A Review of
The Devil and Pierre Gernet: Stories.
David Bentley Hart
Reviewed by Todd Edmondson
In a world of academic specialists, David Bentley Hart is something of an outlier. With each publication, this Christian intellectual of the highest order has revealed a capacity to excel at a number of different genres within the field of theology. The Beauty of the Infinite, a stunning “aesthetics of Christian truth” signaled Hart’s arrival as a brilliant systematic thinker. Hart further demonstrated his erudition and eloquence in the theodicy The Doors of the Sea, the sweeping Illustrated History of Christianity, and his more recent polemic against “new atheism,” Atheist Delusions, as well as in a number of columns and reviews published in a variety of journals over the past decade. Hart’s writings consistently challenge and inspire his readers toward difficult but rewarding examinations of Christian orthodoxy. Those readers, myself included, were understandably enthusiastic about the release of The Devil and Pierre Gernet, Hart’s first published collection of fiction.
While most of these stories are recent (all but one, “The Ivory Gate” were written since 2005), Hart claims in the “Author’s Apologia” that opens the book that he is more naturally inclined toward this kind of work than to philosophical theology. These tales grow out of “literary pretensions” that he indulged at a very young age, and which flowered long before his talent for theological analysis. The five narratives gathered here test Hart’s thesis that “God is no more likely (and probably a good deal less likely) to be found in theology than in poetry or fiction.” The upshot of this is that these stories function more effectively as vehicles for theological thought than as traditional narratives. Hart’s chief concern–which he openly admits in the apologia–is not to tell a “ripping yarn” but rather to convey, within the genre of fiction, some of the ideas that have informed his other works. This is not necessarily a flaw, as long as the reader knows what she is getting into.
There is, after all, much to admire in this collection. As anyone who has encountered Hart’s work is well aware, he is a writer of prodigious talent. The wit that is often sharply employed in his theological essays against opposing philosophies, from ancient gnosticism to modern materialism, is on full display in these stories, particularly in the title novella. His devil’s dialogue is peppered with just the sort of jokes that Hart and many of his readers enjoy, and that devil’s approach to the world and to the humans who populate it echoes–intentionally or not–that of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape without seeming derivative. Hart’s lush, even baroque, diction, which is sometimes an asset and sometimes an obstacle in his theological works, is given room to spread out in the context of these fictions, so that a reader can happily get lost in a number of Hart’s sentences. His powers of description are likewise superb. Passages in which he portrays fin de seicle France as a “paradise of materialism” in “The Devil and Pierre Gernet,” or evokes the tired glory of Antioch during the reign of Julian in “The House of Apollo,” demonstrate an attention to detail that is meticulous without being prosaic. On a smaller scale, the sumptuous language with which he recounts a meal enjoyed in a Prague bistro, course by course, in “The Other,” stands with the finest writing on food I’ve encountered. As a crafter of prose, Hart at times evokes such modern masters as Jorge Luis Borges and Thomas Mann. These are beautiful pieces. And then there are the ideas, of course, the aspects of this fiction that Hart willingly admits serve as the main attraction. Readers who come to this collection anticipating an engagement with an impressive theological and philosophical mind will not be disappointed. These stories are shot through with a number of questions that have perennially defined the human condition: the nature of memory, the problem of suffering, the ephemerality of love, the importance of tradition versus the onward march of progress, and perhaps most significantly, the ineffability of the Divine. These five narratives function as stages on which Hart’s commitments and concerns might unfold, and the effect of this encounter is a heady one.