The Life You Save May Be Your Own
Earlier this evening, I described my New Year’s resolution: read fewer books. The first book I selected for 2013, Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, appears to be a good choice in pursuit of this goal, as I’ll explain in conclusion. First, let me review how I came to read it.
I mentioned Elie’s book last October, in writing about Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful.
Lewis-Kraus does have this odd habit of quoting people without any reference to the source of the quote or any explanation of who the quoted writer is. For instance, out of the blue, a section begins with a quote from Paul Elie: “Contemporary culture makes pilgrimage impossible. Experience is always second-hand, planned an described for one’s consumption by others in advance. Even the rare, authentically direct experience is spoiled by self-consciousness. We’re doomed to an imitation of life.”
Do you know Paul Elie? I didn’t, and L-K chooses not to help me out. It turns out that Elie wrote The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, a 2004 study of four great mid-twentieth-century Catholics: Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy.
I went on to mention that just two weeks earlier, Elie’s second book had “appeared, Reinventing Bach. The re-inventors are Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals, Leopold Stokowski and Walt Disney, Glenn Gould, and Yo-Yo Ma.” Moreover:
Hours later, at the NYT website, I saw that the subject of the next day’s book review was none other than Reinventing Bach. And a little later, I found that it was the subject of one of the briefly noted reviews in this week’s New Yorker. Moreover, had I only been paying attention, I would have seen a review a week earlier in our local paper, the Seattle Times, by their former music critic, Melinda Bargreen, with Elie scheduled to speak in Seattle the next day as part of his book tour. Someone was trying to tell me something.
I began Reinventing Bach soon thereafter. On finishing it, I considered turning directly to The Life You Save May Be Your Own, but decided I wasn’t sufficiently interested in 470 pages of text (plus notes) on Elie’s Catholic quartet.
The matter might have ended there were it not for the appearance three weeks ago of a cover essay by Elie in the Sunday NYT book review, titled “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” In the essay, Elie observes that
Christian belief figures into literary fiction in our place and time as something between a dead language and a hangover. Forgive me if I exaggerate. But if any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature. Half a century after Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Reynolds Price and John Updike presented themselves as novelists with what O’Connor called “Christian convictions,” their would-be successors are thin on the ground.
So are works of fiction about the quandaries of Christian belief. Writers who do draw on sacred texts and themes see the references go unrecognized. A faith with something like 170 million adherents in the United States, a faith that for centuries seeped into every nook and cranny of our society, now plays the role it plays in Jhumpa Lahiri’s story “This Blessed House”: as some statues left behind in an old building, bewildering the new occupants.
It’s a strange development. Strange because the current upheavals in American Christianity — involving sex, politics, money and diversity — cry out for dramatic treatment. Strange because upheavals in Christianity across the Atlantic gave rise to great fiction from “The Brothers Karamazov” to “Brideshead Revisited.” Strange because novelists are depicting the changing lives of American Jews and Muslims with great success.
I am the author of a book about four 20th-century American Catholic writers, and I am often asked who their successors are. Usually I demur. I observe that we look in the wrong places. I point out that Graham Greene and J. R. R. Tolkien were considered baffling in their time. I cite Matthew Arnold to the effect that ours is a critical age, not a creative one. I reflect that literature is created by individuals, not compelled by social forces.
Inspired by the essay, I thought I should reconsider Elie’s book. Doing a search on it, I was reminded that beliefnet had named it their 2003 book of the year and provided an interview with Elie, adding that
This group biography of four mid-20th century Roman Catholic writers—Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day and Walker Percy—explores an era when American Catholicism enjoyed an intellectual high tide. Far from portraying his protagonists as avatars of some vaunted Catholic golden age, however, Elie shows how they worked out their ideas and exemplary lives in a context no less daunting than our own. Elie’s vivid group portrait is a serious work of criticism that can also serve as an introduction to the four writers’ work and lives.
I still wasn’t convinced that I wanted to spend 470 pages with Elie’s chosen Catholic quartet, but I decided to put myself in his hands. I downloaded the book and began. Soon I was drawn in, by Elie’s writing more than the content. I find it unexpectedly beautiful, in his construction of mood and of place. Sometimes I read just 3 or 4 pages at a time, but I immediately settle into Elie’s world.
This approach has its defects. Reading in small bits as I follow the lives of four characters, I struggle to remember details. But I enjoy the book just the same, enjoy immersing myself in the New York of my parents’ youth through which Day and Merton and Percy pass, the Mississippi and Georgia of Percy and O’Connor, the families and friends who shape their lives.
Plus, my piecemeal reading yields a bonus: it contributes to the success of my New Year’s resolution. If I keep it up, I won’t be reading many books this year!