As useful as bibles
Keith Ward SPCK, £3.95 The Dean of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, sets out to tell the stories of the Pentateuch in a modern way, not dressing them up in modern costume, but using the machinery of the modern novelist, describing the psychological pressure leading to the sacrifice of Isaac, or the yearning of Abraham for the desert and another world. In this story-telling a la Margaret Drabble he shows a great deal of imagination and sensitivity, fleshing out the laconic tales of the Bible in a way which is both realistic and attractive — apart from a very occasional lapse into melodrama (Moses's curved sword, p. 119). The mysterious scene of Jacob At the River Jabbok is magically retold, and the account of the crossing of the Red Sea shows real insight.
I have only two reservations, first the book would have been much enriched by a deeper knowledge of the milieu of the early books of the Bible, customs and laws discoverable from any commentary or collection of texts. Secondly, there is a distinct lack of consistency in the degree of de-supernaturalisation practised: while in the call of Abraham God plays no explicit part and is replaced by inner yearnings, the evocative retelling of the story of the burning bush is spoilt (for me) when there is a series of exchanges between God and Moses in direct and open speech. These two slight failures combine towards the end of the book (was the author getting tired?) over the giving of the commandments and the ordination of priests (pp. 162, 181); here are superb opportunities missed, but perhaps the dislocation between what actually happened and the biblical foreshortening here becomes simply too extreme to handle. Some might say that this extreme situation shows that the whole attempt is misconceived. It may, indeed, lack academic purity and rigour, but very many of the stories thus retold become more memorable and forceful.
Henry Wansbrough The polished razor
The Oxford Book of Satirical Verse Chosen by Geoffrey Grigson OUP, £8.50
"Satire" in ordinary speech stands for an attitude rather than a literary genre; so what are we to expect from a "Book of Satirical Verse"? A "Book of Benign Verse" would not sound very exciting, and Geoffrey Grigson would hardly have been chosen as editor of it. "Satirical Verse" is more promising to our malice and our general desire to be amused. Of amusement there is plenty here. "The joke must not be lost," Grigson says in the preface in which he tries to explain his terms of reference "— the joke of statement, of sound, rhythm, form, vocabulary, 'rhyme and surprise." Some of these jokes, however, perhaps most of the kinds here enumerated, have little to do with satire as an attitude, and no more to do with it as a genre. More perhaps to do with comic verse. Satire is less of a laugh than a smile, less of a smile than a reflection of the world.
It is all a question of the kind of mind the world is reflected in. Geoffrey Grigson rightly says tbat we may be sure that satires never caused their authors pain, and that "we enjoy what they have written." But, while entering various caveats on the subject, the view he starts from is that of the alleged "moral or reforming or punitive intentions" of satirists. This is the pattern of Juvenal. Some of Grigson's "satire of milder levity" is hardly part of that pattern at all. It is perhaps more closely related to Horace's familiar style, or to the older notion of satire as a medley. There is something to be said for viewing all three of these intermingling traditions as one, for they do make up, if not exactly a genre, a lump of literature within which what we understand by a satirical attitude has full play, and with it some slightly reckless habits of language.
On this basis, one would perhaps not have Grigson's qualms about including rather abusive lines of Skelton's, and one would perhaps have taken one's stand somewhat nearer the centre of the field than he has done. The mere joke — of whatever kind — is rarely so funny that it lasts very long .or counts for much as literature. For anything worth preserving, and which has in fact retained an interest for us over a century or two, one is driven back on the mind in which the poet reflects his fragment of the world. That is merely another way of saying that the criteria are those by which we judge any literature. On this basis, the facetious falls away. to nowhere in particular, and Byron is not worth ten times as much space as Oldham (the proportion here). The noble author's wit included a good deal of silliness, as in his reflection that War's a brain-spattering, windpipe-slitting art, Unless her cause by right be sanctified.
A more solid mind than Byron's would have recognised the fact that blood is not mopped up by words. If one puts him in the context of familiar verse as a whole, his brilliance gets full weight for what it is, and the superiority of some less audacious performances becomes apparent. Grigson has included a good deal which might well be classed as familar verse simply — for example, Cotton's splendid poem "On Tobacco," where the author is reflecting as much on his own as on other people's follies. But then one might wonder why the terms of reference have not been thought to include more of the kind of material which appears in David Wright's excellent Penguin Book ofEveryday Verse — say, the superb "Collier's Wedding" of Edward Chicken (1698-1746). On the other hand, if more satirical satire is what was aimed at, one wonders why some political songs of the days "when Pym was King" do not surface here.
The 20th century, as here exhibited, shows on the whole too much sense of fun to bear comparison with the best periods. From this vice Wyndham Lewis (well represented) and Kipling are free, and they stand out as much the most serious performers of the century, making Chesterton and Belloc look trivial. One of the few convincing pieces towards the end of the volume is James Fenton's and John Fuller's "Poem against Catholics."
C. H. Sisson Frankly and freely
Open The Frontiers
Cardinal Suenens DLT, £2.95
In Open The Frontiers by Cardinal Suenens, we have rarity — a book whose value has been underpriced; in other words, a bargain.
To those who have hitherto remained sceptical in face of the Sue nens phenomenon this book will come as a revelation. Its sincerity is patent. This book should enable those who may have regarded Cardinal Suenens as a seeker after publicity, and those who have criticised him for absenting himself so often from his archdiocese in order to attend this or that charismatic or ecumenical function, to modify their views. If anyone was under the illusion that the Cardinal was capable of being categorised merely as the enfant terrible of the Catholic Church, then this book will act as a corrective. Open The Frontiers reveals the mind and life of a man soaked in prayer. Its subtitle is apt: "A Spiritual Testimony".
The first part of the book is based on conversations with the German journalist Karl-Heinz Fleckenstein. In this section, as Fleckenstein remarks in his preface, "I endeavoured to understand the cardinal's profound nature and to discover the golden thread that runs through his life and work." Then, in approximately 64 pages, the reader has unravelled the main influences, events and tasks which shaped the cardinal's 51 years' experience of the priesthood, including 34 as a bishop and 17 as a cardinal.
For many, the most interesting chapter here will be that relating to Vatican II, in which the cardinal played a crucial role as a moderator. It was he who made three famous interventions at the council concerning the restoration of the permanent diaconate (at the time of his resignation last year there were 70 deacons for 1700 priests in his archdiocese), the charisms of the whole people of God and the retirement of church dignitaries at the age of 75.
For others the most absorbing chapter might be that which throws light on the Contributors: David Lodge, novelist, critic and professor of modern English Literature at Birmingham University, was recently awarded the Whitbread prize for fiction; C. H. Sisson is a distinguished poet, novelist, critic and translator, and co-editor of Poetry Nation.
popes from John XXIII to John Paul II. The most significant chapter is probably that entitled "A Bishop Alive to Doctrine and to its Vital Repercussions." It is especially valuable for Cardinal Suenens' response to the question of where he belongs when facile distinctions are made between "religious" and "socially committed" Christians. He makes it clear that these two aspects are inseparable, particularly in a world where apocalyptic nuclear devasta-tion is a possibility.
In another chapter the cardinal deals with how the working of synods might be improved, dialogue with other churches, the Focolare movement, the charismatic renewal and the problem of suffering. What the cardinal has to say concerning the charismatic renewal will reassure many readers, especially the fact that: "We're all charismatic Christians, in other words, we've all received the Holy Spirit" (page 106). His description of the movement should equally subdue many bogey fears. He describes it as "primarily an awareness of the active presence of the Holy Spirit (rather than consisting of) prayer groups centred on the extraordinary charisms of which St Paul speaks."
In the light of the controversy which followed the 'interview which the cardinal gave in 1969 to Informations Catholiques Internationales, it is interesting that he sticks by his original 'contention that: "There are times when loyalty obliges one to speak very plainly; such criticism is another form of coresponsibility and love for the whole Church." This remark is typical of the tone of the whole book, which is grounded on the belief that" the Church is a family, and that in a family you can express yourself frankly and freely."
The second part is based on letters between the cardinal and Fleckenstein and is an often profound meditation on such realities as the Church, the sacraments, conversion, dialogue with the world, prayer, the importance of the Virgin Mary and the role of the Holy Spirit. Concerning the latter, the cardinal quotes an Orthodox bishop to illustrate his own thinking: "Without the Holy Spirit, God is far away, Christ stays in the past, the Gospel is a dead letter, the Church is simply an organisation, authority is a matter of domination, mission a matter of propaganda, the liturgy no more than an evocation, Christian living a slave morality." Again, when explaining how the invisible, charismatic Church must be sustained by the visible, institutional Church, the cardinal is at pains to point out that, it is merely the question of a single Church having a twofold dimension. "Think of the bark of a tree," he says, "it supports the sap but, at the same time, it's nourished by the sap."
Open The Frontiers has a foreword by Dom Helder Camara in which it is suggested that the reader will "discover in this book wonderful suggestions for preparing the advent of the third millennium of the birth of Christ." It is clear that Cardinal Suenens work is by no means finished. Ad multos annos! David Forrester