John, by Niall Williams

This 2008 work is a remarkable novel of the imagination. Williams has immersed himself in the minds, the bodies, and the souls of the Apostle John and his followers, around 100 AD. From the time he and they are exiled to Patmos, when John is an old man and blind, to his discovery of peace at Ephesus.

But throughout this period, disappointment and frustration lurk. For John, and his disciples, are waiting for the return of Jesus, his Second Coming. It is what sustains him in his old age, and what seems to hold together his disciples. The reader knows they are mistaken, of course, in awaiting Jesus’ return, but their faith, their belief in Him will culminate with the understanding, the transformation, that will provide fulfillment to their life, and to this novel.

From the very first chapter, I found myself immersed in the reality of this primitive era and the tender care with which John’s disciples look after their frail leader. Not to mention their deep faith as they ready themselves for the return of Christ, the only conclusion they can see that justifies their political exile on this desolate, rock-covered island.

Also evocative of this ancient era is the style Williams has chosen to tell his tale. It is highly poetic, as is his style in all his novels, but beyond being beautiful to read, it also serves to render quite natural the biblical world in which these characters live. Moreover, it is complemented by brief passages even more biblical in feeling when John recalls moments of his youth when he walked with Jesus.

But, of course, this is also a novel. And a novel needs more than style. There must be movement, must be tension that allows the characters to interact. Which, in turn, carries the reader ahead. And so an unexpected death early on confronts these holy men, followed by an innocent confrontation with the devil, and, finally, rebellion. Indeed, these dozen or so disciples become more human as half of them turn against their leader.

Their rebellious leader, Matthias, argues that if they are to be abandoned by a Jesus who does not return, then John cannot be believed, and so they are foolish to follow him. In this way, Matthias convinces his followers that he knows the true path to God, and that they should strike out on their own, establishing their own community. And realize that Matthias is closer to God than John ever was. It begins as an effective portrait of evil; but as it goes on, it seems quite an obvious one.

My assumption is that this rebellion is a fruit of the author’s imagination, and is part of his novelization of this portrait of John. In any event, it fits perfectly. It underscores the weakness, as well as the humanity, of these men who see themselves as servants of God. It also raises the issue of doubt, which many see today as a constant ingredient of faith. Indeed, the positive response of the remaining disciples makes their own faith stronger.

Williams has written that the germ of this book came to him when he was in the middle of another book. It came in the form of this question: what was John doing the day before he wrote the gospel? “I was looking for…the man not the Apostle,” he writes. “I was drawn to the human dimension, the idea that John was most likely the youngest of the Apostles, maybe even a teenager, and that the most significant event of his life happened then, that everything else is aftermath. His is by most agreed accounts the last of the four main gospels written. So, why does he wait so long?” And after considerable research he found himself “writing John’s experience of banishment, his disappointments in the world, and his long enduring. I am writing of belief from the inside where the doubts are.”

The climax of this novel certainly reflects Williams’ moment of inspiration. But it also reflects the depth of his research. For while the desolation of Patmos was comparatively easy to portray, the portrayal of

Ephesus is much more complex. For it was a bustling city, with merchants hustlers, and charlatans everywhere. Indeed, John can make no headway in this city of commerce—and succeeds only when there is a transformation within him. Which follow the intervention of nature…and also of God?

What was John doing before writing his gospel? He was recovering from an earthquake, recovering slowly, all the while still waiting for Jesus to return. But just as earlier, he had rediscovered the importance of love and been inspired to dictate scripture, so now a violent thunderstorm, with brilliant lightening, helps him to realize the importance of light, and how it symbolizes what Jesus brought to mankind and to the world. Which is when he is inspired to write his gospel.

But neither Williams nor the reader can forget the novel’s focus on Papias, the youngest disciple who from the beginning has served the apostle, being the youngest and the strongest. And at the climax, he as well as John is near despair at the failure of Jesus to return. Indeed, he is suffering further, for he has unwittingly contacted the plague in Patmos, and now is ashamed of his physical condition and his failure to serve his master.

When John is revived, however, after the storm, he at once cures Papias of the plague—on the last page. I think this a misstep by Williams, as if he cannot leave this young man near despair at the end, and must save him with a miracle. One suspects that Papias is a fictional character, and Williams wanted to give him a similar crisis at the end of this tale, but he could have given him another different fate—and not needed a miracle. If he was an historic figure, I apologize, but I still regret the author resorting to a miracle.

Overall, Williams was right to see his tale as a love story. It is a story of John’s love of Jesus, which motivates his entire life. But it also about his love of his disciples. And their love of God, yes, but even more their love of this aged, infirm man whom they support and guide, and refuse to desert.

This novel once again demonstrates Williams’ beauty of style on one level and depth of humanity on another. It is a depth that stems from his recognition of and commitment to the spiritual nature of man. I shall certainly continue reading him. (August, 2016)

Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene

This 1938 work is generally recognized as Greene’s first serious novel. And justifiably so, I will now agree. It had not impressed me, however, when I first read it perhaps sixty years ago.

And now I can see why.

Because this is not written in the beautiful, rich style of the serious novels that followed. It features a very gritty style, with metaphors that emphasize the ugliness of nature and the world. But it is nevertheless a true Greene work, as well as his first successful one. Because it is about evil. And about love. And about the two in conflict, the boy Pinkie being evil and the girl Rose not seeing the evil because she is in love.

It is a theme that will become richer, and more subtle, in subsequent Greene novels. It is a theme that naturally rises out of the newly acquired Catholicism of the author as well as the Catholicism of these two characters he has created. But it is not a visible theme until the second half, when Rose’s love blinds her. Indeed, Norman Sherry writes in his biography of Greene that the author had intended that this book to be a thriller, but as he passed the 30,000-word mark, he saw the possibilities in writing about more than a murdering punk; it could also be about a punk who personifies evil.

The story until then revolves around two murders initiated by an ambitious Pinkie. He seeks, through the power of his gang, revenge on a man who has betrayed his leader, who was also a father figure; but he also plots to avoid being blamed for the first murder. Greene explores the Brighton underworld and Pinkie’s efforts to survive it for a greater part of the novel, an approach which frankly turned me off in my first reading long ago. But this time I found it provocative because it was unclear how deep the evil went, and I was curious about where this novel was going.

Where he was going was Pinkie’s conviction that Rose could be a witness against him for the murder that opens the novel. He then pursues her, thinking that if he marries her she cannot, by law, testify against him. And Rose, being both unattractive and untutored in the wiles of men, succumbs to his attention, and then falls in love with him. What makes this relationship even more fascinating is that Pinkie is physically repelled by her, as well as by all women. For he has not only never experienced women, being a virgin and terrified by the idea, but also appears to be a latent homosexual. Or, perhaps, not even latent in Greene’s mind.

And so we have another example of Greene’s fascination with characters torn by internal conflict. Pinkie hates physical contact with women, but must seduce Rose. And Rose wants to live with Pinkie, but soon is convinced she must die with him. Indeed, the climactic moment when Pinkie plots with her to commit a suicide pact together—and we know he does not intend to fulfill his side of the bargain—is the most intense and most accomplished scene in the book.

The resolution of that scene, however, is not convincing, for Greene has taken the easy way out. He has three characters arrive fortuitously on the scene, and interrupt Pinkie’s plans. The most important of the three is Ida, whom we have been following at intervals throughout the novel. She was with the initial murder victim at the start of the novel, and seems to feel some responsibility for letting it happen. She is also, in contrast to the lovers, a very secular person, a believer in Right vs., Wrong, rather than, like the Catholic lovers, in Good vs. Evil. In any event, she is intent on seeing that justice is done and that Rose is saved. Indeed, she has been in pursuit of Pinkie for the second half of the novel. Which does lead to her presence in the climactic scene, when she arrives with a little help from the author.

The Raven of This Gun for Hire and Pinkie here are blood brothers. Each personifies evil, and each is involved with a girl who loves them and prefers to see the goodness inside them. J. M. Coetzee also points out that a death in This Gun prompts the killing that Pinkie commits as revenge at the opening of this novel.

One does ask how Greene could be so effective in portraying these characters on the underside of life. Granted, he wished to explore the nature of evil, and evil flourishes most on that underside. Sherry’s biography clearly shows how Greene researched the Brighton scene, using the race course, the hotels and bars, even the Kolley Kibber character who leaves cards all over Brighton and offers a prize to whomever first identifies him. He also cites actress Mae West, whom Greene recently reviewed, as a model for the spirited, blowsy Ida. As for his knowledge of the evil in these underground characters, Sherry says Greene “was tapping his own fundamental view of mankind and religious belief. What he is demonstrating in the novel is the limitations of religious belief which do not accept the existence of innate evil.”

The title, Brighton Rock, is never explained within the novel. It is a type of hard candy, and critics have assumed that the first murder was committed by stuffing the candy down the victim’s throat. This would make sense, and the title also reflects the hard life for these characters in Brighton. But Greene never makes clear why he chose it, as he chose his other titles.

It seems clear that Brighton Rock marked the turning point in Greene’s literary career. He realized that his new Catholic faith offered the entre with which to explore the contradictions in life between evil and sin on one hand, and human innocence and love on the other. And for literary purposes, this was most present in the sexual desire that drove his own life—desire as an expression of pleasure and also as an expression of love.

This is an ugly work on the surface, in its concentration on evil, in its unsympathetic characters, and in the hard metaphors of its style. But it offers a key to understanding the works to come, especially Power, Affair, and the plays. This is where the external world is replaced by the internal world—and by sin, redemption, and pity. It is where Greene finds his true subject: the contradictions within the human mind and the human soul. (February, 2016)