Category Archives: books

The endless troubles of everyday life.

To read the biography of a brilliant writer without having read any of her writings — that seems unwise, perhaps especially in the case of Rebecca West, who appears to have put her best self into her writings. As I told one of my readers, I’m afraid if you read her biography first, you might be put off from reading her.

It may be that Black Lamb and Grey Falcon was the first of her books that I heard about, and I did intend to read it back then. It is generally considered to be her magnum opus. My friend Cathy has read it, and so far she is the only real-life friend with whom I have been able to enjoy the kind of experience that West’s biographer describes below. Our most recent venue was the agape meal at church yesterday. 🙂

For a time I owned a large volume of West’s letters, but they were either depressing or boring for me; I wasn’t familiar enough with the personages of her era, and in letters she was often critical or complaining. The Birds Fall Down I found on my father’s bookshelf; I know it happened to be there because my grandfather had been a member of the Book-of-the-Month Club, which featured it. It was fascinating and gripping, and I knew I must read it again to truly grasp it, but first I would need an in-depth history lesson on the Bolshevik Revolution. None of that has happened yet.

I only know that West experienced some satisfaction and happiness in life because of what I read in the Aubrey Trilogy. It is a story of endless troubles, theirs and their friends’, from sibling bickering to murder, but I don’t mind sharing the drama with the Aubreys, because they manage to create such beauty and familial warmth out of their meager circumstances. Even the most traumatic or heartbreaking events become opportunities for increased love and understanding, and for growing up — but without sentimentality. West wrote the story in her 60’s, when she had surely grown up, too, and grown away from the stridency of her youth.

Besides the stories of home and family relationships, there are all the other aspects of the place and culture in which they live, plus commentary on art, politics and music — pretty much any topic might and does come up in the lively Aubrey household. I plan to share a few quotes here in the days to come.

I noticed just now that Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is on Kindle. Maybe I will read it after all; or Survivors in Mexico, another book that’s been waiting on my shelf…. But here is Gibb:

Lorna Gibb

“For me, as for so many of my peers, West is a shared pleasure, passed on, read, then later discussed in dingy student Soho coffee shops in the eighties, or more recently, over wine at a picnic in a garden. Perhaps the most wonderful thing of all is that, because of the eclectic nature of West’s writing, these exchanges could be on so many topics: literature, espionage, travel, the role of women, all originating from a book or article by a single author.

“West dealt with big topics, many of which still reverberate today, such as the integration of Eastern and Western religious faiths, the contradictions of femininity and power, the causes and effects of wars. Yet, in her considerations, she did not lose sight of the domestic concerns, those personal and intimate stories taking place against the backdrop of social change and unrest. As she once stated in an article for The New Yorker, she did not wish to write history as Gibbon liked to record it, but a history of the endless troubles of everyday life.”

-Lorna Gibb, in the introduction to The Extraordinary Life of Rebecca West

The opposite of not getting in trouble.

My Christmas tree is still standing in my entryway, at the bottom of the stairwell. It’s handy to have an artificial tree so that it never starts looking worn out and dried up. I didn’t get it out of its box and trimmed until very late, and then all the days this month that I was mostly in bed because of my viruses, I couldn’t even see it much. I missed many services of Nativity and Theophany in which I might have been reminded by poetry and theology of the significance of “Immanuel: God with us.”

So bear with me if I continue on the theme of the Incarnation. After all it is, as was pointed out to me not long ago, the second most important point of Christian doctrine, after the Holy Trinity. If we truly live, we live it every day. And it’s worth giving extra attention to at least once a year. 🙂

One of the days I was in bed I started listening to The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West. I would love to hear if any of  my readers has read this book or others in the Aubrey Trilogy of which it is first. This makes the third time I will have read this novel in the last ten years, and I could count on one hand the novels I’ve read three times in my whole life. I read the other two in the series as well, This Real Night and Cousin Rosamund, and a totally different novel of hers, The Birds Fall Down.

They have all made me ask what sort of woman could create these fascinating characters and dramas, portrayed by means of the most revealing dialogue and natural prose. After I started sitting up in the recliner I began to read The Extraordinary Life of Rebecca West by Lorna Gibb. It appears that there is a lot of autobiographical material in The Fountain Overflows, set in England in the Edwardian period. I don’t know if I will ever be able to write a good review of this book or any of West’s; they seem too vast and rich — and mysterious — for me to grasp, and that makes me wonder, Why am I so taken with her as a writer? and How does she accomplish this enchantment? I have some ideas — maybe they will lead to something!

The only reason I have for saying anything just now is, I ran across this passage about a Christmas Day the Aubrey Family celebrated. It contains one of the thought-provoking pearls of wisdom and understanding that are found liberally scattered throughout, not ever as little sermons, but as insights that come to the narrator Rose, or a phrase spoken by the mother as she’s trying to answer one of her children’s questions.

The father of the family wastes and loses money in various ways, so that they are always on the brink of disaster. In the passage below, the young Rose calls him “unlucky,” but the reader knows that it’s a case of children wanting to think the best of their father. His indiscretions or outright shameful behavior are the reason he and his family are always needing rescuing.

On Christmas Day the mother stays home with the maid to prepare Christmas dinner, and the father walks to church with the four children. The girls, having been musically trained to listen carefully and critically to every piece of music they hear, are often unable to enjoy anything slightly imperfect. The italics are mine:

“In church we were so contented that we did not think of the choir as music and did not approve or disapprove, but gratefully took it that it was giving tongue to what was in our hearts. ‘How bright,’ Mary whispered in my ear, ‘the silver dishes on the altar are.’ We liked the holly round the pulpit, the white chrysanthemums on the altar. Of late Mary and I had doubts about religion, we wished God had worked miracles that would have enabled Mamma to keep Aunt Clara’s furniture and saved Papa from his disappointment over the deal in Manchester, but now faith was restored to us. We saw that it was good of God to send His Son to earth because man had sinned, it was the opposite of keeping out of trouble, which was mean, it was the opposite of what Papa’s relatives were doing in not wanting to see him just because he had been unlucky. We liked the way Richard Quinn stood on the seat of the pew and, though he had been told he must be good and sit as still as a mouse in this holy place, nuzzled against Papa’s shoulder and sometimes put up his face for a kiss, certain that showing love for Papa must be part of being good.”

The picture of the family in church is sweet, but it’s the way the love of God and His willingness to come to our aid are put in a child’s very personal terms that strikes me. They paraphrase a word I really appreciate in regard to His taking on human flesh and frailty, human sin and soul-sickness and chains of death: solidarity. Glory to God in the highest!

Jacinto and the Bishop

When they are traveling around the American Southwest visiting the many and remote parishes in their huge diocese, the French priests in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop often have an Indian companion along. At night they camp on the desert sand. This passage is excerpted from the tale of one such journey:

Kneeling on either side of the embers they repeated their prayer together and then rolled up in their blankets. The Bishop went to sleep thinking with satisfaction that he was beginning to have some sort of human companionship with his Indian boy. One called the Indians “boys,” perhaps because there was something youthful and elastic in their bodies. Certainly about their behavior there was nothing boyish in the American sense, or even in the European sense.

Jacinto was never, by any chance, naïf; he was never taken by surprise. One felt that his training, whatever it had been, had prepared him to meet any situation which might confront him. He was as much at home in the Bishop’s study as in his own pueblo — and he was never too much at home anywhere. Father Latour felt he had gone a good way toward gaining his guide’s friendship, though he did not know how.

The truth was, Jacinto liked the Bishop’s way of meeting people; thought he had the right tone with Padre Jesus, and that he had good manners with the Indians. In his experience, white people, when they addressed Indians, always put on a false face. There were many kinds of false faces; Father Vaillant’s, for example, was kindly but too vehement. The Bishop put on none at all. He stood straight and turned to the Governor of Laguna, and his face underwent no change. Jacinto thought this remarkable.

-Willa Cather

Maybe the Bishop and Jacinto share some qualities of character, and that’s why they appreciate one another. One aspect of Bishop Latour’s character that I see is his humility. In fact, perhaps there is a double meaning in the book’s title: not just the usual meaning of the ending of his earthly life, which we read about in the last pages, but also the little deaths that come to him day by day, not adding up but subtracting bit by bit from the possibility of earthly glory that might have been his, if he had given his fine mind and life to a different life back in France. Instead of fame and accomplishment, he sees defeat on many levels. But he accepts that.

Fr. Stephen Freeman recently wrote in “The Despised God” about the humility of God. He says, “The ‘glory’ of God is not the glory of wondrous success, shining fame and an incomparable reputation. Instead, we are told that we behold the glory of God ‘in the face of Jesus Christ.’… The crucifixion of Christ for Paul is more than an event that accomplishes salvation – it is an event that reveals Him in His fullness.”

“For many, such meekness in Christ is treated as something of a disguise, or a temporary work for the purpose of salvation. They all too quickly turn away from this understanding to assert that ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead!’ But there is nothing to indicate that the definition of glory is somehow being altered for the sake of the Second Coming. As for the imagery of the Revelation of St. John, it should be read through the Cross rather than used as a corrective for the Cross.

“… the friends of God are foolish, weak, base and despised. That is the narrow way. Interestingly, it is a way that is the most open for all to walk. We need not be wise, strong, and well-thought-of. It turns the world upside-down and our lives along with it.

“Right now the world is desperate for a few fools.”

-Fr. Stephen Freeman

Bishop Latour meets the elegant goats.

I’ve read Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather three times, including an audio recording narrated by David Ackroyd which I only recently completed. These three readings were so far apart that each time seemed a fresh introduction to the characters and the setting. And yet, I do think that the first two readings helped to form a love in my soul for the Southwest territories of the United States, so that this third time I found it there waiting for me, like the warm sand beneath a red rock butte, a place where I might bed down for the night under the stars and feel whole.

Ackroyd’s voice and narrative style seem perfect for the story. There is a steadiness and a lack of hurry that aligns with the faithful dailiness of the lives of the two missionary priests as they try to meet the spiritual needs of a vast diocese that had just enlarged by nearly 30,000 square miles with the Gadsden Purchase.

They are based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but make frequent trips by horse or mule of hundreds and thousands of miles, even into Old Mexico, to take care of ecclesiastical affairs, to baptize babies and perform marriages, and to serve Mass. Their characters are sympathetic and rich; the story of their friendship over the decades is a thread woven through the novel, made up of small stories scattered through the years.

I’m using this audio book now the way I have two or three others in the last years since I sleep alone, for the times when I don’t sleep. I put a well-known story to play on my phone, set the timer for 30 minutes, and let David or another nice person read me to sleep. This only works with voices that do not draw attention to themselves in various ways, usually by being overly dramatic.

That means I am reading/listening to the book, based on a true story by the way, a fourth time. Because every anecdote and scene seems more luminous and meaningful than ever when it is told or described by a warm human voice, I may post here some passages that appear plain and dry to you poor people who may never have breathed the air of New Mexico or seen the Arizona desert in bloom. But today, it’s only goats we will consider, and I imagine that they are goat-ish the world over.

“After the feast the sleepy children were taken home, the men gathered in the plaza to smoke under the great cottonwood trees. The Bishop, feeling a need of solitude, had gone forth to walk, firmly refusing an escort. On his way he passed the earthen threshing-floor, where these people beat out their grain and winnowed it in the wind, like the Children of Israel.

“He heard a frantic bleating behind him, and was overtaken by Pedro with the great flock of goats, indignant at their day’s confinement, and wild to be in the fringe of pasture along the hills. They leaped the stream like arrows speeding from the bow, and regarded the Bishop as they passed him with their mocking, humanly intelligent smile. The young bucks were light and elegant in figure, with their pointed chins and polished tilted horns. There was great variety in their faces, but in nearly all something supercilious and sardonic. The angoras had long silky hair of a dazzling whiteness.

“As they leaped through the sunlight they brought to mind the chapter in the Apocalypse, about the whiteness of them that were washed in the blood of the Lamb. The young Bishop smiled at his mixed theology. But though the goat had always been the symbol of pagan lewdness, he told himself that their fleece had warmed many a good Christian, and their rich milk nourished sickly children.”

-Willa Cather in Death Comes for the Archbishop