For centuries now, our world has been increasingly filled by purely humanistic culture. And the majority of what we regard as great literature turns on very worldly themes. In the novels of Jane Austen or E. M. Forster, for instance, we do not have profound explorations of Divine Grace in our lives, nor matters of the Faith.
But from late 1930’s till the 1950’s, a notable exception to this trend could be found in the Catholic novels by one of the great literary figures of the last century: Graham Greene. I have already reviewed his 1940 masterpiece The Power and the Glory here at this site.
Monsignor Quixote is a much, much later novel. Some traditional Catholics might question my approbation of this work. For after the early great Catholic novels, Greene appeared to lose his faith. This late novel is quite different then, and contains what could appear, superficially, as little but sarcastic liberal jibes against the Faith.
I have also heard it remarked that with his loss of faith, the power of Greene’s novels diminished.
Now, I will not deny that compared to The Power and The Glory, Monsignor Quixote is lacking. Yet The Power and the Glory is the most important and mighty novel this writer has ever read.
Compared to the towering insight and depths of pathos of that tour de-force, much (if not all!) of Monsignor Quixote is like a gentle, comedic stroll. But how much do such comparisons matter? Must Shakespeare produce a Hamlet every time he steps up to the bat?
For if Monsignor Quixote is not on the same niveau as The Power and the Glory – it is also very far from lacking merit.
It is perhaps unfortunate then, that Monsignor Quixote invites comparison to the earlier masterpiece – for it contains certain muted echoes of that book. There, the leading characters are an alcoholic Mexican priest hunted for his life by a Communist officer bent on eradicating all the priests. Here, the setting is immediate post-Franco Spain and the protagonists are an unlikely Monsignor and a Communist Mayor who are also being hunted.
What results is a series of misadventures – comic, tragic and studded with gems. The Monsignor emerges with a piercing, genuine sweetness that perhaps only a great novelist like Greene could render. (With lesser talents, the result could easily have been cloying.) But here we find real human beauty in an inept yet noble priest enamoured of St. Francis de Sales and St. Therese de Lisieux. The Communist of course, is devoted to Marx and Lenin, though, like most Spaniards, he had once been a practising Catholic …
The two of course represent the different sides of the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War and the Spanish dedication and passion for these very different ideals may surprise. At least, my experience of the Anglo-American sphere, is that we British and Americans are often not used to meeting serious proponents of either such Catholicism or Communism …
I will not deny that there are sarcastic “Communist” and liberal passages here that dismay me. I warn those who are faithful that there is material here, which may offend what they know to be true in their hearts. Still those like myself can gain understanding and insight into a very different world – which is no bad thing.
Some might even see in this late novel a rejection of Faith – but I do not think so. In fact, I think there is evidence here, that Greene may be slowly recovering his earlier faith – albeit in a tortured way which, filled as it is with doubt and paradox, is perhaps all-the-more heroic.
Faith – the real meaning of that word is indeed key to this book. And on this theme, there is a JEWEL so precious here that it merits quoting in full. In the novel, the Monsignor becomes deeply disturbed by a nightmare:
Sleep continued to escape him, while the terrible dream of his siesta stayed with him like a cheap tune in the head.
He had dreamt that Christ had been saved from the Cross by the legion of angels to which on an earlier occasion the Devil had told Him that he could appeal.
So there was no final agony, no heavy stone which had to be rolled away, no discovery of an empty tomb. Father Quixote stood there watching on Golgotha as Christ stepped down from the Cross triumphant and acclaimed.
The Roman soldiers, even the centurion, knelt in His honor, and the people of Jerusalem poured up the hill to worship Him. The disciples clustered happily around. His mother smiled through her tears of joy.
There was no ambiguity, no room for doubt and no room for faith at all. The whole world knew with certainty that Christ was the Son of God.
It was only a dream . . . but nonetheless Father Quixote had felt on waking the chill of despair felt by a man who realizes suddenly that he has taken up a profession which is of use to no one, who must continue to live in a kind of Saharan desert without doubt or faith, where everyone is certain that the same belief is true.
He had found himself whispering: God save me from such a belief.
Then, there is a mysterious, haunting and paradoxical ending. A reviewer should not reveal too much and Greene has left it so ambiguous, as to elude any certain interpretation. But perhaps I may be permitted to offer my own hermeneutic: Greene seems to be saying that the Marxist atheist has received his first Sacrament in thirty years. And after this, he no longer has the “freedom” of complete disbelief.
He has been transformed by Grace via the Sacrament and, after decades, Graham Greene is writing – once again – about the Power of the Catholic Mystery …
This for me is the final, most definitive joy in Monsignor Quixote – and I am tempted to end my review on that note.
But some final remarks: If you are a native Anglophone like myself, dear Reader, your world will likely have been dominated by Anglo-American literature, films and so forth. Greene was English, true. But he gravitated to Catholic cultures. Much of his literary life was spent in France. And he came to know Spain very well through significant travel and profound friendship there.
Thus in this English book, we have an acute observation of a very different cultural-matrix than many of us know. It is a world where people have vastly different aspirations to that of the capitalism which has dominated the Anglo-American sphere, particularly in recent decades.
In this world you will not meet many people obsessed with fashion, gadgets, prosperity-consciousness, keeping ahead of the Jones’ or being a winner and not a loser. But you will encounter characters whose lives are dedicated to the “Workers of the World United in the Party” as well as people agonised about the Church.
In short here is a world of Spain circa 1980, yet very foreign to the increasingly Anglo-Americanised world of 2010. It is a world in which all kinds of ordinary people take either Catholicism or Marxism very seriously – and in this novel meet in strange and surprising ways.
I write these lines as an American living in Madrid. Travel has allowed me to break through some of my cultural inheritance and I am blessed indeed. Not all have the same Providential destiny as myself – but many I think could benefit from such a sharp observer as Graham Greene in looking beyond the horizons of their culture.
For this reason alone, I would recommend Monsignor Quixote. And in these days of the Internet and Wikipedia, one can, if ones wishes, easily take this novel, look up the cultural references which may not be familiar and enter into a very different universe …
I consider myself very fortunate to have come to know firsthand this precious universe – at least a little. The livingness of Spanish Catholicism moves me very deeply and I have been given vital insights difficult to find elsewhere. Such is my own destiny and may not be yours, dear Reader. But if this world should speak to you, you could do much worse than let Graham Greene be your guide for a short while …
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