Exiles: A Novel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008
227 pp., $23.00
Reviewed by Linda McCullough Moore
"Hope Had Mourning On"
Let me put my cards on the table right off the bat: I'll take Gerard Manley Hopkins anyway that I can get him. I am thus appropriately grateful for Ron Hansen's new novel Exiles, a deliberately simple, fact–based story of a shipwreck in 1875 which took the lives of five young nuns, exiled by Bismarck's laws against Catholic religious orders. Hopkins, then a Jesuit seminarian who had abandoned his literary career for God's service, learning of their drowning, broke his long silence to write the poem "The Wreck of the Deutschland."
Are you thinking what I'm thinking? That the Deutschland's deck is a potentially brilliant, albeit perilously tilting, planking on which the plight of these nuns whose histories Hansen must imagine, and the poem they inspire, and the priest and poet Hopkins, these three together, (the invented, the poetic, and the real–life faith, work, play, and sorrow of a man), may interplay and so inform some intimations of the soul of things. The nuns' plight is mythic, the poem is a flat–out treasure, and Gerard Manley Hopkins is—thanks be to God for not just dappled things—Gerard Manley Hopkins.
The possibilities are delicious. We want to know about a man who gives his heart, but more, his art, his drudgery, to God in daft devotion. We want to get inside and see just where his poems come from, inching closer to a God who gives these poems to a man. And every writer on the planet wants to understand Hopkins' surrender of his loved art for God, his giving up the writing of his poetry because he thought that that would please the Savior. Another man, George Muller, a Victorian savior of tens of thousands of orphans, wrote a novel as a young man. He loved writing. He really did. Then he threw his novel in the fire. He burned it up and he went out and changed the world. And we who harbor every scrap of paper we have touched a pen to—we want to know about people like that. Like Hopkins. And if shipwrecks, even ones that could have been avoided, and nuns, kindly dispositioned, German, tall, no matter, if they be in league with God–breathed poets, can be made to help us understand the thing, well, we will buy the illumination in hardcover, first edition.
Alas, and I do not think it overkill to add, alack. These three elements, the nuns, the poem, and the poet are put in print, the trio not just willing but entirely able to intertwine and, each one, tell us things about the other two. But, at best they do no more than co–exist. The reader is jolted back and forth among the three aspects, often jarringly. At one point I took the book and turned it upside down and shook it, hoping to shake free some machinations I had missed. I later tried convincing me the threads are there, but just too gossamer to see.
Hansen hints at Hopkins' inner struggles but seems unwilling to stay with them, to make that descent. I'm not sure why this is called a novel, or why, once having renewed his novelist's license, Hansen did not use it to hunt and fish and trap more freely. I'm an old–fashioned girl, and picky in the bargain. I want my novels to come complete with plot, and not just that, I want the plot to come from character—that's character, as opposed to shipwreck. It misses the boat (excuse me, but it does) to mistake the lone screw propeller embedded in the sandbar for the story. The job description of a novel demands it tell as much about the sandy shoals that capture and confound the rudders of our souls, as it does of shallow–water dunes and any nuns killed in the making of the story. Am I being glib? I am not. The writing of a novel is no timid thing. And am I being greedy? Yes. And I can conjure in a heartbeat a Hopkins who would say, Well all right then. Do, someone, throw this girl a bone.
Hansen would have it that the man who gave up poetry for God takes it up again in knee–jerk response to a story in the paper. Is inspiration so mechanical as that? Does this not misunderstand the process of the poet, miss the point of silence, of long days of no words rhymed, no rhythms marked out on the page, the poet, though, at work perhaps most truly then. In my book, a writer is a writer is a writer, and just because you're not covering a page with ink at any given moment (or in any given decade) doesn't mean that you're not on the job. Writing is a way of being in the world, and if that's not true of Hopkins, where shall lesser scribblers stand?
There is a great deal of nodding in this book. Hat tipped in the direction of sexual orientation, Catholic conversion, bipolar illness, God, devotion, a friend's artistic rivalry, family friction, even down to de rigueur glimpses of the hardened nipples of the comely nun emerging from her bath on a frosty morning. By p. 37, Hansen is strip–mining Hopkins' poetry: plotted and pierced, gear, tackle, trim. (This is not admiration's quoting phrase or line, but rather, word. In many ways this is a book of words, with poetry and meaning wanted.) Matters of taste, all this, perhaps, (I like books where I can forget I'm reading), and had the story gone a better way, I might hardly complain when a dozen, carefully crafted descriptors (yes, I counted) jostle one another in a crowded phrase. Proviso: If a person wants to use every word he's ever heard in one small book, he best tell a very fine tale indeed.)