“He can make the proudest spirits stoop, and cry out with Julian the Apostate, Vicisti, Galilcœe; or with Apollo’s priest in Chrysostom, O cœlum! O terra! unde hostis hic?
-Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy
Should you ever be athirst in the great American desert, try this experiment: read David Bentley Hart’s The Devil and Pierre Gernet: Stories, if for no other reason than that it’s a caravan supplied with a metaphysical professor. Granted, sadly, this may be precisely the reason why no one will read it; that is, professors given up to the whims of hyperborean winds are just as unlikely to find literary welcome as Melville’s Ishmael a warm cot at the Spouter Inn. On the other hand, this may be exactly the reason why it must be sought and read.
The stories are like a labyrinthine pomegranate with many seeds. And they have that Borgesian quality of the clinched fist about them, the number of Hart’s pages seem no more or less than infinite: none is the first page, none is the last. This is not, of course, to persuade one that there is little by way of reading ease and pleasure—there certainly is—but only to concede that these stories are comprised of that lost art of fiction of ideas in its highest order.
Thus the stories emerge from a particular movement of spirit that is so indigenous to Hart’s narrative voice that it is difficult at times to grasp, like an undercurrent you can feel but cannot see. This is not due especially to any peculiar conceptual difficulty inherent in the ideas expressed in the stories but more so because they deal with ideas and patterns of thought which have been slowly vanishing from the horizon of our cultural consciousness, like an event so strange we have chosen to forget it. Hart’s stories seem intent on emitting brief flickers of light in order to awaken a more primordial and elemental astonishment at existence; the mystery of being at all refracted upon the surface of all things.
But it’s not just any form of existence that may manifest itself in the corridors of time with which Hart seems preoccupied. It is not a purely mystical comportment to existence that is being summoned upon in the stories but what I would like to call, borrowing from Erich Auerbach’s classic work, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, a certain “pendulation” of spirit; a temporal pendulation moving within an eternal amplitude. A pendulation of spirit that is best expressed within the character of Hart’s Pierre Gernet.
This pendulum sways to and fro, like a restless Persephone, throughout the entire collection. Its defining characteristic is a movement through the most profound depths of tragic despair and sorrow to a promise that erupts and expands upon the surface of a vernal expectation. It is what Auerbach refers to as the dynamic movement and metamorphosis of cultural consciousness that broke through St. Peter’s dolorous dialectic of cock-crows upon his discovery of the empty sepulcher; a revolution in the experience of existence that set, as Auerbach writes, “man’s whole world astir.”
The stories, then, lay within the matrices of a certain interim of spirit that hints at an eternal ripening of mirth beneath the harrowing and tragic shifts of time’s disorientating quakes of violence. It is a movement through what Virgil called the lacrymae rerum, the tears in things. It is a sight that only makes sense in light of the darkly tears of Pierre’s life; a life that is narrated through the devil’s dialectic of occult powers and principalities; a dialectic that Pierre would call the play of Apollo and Dionysus, the circumscribing logic of Everything and Nothing upon the sea of being’s chaotic frisson.
But there is a deeper magic—a magical movement of redemption—at work within Pierre’s tears that shatter the mirror of time’s captivity to the image of death. And it is here, as I warned in the beginning of this review with a transposition of the words of Melville, that we are dealing with a metaphysical professor whose caravan of fiction is a kaleidoscope of time’s surfaces being shook-foiled (to borrow Hopkins) with eternity’s light. And it is here where the reader catches glimpse of that Spirit which is more intimately interior to ourselves than we are to ourselves, precisely in being infinitely other and superior to ourselves.
And it is perhaps here, also, where we wait—within the interval of the twinkling of an eye, between the flutters of an Ulysses butterfly—with the protagonist in Hart’s last story, The Other, for the lost time when “there was such a magic hanging about the place, and I heard you and almost saw you—almost. Something of your form seemed to steal through the light, as part of it, or behind it—I don’t know”. Hart’s venturing questions to his readers seem to be these: “What’s your memory like? What have you forgotten?”
In a recent New York Times essay, “Has Fiction Lost its Faith”, author Paul Elie laments the current lack of first-rate fiction portraying what Flannery O’Connor called “believable belief”. There is little doubt that Hart’s collection is first-rate intellectual and spiritual fiction, but I’m afraid that Elie’s point “that Graham Greene and J.R.R. Tolkien were considered baffling in their time” will ultimately prove true of Hart. (This, as should be obvious, certainly isn’t always a bad thing.) And, of course, it doesn’t help that Hart’s publisher is not only very small but has virtually no reputation for works of fiction. One simply wonders how it would be received if it had, say, FSG printed on the spine and critics were actually aware of its existence.
Whatever its fate may be, The Devil and Pierre Gernet is a pure joy to read. There are no marionette characters of ideas despite its being in the genre of fiction of ideas. And the prose is mellifluously sculpted and tight, pregnant with polyphony. Indeed, it could scarcely be said (excepting, perhaps, the likes of Marilynne Robinson) that there is a more versatile, learned, and gifted prose stylist spanning the worlds of both fiction and non-fiction writing in America today than David Bentley Hart.