Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Relatively Obscure Great Books

I recently wrote about my most memorable books.  Those books are popular and easily accessible.  How about the less popular? 

The Place of the Lion
Charles Williams—a British writer in the early 20th Century, wrote novels which are both memorable and difficult to read.  Difficult to read because the language and situations are so strange that I could rarely relate.  The memorable—one of his novels, I can’t remember which one, but I think it’s this one: 
Descent into Hell, a Novel
described the act of bearing someone else’s burdens in such a way that I have never forgotten it.  The female character had an overwhelming fear.  A male character in whom she confided told her that if she would give her fear over to him, he would bear it for her.  Not simply a statement that he would “pray’ for her in her distress, but an offer to bear the fear and the distress of the fear for her.  Her only obligation was to give it up to him.  When was the last time you said that to someone.  I have said it twice.   I don’t know what happened with the original bearer of the fear and I don’t know that I suffered the fear in the same way (I don’t think that’s necessary), but it’s an interesting concept.

There are other authors so obscure (for those still living, I apologize) that I cannot remember their names with any regularity.  One of these is Frederick Buechner

Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons

Here is an excerpt from another of his books:

The Alphabet of Grace

From The Alphabet of Grace, pages 95-97 NOTE: Some of the references and imagery are from earlier parts of the book.

The interlocutor speaks. He is sitting at the opposite end of the . . . table where I teach, as if to raise the question which is the head of this table and which is the foot. He tips back his chair. "You mean you think you should be thrown there in the thick of it, right? Salving your conscience in one of the more plausible ghettos? Slogging it out beside Spock and Coffin. Marching on the Pentagon. Delivering turkeys at Christmastime. The trouble is you don't have the face for it, sir. You don't have the face for it or the guts for it. If you ever left this room and entered the real war, you know what you'd end up doing, don't you?"

I know, of course, but I shake my head. I would rather have him be the one to say it.

"You'd end up rolling bandages," he said.

"Maybe I should be rolling bandages," I say.

Come unto me, all ye with guts and without guts, with the right kind of face and the wrong kind of face. This is your first and last and only day. Be alive all day in it. Where your feet take you, that is who you are. My feet are crossed under the table where I write. The heel of one is pressed into the instep of the other. My legs are broken.

On the blackboard above her picture, Jane McWilliams has written Jesus Answers a Question. Through this story I am trying to write in this room about an old man's journey, I also want to answer a question. Perhaps it is the same question although I cannot be certain of this. My trouble is not only that I am not sure what the answer to my question is but that like Gertrude Stein on her deathbed, I am not even sure what the question is. I believe, however, that it has something to do with the price of being a human being. How much does a tin man have to pay for a heart? How much does a cowardly lion have to fork out for courage? What does it cost a scarecrow to be a man? Some question like that.

One day the old man in my book comes on a puddle of rainwater with the sky and the trees reflected in it. A bird is swimming there deeper than the tops of the deepest trees and there are fathoms and fathoms of sky still deeper than that. The old man has the impulse to jump down into this sky, but he resists the impulse. "When you are sick to your stomach and wish you were dead," he writes about it later, "there comes a moment when you must get the poison up somehow. But you do not stick your finger down your throat. You swallow down the freshets of saliva that come welling up into your mouth. You resist the protesting spasms of your own bilge. Because the poison you have to get rid of to be well is part of who you are, you will not let it go without a rumpus. From my childhood, I have never been able to retch without weeping. It was the same at the edge of the puddle. I did not jump in because I could not let myself go. Not even in order to live could I let go my death."

Is the reason the trees are so angry that the walrus is sick and refuses to vomit? Is it possible that it is not a walrus at all but a crouching man and that what I took for a large moustache is his mouth wide open because the pain is more than he can handle with his mouth closed? Is the question Jesus answers: "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" and the answer when all's said and done: "Come, follow me," which means--following him--that one way or another you end up with dried spit on your face if maybe only your own dried spit; means maybe that you end up with a sick smile rolling bandages because some poor pig has to roll them, or that you live with your guilt at not rolling bandages but at doing instead whatever other crazy job you like to think the voice in the dark room set you.

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