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05 August 2008

by Jonathan Boardman

Get a (literary) life!

FEW things upset me as a child more than Mervyn Peake’s 1946 novel Titus Groan. (I had a pretty un­troubled childhood.) The deliber­ate burning of Castle Gormenghast’s library struck at my bookish soul. The character I most identified with was Sepulchrave, 76th Earl of Groan, whose only joy in life was reading. Deprived of books, he goes mad.

All this came back to me recently when I saw an Italian film, Cento Chiodi (A Hundred Nails), 2007, written and directed by the veteran film-maker Ermanno Olmi, most famous for his 1978 Albero degli Zoccoli (The Tree of Wooden Clogs). This one, he says, will be his last.

A young, successful professor of philosophy at Bologna University disappears after an “outrage” in the library where he works: precious manu­scripts are found pinned to the parquet floor, tables, and walls, pierced by long, brutal nails. The film recounts the philosopher’s new life in hiding beside the river Po among a marginalised community, which he begins to “teach” and some­­how lead.

Parallels with the Gospels are explicit in more ways than the actor Raz Degan’s get-up “to look like Jesus” — beard, shoulder-length hair, etc. His sharing of wine with his friends is both like the wedding at Cana and the Last Supper; and the central scene in which he retells the parable of the Prodigal Son to an old man whose children have left to search for “better” lives elsewhere has a sacramental mood.

I’m still struggling with the film’s statements that “having a coffee with a friend has more value than all the books in the world,” and that “Reli­gion has never saved the world.” I’m still “in the Church” and indeed “of it”, and committed to books as well as, I hope, to people. But the film had a haunting beauty that I can’t forget.

I find myself siding far more now with the biblioclast than I did with Gormenghast’s arsonist all those years ago. After all, he doesn’t de­stroy the books: he just experiences passion in or with them, and then goes and gets a life. So, what have I been reading recently?

Books ancient

THE wonderful thing about Trollope is that one never seems to have fin­ished. And he seems never to go out of date, pace the very recent Radio 4 adaptation of The Way We Live Now. There are 47 novels, and even after 35 years of reading him I’ve still managed to chalk up only 20.

To have come across such a major novel by a favourite author as He Knew He Was Right only two years ago seems too good to be true, and this year’s trawl has netted works that have yet again surprised and de­lighted me: The Belton Estate (1866), The Vicar of Bullhampton (1870), and Dr Wortle’s School (1881). A dif­ferent one for each of the first three Lambeth Conferences — and with things to say on contemporary moral­ity which would undoubtedly have challenged the comfort of the assembled Victorian prelates.

Both Belton and Wortle touch on cruelty towards women within mar­riage, and the appropriateness of div­orce, whereas Bullhampton antici­pates Hardy’s Tess by some 20 years, and is much more sensitive and humane in its treatment of “The Ruined Maid”. But pardon me if I enjoyed more than anything yet another of Trollope’s clergymen, Dr Jeffrey Wortle, “an amiable egotist”, a kind of cuddly Archdeacon Grantly, a character from the earlier Barset­shire novels.

On receipt of an unusually cordial letter from his bishop, the good Doctor knows something is up, and pre­pares to attack. Be warned, brothers and sisters, in this strangely fruitful period for ad clerums.

Books modern

I BOUGHT two books, by two favour­ite authors, at Newcastle airport on my way home from the York sessions of the General Synod: Instances of the Number 3 (2001) by Salley Vickers, and The Road Home (2008) by Rose Tremain. I don’t think either its author’s best work, but I would rather read these two women than most other things that get published today.

Serendipitously, they each used a reading of Hamlet to express the personality and dilemmas of a lead­ing character. The encounter with a “ghost”, whatever that might mean, is indeed endlessly suggestive. And I’m a sucker for anything with Shake­speare.

The Lord gave . . .

THIS brings me back to film — this time for the small screen. As I write, Italian viewers have just had the chance to see the last episode of Six Feet Under (2001-05) by Alan Balls. Accustomed to the ghostly presence of Nathaniel Fisher Snr throughout the show’s five seasons, and the constancy of death in the funeral-parlour mise-en-scène, we have recently had to get used to seeing Nate Jnr dead after his untimely seizure during extramarital sex.

This programme doesn’t hesitate to show people’s religious beliefs or lack of them as part of their comp­licated lives. The gay couple, David and Keith, pray unaffectedly before meals with their adopted black sons.

I found the closing sequence, in which we see the future death of each leading character (or at least Claire, the artist of the family, imagining their future deaths), incredibly mov­ing. The show was about life, death, and life after death. I’m probably not alone in thinking that secular culture can succeed sometimes better than the Church’s life in communicating the truths of our faith.

But could we live without the books, the tradition, the Church? Well, yes; but that that life wouldn’t be here: it would be heaven.

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