Thursday, May 06, 2010


Frederick Buechner’s reinvention of a twelfth-century saint’s life is beginning to attract the attention of other book bloggers, which is a very good thing in itself—this is how great books overcome the indifference of “official” critics, by word of mouth, reader to reader—but it may also help to gather a larger audience for one of the best American novels of the past four decades. First published by Atheneum in 1980, Godric was the eleventh novel by an ordained Presbyterian minister who was said to have “established himself as a major literary figure” with his first novel thirty years earlier.

Godric was like nothing he had written before. His first novel, appearing when he was twenty-three, was a rather slow-moving study of seven people on the margins of an Eastern college identified only as a “neo-Gothic music box.” Although widely celebrated, A Long Day’s Dying is more impressive in retrospect for its insight than its action. With his second novel Buechner became, according to his troubled contemporary Robert Lowry, the “white hope” of all those “who wish young American writers would quit slogging along in the muddy Norris-Drieser-Farrell prose tradition and move closer to the stylish neighbor­hood of Henry James.”[1]

Buechner tried hard to pump up the plot of his next novels and shed the Jamesian label. So he visited a U.S. Senate confirmation fight over a liberal cabinet appointee, a clergyman tempted by adultery with his next-door neighbor, a 1,500-acre community for retarded adults. Then came the Bebb books, a tetralogy (just like the Gospels) on the life and times of Leo Bebb, founder and sole proprietor of the Church of Holy Love, Inc., a mail-order seminary in Armadillo, Florida (“Put yourself on God’s payroll—start working for Jesus NOW”).

Buechner’s reward was to be compared to Peter DeVries instead of Henry James. Despite the Falstaffian girth and boisterousness of Leo Bebb, the tetralogy is not a satire but rather, as Guy Davenport said in reviewing the first volume, “almost embarrassingly a genteel comedy, beautifully written and told with the mastery of a craftsman.”[2]

Buechner needed to resort to more desperate measures if he ever hoped to break free of the genteel tradition. Theodore Nicolet, the clergyman hero of his fourth and weakest novel, The Final Beast, had bragged: “I’m famous for my imitations of saints. You should see me doing the martyrdom of Polycarp.” What was a throwaway line fifteen years earlier became the germ of his masterpiece. In 175 tightly packed pages—both style and action are tightly packed—Godric imitates a saint’s life.

Born in 1065 to Aedlward, “no villein bound to serve but a man born free as any man,” and his mirthful wife Aedwen (“she’d cover her mirth with her hands and shake till you’d think the fit was upon her”), Godric left home at a young age to become a peddler and then the steward for a nobleman. Discovering that his lord is a thief, Godric flees England to join the “Frankish knights” who seek to liberate Jerusalem from the “ungodly Turk.” Entering Jerusalem, “so fair I saw at once how men could die for her,” in 1101, he walks the Via Dolorosa, sees the “Holy Sepulchre itself,” dunks himself in the Jordan, hears a “porpoise voice” calling him, comes up “like one gone daft for joy,” and is converted.

Returning to England, he gives away all that he has, and after a spell keeping the door and ringing the bells of St. Giles in Durham, he becomes a hermit, making a cell for himself on the River Wear at Finchale. By then he was “some forty-odd.” For the next six decades he remained there, “rooted like a tree,” and lowering himself into the “icy Wear” or resorting to prayer to fend off memory and pride:

What’s prayer? It’s shooting shafts into the dark. What mark they strike, if any, who’s to say? It’s reach for a hand you cannot touch. The silence is so fathomless that prayers like plummets vanish in the sea. You beg. You whimper. You load God down with empty praise. You tell him sins that he already knows full well. You see to change his changeless will. Yet Godric prays the way he breathes, for else his heart would wither in his breast. Prayer is the wind that fills his sail. Else waves would dash him on the rocks, or he would drift with witless tides. And sometimes, by God’s grace, a prayer is heard.That Godric is also the earliest known English poet (author of hymns to the Virgin Mary, his sister Burcwen, and St. Nicholas) is appropriate, because prayer and poetry belong to the same class of human utterance—the symbolic actualization of transcendence. I quote this passage, however, not so much for a taste of Godric’s style—by this point the style has knocked smooth its roughness as Godric has abandoned his goods—but to comfort a friend who is struggling with God’s silence. “And what has Godric done for God or fellowmen through all of this?” he asks himself. “Godric’s war is all within.” But the same is true for many a man whose inner war leaves him doubtful that he has done for God or fellowmen, and Godric may also speak to them.

Written as the hermit’s memoir, dictated late in life to his disciple Reginald of Coldingham, whose contemporary Latin manuscript is the historical source of knowledge about Godric’s life, Buechner’s novel is at its best in detailing the unwilling saint’s war within:I can no longer hold my water and itch in places I haven’t scratched these twenty years for the clownish stiffness in my bones. It’s Reginald that has to swab my bum and deems the task a means of grace. I’ve got an old dam’s dugs. My privities hang loose as poultry from a hook. My head wags to and fro. There’s times my speech comes out so thick and gobbled I’d as well to save my wind. But the jest is bitterer yet, for deep inside this wrecked and ravaged hull, there sails a young man still.The message is subtle but powerful. The struggle to serve God is not carried out in flights of metaphysics, but in ordinary reality where humans age and ache. But the greatest achievement of Buechner’s novel is stylistic: Godric transcends the flesh not through sanctity but through the sinew and flex of memorable phrasing. You fully believe that he is a saint—not because his person is transcendent, but because his harsh unsparing language is.

“I know but little Latin like the priests,” Godric says in asking Jesus to teach him how to pray. And rightly, then, his speech is rough with a native Anglo-Saxon rhythm and vocabulary, almost entirely coarsened by a lack of Latin influence. In this way, Buechner solves the problem that bedevils every other historical novel I know about saints or patriarchs: he devises an entirely credible voice, which leads you to believe that you have in fact been plunged into distant and unfamiliar times when God’s name came more readily to man’s lips.

[1] Robert Lowry, “The Vision on the Hill,” rev. of The Seasons’ Difference by Frederick Buechner, New York Times Book Review (Jan. 6, 1952): 4, 28.

[2] Guy Davenport, rev. of Lion Country by Frederick Buechner, New York Times Book Review (Feb. 14, 1971): 7.


dglen said...

Once again, thanks for bringing to light. Another one to look forward to.

marly said...

Oh, I loved that book! And, reading this, think that perhaps it is time to read it again.