A Pure Clear Light--Madeleine St. John

It is one of my great regrets in life that I often come late to the table.  I have read two other Madeleine St. John novels and picked this up right before my trip and was drawn in.  In preparing to write a brief review, I looked her up only to find that she died in 2006--what a shame, because I, for one, could do with a great many more books like this one.

Most of Ms. St. John's novels are simple domestic dramas--sometimes tragedies, but in this case a kind of uxb planted firmly in the middle of a loving marriage which inexorably changes the marriage.  Flora Beaufort and her husband Simon are a happily married couple when Flora visits France with their three children while Simon stays behind to become embroiled in an affair with a young accountant.  Flora returns home and begins to take more seriously the question of God and religion which disturbs Simon deeply.  He tries to control the direction of this while carrying on the affair.

From these contours you can see that it is a story of love and faith which really is the equivalent of anything Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh has written on the subject.  It is a deeply Catholic novel with the concerns about who we are and how we are defined against the backdrop of faith.

The prose is simple, lucid--it never strays into the land of the poetic, but it is well-wrought for its purposes--lightweight, wry, agile, and easy to read.  Never sentimental, St. John is able to invoke enormous sympathy for her characters and their plight despite the vast and somewhat chilly authorial distance from them.  But the distance allows both perspective and compassion.

from A Pure Clear Light
Madeleine St. John

She shrugged it off and went on with the VAT returns., but she could not quite divest herself of the feeling that God had been watching the whole affair from its inception and was now laughing quietly to Himself: which, it there were no such person, was ridiculous, and if there were such a person was--what, exactly?  She put down her pen and sat, speculating for a moment. What, exactly, might one fairly expect the consequences of the Virgin's mediations to be--supposing, that is, that God existed?  Had she been given a sign? She saw that this would not do: any further down that road, she thought, and I'll be back int he Middle Ages before I know it.

But then, she had the fairness to ask, is that, considering  where we all now are, such a very dreadful destination? Flora felt suddenly a  sense of the unmitigated grossness of the superstitions of the modern age. You could be crushed to death if you weren't lucky. If you got the sum wrong. Hail Mary, she said, full of grace;  etcetera. You could just conceivable get to a point, she thought, where it didn't matter whether or not God existed: where the possibility that He did and might even listen to you was absolutely all there was between you and Hell. Because we do know now, at any rate, that hell exists.

All of the prose is this clean and clear--this focused and direct.  And mysterious, it forms a very ambiguous, but very rich and entertaining story.  We have the conflict from the resolute, waffling, adulterous husband:

from A Pure Clear Light
Madeleine St. John

Simon might not believe in the existence of God--indeed he categorically did not--but he was on the way to the great cutting room in the sky nevertheless. He might not believe that a person called God was going to put him through the viewing machine and decide whether or not to save him or let him fall to the floor, but he had some sense nevertheless of there being some ineradicable rule by which this decision might--however purely theoretically--be made. He was on his way to a time, a place, where--when--this awful accounting would have occurred if there had been a person called God; that there was no such person did not alter the inexorability of the journey or of its theoretical destination.
The sheer confusion of the conditional along with the absolute certainty of some form of judgment leads Simon straight into Huis Clos.  And would lead Flora there, perhaps.  But. . .

And one final beautiful note.  I love the exactness with which Ms. St. John describes the state of not-quite-being-able-to-say:

from A Pure Clear Light
Madeleine St. John

Flora considered the question. 'Ye-e-es,' she said. 'I suppose that's what I mean.'  But there was something other, something more, or something, even, less, that she meant--in that strange and tiny space in the mind where it is just possible to mean without having the word which conveys that meaning. And one could not have said whether it were fatigue or fear which prevented her from searching for, and finding, the right word. The reasonable word. The mot juste as English-speakers say.

It is a shame that Ms. St. John is no longer with us, because it is from such quiet, strong, and powerful books that a name is made.  I can only hope that the three or four novels she left us enter into the "Catholic canon" and are read by those with an interest in the successors to Greene,  Waugh, O'Connor, Endo, Percy, Bernanos, and as Ms. St. John would have it,  etcetera .


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