Thursday, May 28, 2009

Continuing correspondence ...

This post has been bumped, as the exchange has continued.
Piers Paul Read and I have resumed our email correspondence concerning his new novel, The Death of a Pope. (The initial exchange is here. And here is the website for the book.) Feel free to comment.

My last question was this:
FW: I have sometimes made the point in lectures that there is a creative dimension to reading: The reader must exercise his own imagination in order to realize what the author has written.
We seem to have imagined Monsignor Perez somewhat differently - or did I discern a sympathy that you may have been unaware of consciously? At any rate, I imagined Perez as a sad and somewhat lost soul, who at least has enough of a moral sense ... to have his confession heard by priest he knows is not a temporizer.
I even sensed a certain sad, lost quality to Doornik. I suppose what I am wondering is this: Do these characters affect the reader more sympathetically than you perhaps intended?
Uriarte, on the other hand, is definitely Luciferian as you say, which is what makes him such a compelling figure. Were your book to be made into a film, what a great role Uriarte would provide some actor (Benicio del Toro perhaps - he's already played Che Guevara, a far less interesting figure than Uriarte).
We are the same age, so both of us remember when there was no "traditionalist" branch of the Church. That "branch" was the Church. The Death of a Pope portrays a Catholic Church that is not only at odds with the world, but also with itself in some sense. If this is a correct perception about the book, it would also seem to follow that the book is reminding us that forces are at work on behalf of the Church far greater than any individual, whether Pope or parishioner, can ever muster. Is this correct and if so, could you elaborate?
Here is Piers's reply:
PPR: An author is always delighted if a reader takes a different view of his characters than he does himself because it suggests that he has given some sort of autonomous life to his characters. (It is the same when, in the course of writing a novel, the characters take off and do something that he had not intended.) Having said that, I would not disagree with what you say about Perez and Doornik. Both are Catholics who have dedicated their lives to the service of the Church but neither, I would suggest, are sufficiently aware of the subtlety and cunning of the Devil. This is where the sin of pride comes into play. Like Uriarte, but to a lesser degree, they feel they are called by God to do good, but must do something wrong to get into a position where they can do that good. The end justifies the means.
You are certainly right that the Church is greater than the sum of its parts and that there can be no question but that it will survive until `the end of time’. But it has gone through many crises – on thinks of the Arian heresy, for example. It is true that when we were young we were unaware of divisions within the Church but it was perhaps a lull both after and before two different storms – the Modernist crisis in the 19th century and what one might call the neo-Modernist crisis that followed Vatican II. It has led to much anguish and some loss of faith but, as you say, God does not abandon his bride. And, I would suggest, he does not abandon the successors of Peter: because while there are been Popes who are depraved, corrupt, worldly, cruel – there has never been a Pope so far as I know who has used his teaching authority to degrade doctrine. Pope Sergius III, perhaps the most depraved of all the Popes, authorized the foundation of the monastery at Cluny; and Pope Alexander VI, though he did not implement it, drew up a program for the reform of the Church. Both knew right from wrong.
FW: This brings to mind, for some reason, what Sister Elizabeth says to Father Luke at the conclusion of the retreat he gives the nuns: "It has been most instructive for our younger sisters to hear a voice from the past." Now, if there is any institution for which the past, in Faulkner's phrase "isn't even past," it's the Roman Catholic Church. But Sister Elizabeth seems typical of many in today's church is not seeming to understand that tradition is, as Chesterton put it, "a democracy of the dead," extending the franchise to our ancestors. Might one problem of people like Uriarte be that they are imprisoned in the present? Might the Devil be the supreme temporizer? Of course, many people, coming up this exchange, will think us strange for evil talking as we are about the Devil.
PPR: Didn't T.S. Eliot talk about temporal provincialism, and Chesterton say that one of the advantages of being a Catholic was that it saved one from being a child of one's time? Of course the Church talks about reading the signs of the times, and that is what many of the Liberationists thought they were doing. But their discernment, in my view, was wrong: and many people suffered as a result - both physically and spiritually.


  1. Anonymous7:10 PM

    Luciferan villains are the best - it seems a potent myth to have the figure of all evil have once been the 'best & the brightest', the closest to God. There seems more scope for corruption in such characters than in the middling lukewarmers. It also suggests that, in some sense, proximity to God is itself a temptation, a danger.

  2. Alas, I confess an unfamiliarity with Piers Paul Read's fiction, and I only vaguely connected his name with the nonfiction account of the doomed flight over the Andes, so--as someone interested in broadening my reading experiences and always willing to defer to your judgment--tell me, please, which book(s) you recommend to someone (me) as the initiation into Read's works.