Category Archives: book characters

Books in privacy and retirement.

books one openIt’s now mid-afternoon and I haven’t said a word to anyone today. It’s the largest chunk of solitude to come my way in a long time, and very welcome. In Mansfield Park, which I am still reading, I really identify with Fanny, who, if she is not talking with her one dear friend and cousin Edmund, likes nothing better than to sit in her own room or walk outdoors where she doesn’t have to take part in conversation.

Her personality and character are in stark contrast to her Aunt Norris, who does whatever she can to enjoy “all the comforts of hurry, bustle, and importance.” And to Mary Crawford, who is fatigued by resting and does not take well to “privacy and retirement.”

The meaning of retirement here is not what most of us nowadays think of, but rather a “withdrawal into privacy or seclusion.” For me, today, it helps that the skies are rainy and I’m enjoying a last chance to wear my cozy flannel shirt as I do what many people in this kind of retirement do: read.

While I and people of my sort may be secluded from people here-and-now, we are very engaged with the author and/or the characters in the book. The National Endowment for the Arts research found that those of us who read are more likely to do volunteer work and to be involved generally in our communities. This kind of rest from one kind of “labor” energizes us for other kinds of work and service.

red horse bookIn the interest of reading a greater variety of books than I can heft while lying down in bed, I bought a Kindle. One of the first books I loaded on it is The Red Horse by Eugenio Corti, a giant of a book in every way. At least ten years ago I was deep into it, as one takes a needed vacation or The Cure at a sanatorium, but I had to give it up, mostly because of its size.

If any of my readers have read good books on e-readers, I’m open to suggestions. Many on my To Read list aren’t available on the Kindle, but it seems there are enough to keep me happy for a while. I definitely won’t be giving up altogether on printed books.

Now I must close and get myself another proper retirement accessory: a big mug of tea.

What to read during Lent? Maybe Austen.

screwtape letters book old Some people who watch a lot of television are exhorted to turn off the tube and read something – anything – during Lent. I suppose the assumption is that if they are serious enough about their repentance to change their use of leisure time that drastically, they won’t waste the effort by taking up unedifying reading habits.

Our parish bookstore is full of titles obviously appropriate for the season, like the classic Great Lent by Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann. And I know many people who read The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, because the senior devil’s instructions on how to keep a man in chains are so revealing of all the subtle sins we like to ignore or make excuses for.

screwtapes-desktop1 FOF

I didn’t get around to adding a Lent-specific book to my stacks this year, and I felt a little embarrassed about taking up a Jane Austen novel last week. If I had been more familiar with her books I might have known that there is plenty of material there for God to work with. But I blush to say that I hadn’t read one Austen book since high school.

I don’t remember what it was the particular bloggers said, but more than one book review that came my way in the last few months made me think I would like Mansfield Park. Soldier and Joy gave it to me for my birthday, and here I am.

mansfield park

The introduction by Amanda Claybaugh quickly piqued my historical/philosophical interest, as she explained the context of the story (The French Revolution) and Austen’s metaphorical connections with lines like this:

“The theater thus functions in this novel as the art form of unbridled ambitions and abrogated duties, as the art form of revolution.”

Right there, lines from our lenten prayer of St. Ephrem come to mind, the ones referring to Lust of Power and Sloth. I couldn’t wait to get into the story itself, where I was immediately introduced to sinners as common as myself.

Mrs. Norris: “As far as walking, talking, and contriving reached, she was thoroughly benevolent, and nobody knew better how to dictate liberality to others, but her love of money was equal to her love of directing, and she knew quite as well how to save her own as to spend that of her friends.”

Have you known anyone like Mrs. Norris? I have. Not being a delegating kind of person, I don’t fall into that particular type of sin. Mine are perhaps more along the lines of the Miss Bertrams, whose “vanity was in such good order that they seemed to be quite free from it, and gave themselves no airs….”

It’s these sins of vanity and pride that we who look respectable on the outside seem most prone to — and that are often invisible to ourselves. Self-centeredness is my default setting, after all, and feels perfectly natural, so why should I even think of changing the setting for a minute, much less manage to leave it at a strange place on the dial?

The same could be said of Mrs. Norris, of whom the narrator tells us: “…perhaps she might so little know herself, as to walk home…in the happy belief of being the most liberal-minded sister and aunt in the world.”

It’s good to read something during Lent that warns me not to think highly of myself, not to think I am “spiritual.” Something that facilitates my efforts to join those happy/blessed ones who in the Gospel Beatitudes are called Poor in Spirit. It’s toward that end that we pray along with St. Ephrem the Syrian: “Grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother….”

How can I see my own errors, when the window of my soul is all dirty with various sins? Perhaps if I repent of what I do know, I will find the window a little less dirty, so that I can see more to repent of. I’m hoping that as I progress through Mansfield Park I will encounter more stunning examples of smudged windowpanes that with God’s grace I’ll recognize as similar to my own, and get on with the scrubbing.

Elder Zosima and his brother

In my reading of The Brothers Karamazov, I came this morning, Monday of Holy Week, to the part “From the Life of the Elder Zosima.” The elder first relates about his older brother, who only at the age of seventeen and sick unto death, turned from anger and scoffing toward a path that might lead to repentance, and seemingly only to please his mother. But that is not an entirely bad reason.

…on Tuesday morning my brother started keeping the fast and going to church. “I’m doing it only for your sake, mother, to give you joy and peace,” he said to her….But he did not go to church for long, he took to his bed, so that he had to confess and receive communion at home. The days grew bright, clear, fragrant — Easter was late that year. All night, I remember, he used to cough, slept badly, but in the morning he would always get dressed and try to sit in an armchair. So I remember him: he sits, quiet and meek, he smiles, he is sick but his countenance is glad, joyful. He was utterly changed in spirit — such a wondrous change had suddenly begun in him!

The young man asked forgiveness of everyone and talked about his great sin, but at the same time was so happy and full of thankfulness and exhortations, that people thought he was going mad.

Thus he awoke every day with more and more tenderness, rejoicing and all atremble with love. The doctor would come — the old German Eisenschmidt used to come to us: “Well, what do you think, doctor, shall I live one more day in the world?” he would joke with him. “Not just one day, you will live many days,” the doctor would answer, “you will live months and years, too.” “But what are years, what are months!” he would exclaim. “Why count the days, when even one day is enough for a man to know all happiness. My dears, why do we quarrel, boast before each other, remember each other’s offenses? Let us go into the garden, let us walk and play and love and praise and kiss each other, and bless our life.”

This older brother died a few weeks after Easter, when the teller of the story, the elder Zosima, was only eight years old. He talks, now near death himself, more about his childhood, and how it was also during Holy Week that he began to see more when he went to church.

But I remember how, even before I learned to read, a certain spiritual perception visited me for the first time, when I was just eight years old. Mother took me to church by myself (I do not remember where my brother was then), during Holy Week, to the Monday liturgy. It was a clear day, and, remembering it now, I seem to see again the incense rising from the censer and quietly ascending upwards, and from above, through a narrow window in the cupola, God’s rays pouring down upon us in the church, and the incense rising up to them in waves, as if dissolving into them. I looked with deep tenderness, and for the first time in my life I consciously received the first seed of the word of God in my soul. A young man walked out into the middle of the church with a big book, so big that it seemed to me he even had difficulty in carrying it, and he placed it on the analogion [lectern], opened it, and began to read, and suddenly, then, for the first time I understood something, for the first time in my life I understood what was read in God’s church.

The reading was from the book of Job. And tonight I myself plan to attend this liturgy, and though I haven’t seen the program for the service, I now have confidence that I will hear this same reading. How many times have I also watched the beams of light shining down when I stood in church, and even felt their heat on my face, like the warmth of God’s Holy Spirit?

The Elder Zosima is a fictional character, but he is believed to be based on a real-life monk in old Russia. In the novel, where I am reading, Zosima goes on in his very moving fashion to tell his life’s story: “– and over all is God’s truth, moving, reconciling, all-forgiving!”

Isn’t it sweet that God should arrange for me to read this passage this morning, to help me in an unusual way to become even more receptive to His being with us tonight by means of hymns such as, “Let my prayer arise in Thy sight as incense….,” and the Psalms of Ascent — and the Holy Mysteries!

Last week our bishop was present with us, and he gave us a good word about the last days of Lent — well, technically Lent has come to an end, but we are still in the anticipation and preparation that is Holy Week. He said that Lent is not about finding every bit of dirt in our souls, but about the bridal chamber, about discovering the great love that our Lord Jesus has for us.

Perhaps Zosima’s brother went to a Bridegroom Matins service on Tuesday; we have three of them this week, and tomorrow I hope to attend at 6:30 in the morning. The Lord Himself has been filling my lamp with the oil of His Holy Spirit!

Four Storybook Friends

Who are my “fictional best friends”? This meme was going around some time back, and got me thinking about “The Top Ten Characters I’d Like to Be Friends With.” I don’t aspire to be Best Friends — that’s too big an idea — but to be A Friend is something I would consider. You see, not being a People Person, I don’t really feel like taking on ten more friends with problems, which book characters always must have, preferably a few of them in order for it to be a good book.

But these characters came to mind:

1. Harold of the Harold and the Purple Crayon because he is so creative and resourceful in his solutions for all the predicaments he gets into, and I’d like to go with him on his adventures. I would never tire of watching him draw whatever he wants, so quickly and easily. When he goes to bed he even draws the moon out the window so I know we think alike.

2. Natty Bumpo of the Leatherstocking Tales. He is a real gentleman, but not a fussy one. He would have wonderful tales to tell and philosophizing to do as we took long walks in the woods, and I’d be perfectly safe with him, as he is pretty much king of the forest and could protect me from any Indians or wild animals, and trap or hunt for all the meat we could want.

3. Kristin of Kristin Lavransdatter only because she seems to badly need a good woman friend. Besides her mother, who isn’t even nearby to have a chat with, I can’t see that she has one female friend in the whole three novels about her life. I wonder, if I were her friend, if I could make any positive difference in the drama? I know it would be a lot of work, but in her world I think I could do it. Back then I wouldn’t have all the stresses pulling me away from home so I would have more emotional resources to give to Kristin.

4. Winnie-the-Pooh would be a good friend to have for the times when you just wanted to throw sticks over the bridge or sit around eating condensed milk and thinking deeply about thoughts that other people don’t even bother having. He and I would understand each other.

I haven’t given a lot of thought to this, maybe because I have so many real friends whom I’m already neglecting enough that I somewhat begrudge the time looking for imaginary others. And when I do bring to mind the sort of characters I have met in books, for the most part I’m quite content to let them live their lives without me, as I have more enjoyable ones right here.