What we’ve been reading
As the end of term approaches, the student brothers comment on their latest literary pursuits.
John Edward Williams, Stoner
I bought Stoner about three years ago, shortly before making simple profession and moving to Oxford, and it’s been sitting on my shelf ever since.
It tells the story of William Stoner, who grows up in a poor farming community and goes on to university to study at the agriculture school, but soon discovers English literature. Learning to appreciate literature, with the assistance of a particularly encouraging teacher, opens up a new world for him, so he decides to quit his agriculture programme and start a career in the humanities. While finishing his doctorate, he marries the first woman he falls in love with, at what we would consider a very young age. The marriage turns out to be very unhappy; his wife, he thinks, has been cruel to him – but there is a curious ambiguity in the novel in this respect. You seem to get only one side of the story, which leads you to wonder what could have been said from her point of view. Stoner is in some senses absent to her, and it seems evident that they have never really encountered one another, they have never entered into a loving relationship. So some kind of communion was always lacking in the marriage.
One can think about how this applies more generally to living with others. To Stoner, his wife is very aggressive, but from our own perspective we can see she has had difficult relationship with her father, which leads her to develop a strange, ambivalent relationship to men. But he does not show any attentiveness to her background, and so seems unaware of how those psychological difficulties have a bearing on the marriage. In some ways, the point of a well-lived experience of community is to get the other half of the story. Two things are necessary to grow into ‘one heart and mind,’ as the Rule of St Augustine says: first is an openness to the other and second, communicating oneself in a way that is understandable.
I suppose the greatest question left at the end of the novel is whether Stoner’s life has been a failure; his career has been frustrated, his marriage is unhappy, and they raise an unhappy daughter. As the novel ends, Stoner is forced to confront the memories of his life and there’s a real sense of loss that one feels from the missed opportunities of his life, particularly with his relationship with his daughter. His own relationship with his parents was difficult, and they only appear three or four times in the novel, and we’re left asking whether Stoner himself has only really repeated the mistakes and pains of his parents, of his wife, of his mother- and father-in-law. To a degree we’re left to work this one out for ourselves, but one thing is certain by the end of the novel: no life, no matter how much it seems to be marked by failure, is insignificant.
Roal Dahl, Fantastic Mr Fox
Mr Fox lives underground with his wife and four children. In order to feed them, he raids three wicked farmers named Boggis, Bunce and Bean, who, tired of being outwitted by the fox, become increasingly fiercer in their efforts to capture him. They initially devise a plan to ambush him as he leaves his burrow, but they succeed only in shooting off his tail. This is followed by a large-scale operation to attack his burrow, with which the story comes to its climax.
I first came across this book when I was 8 or 9 years old. We used to read a chapter at the end of each week during one term at school, but I have consistently come back to it, because as well as being fun and light-hearted, it is very easy to read and it helps me to switch off. I spend the vast majority of my time studying Philosophy and Theology, so children’s literature helps me not take what I’m doing so seriously that I could only talk to others about academic matters. An important part of the religious life is being easy to live with, I think a fundamental part of being human is having fun, and not taking yourself too seriously definitely helps! Children’s literature can give you that perspective, to remind you that you’re not just part of an insular world of philosophers and theologians.
One of the reasons why younger generations are perhaps not reading so much to relax is because their parents don’t read to them. I think of the film Hook, with Robin Williams. Peter Pan has grown up and forgotten the joy of being a child. We should reconnect with this! When I teach Holy Communion catechesis, I get the kids at some point to hug their parents, and often they start crying and realise they hadn’t kissed or hugged their children in a very long time.
So I would encourage everyone to return to any book they read when they were children, not just because ‘nostalgia isn’t as good as it used to be,’ but because by doing that you realise how far you have come in life, and hopefully you will recall happy times. This idea is also in Matilda: the books that you remember from your childhood are often those associated with cherished memories – even though Matilda’s childhood was traumatic, the books were a welcome refuge. I often wonder how me as a child would challenge me as an adult, and vice versa. I think I could learn much from my younger self.
Whilst I’ve said I do this to avoid taking myself too seriously, children play very seriously. It brings to mind what Aristotle says, that the most important things we can do to achieve happiness are ends in themselves. Most people, when they grow up, get obsessed with money, pleasure, power… but it is children who have actually got it the right way round: you don’t live to work, rather you work so you can live. Children understand that fun and play are among the most important things in life. So I’d recommend everyone reconnecting with their inner child; this is what helps us not to become like mean Peter Pan in Hook, to learn to be light-hearted. This is perhaps why our Lord says: ‘unless you become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven’ (Matthew 18:3).
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
I came across this novel looking around a bookshop at Gatwick airport for some light reading on travels. The book is fairly short, and I had heard good things about it.
The story follows the life of Okonkwo, a tribesman of Umuofia, and his family. It is set in West Africa, just before and after the arrival of ‘the white people’ (the British) to colonise the area. Initially the book offers a snapshot sequence of day-to-day life in the tribe, as Okonkwo, the ambitious son of a wastrel father, rises to prominence: by and by we learn something of their religion, the position of wives and children, the importance of the seasons, the effect of drought… These episodes, peppered with folk tales and proverbs, have a dreamlike quality.
Two turning-points in the book thwart Okonkwo’s ambitions. At a village-feast one day, his weapon misfires during a gun-display and kills a boy. By the law of the tribe Okonkwo must spend seven years in exile. During this time the white men begin to arrive, and the episodic quality of the narrative gives way to a linear progress: we see the gradual institution of Christian churches, then schools, and in time, from a distance, administrative bodies and courts of justice. Almost without realising, the local people find themselves under alien rule. Okonkwo takes vehemently against the new religion and the affront to his tribe. On his return from exile, Okonkwo leads a keen resistance. In the end, however, he suffers humiliation and his spirit is broken.
Okonkwo’s undoing is in large part the result of his pride, ferocity and hardness of heart. Nwoye, a son he despises, is an enthusiastic convert to Christianity, like many downtrodden within the tribe. Okonkwo is a tragic figure: the same qualities that won him success, are his ruin. (Just as Oedipus is made king by the same sharp intelligence and headstrong bravery, which lead him relentlessly to expose the shameful truth of his past.)
So it is not simply the case that Okonkwo is a ‘good guy’ against the ‘bad guy’ colonialists. Achebe conveys his anti-colonial agenda with irony rather than moralism. At the book’s close, the local white district commissioner is said to have conceived an idea for a book – The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger, an ironic counterpoint to Achebe’s own work.
The book looks at Christianity ambiguously: it is a tool for suppressing local tradition, but it also challenges what is cruel in the existing culture. Christianity at least offers some horizon which is not open to a tragic figure like Okonkwo. Christ reverses the tragic principle, that the same quality which makes success should also bring ruin: now the act of self-humiliation brings about glory. So Christianity seems to be neither straightforwardly a tragedy nor a comedy. And in its divine dimensions, it is a threat to no culture, rather a promise to all.
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