The Devil and Pierre Gernet: Stories
David Bentley Hart
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2012
176 pp., $25.00
Betty Smartt Carter
In the Halls of Story
I'm not an expert on any aspect of antiquity, though I teach high school Latin and once interrupted Ralph C. Wood during a panel conversation about St. Augustine. I really thought the poor man needed my help. The lesson I took away from that day was this: in the presence of people who know what they're talking about, it's best to stay quiet and look thoughtful, as if you're contemplating Roman tax law, or wondering why you never finished your master's degree.
That charade is harder to maintain in an essay than on a stage with loquacious scholars, and so I hope David Bentley Hart will pardon me for asking to write this review of his excellent collection of short stories, The Devil and Pierre Gernet. This is Hart's first published work of fiction, but he's already well known as a theologian, church historian, and defender of the faith against Dawkins/Harris/Hitchens, Inc. And since it's always hard to forgive a polymath, I'm perversely glad to report that his writing does bear a few scars of academia, including an alarming reliance on qualifying adverbs and a vocabulary that only a multilingual oenophile could truly love. Nevertheless, his prose is often lovely and always imaginative and emotionally rich. So, alas, some people do get to have it all.
But the main attraction here isn't really writing, or even storytelling. What David Bentley Hart offers is more akin to architecture. Wandering through his superficially unconnected stories, you may have the feeling of exploring an old, sprawling house, each room dedicated to a central idea and decorated with its own measure of poetry, scholarship, and whimsy. Doors appear in unexpected places. Passing from one story to another, you realize that what connects them is an ancient way of looking at the world: a vision of ideas, dreams, and history itself as creations of a mind outside of time.
The title novella takes the form of a dinner-table conversation between a passive narrator and a fallen angel who "had walked the earth for ...