Saturday, September 28, 2013

Salut et bienvenue

I'm attempting, along with my 2.5 year old daughter, to learn French. One of the tools I'm using is an app called Duolingo, which is mostly full of those phrases you never use in real life, as Eddie Izzard's famous stand-up routine exemplifies (warning: swearing):
One frequently recurring phrase however I shall use to start off this new blog: salut et bienvenue. Hello and welcome.

It seems fitting to begin with a brief review/endorsement of the immediate source of this blog's title. Funnily enough, I created this blog a while ago and left it fallow. Just recently, I started rereading the book In This House of Brede, by Rumer Godden, and at the same time, I felt the urge to start a true blog (as opposed to my previous online diary). When I came on Blogspot, I discovered I had chosen a title from the book. An interesting coincidence. Here is the quote, from the very beginning of the novel:
The motto was "Pax," but the word was set in a circle of thorns. Pax: peace, but what a strange peace, made of unremitting toil and effort, seldom with a seen result; subject to constant interruptions, unexpected demands, short sleep at nights, little comfort, sometimes scant food; beset with disappointments and usually misunderstood; yet peace all the same, undying, filled with joy and gratitude and love. "It is my own peace I give unto you." Not, notice, the world's peace.
It's talking about the life of a nun in a Benedictine cloister, but there is so much there that speaks to me in my very different vocation as a wife and mother. Especially, with a two year old, the "constant interruptions and unexpected demands", and with the two month old, the "short sleep at nights"!

The "pax inter spinas" of the Benedictines.

I think this book will end up being for me the book of this decade in my life, just as I would have said the book for the decade from age 10 to 20 would be I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. In both cases, there is the same excellence of writing, particularly the exquisite phrasing, which I read and reread and turn over in my mind. I have not read Rose Garden for a few years, and yet I can even now recite certain paragraphs virtually verbatim, without having made any conscious effort at memorization. It's not simply how frequently I read the novel. The rhythm and beauty of the language, the truth behind the words, and the personal connection meant I just couldn't help it.

And it's the same with this work. With Rose Garden I was like a missionary with it, bringing it up whenever someone mentioned wanting something to read, telling people with teenage dramatics "Read this if you want to understand me" while pushing a well-worn paperback at them. I don't think I ever got even one person to read it? I certainly don't remember anyone doing so. I think in retrospect it was a bit like me trying to hook up my dearest friend on a blind date; I pushed it so hard, I think people got scared off. I certainly don't want to do that with this novel.

 I also feel a bit unequal to the task of reviewing the novel because it does so much. Yes, the novel, as the blurb will tell you, is about Philippa Talbot and her choice, as a rare highly successful career woman in the 50s, to renounce that life for a complete start over as a novice in a Benedictine monastery. But it is about so much more. There is the page-turning suspense (really!) of a financial crisis caused by dereliction of duty, conniving, and betrayal. There is little Penny Stevens, who comes back from her initial minor role in the very beginning as the catalyst for a powerful and moving section. There's enough plot regarding the tug-of-war over Sister Cecily to have easily had a novel written just about her. And the characterization! This is a novel with dozens of characters, almost all of them women, and almost all of the women nuns with very similar super-Catholic names, and yet she makes almost everyone so real and three-dimensional that I never got confused about who was who. So whether you're a plot junkie or a character junkie, you get your fix.

The book is also fascinating as a contemporary portrait of a time of intense upheaval in the church. In this way it's a historical document. Published in 1969, the novel begins in the 50s and goes through the 60s, and thus records the reactions of the nuns to the winds of change blowing everywhere and then rising into the gale that was Vatican II and its aftermath. The book lets various opinions have their say in the pages, and for the most part doesn't take a side, although it does come down with some pretty harsh burn against the fervent yet naive would-be reformers who wish to tear down a wall without first finding out why it was built:
“I don’t like to see these,” Brother John had said, tapping the grille of the parlour. “I look forward to the day when the bars will come down and you can mingle freely with your guests—perhaps even wear lay clothes as they do.”
“Just as we did a hundred years ago,” said the young councillor Dame Catherine Ismay.
That took him aback.
“Didn’t you know?” asked Dame Beatrice, sweetly. “When we first came to Brede that was how we had to live. We could not wear our habits, and were not allowed enclosure until 1880. We had to fight to get our grilles.”
“One who informs ought to be himself informed, not?” Dame Colette, who was French, asked of the air.
The only section of the book that doesn't really work, and unfortunately it's the section that closes out the book, is the plot regarding the foundation of a new Japanese branch monastery. I can't exactly put my finger on why. I think it's just a little bit too "those exotic inscrutable Orientals", in an admiring way, but that doesn't necessarily make it less problematic or occasionally cringe-inducing. It's the only section of the book which feels more "outdated" than "classic".

I should also warn the hormonally or otherwise emotionally vulnerable that there is a non-graphic, but all the more for that gripping account of the death of a child. I can't even think about that section of the novel without getting a lump in my throat. When I actually read it I always, always cry, and if I'm hormonal (ie from just having a baby) it's a right old sob fest. And then I go hug my kids. But just be prepared for that. So, I shall leave it there for the time being. Please do comment if you take my recommendation and read it; I would love to know that I am successful here, as I never was with Rose Garden!

1 comment:

  1. Not sure when I'll get around to reading it, but I've added it to me "to-read" list on Amazon! :)