This is a wreck of a book. And perhaps, that is the point. Acclaimed US novelist, Ron Hansen, has taken as his subject the 1875 voyage of the Deutschland, a German steamship bound for the New World with five Franciscan nuns fleeing Bismarck’s anti-Catholic Kulturkampf on board. The sailing famously ended in catastrophe when a storm forced the ship on to the Kentish Knock, a sandbank in the Thames estuary, many of the passengers, including all the sisters, dying in the long, tempestuous shipwreck. Hansen unfolds the story of the nuns as they head towards their watery deaths but juxtaposes each episode in the grim drama with the tale of another doomed voyage, the life of the English Jesuit, Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poetic masterpiece took the wreck of the Deutschland as its inspiration. So we have the narrative of two wrecks, one literal, one literary, Hopkins’s religious life slowly unravelling as he is shunted randomly around the British Isles by superiors incapable of understanding him, his poems destined, it appears, to oblivion. So much for the main conceit. But Hansen wants us to think about big, Catholic questions: the nature of God’s providence, the sacramental character of creation, the human condition as exile and the (almost) imperceptible operation of redemptive grace.
Reading the work feels, nonetheless, like surveying a wreck, and some readers are in for an irritating time. Swirling around in the maelstrom of Hansen’s prose are an array of difficulties which certainly taxed my patience and good will. The style of the narration is decidedly uneven. We lurch from semi-poetic accounts of the disaster itself to the most prosaic reportage of the life of each nun, presented from birth up to the beginning of their short religious lives. It is hard not to want to skip these fact-packed passages which read like the newspaper reports which might well have been their source; but it would be a mistake to do so. When it comes to those more poetic paragraphs, Hansen seems at times to be mimicking Hopkins’s distinctive style, though, unsurprisingly, failing to meet with comparable success. The prose can be clunking at times, occasionally even ugly, making it hard to trust that the author knows exactly what he is doing. He has undertaken plenty of technical research (though not quite enough to know that Hopkins entered the English and not the British Province of the Society) and some passages bulge with specialist vocabulary which illuminates little and gets in the way. There is a cloying, almost Disneyish quality to some of the conversation of the young religious, as though this is how the author thinks Victorian nuns ought to have talked to each other. Most obtrusive of all, the narrator insists on drawing attention to himself by telling us what will become of various characters in the shipwreck, and worse still, yanking us across the Atlantic: thus, the travellers are seen “huddled with their luggage and the heirloom possession which they would carry to the New World and hand down to their children’s children” (p38). If you are reading this in the United States then it may be a helpful anchor, so to speak, but from where I am, not so far from the site of the wreck, it makes America (and modern-day America at that) somehow more central than it ought by rights to be.
Is all this really down to authorial ineptitude? It is hard to believe it. Hansen is a serious novelist. One of his books, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, has recently been made into rather a good film. He is also Gerard Manley Hopkins Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Santa Clara University, and evidently very familiar with, and fond of, the Society of Jesus. It occurs to me that his disconcerting story-telling might instead betoken an invitation to enter into the imagination of Hopkins himself, a place in which, far from perusing a smooth, polished surface, let alone a seductive narrative, we are shaken into an altered perception of reality where we find ourselves groping darkly towards an almost inexpressible truth, the presence in and to the world of that “thou-mastering-me-God”. If I am right, Hansen is a brave writer, trading on his reputation to persuade us to take a chance.
Hopkins’s experience of this God, we are informed, was not by any means consistently intense: “usually there was just airy mystery, and on the bleakest occasions a sense of God watching with slack interest but resisting any temptation to intercede [sic]” (p102). And so, as the ship founders, one of the nuns asks: "Why do you think God is doing this to us of all people? His devoted and adoring daughters?" (p185). Hopkins and the nuns are in the same position as the pilot of the ship who says of himself, "I have only my eyes to go by, after all." But this is where Hansen’s ploy comes into its own. For although he is not crude enough to offer a hackneyed theodicy here, he subtly lets us know that the Deutschland is to be the scene not merely of carnage and death but more importantly of a terrible liturgy. Sister Aurea exclaims that the ship is “huge as a cathedral” and the colour of the sea water that night is described as Chrysoprase, “the green of leeks mixed with gold” (p116). There are other narrative clues to watch out for too and, as the great sacrifice moves forward, the particular demise of each nun sheds a surprising light on the workings of providence. For those whose eyes are keen amidst the strewn wreckage and the “slaughter of the innocents”, each sister in turn encounters a last-minute redemption which responds fulsomely to the little details we have garnered about their lives.
Did the nuns have to die so that Hopkins could write, ending at last his self-imposed poetic silence? Again, nothing so crude is implied, but clearly Hansen does discern some salvific link between the fate of the exiled nuns, so resolutely embracing an ostensibly meaningless death, and the (thrice) exiled Hopkins, more reticent, struggling with his ambition and a lingering desire for recognition and success. Robert Bridges is brought in rather late in the day as a John the Baptist figure, a stalwart though sceptical friend whose lofty reputation as a poet would dim as Hopkins went on to win the posthumous immortality his talent deserved.
Observing Hopkins at work composing a poem unlikely ever to be published, a confrere asks, “Why write it, then?” “In puzzlement Hopkins replied, “Why pray?”” (p101). Hopkins’s poems are his entreaties as he heads for the sandbanks in Dublin. They are a window into that mystery and that hope on which he has gambled his life, Jesus Christ. Throughout this intensely Catholic novel, it is He who is the first mover, the hidden protagonist at work, meeting His faithful at the moments of their deaths and retrieving meaning from the wreckage and detritus of human life.
Damian Howard SJ is Assistant to the Novice Director of the British Province and is studying for a PhD in Muslim-Christian relations.