"The weight of these sad times we must obey," writes William Shakespeare in King Lear. Frederick Buechner, in his latest nonfiction book, Speak What We Feel (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), says Lear is Shakespeare's seminal work because it is written with his life's blood. Since Tim Jones profiled him in CT a dozen years ago (Oct. 8, 1990), Buechner has written nearly as many books, all of them masterfully confronting issues of faith. Like the bard, he wrote all of them with his life's blood.
His recent stories, as much as the earlier ones, make one groan, guffaw, and gape. But they ring true and strangely move. Buechner reaches to the human core and takes us to the place of shadows and helps us see that the human heart itself resides in those shadows, and that only in facing them can one get beyond them. Then comes light. Anyway, a kind of light.
I met Buechner last spring in the Magic Kingdom, the place he retreats to read or write, and where he collects doodads people have sent him. I asked if I could pull a chair nearer to where he sat. He said he'd prefer I didn't. He liked everything in its place. I sat on the window seat at his right elbow.
Buechner, 76, has a tribe of grandsons, all under 10. "I can only imagine what they get into when they visit," I say to him. He groans and rolls his eyes in agreement. I picture the grandsons climbing the bookshelves with Buechner's first editions of Anthony Trollope (among others). I see the grandsons throwing pillows and fondling the rocks in a collection on the ledge; the brilliant green malachite; the frothy purple amethyst; the geode, round like a cannon ball. I see them poking the eyes of the bust of James Merrill, the now deceased Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who was Buechner's lifelong friend.
Maybe he likes everything in its place because when he was a boy nothing was ever in place. His early life was one chaotic twist followed by another, and this was before his father's suicide.
Rewind to 1936. I see shadows of two little heads against a window, one a 10-year-old boy, the other nearly 8. They are looking down from two stories up, a still-life shot of light and dark shrouded in gray. I see a man on the ground growing cold and turning blue. It's their father, who died from car fumes while sitting on the running board of his idling Chevy in the garage. I see the mother, still in her nightgown, her hair unfurled, haplessly moving cold arms and legs in a futile attempt to bring life back to her husband's body.
The 10-year-old boy was not a prophet. But he had intuited that the line between normalcy, such as it was, and disaster was negligible in his life. The morning he stood with his brother looking down at their father, Buechner's apprehensions played out and his childhood ended, along with its dreams. Or maybe that was when the dreams began. Since the loss of his father, Buechner has been on a quest for the man he remembers only in shadows. His fiction has been the vehicle for this search, giving expression to losses through autobiographical incarnations, and rendering narratives to fill the empty places that defined his early life. His crowning achievement, the Pulitzer-nominated Godric (HSF, 1980), is dedicated to his father in Latin, he says, because of the obscurity that still hangs over his remembrance of him. The novel, "in a funny way, grew out of my memory and non-memory of my father," he told me. "Godric was a voice speaking to me."
Fast forward to a rainy day on Rupert Mountain, Vermont, in May 2002. Buechner is serving tea, no cream, no sugar. I ask him what he means when he writes frequently about God's silence. He answers, "It was John Updike who said God saves his deepest silence for his saints. Some people might say, 'The hell with it.' His silence throws me back upon myself and I must search my own depths. I'm still searching, aren't you?" He bobs his tea bag. "If we're not searching, we're dead."
Buechner's later fiction reflects themes of this searching and its attendant longing and hopefulness. He focuses less on autobiographical incarnations at this stage (with two notable exceptions), instead capturing the faith journeys of historical, biblical, and even extrabiblical characters.
In Brendan (HSF, 1988), which followed Godric, Buechner teases life out of the sixth-century Irish seaman/monk of the same name. He renders him a crusty, squirrelly man, shaggy-bearded and weather-worn from months at sea.
Brendan, bearing his own sadness, leads a ragtag crew into unknown watery depths in search of Tir-na-n-Og, the place of eternal youth. "[We] sink into deep troughs [and] the swells loom over us," he says of his journeys at sea, and life's journey too. "They sweep in on us heaped to height of high hills by the wind blowing counter to the current."
Son of Laugher (HSF, 1993) is Buechner's re-creation of the biblical story of Jacob, whom he calls Heels. We all know how Jacob stole the blessing from his appetite-driven older brother, Esau. This in turn sends him on a journey of his own, and in this fictional account Buechner adds a dimension that is otherwise missed in the biblical narrative: the power of words and their potential for wreckage. Rebekah says to Heels before he hijacks the blessing:
A word can never be unspoken once it has been spoken. Do you understand what I mean? … If you speak a word with the strength of your heart in it, you can never get that word out of the ears of the one you speak it to and back into your mouth again. Once a word goes forth, it makes things happen for better or for worse. Nothing you do will ever make those things unhappen even though you live for a thousand years. Do you understand me?
On the Road with the Archangel (HSF, 1997) is a fictional version of the apocryphal Book of Tobit, set in Nineveh, woven with still more themes of searches and longings and hopefulness. In it the archangel Raphael disguises himself as a human named Azarias to accompany Tobit's witless but stout-hearted son Tobias on an important errand. Tobit thinks he will soon die and commissions his dewy-eyed son to retrieve two sacks of silver, which Tobit hid years ago in Media. Tobias says, "How will I know what roads to take to Media, which as far as I know is on the other side of the world? … It is confusing enough just to find my way through the streets of Nineveh to pick up the laundry for Mother." Raphael, as Azarias, aids and protects Tobias along the journey in ways unperceived by his companion.
'A Self-Deprecating Illusionist'
Still, Buechner cannot resist autobiographical allusions, as borne out in two other recent novels. The Wizard's Tide (HSF, 1990) portrays the childhood of a young Teddy Schroeder, a green-eyed blondish lad whose hair needs combing and whose bewildering childhood includes the suicide of his father. In contrast stands Kenzie Maxwell, the protagonist in The Storm (HSF, 1999), modeled loosely on the plot of Shakespeare's Tempest. Kenzie is an energetic septuagenarian who winters in Florida, has visions of saints, and must come to terms with past sins and dreams that he never realized. Together, these novels oddly juxtapose the torments of the bookish lad and his older counterpart, who carries the scars of that same childhood.
I tell Buechner The Storm left me sad. "Oh, I disagree," he says. "I think it ends upbeat."
I say, "It feels like Kenzie Maxwell simply gives up on his dreams and resigns himself to a life of mediocrity."
He replies, "Why, at the end all these people come together. The brothers are reconciled. Kenzie stops writing his letter to his dead lover."
I mention that at the end of the book Kenzie is lying alone in his bed, wondering "about the crazy saints [and if] … what had driven them crazy was their endlessly trying, like him, to find where they really belonged." I ask, "Has Kenzie found where he belongs?"
"Maybe not," Buechner says. "But he's come a long way."
The Storm's narrator says of Kenzie, "He thought of himself as a man who wrote because he couldn't think of anything else to do with his delusions." I ask Buechner what he meant.
"I wish I had said illusions," he says. "Kenzie is a self-deprecating illusionist." Delusions are false beliefs with a jaded edge; illusions are incorrect beliefs with a misguided innocence. Yet they both engender the dissonance that typifies Buechner's work. There is sadness and melancholy resignation, and at the same time there is resolution and restoration.
Contradictory impulses define Buechner's writings, and no more so than in his theological sensibilities. Even in his first book, A Long Day's Dying (Knopf, 1950), which he wrote before he was a Christian, the theological contradictions were evident. The protagonist, Tristam Bone, was visiting a monastery when, alone in the sanctuary, he put his hand into the open palm of a carved statue of a saint and couldn't withdraw it. As he tried to wriggle free, he nearly toppled the statue. He eventually worked it free but "hated the fingers before him and wanted wildly to kick and deface it when, with a quick flood of self-consciousness and fatigue, he sank to his knees before it." Rage and adoration, doubt and trust, fear and release, glory and vulgarity all mark the spiritual paradoxes of Buechner's writing.
The silent prayers of Godric, the restless turmoil of Brendan, the solicitude of Teddy, the knavery of Heels, the sanguinity of Raphael, the illusions of Kenzie Maxwell—all exert emotive force in this beguiling dance between the sacred and profane. How can one experience holiness and hope and the power of forgiveness without first knowing longing, anguish, shame, and despair? One cannot pray for healing if one's wounds have not drawn blood.
To write with your life's blood, the ink of the human story, says Buechner, "takes a certain kind of unguardedness … a willingness to run risks, including the risk of making a fool of yourself." In Speak What We Feel, he highlights the works of four masters who model what that means: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mark Twain, G.K. Chesterton, and William Shakespeare.
Hopkins suffered inner torment: "All my undertakings miscarry. I am like a straining eunuch. I wish then for death; yet if I died now I should die imperfect, no master of myself, and this is the worst failure of all."
Buechner says that Twain soured to Christianity because of personal tragedy, and his exposure to a religion that preached love but seemed to portray God as cruel and unjust. He expressed his disdain for Christianity in Huckleberry Finn. Buechner writes, "[Huck] loses interest in the Bible when he learns that Moses has been dead for years, and when Miss Watson tells him he must learn to behave himself so he will go to heaven, his response is, 'I couldn't see no advantage to going where she was going, so I made up my mind I wouldn't try for it.'"
Chesterton suffered bouts of depression as a young man and was afflicted with violent dark thoughts. Buechner highlights The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, in which the British author explores the themes of nobility and beastliness that can reside in one person.
The writing of a book can be like the dreaming of a dream—especially a book whose subtitle is A Nightmare—and when that is the case, books, like dreams, can be thought of as bearing a message to the reader from the writer's subconscious or whatever it is in the writer that the dream comes from. But also, like dreams, books can only occasionally bear a message from a remoter and more mysterious region still, and in that case they become a message not just from the writer but also to the writer, revealing things that the writer was not fully aware of knowing before.
Buechner says King Lear is Shakespeare's "most profoundly religious" and "saddest" story. Lear's vainglorious need for devotion, his madness and neediness, result in the death of the one true lover of his jagged soul, his daughter Cordelia, who would not bow to his severe decrees. He ultimately comes back to himself, recognizing his madness and her devotion, but only after it is too late. Buechner writes that Shakespeare "seems to say, maybe life is like a fairy tale notwithstanding, if only in the sense that all disguises are stripped away in the end and all evil spells undone, so that even the Beast becomes beautiful when he discovers that Beauty loves him, and even the old king, with Beauty dead in his arms, finally becomes a human being."
Buechner discovers in these writers "the worst of [their] darkness," teasing out their hidden meaning as they face their inner darkness in the bid to survive it: "Hopkins the priest cannot accept what Hopkins the poet has conveyed in spite of himself—that the profane is not always the antithesis of the sacred, but sometimes the bearer of it." In the same way, Buechner's fiction beats down a path and digs out truth, forcing the profane from under a rock into the light of the sacred. It points the way back to mercy, like the guiding hand of Raphael.
Among the Angels
Perhaps Buechner, in interpreting these works, is rummaging through the ruins of his own silences. Perhaps he is trying to find a fellowship (a "religious word" he hates) of writers whose pens, like his, are stained with blood. I ask, "Which of your novels would be your seminal work? Godric is as close as you've come to writing in life's blood. But you could come closer."
He doesn't disagree. Then he adds, "All of my fiction was written with my life's blood."
Perhaps one day someone will poke through his work and turn over the rock to find his naked truth, the way he's probed these works, looking for clues. In any case, the point of Buechner's fiction, as articulated by the angel Raphael from On the Road: "[T]he Holy One, blessed be he, wishes the world and its creatures nothing but well … though never condoning the shadows that dwell in the human heart, he is forever dispatching angels of light to deal with them mercifully." Buechner and writers like him are among those angels.
By the time I leave the Magic Kingdom that rainy May day, I've messed up the pillows along the window seat. I apologize. Buechner says, "Oh no, no, don't worry about it." He understands that human entrance requires a risk, a potential for messing things up. I imagine the grandsons poising themselves: One takes the malachite, another the geode, both readied for battle. Someone is licking Jimmy Merrill's nose. Ho! The Trollope first editions are a foothold for a wall-scaler! Come boys, be good lads now. Why don't we go outside and look for toads? Oh my. We need the voice of Fred Buechner because flesh and blood have a way of crashing in upon the Magic Kingdom.
Wendy Murray Zoba is a senior writer for CT. Her latest book is Facing Forward (Tyndale, 2002).
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Also appearing on our site today:
Frederick Buechner's Sacred Journey | How one writer and minister has made a career of telling others about moments of holy insight.
Additional CT coverage of Buechner include:
Speak What We Feel | Frederick Buechner's latest book is one of his best. (July 29, 2002)
In the March/April 1997 issue of Books & Culture, Philip Yancey profiled Frederick Buechner in the print edition only. But Christianity Today printed excerpts of the article, which brought into sharp relief the contours of Buechner's colorful, sometimes brooding, faith.
The entire text of Shakespeare's King Lear is available online.
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