Exiles, by Ron Hansen

I ‘m excited to blog on this book, because Hansen has long been one of my favorite writers for a decade. His literary interests have been eclectic, and his skill at writing is something of a prototype for me. He’s moved from literary westerns to medieval religious culture and persecution, to Hitler’s Third Reich, to a romantic comedy in his previous book, Isn’t It Romantic?
Writers who move so nimbly between genres should be praised to the literary heavens but, sadly, Hansen’s readers and reviewers do little more than grumble at his literary agility. Which is probably why he hasn’t been able to grow and maintain the following his writing deserves.
Exiles is Hansen’s first since Romantic, which was published in 2003. If you haven’t guessed from the very rough summation of his writing above, Hansen seems fascinated with history as a subject for fiction. And he seems to have a more than ordinary interest in Catholicism as a sub-culture of Western society. With Exiles, he gives us a moment in history, overlain by its effect on European Catholicism, and throws in a bit of literary history in the bargain.
Exiles is really three stories: the life of Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, the wreck of the German ship Deutschland (which carried five nuns escaping religious persecution in Bismarck’s Germany), and the poem Hopkins wrote about the event, The Wreck Of The Deutschland.
I hadn’t realized how ambitious such a simple-sounding project could be until I began reading the book. And it appears the inherent difficulties in weaving these three themes into a coherent story seduced Hansen a bit as well.
The book begins with Hopkins as a sometime-poet, all-the-time young Jesuit. He reads casually of the wreck, then reads deeper, probably numb with fascination about the five nuns’ deaths and the details of the wreck. Then Hansen moves to the nuns and their personal histories, alternating them with huge chunks of narrative about Hopkins. Then he presents in dazzling prose the nuns’ ill-fated escape from Germany.
Giving the reader such huge slabs of disparate narrative without some effort at weaving them together made this reader wonder at Hansen’s focus. The book seems to stop and start several times, without a sense of novelistic continuity.
But not to worry. The second half makes the book worthwhile. His interweaving becomes tighter, and we see the eloquence that first drew me to be a Hansen fan. Some examples—all from his depictions of the shipwreck tragedy— that wow me as a writer:
“The ship had become an island of affliction and torture as a snowfield of sea foam washed over the quarterdeck, stealing whatever it could…”
“The ship groaned in its overweight of water. An injured elephant noise.”
“Wind or wetness snuffed five of the six tapers, so that there was only a mist of yellow light in the gloom of the saloon.”
Admittedly, Hansen’s pushing the envelope here, but it’s not purple prose. He uses such narrative moments to amplify the emotional backdrop of the wreck—and they work.
His historical purpose here is clearly to depict Otto von Bismarck’s attempted eviction of Catholics from Germany, this setting the stage for the Third Reich’s deeper discriminations. If one were to go deeper into Hansen’s intent here, one might also sense a feeling of history’s vagaries, similarly to those Tolstoy depicted in War and Peace (see previous blog posts). The unpredictability of life also affected Hopkins, forcing him to work in obscurity, perhaps the way Hansen has. Hopkins’ good friend Robert Bridges became England’s Poet Laureate, and the preserver of Hopkins’ work. Ironically, Hopkins’s literary stature grew in subsequent years, while Bridges’ waned.
Such is the condition of creative writing: one makes choices that bring fame and fortune in one’s lifetime; others, perhaps truer to their art, eschew fame of the moment, only to gain literary stature beyond their lifespans.
It’s also interesting to compare the history of the Deutschland wreck to Hopkins’ long poem to Hansen’s broader account. From such comparison we can only conclude that such fact-based literary perspectives create something separate from history, perhaps art’s alternative reality—the one literary theory constantly struggles to explain.


Selected Shorts XVI

Lyn Hawks, one of my writing colleagues and fellow writers-in-residence at Peace College in ’03, has finally crashed the fiction market. Not that she needs to, you understand. She teaches creative writing to blooming youth, has co-written a book, The Compassionate Classroom, and maintains two blogs, A Writer’s Journey, and Lyn Hawks. Having her own fiction published should put icing on all those cakes. Congratulations, Lyn, and may your writing successes proceed apace. Oh, and that’s Lyn above.
Yours truly is branching out in the blogosphere. I’ve begun a new blog, called Wordsmith, which will allow me to natter away on subjects other than reading and writing. I hope you like it, and would be happy to hear from one and all regarding this new venture. And there may be yet another one in the works….
The latest edition of Hitch News reports that, according to Baker Publishing Group, book buying is picking up, despite wallet-choking gas prices and looming inflation. Maybe with less money to put into America’s automotive love affair, the public will return to reading as a recreational outlet.
Writer’s Chronicle, for my money, the best mag for writers, reports in its September 2008 issue two items of note:
Congress may soon be passing The Orphan Works Act of 2008 (H.R. 5889), which would require all artists (writers, this means you) to record their works with private registries, and to pay for the service. Supposedly intended to place works in the public domain when copyright owners are hard to locate, this Act could be abused to spirit your works’ proceeds away from you if you can’t afford the registration fees. If this seems an outrage, a petition is available for all literary revolutionaries to sign.
The CEO of Random House, Peter W. Olson has resigned. Random House is the largest consumer publisher in the world, and according to this blurb, Bertelsmann, the parent conglomerate, exerted pressure to force this resignation, due to a 6% slip in sales over the past year.
Companies such as Bertelsmann are not the sort to nurture writing talent, preferring to give their bean-counters guaranteed book profits. But maybe – just maybe – the bean-counters will now see the long term benefits in developing fledgling writing talent.
Next week – a return to books—this one a bit more contemporary than War and Peace.

War and Peace – Epilogue

In his summing up of this grand, panoramic story of nations at war, Tolstoy’s intent in writing this tome finally emerges. He fully realizes the book isn’t a novel, nor is it history – although at times it’s both. He knows he’s reaching deeper, beyond the epic, beyond what he sees as a tradition of falsely representing historical events.
To reach this unexplored literary territory, he begins to dabble in philosophy. Remember, Europe is now in the thrall of Descartes, Locke, and the new Scientific Renaissance. Previously, reality—as Europeans saw it—had religious precepts as the flesh beneath its intellectual clothing. But now, to Tolstoy, a seeming Godless strain of reality has grown parallel to the old one with the emergence of science.
His attempts at philosophy here are, by modern standards, clumsy and naïve, but he has something significant in his grasp – particularly for his time. To him, the randomness in the way history turns isn’t caused by the hands of royalty or other elite. His implication here is that if the elite few did turn the wheels of history, we would have no random turns in history. He still sees social power as hierarchical – the pyramidal shape we’re all familiar with – but to Tolstoy, history’s impulses travel from the bottom up, not top down. This, of course, is the way we today view socio-political structure, particularly in our so-called democracies.
And he correctly sees the science of his era as seeking an understanding of nature’s interactions, not it’s causes. He even seems to gloat in his view that while rational minds of his time still seem bent on the presence of an omnipresent, omniscient God as the causality of all things their science examines, they aren’t finding it via reason. But in the end, even Tolstoy sees something rational in the depths he’s trying to plumb:
The people of a nation – and his interest here is foursquare on Russia – create their social reality from the raw material of the natural world and hand that upward, to those they allow to make their decisions. This was also – in a more abstract sense – the underlying tenet of the French Revolution, which Tolstoy despises, something I don’t think anyone called him to task to explain in his work.
Ironically, his bottom-up vision of social reality does position him at the eye of that day’s political hurricane, despite his other differences with Western European thought. Which is probably why, despite Communism, Tolstoy remained relevant in Russia and the Soviet Union deep into the twentieth century.
But these insights become clear only because the husband-wife translating team of Pevear and Volokhonsky give us the whole of Tolstoy’s text, and without the affectations of trying to re-word it in nineteenth century language. So once again, let’s applaud them. Their careful word-smithing and attention to Tolstoy’s complex purposes have made his overarching talent and far-reaching intellect live once more, and in the most vibrant literary manner.

Volume IV

Here Tolstoy offers a contrast of Moscow’s ills to Petersburg’s relative insulation from the war. “But the calm, luxurious life of Petersburg, concerned only with phantoms, with reflections of life, went on as of old…” This pretty well sums up this portion of the narrative. Then Tolstoy reflects this as he turns to the lives of his royal characters – Rostov, Princess Marya (Andre’s sister), et. al.
To underline his agenda here, Tolstoy returns to Moscow, where Pierre is being held in prison with “people of the lowest estate.” And to underscore the point even more strongly, Pierre is taken from this company and held in solitary. This is the darkest moment of Pierre’s journey in search of meaning.
Tolstoy next pushes a new character into Pierre’s experience – Platon Karataev, an older man, who tells masterful stories. To the author, Platon is the ultimate Russian – anti-intellectual, completely attuned to the workings of nature about him. Tolstoy sees Karataev’s comfortable positivism and innate strength as Russia writ small. That the French kill Platon is to depict in miniature Napoleon’s attempt to destroy Russian culture, to replace it with an emerging European science and materialism – something that cannot be done.
Part Two has Tolstoy once again playing the philosopher, depicting hierarchical power – and by implication the “truth” that comes from such hierarchy – as clouded by chance, opportunity, and aggrandizement. The focus of this editorial, naturally, is Napoleon. And to make the point twice, Tolstoy begins to picture Alexander as dissatisfied with court life, with power, with wealth, and prestige. In other words, an annotated version of Pierre – looking for meaning.
By now, Pierre has been released to see Moscow ravaged, the French soldiers, drunk and pillaging, ravaging the “lower estate” Russians who had to remain in Moscow.
Part Three reprises Tolstoy as historian – or rather, anti-historian. He again debunks the credit given to various well-placed personages by historians. Instead, he begins to give credit where credit is due – to the masses, in the form of partisans. As in WWII and the Germans, partisan bands did more to weaken the now-retreating French than did Kutuzov or Bagration.
And here Tolstoy returns to the novel form. Denisov (remember him?) meets up with Rostov’s younger brother, Petya, and they join a band of partisans, continually spying on the French, toying with them, attacking them. Finally, in one encounter, Petya is killed.
Meanwhile Pierre’s captivity and other travails in Moscow have led him to a critical moment in his spiritual journey. “…Pierre has learned, not with his mind, but with his whole being, that happiness is within him, in the satisfying of natural human needs, and that all unhappiness comes not from lack, but from superfluity…” Once again, Tolstoy cautions that the human urge to overreach its natural human condition, to add things of little meaning to it, defeats life. “Life is everything. Life is God.” Again, a pithy statement sums up what Tolstoy is trying to convey in1200 pages.
By the time we reach Part Four, Tolstoy has characters beginning to heal “the wounds in their souls,” as does the nation. Beautiful Natasha and not-so-pretty Princess Marya cautiously begin a friendship and Kutuzov’s troops run amok in chasing the French from Russia.
Pierre returns to the Rostov manor; he’s a changed person, as is Natasha, and their long-simmering love reaches fruition in marriage. Princess Marya marries Rostov, not Sofya.
From this point to the end, the story Tolstoy is bent on telling has the couples dealing with the minutiae of family life – a healing and ripening of life.
I'll belabor this critique one more week to give a few comments on Tolstoy's Epilogue.