The Weekend Read


I’m going to begin today a regular feature on Crafting Culture, “The Weekend Read,” in which I will be recommending works of fiction, poetry and drama by Catholic authors.  And I want to begin with a piece by Muriel Spark (1918-2006), who is perhaps better known outside contemporary Catholic circles than she is within them.

“One day in my young youth at high summer, lolling with my lovely companions upon a haystack, I found a needle.”

That is the arresting opening line of Spark’s short story, “The Portobello Road.” I had occasion recently to return to “The Portobello Road” and was reminded what a powerful story it is. It is at once a ghost story and murder mystery, full of the bright, angular observations and cold-eyed wit that characterize Spark’s prose. “The Portobello Road” is also a story in which Spark’s Catholic faith finds a clear yet understated voice in the sensibility of the woman we come to know as Needle, Spark’s first person narrator.

Spark has a strong sense of dark comedy akin to that of Evelyn Waugh or Flannery O’Connor, though her use of explicitly Christian themes and imagery is usually more oblique than what we find in Waugh and O’Connor.

There is another and far more quotable sentence from “The Portobello Road” that I am tempted to share, but to do so would ruin the entire effect of the story. I will wait to share it with you next week, by which time I suspect you will have found the sentence I have in mind–

Which sticks out rather like a needle in a haystack.

Enjoy “The Portobello Road.”

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  • Jane

    I’m really glad you are beginning this feature!

  • Harold Fickett

    We have such a treasure in the “Catholic Renaissance” of the 1950s, including, as you indicate here, Dan, the sometimes-overlooked Muriel Spark.  People always wonder why there are so few like O’Connor, Waugh, J.F. Powers, Spark, Mauriac, Bernanos, Greene, Percy, etc. today.  There are a number, actually, like Ron Hansen, Larry Woiwode, Doris Betts, etc.  People who would like a handy reference to the best work in the arts being done by Christians should visit and subscribe. 

    At the same time, literary fiction as part of the marketplace has declined.  Those in the Catholic Renaissance barely made it through the anti-religious sieve of literary culture in their day.  In the case of O’Connor and Percy, this happened because no one realized they believed what they believed until they had already become famous and it was too late.

    The problem is never the availability of talent.  From a lifetime of working in the field I can say with absolute assurance that God has blessed his Church with loads of talent.  The problem is infrastructure and financing.  Catholics and other Christians need to invest aggressively in media, and we simply don’t.  The Narnia books sat on the shelf FOREVER until Philip Anschutz and Walden Media finally came along and exploited an obvious opportunity.  Films as diverse as “Bella,” “Soul Surfer,” and “The Way,” are only being made because a few Christian entrepreneurs are FINALLY getting the message. 

    The Christian community has long thought, we’ll “make a movie” and solve the problem.  It’s not “making a movie” that solves the problem.  It’s founding networks, studios, publishing houses, new media companies–and owning enough of the distribution pipeline to ensure that the product has a realistic chance of reaching its intended audience.  The talent is there.  The investment is only starting–very tentatively–to come. 

    One ambition I have for Catholic Exchange–very much advanced through your great work, Dan–is to promote new talent and broadcast this message long and loud.  I want Catholic Exchange to be a “mail room” where new talent can get a start and find an audience.  That’s already happening, particularly with young writers like Cari Donaldson, Dwija Borobia, Jane Sloan, and Stephen Beale.  They all have a future in long-form journalism and books, and in one or two cases perhaps movies as well.  The advent of electronic publishing–as you’ve demonstrated, Dan, through the Patria website and series–means we can now build part of the infrastructure needed for an incredibly minimal investment. 

    Where are the Catholic entrepreneurs we need and the financing?  Where is their faith? 

  • Daniel McInerny

    Thanks, Jane! Suggestions for future Weekend Read posts welcome–from you and from everybody!

  • Daniel McInerny

    Thanks so much, Harold, for this rich feast of a comment. You’re absolutely right: we shouldn’t think, whatever our fondness for Waugh, Greene, O’Connor, Percy, Spark et alia, that the era of the Catholic writer died with the death of Walker Percy. My “Weekend Read” posts will attempt to feature as wide a range of Catholic authors, from all times and places, as possible. For that I’ll need your and other’s help–help you, Harold, have already generously begun to give.

    It’s perhaps more difficult these days for Catholic writers to achieve the kind of status in the mainstream literary world that, say, Waugh, Greene, et alia enjoyed. Ron Hansen has certainly achieved it. But part of the difficulty, as you note, is that literary fiction itself has less of a market share than it did seventy years ago. But then literary fiction isn’t the only outlet for the Catholic author. Our tradition needs to send excellent practitioners into the realms of television, cinema, theater, gaming, as well as popular fiction and the burgeoning area of web-based entertainment.

    And I also like your point about our need as Catholics (and Christians) to move beyond the thought of making a single movie that will change the world of entertainment as we know it, and to focus on building institutions that will produce art of the highest quality for years to come. It’s the difference between trying to change a baseball team’s fortunes by signing a star free agent, or by more slowly developing the farm system. We need to work on the farm system.

    I have some ideas along these lines that I will develop in a further blog post later in the week.