I'm not even halfway done...  And while I've been "done" reading the two Popcak books for a while, there was so much excellent stuff in both (despite the author's sometimes maddeningly self-righteous tone) that I've been frequently reviewing and digesting the most worthwhile sections of both books ever since.

And- it's true about the fruitfulness of an unexpected pairing of ideas. But quite by accident, all of this reading material had a LOT to do with sex. John Paul II had much to offer the world on the topic, and Weigel does a good job of unpacking it in the biography. Popcak's books on sexuality are indebted to the late Pope's Theology of the Body to the point of their existence being entirely impossible without it. And Julian Fellowes' novels, while theoretically "about" English aristocrats and historical cultural shifts and power, turned out ultimately to be really all about sex. Which was a crushing disappointment to me for many reasons.

I'll start with the "brand" of human sexuality that Fellowes communicates in his novels.  Compared to what I was reading in Popcak's reflections on the awesome potential inherent to marital intimacy, the sex Fellowes writes about is boring, cheap, repulsive and, incidentally, unconvincing. He sets up a false dichotomy of sex as being either immoral and exciting OR "married" and drab. How unfair and untrue. I studied the Fellowes novels under an even purer light as I simultaneously digested the deep thoughts of John Paul the Great on the importance of literature, culture, friendship, marriage and human sexuality. I wasn't just disappointed in Past Imperfect as a novel; I was disappointed in it as a force of culture and as a commentary on culture.

Then, novels with highly sex-driven plot lines are not my usual fare. And when I read novels about aristocratic English ladies, I want to read about women who dress, think and behave like Elinor Dashwood and Elizabeth Bennet. But I pushed on with Fellowes because, as in his for-television writing, he has a talent for arresting my interest and making me almost frantic to know what will happen next. There are few other televisions writers who have done that to me in the past decade. (None, to be exact.) So I assumed that despite the often rough language and the very occasional PG-13 physical interlude, he would come out on the other end triumphantly (though gracefully) affirming Truth, Goodness, Beauty - and traditional Catholic sexual morality. Like he does with Downton Abbey. Like the Great Catholic Novelists my Providence College English professors and Steubenville grad school friends loved: Waugh, O'Connor, Undset, Greene. But Fellowes didn't deliver this time.

For five seasons of Downton Abbey, I have watched him showcase the stickiest of human behavior, always and every time to ultimately demonstrate the indignity of sin and its sad, lasting consequences. I've thought it remarkable and I've admired him tremendously for creating a smash hit television show with firm moral underpinnings, whose popularity is not in any way confined to the cultural Catholic ghetto (to the contrary!). Infidelity, promiscuity, divorce, abortion, contraception, homosexuality, rape, prostitution....there seems no morally contested area of human sexuality that Fellowes is afraid to explore. Never glorifying sin, he shows the hard modern issues from different vantage points, in different contexts, from the most sympathetic possible angles, and yet each time (I've thought) he does a wonderfully effective job of wrapping up the story line by gently and subtly underscoring Catholic moral teaching on each. I trusted him to do the same in his novels. Snobs did, to an extent. By the end of that novel, I felt that Fellowes had somewhat weakly commented on the right and wrong foundations for marriage, rather more strongly commended the heroic virtue of fidelity to marriage vows under difficult circumstances, and had driven home a very powerful message about human freedom and our responsibility for the consequences of the choices we freely make.  Past Imperfect, in contrast, seems rather the opposite. I finished reading this afternoon and can't shake the unsettling feeling this novel has left in my gut. I'm crestfallen that the Catholic writer I have so long championed could have written something as morally bankrupt as this book. I keep hoping that, as the hours pass and I have more time to reflect on what I just finished reading, I'll suddenly "get it" and realize that he was being IRONIC. Or that I'll suddenly grasp that he was doing some delicate literary-artsy THING and I was just too thick to see it while I was reading. Like when I read Brideshead Revisited. Or anything by Flannery O'Connor. But realistically, no. I think not. I want that to be true so badly, but I'm afraid it isn't to be.  Text me, email me, send me a link if I'm wrong. I still so wish to be wrong.

This is the last in my unintended series of posts about books. Next time, something about real life. Because how much time can a girl have to read, think and write about books in a real life filled up with five children? In my determination to soldier through those novels this week, said children were a tad bit neglected. This is why I don't have a television. That said, my resolution for the rest of the summer is to confine my reading to the hours after the little ones are in bed. Which means no more fiction for a while. Here's to the hope that this resolution helps me return my JPII biography to the parish library before my own John Paul's first birthday this October. At the rate I'm going, it's an ambitious goal, but not an impossible one.....