I’m writing from San Antonio, Texas, where Wendy and I are visiting our daughter Mary, our son-in-law John, and their six children, our grandkids. We last saw them at Christmas, in Wheaton. George, who will be a year old at the end of May, has shown a special fondness for me, which fills me with a foolish but probably harmless delight.
After starting the day with a home-schooling session (the family is part of a co-op, so the kids go to school twice a week and Mary teaches on those days), the assembled throng departed for swimming and the library, leaving me here. It’s a very Catholic household; yesterday we learned about St. Fidelis of Sigmaringen, who forsook his career as a lawyer (“he found the lay profession unscrupulous and crooked”) to become a priest in the Capuchin Order. In time, “he was sent with other Capuchins to win back to the Catholic faith sections of Germany that had converted to Calvinism. … He was so successful that he made enemies,” and eventually he was murdered. “He is considered the proto-martyr of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith,” only recently founded at that time, of which he was the head. (I’ve been quoting from The One-Year Book of Saints, by Rev. Clifford Stevens.)
Those were different times. I felt no pang this morning when I saw a little sticker on the big bathroom mirror: “I love the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter,” into which John and Mary’s parish, Our Lady of the Atonement, has recently been received. Wendy and I have worshipped there often, usually with the entire family, once in a while (when John and Mary are on a trip) with the kids in our care. The striking biblical passage that concludes the page devoted to St. Fidelis in The One-Year Book of Saints is Luke 22: 31–32: “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to have you, to sift you like wheat, but I have pleaded in prayer for you that your faith should not completely fail. So when you have repented and turned to me again, strengthen and build up the faith of your brothers.” Perhaps this passage was chosen with the “apostasy” of those converts to Calvinism in mind, but it has other resonances. All of us who place our hope and trust in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit should encourage and build up the faith of one another, despite the differences that divide us. Certainly Wendy and I are encouraged when we are visiting here.
For this trip I brought two bags, one filled with clothes and one (mostly) filled with books, among them a copy of Richard Powers’s new novel, The Overstory. This book, which I have just started, has set me thinking about the relationship between reader and writer, at once distant and intimate. I’m thinking especially of the relationship a reader has with a living writer whose books he or she has been reading more as less as they appeared over the years.
I’m sure some of you began twitching as soon as the word “relationship” appeared. (I can imagine someone thinking, “I don’t have a RELATIONSHP with X, dammit, I just read his books.”) But I don’t know what other word to use. And it’s interesting that, in many cases, it’s the distance between reader and writer that makes the intimacy possible, as in Chaim Potok’s wonderful account of reading Brideshead Revisited at the age of thirteen or fourteen, an experience that directed him to become a novelist himself.
More than a decade ago, I wrote a piece about a writer I’d been reading for ages. We’d never met (we still haven’t); we didn’t move in the same circles or view the world from the same angle. He saw the piece, tracked down my email address, and wrote to me. He said, among other things, “You understand me better than my own family does.”
I’m sure Richard Powers will never send me an email like that. He’s an exceptionally gifted writer, and if you haven’t given him a try, now would be a good time. I’ve been reading him from the get-go, and I’ve reviewed several of his books. His first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, appeared in 1985; The Overstory is his twelfth. I’ve read them all, and still have many of them. Some I’ve loved (The Echo Maker, for instance; I wrote about it ); some I’ve found very interesting but also maddening (The Time of Our Singing); and a handful have been a slog. But whenever I read a new book by him, I am continuing something like (but clearly different from) a conversation with this person I’ve never met and likely never will.
“At heart,” I said of Powers,The Time of Our Singing, “he is a religious novelist, though this seems not to have been noticed by most of his admirers. Perhaps that’s because the faith that informs his books has nothing to do with the personal deity of ordinary belief. At the very moment they experience the utter bleakness of abandonment, Powers’s favored characters glimpse some benign possibility built into the universe, itself vulnerable, faintly but unmistakably detectable amid suffering and injustice.”
Certainly a religious vision informs The Overstory, a novel about trees. With the ferocity of an Old Testament prophet, Powers indicts our blindness and selfishness, a grotesque narrowing of vision; one of his principal characters learns early on that “human wisdom counts less than the shimmer of birches in a breeze.” That sounds almoste like a line from the Psalms. It is also a test for the reader. Some will thrill to the contempt for the human; some will feel a jolt of free-floating religious awe; some will decide that enough’s enough (though most of those are unlikely to have started the novel in the first place). Me? I’m reading Richard Powers, seeing the world through his eyes once again, not quite 150 pages into a 500-page novel. I’m in for the long haul.
John Wilson was the editor of Books & Culture from its first issue (in 1995) to its last (in 2016).