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.

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