27 July, 2007

The Nine Tailors

I recently bought a copy of this book at a used bookstore, partly because I collect Dorothy Sayers (and Agatha Christie) books compulsively, and partly because it was a remarkably nice edition. Having bought it, I felt it necessary to read the book. I started yesterday and have already finished it. Never once have I regretted momentarily dropping David McCullough's (excellent) biography of John Adams. This book is without a doubt one of the most brilliant mystery novels I've ever read. Not the most mystifying; one may guess at a rough outline of the solution about halfway through. But is certainly leaves enough questions about details - how, why, when, etc - nearly unsolvable until the last chapters. Nothing about the mystery struck me as less than satisfying, at any rate, even if it wasn't a pure "who-dun-it" right up until the final moment.

I'd also mention that the characterization here, and in the Peter Wimsey novels in general, makes it a worthwhile read even for those who aren't fans of the mystery genre. While only the rare mystery writer (in my limited experience) analyzes characters in the minute way a Dostoevsky or Tolstoy does, the characterization here is much more sophisticated than most. Entertaining and nigh-flawless, but also rather deeper than one finds in the pure "who-dun-it". Let me add that I was further convinced by this book that Lord Peter Wimsey is one of the most interesting sleuths in the genre.

The aspect of the book which I most enjoyed was the setting. Sayers conveys the small East Anglia town convincingly without reverting to any of the clichés that have grown up around English small town life. The plot centers around the Anglican church of the village, particularly around the bell tower of that church. The way bell-ringing in old churches works plays a crucial and surprisingly fascinating role in the story; the subject is so well presented that one may finish the novel feeling inclined to find a non-fiction book about the same.

07 July, 2007

Mansfield Park

Oddly enough many people I've talked to seem to have a lot of trouble warming up to this book. It's true that it is much less obviously hilarious than Northanger Abbey or Pride and Prejudice, but it does have its pricelessly funny characters, and has witty observations in profusion.

The most common complaint does not refer, anyway, to book's comparative "lack of humour", but to a perceived lack of interesting-ness on the part of the main character, Fanny Price. She is, many people say, far too good to be real, and far too predictable to be interesting. I think that this is a rather unfair accusation. Fanny is quite a morally upright character it's true, but if you look at the theme of the book from at least one standpoint, you have to admit that her goodness is absolutely essential.

After this philosophy class, it's hardly a shock that I'm going to relate the approach I'm inclined to take to the book back to that phenomenal essay "Leisure, the Basis of Culture." In the book, Mansfield Park is the center of activity by being the still point around which the rest of the action revolves. It is a distinctly quiet and sedentary place (not always a good thing) but Fanny rather treasures the peace it offers.

The title is enough to tell you that the book tends to view things from the perspective of Mansfield. Not from the perspective of the inhabitants of Mansfield, mind you. They tend to exhibit various perversions of peace - most particularly apathy and laziness (the most obvious example of such a character is Lady Bertram). But the central "good" of the novel does without doubt lie in an undistorted peace which is simultaneously one of Fanny's highest amibitions and the only possible resolution of the story's plot.

This is most distinctly seen in several chapters towards the end of the book in which Fanny visits her very large, lower-class family. She is unremittingly distressed by their loudness and lack of manners, as well as by the general disarray of the house and family activities. Anyone in a large family will probably be struck first off by the irony of Fanny's expectations - she is, after all, expecting from her family all the "manners" and "neatness" which servants enable the higher classes to attain. That observation is slightly immaterial from the perspective of the book's point however. The desire for neatness and peace, for everything to be be naturally as it should be is the crux of these scenes, at least when viewed from this angle. (Yes, the irony of Fanny's discomfort, now that I mention it, appears even more pronounced - that alone would probably be enough on which to found a good-sized paper)

She is not, however, an interfering hypocrite like her odious Aunt Norris. Although she is perhaps wrongly distressed by natural family craziness, she tries to help correct tendencies which are at least mildly bad by working quietly herself, not making a fuss, but working quite diligently. This characteristic of being able to quietly do what she believes needs to be done, while managing not to become meddling or complaining seems to point to a quality of "being able to be at leisure". This rather long phrase is one of the concepts that lies at the heart of Pieper's essay. True leisure, he says is not only the ability to rest in God, but also to have the great boldness to rest in oneself. It is the rare person who can see himself as he really is, and to have the confidence to be at peace both with what God has made him, and with what he has made in turn of God's creation.

Fanny's stubborn refusal to act against her conscience denotes the former part of this aspect of leisure. And although the second part is displayed in many ways, I should think her denunciation of playacting shows it off particularly well. By almost any other interpretation, this attack on acting would be pretty near inexplicable. After all, not only does almost every kid have fun "putting on plays", but Jane Austen was very often among the foremost actors in family theatricals. I believe that the critique here is aimed at an attitude which the theater only symbolizes - an attitude which is contrary to the second definition of leisure. Notice that the best actor in the theatricals - Henry Crawford - is also the best actor in real life. He is in fact so thoroughly an actor that he seems unable to distinguish his own desire for happiness from a desire to play a dramatic role in life. He ends up making a rather big fool of himself. (I can't really elaborate or I'd totally wreck the story, unfortunately.) He, like most of the other characters involved in the "acting chapters" is skewed by being too at ease playing a part and not enough at ease being genuinely himself.

Many critics seem to take issue with Fanny's goodness. They appear offended by what they must see as caving to respectability on the part of the "rebellious" creator of Elizabeth Bennet. I think Fanny's strong, if unvarying moral backbone provides the only possible support to a story which is very much about rest. Not, as in much angsty modern literature about a restless search for a peace which the anti-hero eventually thinks in despair to be impossible, but actual peace. Seen from that perspective, I don't think the retiring Fanny Price is quite such an obnoxious goody-goody after all.

03 July, 2007

Philosophy retreat

So, I just got back from a five day long retreat/class centering around an introduction to philosophy. It was indescribably awesome.

Including my sister and myself, there were 14 students attending, and three teachers came: a Professor Krom and a Professor and Dr. Franks. Of course, Fr. Paul was there as well: he is the one who originated the entire concept, and who pioneered it last year with a few students from our parish.

The seminars were awesome: they involved reading an excerpt or two from literature or from a philosopher's or theologian's writings and then discussing the excerpts with the guidance of the professors. Insofar as that however, the seminars resembled any other particularly interesting college class (except for the fact that every student was much more talkative and enthusiastic than students have been in the college classes I've sat in on).

There was an even more tangible difference however, which resulted from the setting and the context of the class. The setting was ideal in about every sense. We stayed at a bed-and-breakfast/retreat center which is simultaneously a working, several hundred acre farm, set between mountains and lots of woods. (There's a creek there to swim in too.) The beauty of all this certainly gave a different flair to the retreat - I mean, it wasn't at all like the many church hall/school gymnasium retreats I've attended. It was particularly appropriate as well for the theme of the retreat and classes. Before we went, every student had to read Josef Pieper's "Leisure: the Basis of Culture." If you've read that, my point should be fairly obvious; if you haven't, I'll just say that the beauty of the setting added naturally to our ability to be at leisure and step away from our work-a-holic culture.

I haven't even mantioned the most lovely thing about the farm though: there was a tiny (very, very tiny) chapel on the grounds, built out of entirely donated materials, which contributed an incredible aura of peace to the entire week. It is one of the few chapels I've seen which is similtaneously simple and beautiful - probably because its simplicity isn't artificial as it is in so many of those hideous modern churches. And we prayed there almost as much as we ever studied. One of the things I like so much about Fr. Paul is his refusal to dumb down the spiritual side of events simply because spirituality is stereotyped as being boring. So we said morning prayer, evening prayer and night prayer each day. We attended Mass at that chapel. Most evening prayers also involved Benediction and Adoration. Again, in prayer we rested from the work of investigation we had been doing in favour of time for contemplation.

If I tried to outline what we discussed in any greater depth than I've already hinted at here, I would have to go on for pages and pages. So I'll stop in a second with a long string of adjectives which one could quite accurately apply to this retreat/class/sweet, incredible, awesome experience. If you can imagine all of them together, you might have a good idea of what the past week was really like. (It'll probably sound like a generic personality profile, actually, but that won't stop me from making your imagination work harder.)

Beautiful, fun, incredible, amazing, spiritual, intellectual, challenging, euphoria-inducing, jolly, etc, etc, etc.... (now go!)