Monday, April 17, 2006

Some Notes on the Work of One of my Literary Heroes

There will be nothing too scholarly or erudite about this post, but recently I have come across some hints about a new book from one of my favorite writers and a genuine literary hero of mine: the gifted novelist RON HANSEN.

Interestingly enough, there are a number of writers whose work I really admire who came from the same institution (the celebrated Iowa Writer's Workshop, who rejected my application in 1997 by the way) around the same time (mid-70s), some of whom I have posted about here. Stephen Wright, who I ended up studying under at The New School, and T. Coraghessan Boyle both attended Iowa in the 70s. Ron Hansen is another product of that school from that era, and his work more than stands up to the work of the others - and to that of anyone writing fiction today.

One major difference between Hansen and Wright and Boyle is that Ron Hansen is a practicing Catholic, and he writes from that perspective, which I relate to and admire. Hansen is a writer whose religious beliefs INFORM but do not OVERWHELM his fiction; they flavor it and give it depth and resonance without preaching or appearing to condescend. His identity as a writer is not distinct from his identity as a Catholic, they are one in the same, and I think this is as it should be. I admire this approach and I strive to achieve a similar, regonizable balance in my own writing. The way to do this is not to imitate Hansen's work but to be true and honest in pursuing my own, and if I stick to what I really have to say and don't try to write like someone else would write, my own beliefs and my own faith will also be evident in my work.

I would recommend any book by Ron Hansen to fiction readers, religious and non-religious alike. One of this novels, 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford', will become known to people later this year because it is being made into a feature film starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck. But for this post I would like to recommend two books for readers who are interested in Ron Hansen's books.

First, what I consider to be the essential Ron Hansen novel, 1991's 'Mariette in Ecstasy'. This is a superb book that has had a major, major influence on me in my writing. This may not be seen directly in anything I've written, but I'd nonetheless describe this as an absolutely pivotal book in my life. Set in the early 20th century in upstate New York, 'Mariette' tells the story of a young woman who enters the cloistered, isolated environment of a convent as a postulant, preparing to become a nun, and soon thereafter begins to be marked with the stigmata, or the wounds of Christ's crucifixion. She also endures spiritual visions and begins to have a divisive but profound effect on the community around her. The tension and drama of the book centers around the response her fellow nuns have to her spiritual experiences. There is an investigation which further fractures the community, while the reader struggles with their own questions of whether or not these experiences could be genuine or imagined. His Catholic faith notwithstanding, Hansen steers clear of answering these questions for the reader, but presents an objective, fascinating and brilliantly written narrative story. This novel is very impressive for the boldness of its subject matter, the fascinating spiritual questions it introduces, and above all else, the beauty and economy of its poetry-like prose. This book is equally impressive to me for mechanical reasons as it is for spiritual reasons. It is a truly unforgettable novel. I wish I had written it.

If you are someone who would be interested in the way Hansen's faith relates to his writing, then his penetrating and insightful essay collection 'A Stay Against Confusion' is for you. This book showcases Hansen's abilities as an essayist and is most notable for its insights on the relationship between good art and Christian faith. But it also explores other subjects, such as films, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Eucharist, and a riveting, frightening essay on the murdering of Jesuit priests in El Savador that occurred back in the late 80s. Hansen has a clear, commanding prose style and a great deal of wisdom and insight in matters related to writing and literature. His faith also rings true in this volume, which is a great supplement to his novels.

Finally, a little bit of a prediction. I mentioned earlier that I came across a little information about Ron Hansen's next book. It is a forthcoming historical novel about the previously-mentioned poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, particularly centering around the period when he wrote his most well-known poem called 'The Wreck of the Deutschland', in the late 19th century. I think this has the potential to be one of Hansen's signature works if not his masterpiece. Hansen has been work at this for some time and has all of the background and the motivation to write such a book. He serves as the Gerard Manley Hopkins professor of English at Santa Clara University, after all, a position that was created for him, and I think he is going to do this honor proud with this novel. I do not know much about Hopkins, but he is a deep and fascinating figure whose poetry is known to be difficult but is also renowned for it spiritual depth. I think Hansen will find a way to make this figure interesting and believable in the novel. He has proven he can do so before. This seems to be the ideal material for a novelist of this caliber to sink his teeth into. I predict this will be a superb novel, for I know that Hansen has the experience and the abilities to pull something like this off. I can't wait for it.

The novels, stories and essays of Ron Hansen are well worth the time of any serious reader of American literature.

1 comment:

Duke Altum said...

Talk about a perfect fit for the general theme of this here blog!... it's about time we extolled the talents and work of Mr Hansen here, and Mutt's just the guy to do it. Ron Hansen is one of many writers whose work I came to on Mutt's hearty recommendation, and I heartily concur with everything he's written here about him. Hansen is the real thing for sure. Both Mariette and Stay are indeed excellent books... and yet you could also point to his novel Atticus, a poignant re-telling of the parable of the prodigal son in modern times, as well as some of his short stories, as further examples of Hansen's prodigious talent.

Mutt touched on this, and I think he's right on the mark: what really separates Hansen from the pack is his commitment to, and appreciation for, "writing as sacrament" (to use his own words as quoted from an essay of the same title in Stay. His Catholicism informs and invigorates his own writing, yet never takes it over. He follows confidently in the footsteps of other great Catholic fiction writers -- Graham Greene, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, etc. -- who understood that a sacramental view of reality lends itself particularly well to the craft of fiction, seeing as it allows one to truly plumb the mysteries and graces that are lurking just beneath the surface of even the most mundane and (seemingly) trivial details of everyday life. "Grace is everywhere," as Bernanos' dying priest famously puts it in another great work of Catholic fiction, Diary of a Country Priest. Hansen obviously knows and believes this, and is willing to go out and find it in even the most unlikely of places (he did, after all, write a novel called Hitler's Niece!).

You just have to admire a writer like Hansen too who writes about what HE finds interesting -- subjects HE really wants to explore -- and doesn't worry about the commercial implications of such choices. He himself says that that was how Mariette came to be, and that book turned out to be perhaps his greatest critical and commercial success to date. Now, he is doing the same thing with his forthcoming novel on Hopkins... thus Mutt's prediction comes not without some justification based on past achievements. Hansen's a writer who's always had the courage to follow his own heart, and the talent to make good on his own hunches. No reason to expect he won't again deliver a powerful, spiritually uplifting work with this new one to come. I join Mutt in eagerly looking forward to it.