Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Mass at dawn

I'm reading The Power and the Glory for the first time, widely considered Graham Greene's signature work. Previously I've know Greene only from the many film adaptations of his novels and short stories. John Updike described a key element of Greene's genius: the ability to fashion "abrupt, cinematic" scenes filled with "brilliant, artfully lit images" (I suppose that's one reason why so many filmmakers have been attracted to his fiction). Here's an example of what Updike was talking about. I don't think you have to know the context to appreciate the dramatic power of this prose.

He kissed the top of the packing-case and turned to bless. In the inadequate light he could just see two men kneeling with their arms stretched out in the shape of a cross — they would keep that position until the consecration was over, one more mortification squeezed out of their harsh and painful lives. He felt humbled by the pain ordinary men bore voluntarily; his pain was forced on him. ‘Oh Lord, I have loved the beauty of thy house . . .’ The candles smoked and the people shifted on their knees — an absurd happiness bobbed up in him again before anxiety returned: it was as if he had been permitted to look in from the outside at the population of heaven. Heaven must contain just such scared and dutiful and hunger-lined faces. For a matter of seconds he felt an immense satisfaction that he could talk of suffering to them now without hypocrisy — it is hard for the sleek and well-fed priest to praise poverty. He began the prayer for the living: the long list of the Apostles and Martyrs fell like footsteps — Cornelii, Cypriani, Laurentii, Chrysogoni — soon the police would reach the clearing where his mule had sat down under him and he had washed in the pool. The Latin words ran into each other on his hasty tongue: he could feel impatience all round him. He began the Consecration of the Host (he had finished the wafers long ago — it was a piece of bread from Maria's oven); impatience abruptly died away: everything in time because a routine but this — ‘Who the day before he suffered took Bread into his holy and venerable hands . . .’ Whoever moved outside on the forest path, there was no movement here — ‘Hoc est enim Corpus Meum.’ He could hear the sigh of breaths released: God was here in the body for the first time in six years. When he raised the Host he could imagine the faces lifted like famished dogs.

I'll be reading a lot more Graham Greene.

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