Commentary Magazine


Topic: Christopher Beha

The Literature of Conversion

Over at the blog of his publisher Tin House this morning, the novelist Christopher R. Beha recommends six books on conversion to Roman Catholicism, the subject of his novel What Happened to Sophie Wilder. In my review, I had observed that Beha’s superb first novel “includes what is perhaps the best conversion scene in an English-language novel since The End of the Affair.” I was happy to see, then, not only that Graham Greene’s 1951 novel made the list, but also that Beha acknowledges that it “significantly influenced What Happened to Sophie Wilder.” It is not often that a critic’s guess is so authoritatively proven right!

One other book mentioned in What Happened to Sophie Wilder also makes it onto Beha’s list — Thomas Merton’s 1948 autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. This is the book, Beha notes, that “sets Sophie along the path to her conversion.” More significantly, though, it articulates what Beha calls the “common theme” of Catholic novelists: how to “reconcil[e] faith with the demands of the modern world.”

I’d submit that this is not a difficulty that faces Catholics and Catholic novelists alone. It is the difficulty of being religious. Perhaps the difficulty is more glaring, more uncomfortable, for converts than for those who are raised within a faith. (Orthodox Jews refer to the two classes as BT’s, for baalei teshuvah or converts, and FFB’s — those who have been frum [religious] from birth. Too bad Christianity doesn’t have a similar nomenclature.) But it is not this difficulty, in itself, that makes the experience of conversion so inviting a subject for good writers.

Adding to Beha’s list would be easy, especially if it were expanded to include Protestants and Jews. To my mind, the best accounts of conversion ever written belong to John Donne:

Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste,
I run to death, and death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday,
I dare not move my dim eyes any way,
Despair behind, and death before doth waste
By sin in it, which it towards hell doth weigh;
Only thou art above, and when towards thee
By thy leave I can look, I rise again;
But our old subtle foe so tempteth me,
That not one hour I can myself sustain;
Thy Grace may wing me to prevent his art,
And thou like adamant draw mine iron heart.

Although I am a stranger to Donne’s religious vocabulary (I am often tempted, but not by God’s “old subtle foe”), I admire how beautifully Donne has dramatized the extent of the transformation in a person’s life that is wrought by conversion: behind, before, above, no matter where he looks, the religious person finds the meaning of everything has been transfigured.

William James’s chapters on conversion are the weakest in The Varieties of Religious Experience. James sounds like Rielle Hunter on the subject. Conversion, he says, changes “the habitual center of [a man’s] personal energy”:

It makes a great difference to a man whether one set of his ideas, or another, be the center of his energy; and it makes a great difference, as regards any set of ideas which he may possess, whether they become central or remain peripheral in him. To say that a man is “converted” means, in these terms, that religious ideas, previously peripheral in his consciousness, now take a central place, and that religious aims form the habitual center of his energy.

What James leaves out of account is God (“Only thou art above”). What he gets right is the importance of ideas. In his novel, Beha was also very good on this aspect of conversion, which usually goes unremarked. After Sophie reads The Seven Storey Mountain while a guest in a Catholic home, she discovers an entire literature — a subterranean literature for someone like her who was raised on the Western literary canon — a self-contained literature with its own rules and conventions, its own strategies and expectations, its own classics and commercial hacks. Beha grasps what few outsiders to religion understand: conversion also changes a person’s reading habits. Rilke gives way to Ratzinger, or Hemingway to the Hafetz Hayim.

A special subgenre of the literature is reserved for narratives about conversion to Judaism. The best-known title is Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant, in which “After Passover, he [Frank Alpine] became a Jew.” The autobiography of the Holocaust scholar David Patterson, who converted at the age of 42 (“Or perhaps it would be better to say that I stepped across a threshold leading to the path toward becoming a Jew”), is remarkably moving. It’s called Pilgrimage of a Proselyte.

Younger Jewish writers have begun to explore a more uniquely Jewish phenomenon — the experience of “return to Orthodoxy” (as it’s called, even when the Jew who “returns” was never Orthodox to begin with). In The World Without You, his recent saga of a secular liberal Jewish family, Joshua Henkin includes one daughter who has become a baalat teshuvah, a “born-again” Jew. She is also, not surprisingly, the only one of the three daughters with children. The single best account of the Jewish “return,” though, is Zoë Heller’s astounding and under-valued novel The Believers. Anyone who loved Christopher Beha’s first novel should read Heller’s immediately afterwards — for a rich appreciation of the differences in religious conversion, and in writing about it.

Over at the blog of his publisher Tin House this morning, the novelist Christopher R. Beha recommends six books on conversion to Roman Catholicism, the subject of his novel What Happened to Sophie Wilder. In my review, I had observed that Beha’s superb first novel “includes what is perhaps the best conversion scene in an English-language novel since The End of the Affair.” I was happy to see, then, not only that Graham Greene’s 1951 novel made the list, but also that Beha acknowledges that it “significantly influenced What Happened to Sophie Wilder.” It is not often that a critic’s guess is so authoritatively proven right!

One other book mentioned in What Happened to Sophie Wilder also makes it onto Beha’s list — Thomas Merton’s 1948 autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. This is the book, Beha notes, that “sets Sophie along the path to her conversion.” More significantly, though, it articulates what Beha calls the “common theme” of Catholic novelists: how to “reconcil[e] faith with the demands of the modern world.”

I’d submit that this is not a difficulty that faces Catholics and Catholic novelists alone. It is the difficulty of being religious. Perhaps the difficulty is more glaring, more uncomfortable, for converts than for those who are raised within a faith. (Orthodox Jews refer to the two classes as BT’s, for baalei teshuvah or converts, and FFB’s — those who have been frum [religious] from birth. Too bad Christianity doesn’t have a similar nomenclature.) But it is not this difficulty, in itself, that makes the experience of conversion so inviting a subject for good writers.

Adding to Beha’s list would be easy, especially if it were expanded to include Protestants and Jews. To my mind, the best accounts of conversion ever written belong to John Donne:

Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste,
I run to death, and death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday,
I dare not move my dim eyes any way,
Despair behind, and death before doth waste
By sin in it, which it towards hell doth weigh;
Only thou art above, and when towards thee
By thy leave I can look, I rise again;
But our old subtle foe so tempteth me,
That not one hour I can myself sustain;
Thy Grace may wing me to prevent his art,
And thou like adamant draw mine iron heart.

Although I am a stranger to Donne’s religious vocabulary (I am often tempted, but not by God’s “old subtle foe”), I admire how beautifully Donne has dramatized the extent of the transformation in a person’s life that is wrought by conversion: behind, before, above, no matter where he looks, the religious person finds the meaning of everything has been transfigured.

William James’s chapters on conversion are the weakest in The Varieties of Religious Experience. James sounds like Rielle Hunter on the subject. Conversion, he says, changes “the habitual center of [a man’s] personal energy”:

It makes a great difference to a man whether one set of his ideas, or another, be the center of his energy; and it makes a great difference, as regards any set of ideas which he may possess, whether they become central or remain peripheral in him. To say that a man is “converted” means, in these terms, that religious ideas, previously peripheral in his consciousness, now take a central place, and that religious aims form the habitual center of his energy.

What James leaves out of account is God (“Only thou art above”). What he gets right is the importance of ideas. In his novel, Beha was also very good on this aspect of conversion, which usually goes unremarked. After Sophie reads The Seven Storey Mountain while a guest in a Catholic home, she discovers an entire literature — a subterranean literature for someone like her who was raised on the Western literary canon — a self-contained literature with its own rules and conventions, its own strategies and expectations, its own classics and commercial hacks. Beha grasps what few outsiders to religion understand: conversion also changes a person’s reading habits. Rilke gives way to Ratzinger, or Hemingway to the Hafetz Hayim.

A special subgenre of the literature is reserved for narratives about conversion to Judaism. The best-known title is Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant, in which “After Passover, he [Frank Alpine] became a Jew.” The autobiography of the Holocaust scholar David Patterson, who converted at the age of 42 (“Or perhaps it would be better to say that I stepped across a threshold leading to the path toward becoming a Jew”), is remarkably moving. It’s called Pilgrimage of a Proselyte.

Younger Jewish writers have begun to explore a more uniquely Jewish phenomenon — the experience of “return to Orthodoxy” (as it’s called, even when the Jew who “returns” was never Orthodox to begin with). In The World Without You, his recent saga of a secular liberal Jewish family, Joshua Henkin includes one daughter who has become a baalat teshuvah, a “born-again” Jew. She is also, not surprisingly, the only one of the three daughters with children. The single best account of the Jewish “return,” though, is Zoë Heller’s astounding and under-valued novel The Believers. Anyone who loved Christopher Beha’s first novel should read Heller’s immediately afterwards — for a rich appreciation of the differences in religious conversion, and in writing about it.

Read Less

The New Catholic Fiction

As an Orthodox Jew, I have no qualifications whatever to speak of Roman Catholic fiction. True, I once ventured the guess that Richard Russo is — “after the deaths of Walker Percy in 1990 and Paul Horgan in 1995 — perhaps the leading Catholic novelist in America today.” I remain convinced that Empire Falls, which I continue to admire, is a deeply Catholic novel. These are, however, the stabs of an outsider. An ignoramus too.

My knowledge of Catholicism is confined to desultory unsystematic reading, warmed by feelings of closeness toward the Church of Rome after the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Add that Catholicism and Orthodox Judaism share the fate of being dismissed as “legalistic and moralistic.” (The epithets are William James’s from The Varieties of Religious Experience.) Yet religious sympathy only makes it easier to misinterpret religious experience by converting it into a more familiar religious vocabulary. And after teaching a course on American Jewish fiction this past term to a class that was overwhelmingly Christian, I know from firsthand experience just how easy it is to miss the emphasis, the tone, the undercurrent, in fiction that is written from a religious perspective that is not your own.

Fair warning, then. Treat everything that follows with the skepticism of an unbeliever.

William Giraldi and Christopher R. Beha are two of the most impressive young novelists around. Both published their debut novels within the past year. Giraldi’s Busy Monsters was issued by Norton last August. (I reviewed it here.) Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder came out from Tin House earlier this week. (My review is here.) Both novels are Catholic, at the most obvious level, in being about characters who are openly Catholic — although in opposite directions. Charles Homar, the narrator of Giraldi’s joyous romp, is a renegade Catholic. “A lapsed Catholic is the most devout Catholic of all,” he insists; “you have to experience this virus yourself really to get my gist, though in the meantime trust me.” (A good example of Giraldi’s prose style, by the way.) Beha’s Sophie Wilder is a convert. “From the Latin, to turn,” Sophie understands. “As in Eliot: Because I do not hope to turn again.”

Despite this difference, Charles and Sophie have something profound in common. They are what James calls sick souls. They are, in Othello’s language, “Unreconcil’d as yet to Heaven, and Grace.” They are intimates of evil and the failure of love. They are afflicted by man’s fallen nature — their own sin and other people’s — and find no peace in the knowledge that man, created in the image of God, reflects his glory. As Charles puts it, “Our species swam laps in a cesspool,” which leaves him with “the pressing need to get monastic, take a vow, wear a robe.” His language is comic, but his need is not. Both he and Sophie are in need of redemption, and both Busy Monsters and What Happened to Sophie Wilder are odysseys of a soul in search of redemption.

Between them, in short, Giraldi and Beha may have begun to redefine Catholic fiction. As a Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor emphasized God’s mystery — what she called, in a famous article, the “added dimension.” “A dimension taken away is one thing,” she wrote; “a dimension added is another, and what the Catholic writer and reader will have to remember is that the reality of the added dimension will be judged in a work of fiction by the truthfulness and wholeness of the literal level of the natural events presented.” The Catholic writer must strike the right balance between nature and grace, and this for O’Connor entailed seeing life “in its concrete reality.” An older generation of Catholic novelists was distinguished, in other words, by what George Weigel calls a sacramental vision. Paul Horgan (“whom almost no one remembers today”) was motivated by a similar vision, Weigel says, which he describes as a way of “seeing ‘things as they are’ [the title of Horgan’s most-Catholic novel], because that is the only way to see the extraordinary things that lie just on the far side of the ordinary.” Such a way of seeing, Weigel concludes, is “a sacramental sensibility convinced that the ordinary things of this world are the vehicles of grace and the materials of a divinely scripted drama.”

But this way of seeing is not Giraldi’s and Beha’s way of seeing. They see the torments of the soul that thirsts for God; they see that, unreconciled to heaven and grace, the sick soul must go on searching for reconciliation. Their emphasis is not on the mystery and beauty of God’s creation, but on the difficulty of the skirmish with ordinary evil. Giraldi and Beha will not welcome being identified as Catholic novelists. If I am right, though, they may speak to a new generation of Catholic readers. To say nothing of a new generation of readers who never would have thought that Catholic novelists might be a serious force in literature again.

But then again, I may be all wet.

Update: In a message to him, I suggested to Christopher Beha that his Sophie Wilder was a saint. “You wrote a saint’s life,” I said. Wisely, he did not reply.

As an Orthodox Jew, I have no qualifications whatever to speak of Roman Catholic fiction. True, I once ventured the guess that Richard Russo is — “after the deaths of Walker Percy in 1990 and Paul Horgan in 1995 — perhaps the leading Catholic novelist in America today.” I remain convinced that Empire Falls, which I continue to admire, is a deeply Catholic novel. These are, however, the stabs of an outsider. An ignoramus too.

My knowledge of Catholicism is confined to desultory unsystematic reading, warmed by feelings of closeness toward the Church of Rome after the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Add that Catholicism and Orthodox Judaism share the fate of being dismissed as “legalistic and moralistic.” (The epithets are William James’s from The Varieties of Religious Experience.) Yet religious sympathy only makes it easier to misinterpret religious experience by converting it into a more familiar religious vocabulary. And after teaching a course on American Jewish fiction this past term to a class that was overwhelmingly Christian, I know from firsthand experience just how easy it is to miss the emphasis, the tone, the undercurrent, in fiction that is written from a religious perspective that is not your own.

Fair warning, then. Treat everything that follows with the skepticism of an unbeliever.

William Giraldi and Christopher R. Beha are two of the most impressive young novelists around. Both published their debut novels within the past year. Giraldi’s Busy Monsters was issued by Norton last August. (I reviewed it here.) Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder came out from Tin House earlier this week. (My review is here.) Both novels are Catholic, at the most obvious level, in being about characters who are openly Catholic — although in opposite directions. Charles Homar, the narrator of Giraldi’s joyous romp, is a renegade Catholic. “A lapsed Catholic is the most devout Catholic of all,” he insists; “you have to experience this virus yourself really to get my gist, though in the meantime trust me.” (A good example of Giraldi’s prose style, by the way.) Beha’s Sophie Wilder is a convert. “From the Latin, to turn,” Sophie understands. “As in Eliot: Because I do not hope to turn again.”

Despite this difference, Charles and Sophie have something profound in common. They are what James calls sick souls. They are, in Othello’s language, “Unreconcil’d as yet to Heaven, and Grace.” They are intimates of evil and the failure of love. They are afflicted by man’s fallen nature — their own sin and other people’s — and find no peace in the knowledge that man, created in the image of God, reflects his glory. As Charles puts it, “Our species swam laps in a cesspool,” which leaves him with “the pressing need to get monastic, take a vow, wear a robe.” His language is comic, but his need is not. Both he and Sophie are in need of redemption, and both Busy Monsters and What Happened to Sophie Wilder are odysseys of a soul in search of redemption.

Between them, in short, Giraldi and Beha may have begun to redefine Catholic fiction. As a Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor emphasized God’s mystery — what she called, in a famous article, the “added dimension.” “A dimension taken away is one thing,” she wrote; “a dimension added is another, and what the Catholic writer and reader will have to remember is that the reality of the added dimension will be judged in a work of fiction by the truthfulness and wholeness of the literal level of the natural events presented.” The Catholic writer must strike the right balance between nature and grace, and this for O’Connor entailed seeing life “in its concrete reality.” An older generation of Catholic novelists was distinguished, in other words, by what George Weigel calls a sacramental vision. Paul Horgan (“whom almost no one remembers today”) was motivated by a similar vision, Weigel says, which he describes as a way of “seeing ‘things as they are’ [the title of Horgan’s most-Catholic novel], because that is the only way to see the extraordinary things that lie just on the far side of the ordinary.” Such a way of seeing, Weigel concludes, is “a sacramental sensibility convinced that the ordinary things of this world are the vehicles of grace and the materials of a divinely scripted drama.”

But this way of seeing is not Giraldi’s and Beha’s way of seeing. They see the torments of the soul that thirsts for God; they see that, unreconciled to heaven and grace, the sick soul must go on searching for reconciliation. Their emphasis is not on the mystery and beauty of God’s creation, but on the difficulty of the skirmish with ordinary evil. Giraldi and Beha will not welcome being identified as Catholic novelists. If I am right, though, they may speak to a new generation of Catholic readers. To say nothing of a new generation of readers who never would have thought that Catholic novelists might be a serious force in literature again.

But then again, I may be all wet.

Update: In a message to him, I suggested to Christopher Beha that his Sophie Wilder was a saint. “You wrote a saint’s life,” I said. Wisely, he did not reply.

Read Less

Review: Born from Above

Christopher R. Beha, What Happened to Sophie Wilder (Portland, Ore.: Tin House, 2012). 256 pages. $15.95.

The equivocation in his title is the key to Christopher R. Beha’s first novel. “What happened to so-and-so?” friends ask. They mean that so-and-so has disappeared from their social network, their gossip circle — not that so-and-so has disappeared for good. They want to know what so-and-so has been doing the last few years, like them, to settle into a marriage, raise children, promote a career. They don’t mean, “What changed? When did she become a different person?” Not until the end of Beha’s scrupulous novel does it become clear that what happened to Sophie Wilder is a more profound question than it first appears.

Author of The Whole Five Feet (a memoir of a troubled year spent reading straight through the Harvard Classics on their centennial) and an associate editor at Harper’s magazine, Beha has written a deeply literary first novel. I don’t mean that it is another frail workshop novel in which disappointments and epiphanies that would go overlooked anywhere else are exaggerated to compensate for the absence of a plot. There is a surprising amount of action in What Happened to Sophie Wilder. And if it is not quite the action of a spy thriller, it is more action than most would enjoy having visited upon them — sexual betrayal, the suffering of end-stage cancer, the drying up of talent and ambition, the crisis of faith.

Beha’s novel is literary in being about literature. Charlie Blakeman is a novelist whose first book caused barely a ripple. Sophie Wilder is the author of Visiting Professor, a collection of stories that caused a stir. Both have foundered upon the dilemma of a follow-up. They met in college at New Hampton, a liberal arts outpost somewhere in New Jersey. More appropriately, they met in the freshman-year fiction-writing workshop taught by a “near-famous novelist.” Sophie’s first story for the class, a 75-page Gothic tale about orphaned children, a pack of wolves, and murder (a novella, really), is unlike anything written by mere freshmen. Her literary opinions are unusual too. When asked whether she likes the Beats, she replies:

There’s no control, no sense of form. They romanticize their methods, as if we should read how they wrote instead of what they wrote. Eventually it all turns sentimental, like a conversation with a sloppy drunk.

Like Charlie, I was immediately smitten. And like everyone else in her life, I was puzzled and concerned when Sophie, who showed such promise, stopped writing. Initially this appears to be the sense of Beha’s title: what happened to Sophie Wilder the writer? Everyone keeps asking, especially the agent who got her a two-book contract with a major New York publisher. When Charlie meets her again after six years — Sophie had sabotaged their college romance by sleeping with his older cousin — they immediately fall to discussing their first books. Charlie admits his was not very good, but at least it was a start. “I’ll do better with the follow-up,” he says. “You’re precocious,” Sophie says. “It takes most writers years to regret their first book.” Charlie asks how her own follow-up is going. Sophie tells him it’s finished. Charlie responds enthusiastically, asking when he can read it. “It’s not that kind of finished,” Sophie explains. “No one’s ever going to read it.”

Charlie persists in misunderstanding her, but Sophie means that she is finished with the literary life. In the years since they were college lovers, Sophie has converted to the Roman Catholic Church. Her agent is excited by the news. “It’s like Graham Greene or something,” he says. “I mean, who converts anymore? Unless they’re converting away.” The fleeting reference to Greene is nice, because What Happened to Sophie Wilder includes what is perhaps the best conversion scene in an English-language novel since The End of the Affair. Raised by parents who were indifferent to religion (“they lacked the feeling for it, what she would learn to call the capax Dei, the capacity to experience God”), Sophie is not prepared for what happens to her when, by chance, she picks up an old copy of Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. The book does not convert her. She finishes it and realizes, “There had been no change within her yet.” But Merton leads to other Catholic writers, and Sophie discovers “an entire strain of human feeling and thought,” which until then had been “utterly foreign to her.” A literary intellectual, she commences the study of a new literature.

Then the unexpected happens. Attending mass at a small Catholic church, Sophie suddenly feels — she doesn’t know how else to say it — “for a time, occupied.” Later she would agree that the “occupying force” was the Holy Spirit. At the time, though, she knows only that she has been taken over by “something outside of herself, something real, not an idea or a conceit or a metaphor.” She rebuilds her life around the moment of revelation, although it never recurs. In the language of Christian theology, she is gennathei anothen — “not ‘born again,’ exactly, but ‘born from above.’ ”

She finds a use for her religious faith when her father-in-law emerges from years of estrangement and mystery to ask for her help. Bill Crane is hospitalized after surgery, and he wants out. St. Vincent’s will only release him to the care of a family member. He wants nothing more, but Sophie learns that he is suffering from end-stage stomach cancer. Her religious instruction forbids her to abandon him. And so she moves into his squalid apartment, intending to care for him as the light goes out; perhaps even, she reflects, to save his soul. Crane is furious: he wants only to be left alone to die. As the pain spreads and deepens, he begs her to kill him. For a time, Sophie stands by Catholic law. But in the end, she relents.

What happens next is amazing. Amazing and frustrating, since book-reviewing ethics prevent me from spoiling the novel’s ending. I’m not sure I could do it justice anyway. This much I can say. The last pages of the novel reorganize everything that has come before. You don’t close the book, but immediately return to the beginning to sort things out with a newfound understanding — and not just of Beha’s novel.

Beha writes his novel from alternating points of view; or, as Sophie herself would say, in alternating styles (“What was style, if not a point of view? A set of values?”). Every other chapter is narrated in first person by Charlie, who remains devoted to the principle of fiction (“[T]he story made the truth irrelevant,” he believes. “The telling was what mattered”). The even-numbered chapters are told in third person, from Sophie’s perspective — the perspective of a devotee to a different principle altogether. The difference in their values culminates in two different endings, two utterly different and incompatible versions of What Happened to Sophie Wilder. Outside the styles and values of his two main characters, Beha gives his readers no assistance in determining what really happened. Fiction is challenged by religion; religion is challenged by fiction; and readers are challenged on the grounds of their deepest values.

What Happened to Sophie Wilder is a remarkable first novel, which should especially be read by those who have given up on contemporary literature. Along with handing them something good to read, it will renew their faith in what literature is capable of achieving.

Christopher R. Beha, What Happened to Sophie Wilder (Portland, Ore.: Tin House, 2012). 256 pages. $15.95.

The equivocation in his title is the key to Christopher R. Beha’s first novel. “What happened to so-and-so?” friends ask. They mean that so-and-so has disappeared from their social network, their gossip circle — not that so-and-so has disappeared for good. They want to know what so-and-so has been doing the last few years, like them, to settle into a marriage, raise children, promote a career. They don’t mean, “What changed? When did she become a different person?” Not until the end of Beha’s scrupulous novel does it become clear that what happened to Sophie Wilder is a more profound question than it first appears.

Author of The Whole Five Feet (a memoir of a troubled year spent reading straight through the Harvard Classics on their centennial) and an associate editor at Harper’s magazine, Beha has written a deeply literary first novel. I don’t mean that it is another frail workshop novel in which disappointments and epiphanies that would go overlooked anywhere else are exaggerated to compensate for the absence of a plot. There is a surprising amount of action in What Happened to Sophie Wilder. And if it is not quite the action of a spy thriller, it is more action than most would enjoy having visited upon them — sexual betrayal, the suffering of end-stage cancer, the drying up of talent and ambition, the crisis of faith.

Beha’s novel is literary in being about literature. Charlie Blakeman is a novelist whose first book caused barely a ripple. Sophie Wilder is the author of Visiting Professor, a collection of stories that caused a stir. Both have foundered upon the dilemma of a follow-up. They met in college at New Hampton, a liberal arts outpost somewhere in New Jersey. More appropriately, they met in the freshman-year fiction-writing workshop taught by a “near-famous novelist.” Sophie’s first story for the class, a 75-page Gothic tale about orphaned children, a pack of wolves, and murder (a novella, really), is unlike anything written by mere freshmen. Her literary opinions are unusual too. When asked whether she likes the Beats, she replies:

There’s no control, no sense of form. They romanticize their methods, as if we should read how they wrote instead of what they wrote. Eventually it all turns sentimental, like a conversation with a sloppy drunk.

Like Charlie, I was immediately smitten. And like everyone else in her life, I was puzzled and concerned when Sophie, who showed such promise, stopped writing. Initially this appears to be the sense of Beha’s title: what happened to Sophie Wilder the writer? Everyone keeps asking, especially the agent who got her a two-book contract with a major New York publisher. When Charlie meets her again after six years — Sophie had sabotaged their college romance by sleeping with his older cousin — they immediately fall to discussing their first books. Charlie admits his was not very good, but at least it was a start. “I’ll do better with the follow-up,” he says. “You’re precocious,” Sophie says. “It takes most writers years to regret their first book.” Charlie asks how her own follow-up is going. Sophie tells him it’s finished. Charlie responds enthusiastically, asking when he can read it. “It’s not that kind of finished,” Sophie explains. “No one’s ever going to read it.”

Charlie persists in misunderstanding her, but Sophie means that she is finished with the literary life. In the years since they were college lovers, Sophie has converted to the Roman Catholic Church. Her agent is excited by the news. “It’s like Graham Greene or something,” he says. “I mean, who converts anymore? Unless they’re converting away.” The fleeting reference to Greene is nice, because What Happened to Sophie Wilder includes what is perhaps the best conversion scene in an English-language novel since The End of the Affair. Raised by parents who were indifferent to religion (“they lacked the feeling for it, what she would learn to call the capax Dei, the capacity to experience God”), Sophie is not prepared for what happens to her when, by chance, she picks up an old copy of Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. The book does not convert her. She finishes it and realizes, “There had been no change within her yet.” But Merton leads to other Catholic writers, and Sophie discovers “an entire strain of human feeling and thought,” which until then had been “utterly foreign to her.” A literary intellectual, she commences the study of a new literature.

Then the unexpected happens. Attending mass at a small Catholic church, Sophie suddenly feels — she doesn’t know how else to say it — “for a time, occupied.” Later she would agree that the “occupying force” was the Holy Spirit. At the time, though, she knows only that she has been taken over by “something outside of herself, something real, not an idea or a conceit or a metaphor.” She rebuilds her life around the moment of revelation, although it never recurs. In the language of Christian theology, she is gennathei anothen — “not ‘born again,’ exactly, but ‘born from above.’ ”

She finds a use for her religious faith when her father-in-law emerges from years of estrangement and mystery to ask for her help. Bill Crane is hospitalized after surgery, and he wants out. St. Vincent’s will only release him to the care of a family member. He wants nothing more, but Sophie learns that he is suffering from end-stage stomach cancer. Her religious instruction forbids her to abandon him. And so she moves into his squalid apartment, intending to care for him as the light goes out; perhaps even, she reflects, to save his soul. Crane is furious: he wants only to be left alone to die. As the pain spreads and deepens, he begs her to kill him. For a time, Sophie stands by Catholic law. But in the end, she relents.

What happens next is amazing. Amazing and frustrating, since book-reviewing ethics prevent me from spoiling the novel’s ending. I’m not sure I could do it justice anyway. This much I can say. The last pages of the novel reorganize everything that has come before. You don’t close the book, but immediately return to the beginning to sort things out with a newfound understanding — and not just of Beha’s novel.

Beha writes his novel from alternating points of view; or, as Sophie herself would say, in alternating styles (“What was style, if not a point of view? A set of values?”). Every other chapter is narrated in first person by Charlie, who remains devoted to the principle of fiction (“[T]he story made the truth irrelevant,” he believes. “The telling was what mattered”). The even-numbered chapters are told in third person, from Sophie’s perspective — the perspective of a devotee to a different principle altogether. The difference in their values culminates in two different endings, two utterly different and incompatible versions of What Happened to Sophie Wilder. Outside the styles and values of his two main characters, Beha gives his readers no assistance in determining what really happened. Fiction is challenged by religion; religion is challenged by fiction; and readers are challenged on the grounds of their deepest values.

What Happened to Sophie Wilder is a remarkable first novel, which should especially be read by those who have given up on contemporary literature. Along with handing them something good to read, it will renew their faith in what literature is capable of achieving.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.