We are all exiles

By  Michael Higgins
  • October 20, 2008
{mosimage}The appearance of a new Ron Hansen novel is always the occasion for careful scrutiny and delicious pleasure. He is the finest contemporary Catholic fiction writer in the United States, in my view (sorry Anne Rice), and his latest — Exiles — is one of his finest.

The author of several novels of inventive power and historical elasticity (Hitler’s Niece, Mariette in Ecstasy and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), Hansen delights in mixing historical fact with possibility, religious feeling with erotic need, saintly endeavour with the cold winds of reason.
Exiles is a wonderfully conceived structure. We have two parallel tragedies unfolding and not at the same time chronologically: the prolonged health decline — physical and emotional — of the great Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins in the inhospitable setting of fin de siecle Dublin and the death of five German nuns in the Thames some 15 years earlier celebrated/eulogized in Hopkins’s masterpiece “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” He immortalized them in his poetry; he knew something of their suffering in exile.

Hansen manages to effectively capture something of the individual lives of the nuns and as a consequence they are more than type or model for us: they are flesh and blood, they are innocence and silliness, pettiness and maturity, repression and eruption, power and humility and they have names and histories. Hansen makes sure of that.

{sa 0374150974}Hopkins figures largely in the novel and it is a sympathetic and non-judgmental evocation of a soul lost, uprooted from what he knows, in lands — metaphorical and geographical — that underscore his strangeness.

But that is Hansen’s point surely. These young, idealistic, doomed daughters of Christ have a lot in common with the English alter christus living off the shore of home and familiarity. They are all exiles: “Exiles, then, not from Germany, not from Europe, but from Paradise, from Heaven. And the others were no longer exiles. She slipped helplessly underwater, and joined them.”

Yes, each one, each individual nun, drowns separately as a personality, with a history, in fear, buttressed by faith, ultimately alone, the single exile, desperate in faith, desperate for faith. As “Sister Aurea told Sister Henrica, ‘Christ was an exile, too. Wasn’t He?’ And Sister Henrica said, ‘Yes, I think so.’ ”

They all are exiles.

As the Gerard Manley Hopkins Chair of the Jesuit Santa Clara University, how Hansen could avoid approaching the subject of exile in the life of the eponymous figure would be a mystery indeed. Fortunately, he doesn’t. Hansen gives us a flesh and blood Hopkins, a heroic Hopkins, a pathetic Hopkins, an idealistic Hopkins, a broken Hopkins. He pays him highest tribute in his efforts — enviably successful — in his resolve sometimes to write as the Master writes: “Sister Henrica stayed with Sister Barbara on a cliffwalk, watching zinc-gray waves with trailing hoods of white rush to the shore, the swell’s comb morselling into fine string and tassel before bursting on the rocky spurs of the cove and breaking into white brushes of foam.” Recognize the style.

In the end, some 19 years after the deaths of the five nuns he never knew, “Pater Geradus Hopkins was buried, like his exiled nuns, in a country not his own.”

In bringing Hopkins’s exile into relation with that of the “martyr nuns” Hansen forces us to consider our own “exile.” It is an unnerving moment: like a squall on the Thames or an uncomprehending decline in a Dublin infirmary.

But that’s life; graced life.

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