Reviewed by Meredith Wise
by Ron Hansen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008
227 pages, $23.00
The first thing to keep in mind about Exiles, if you are going to avoid being disappointed, is that it is a novelized biography rather than a conventional novel. Ron Hansen imposed some very strict limits on his invention, which he summarized in a discussion on the web journal InsideCatholic:
“Tackling the subject, various boundaries and limits were ethically imposed. I would never be at variance with the history, insofar as I could determine it. I sought to give life and personality to Gerard M. Hopkins, S.J., while avoiding the harmful and presumptuous conclusion that I had figured him out, which is something I cannot claim for either my family or friends.”
This is admirable in many ways. In Exiles, Hansen refuses to interpret what his sources leave ambiguous or unsaid. Instead, he takes the known events of Hopkins’ life and discerns an order to them where some have failed to find meaning, using the (largely invented) stories of the five nuns on the Deutschland to reveal that order. The narration is calm and thoughtful; the portrait of Hopkins is mostly exterior and objective: “Hopkins seemed to sink into an interior well, and then he said, ‘I just need some change, some relief.’”
And yet, this wasn’t the only road Hansen could have taken. He could have fashioned a character called “Hopkins” who would fit within the limits of the primary sources, and yet be created from all the imaginative resources at a novelist’s command. Just as there is the real Virgil, so mysterious with his reticent biography, and then the “Virgil” of Dante or Hermann Broch–so Ron Hansen could have created his own Hopkins and represented a fascinating inner life, from the inside.
In some ways he can’t help doing this already. “Why pray?” asks Hopkins when asked why he is writing a poem that he thinks few will want to read. These are not Hopkins’ own words. And then there is Hopkins’ imagined last confession, where he confesses shutting off the grace of poetic inspiration. Both of these invented scenes identify prayer and poetry to a degree which the real Hopkins probably didn’t. It’s difficult to call them “inaccurate,” but they do go a little beyond the explicit facts. In an interview on NPR, Hansen was asked how he reconciled his own belief that writing can be a form of prayer with Hopkins’ conflicting and conflicted beliefs on the matter. He answered, “I think Hopkins was wrong.” To some extent, then, Hansen’s literary interpretation of Hopkins is based on his own desires. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it hints at a different kind of novel, a more novelistic novel, and one that I would actually rather read.
Hansen has explained the stylistic scheme of Exiles as follows: “[F]or those familiar with Hopkins, I scattered lines from his poetry, letters, and journals throughout the book as a sort of treasure hunt, while hoping that my own prose would provide the gingerbread base for his candies.” These scattered lines are indeed as pervasive as gumdrops on a gingerbread house, and my knowledge of them suggested some fascinating possibilities. The landscapes that Hopkins sees are described in his own words–but so are the landscapes that the nuns see. Sister Henrica writes a poem of her own for Mother Superior, and it’s dreadful, treacly stuff–but later Hansen puts one of Hopkins’ aesthetic judgments in her mouth:
Under each curl [of wave] shone a bright juice of beautiful green. Sister Barbara asked Sister Henrica how she would describe that color, and she gave it thorough consideration before saying, “Chrysoprase.”
Sister Norberta scowled. “What on earth is that?”
Sister Henrica gently told her, “A mineral used for gems. The green of leeks mixed with gold.”
Even though Sister Henrica is no poet, she sees exactly what Hopkins sees. Why? This is just one of the many subtle mysteries of Exiles, a novel which leaves our Father Hopkins still triumphantly mysterious.