Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The novels of Elizabeth Goudge

I have a post on her books over on What's Wrong With the World. I wouldn't dream of trying to recreate all the quotations and stuff here, but just in case anyone reads this blog who doesn't read that one, unlikely as that sounds, please do go and read it. I recommend her highly as a very enjoyable novelist who will surprise you from time to time, just when you thought you were merely reading a pleasant and mildly flowery story, with her hard-as-nails Christianity and her rather uncomfortable insight into human nature.

I forgot to mention there that Goudge is steeped in the liturgy of the Anglican Church and brings it up constantly. She is much attracted to Catholicism but was Anglican herself. Her father was Regius Professor of Theology at Oxford. She lived in several of the cities she writes about--Ely, Oxford, and Wells.


William Luse said...

All right, I'll look her up next time I'm in the bookstore. This is your one and only chance to prove to me that your taste in literature is worth following.

Lydia McGrew said...

Actually, my one and only chance with _you_, particularly, should have been A Canticle for Leibowitz. It's far more likely to be to your taste than Goudge. Anyway, you won't find her (probably) in the bookstore. Nearly everything she wrote is out of print. But Canticle for Leibowitz is to some extent "dark in the modern sense," which you may well like, though it is funny, too. But perhaps you already tried it and disliked it.

William Luse said...

Um, actually I forgot about it, life being what it is. But now that you've reminded me, I'll get right on it. :~(

Lydia McGrew said...

That's okay. It's better than your having read it and hated it and being too nice to say so. :-)

Seriously, _I_ like Goudge, but I doubt that she would be _your_ type of author, Bill, because I know your love for Faulkner and O'Conner. In other words, you prefer fiction to be difficult, dark, and grotesque. And none of those words describes Goudge. I suppose if I had to liken her to some famous author, it might be to Dickens, only with less allusiveness (Dickens can get very brief and allusive) and much more visual description. But Dickens is sentimental at times and is very willing to portray characters that he really means you to like, even love, people who are unambiguously and unquestionably good and lovable.

William Luse said...

you prefer fiction to be difficult, dark, and grotesque...and rife with redemption. You forgot that part.

Lydia McGrew said...

Yeah, I know that's what people say, and maybe even what was intended. I just think it gets lost in translation somewhere. But I'm a heretic.

Vlastimil Vohánka said...

Lydia and William,

I like fiction, however, my problem is that much of it seems too improbable, so it is hard to draw lessons. What do you think? I would take, e.g., Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment or Memoirs from the House of the Dead. (The only "difficulty" of the old stuff is its eloquence of dialogues: either it is unrealistic, or the common eloquence of the old ages is depicted truly, but was extinguished.)

I do not mean to ask for maximal realism, I just ask for more realism.

Of course, movies are worse. As I wrote once in a comment to Bill Vallicella's blog, there are few good, deep movies about "ordinary" people, e.g, movies showing the beauty and real possibility of a frontloaded life when one is "just" a father of a family. Majority of them seems to be about reckless, irresponsible or famous frontloaders and suggests that only such a kind of life is sublime - and that is, I hope, false. I admit it is diffucult to make a (payable) movie I would like to see. Persona by Bergman is a fascinating, emotive and inexpensive presentation of nihilism; based only on dialogues, (which are, again, extremely eloquent) and shots of two actresses. I would expect it is possible to make a comparably good and inexpensive movie presenting a more human perspective. However, probably it is more difficult to make such a movie than to make a dark movie. Dostoyevsky similarly said that it is extremely difficult to create a literary character which would be both perfect and not tiresome, and that this goal has not been accomplished yet. He tried that in his Idiot, and (as he recognized) failed.

William Luse said...

I think your points are valid, Vlastimil. The "eloquence" of the old dialogues are indeed unrealistic because people in real life don't talk like that. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are verbose in other ways, too, that are deadly to the art of fiction. That doesn't mean that they aren't worth reading, but that their purposes are as often didactic as literary. The real Russian masters of the craft of fiction were Turgenev and Chekov.

There's no accounting for taste, of course, and I think Lydia and I look for different things in a work of fiction. (I think.) She thinks O'Connor grotesque, but I'm quite familiar with the characters in her work, and find them all too real.

Dostoyevsky similarly said that it is extremely difficult to create a literary character which would be both perfect and not tiresome, and that this goal has not been accomplished yet.

Actually it has, in the Bible in the person of Christ, and no fiction writer should attempt to recreate such perfection. What makes the characters in a story compelling is the degree to which they've fallen short it.

Lydia McGrew said...

Gosh, my comment disappeared on my *own blog*. That's very weird. Okay, here goes again:

I don't know how realistic fiction has to be; it seems to me it depends on the author and the sub-genre. Dickens, for example, gets away with caricatures quite nicely, because they fit into the overall type of literary artifact he's making. I tend to think too that the distinction between prose fiction and poetic fiction is a bit artificial. Does anyone fault Milton because his Adam and Eve in _Paradise Lost_ are not realistic? I certainly hope not.

Where a lack of realism is a problem, I think, is where realism is attempted and simply fails. To take the example of Goudge, she has a character in _The Scent of Water_ who is supposed to be a realistic portrayal of a shallow, air-headed wife. But she isn't, really. She's too flat a character, too one-sided, and Goudge's portrayal comes across as merely mean-spirited. On the other hand, Goudge has a character in _The Dean's Watch_, Miss Montague, who is both morally good and also believable, though I suppose one could argue that she is not "realistic" simply because few people actually think as she does. But you can "get into" the character and find her mentally satisfying within the fictional story.

I actually meant "grotesque" to be descriptive w.r.t. O'Connor. I can't cite chapter and verse, but my recollection is that she describes her own fiction this way, though of course she doesn't mean that to be incompatible with its being realistic. One of her points in her letters is that people in her part of the country really are like the characters in her stories, even though that is grotesque. Certainly "the grotesque" is a phrase used to describe O'Connor's type of fiction by people who like her and do not intend it as an insult. I just don't happen to appreciate it in literature, myself.