Thursday, April 05, 2007

The canticle

This book: A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M Miller Jr. Very cool.

Have I mentioned? We're suckers for a postapocalyptic tale in this household. (No, I haven't read The Road yet, though I've been wanting to, and now I feel fully primed.) Add to the mix a monastery with all the politics entailed therein, bands of mutants wandering the landscape, and an Immaculate Conception — I am so there.

As I mentioned previously, I've been meaning to read this book forever, so when I learned it was being reissued I jumped at the offer of a review copy. I did manage to finish reading it last weekend, but I'm afraid I haven't many deep insights to share (I'm busy and tired). It's not a masterpiece of prose, but that's OK — it's a novel of ideas, some mind-bending and enduring ones. It's nearly 50 years old (written in 1959) and it's still relevant.

The first part is set approximately 600 years from now. (The second section jumps another 600 years ahead, and the third takes place some 600 years after that.) The world is barely starting to recover from nuclear devastation and the resulting "simplification" (a kind of uprising by the masses to overthrow the political authorities but also technology for the destruction they've wrought, a backlash against progress), and while such a threat no longer seems as imminent as during the Cold War, the implications are still worth considering. (The second and third parts respectively cover something like an age of enlightenment or industrial revolution and then a space age.) All the sections centre around the goings on of a monastery founded by Leibowitz, who is later canonized. Who Leibowitz is is largely irrelevant, a minor revolutionary really and an engineer whose documents survived the Flame Deluge.

One of the major concerns is the preservation of knowledge. The politics of the abbey come into play: who is best suited to preserve knowledge, who has the right to access it, who is equipped to interpret it. Advocates! Excommunications! (For these reasons I'm reminded quite a bit of The Name of the Rose, even though their stories, apart from the monastic setting, may not seem to have much in common at all, but A Canticle is much more accessible.) Of course, the preserved documents and other memorabilia are barely "knowledge" at all, mostly indecipherable information, but from these scraps civilization will rebuild itself.

The 3 sections were in slightly different forms published independently and later reworked to form a novel. And because of the vast time period covered, any attachment formed to a character must be broken. It's the monastery that's the touchstone, and it's rich with the symbols and (metaphorical) ghosts of its residents.

I really liked Brother Francis, who discovers some relics of Leibowitz with the guidance of a stranger in the desert:

This line of questioning was puzzling to Brother Francis. In his own mind, there was no neat straight line separating the Natural from the Supernatural order, but rather, an intermediate twilight zone. There were things that were clearly natural, and there were Things that were clearly supernatural, but between these extremes was a region of confusion (his own) — the preternatural — where things made of mere earth, air, fire, or water tended to behave disturbingly like Things. For Brother Francis, this region included whatever he could see but not understand. And Brother Francis was never "sure beyond a doubt," as the abbot was asking him to be, that he properly understood much of anything. Thus, by raising the question at all, Abbot Arkos was unwittingly throwing the novice's pilgrim into the twilight region, into the same perspective as the old man's first appearance as a legless black strip that wriggled in the midst of a lake of heat illusion on the trail, into the same perspective as he had occupied momentarily when the novice's world had contracted until it contained nothing but a hand offering him a particle of food. If some creature more-than-human chose to disguise itself as human, how was he to penetrate its disguise, or suspect there was one? If such a creature did not wish to be suspected, would it not remember to cast a shadow, leave footprints, eat bread and cheese? Might it not chew spice-leaf, spit at a lizard, and remember to imitate the reaction of a mortal who forgot to put on his sandals before stepping on hot ground? Francis was not prepared to estimate the intelligence or ingenuity of hellish or heavenly beings, or to guess the extent of their histrionic abilities, although he assumed such creatures to be either hellishly or divinely clever. The abbot, by raising the question at all, had formulated the nature of Brother Francis' answer, which was: to entertain the question itself, although he had not previously done so.

(This bit resonates with me, made me laugh even, because I quite famously as a child and teen, and, yes, even later, responded "I don't know" to most questions asked of me, not a shrugging, despondent "I dunno," but a seriously heartfelt "how can anyone really know anything and what are you really driving at by asking me such a thing.")

Miller witnessed the destruction of the monastery at Monte Cassino during World War II, and this allegedly served as inspiration for the novel. This also strikes a personal chord with me, as both my father and my mother's father were there; I wonder if they ever stepped outside of their brutal, personal experience and considered the vaster implications.

I haven't decided yet whether the novel is pessimistic in its view of the cyclical nature of history or whether it ends on a redemptive note. Certainly it's cynical of what we take for knowledge (how myth is made of ordinary man), including religious knowledge (how miraculous is interpreted out of the mundane; the value of faith in myth made of ordinary man). (This book is having a conversation on my shelf (and in my head) with War and Peace and Iron Council (China MiƩville).)

I am stunned that no one has attempted to film this novel.

Wikipedia summary.
Study guide.

Miller shot himself in 1996. He'd written most of another "canticle," Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman (an excerpt of which is included in my edition but which I've not yet read). It was published posthumously, the writing finished by Terry Bisson.

I wish I'd read this as a teenager. I'd be zipping through school hallways telling all my friends I'd just read the coolest book ever. It strikes me as a great book for teens, one of those first "adult" books, accessible but provocative. This is not to say it's any way juvenile — it's a good read for anybody, and deserves to be called a classic.

Very cool.


rachel said...

I always thought the ending was optimistic. But maybe my teenage self was too wrapped up in sharing a name with the head that wakes up...

cipriano said...

What a great review of the book.
Now I have yet another to add to my Wishlist.... under the heading of Books About The End Of The World That I Must Read Before The End Of The World Actually Takes Place!
Seems to be a lot of apolyptico-talk going on, as of late. Stefanie at So Many Books, talking about Not To Mention The Dog, now you here with Canticle, and I have already been interested in McCarthy's The Road.... aaaaacccckkk! What to do?

BTW, there is a book on its way to you... in the hands of Canada Post!

Bonnie Jacobs said...

Congratulations! You have just won a Thinking Blogger Award. You don't know me, or know that I've been reading your blog, but I thank you for the time and effort you put into what you post. Your award instructions can be found here:

Now for a comment on this post. I consider A Cantile for Leibowitz the best apocalyptic book I've ever read. I didn't realize it was being reissued until I read this post. No, I haven't yet read Cormac McCarthy's The Road either, though I have a copy of it at hand. I'll try to post more often.

Anonymous said...

I love Canticle. I had to read it in college and introduced my son to it a couple years back.

I was thrilled when I learned Miller had written a second novel. But, ugh, is it ever not worth bothering with.

Susan at pages turned (although blogger refuses to recognize me)