Page 2- David Bentley Hart – The Devil and Pierre Gernet
Yet, despite my immense admiration for Hart as a thinker, and the pleasure I derive from his talents as a wordsmith, I couldn’t help but feel that these stories were missing something. The marginal concern for plot was not particularly troubling. I had been forewarned not to expect potboilers or page-turners. These are not those kinds of stories, and Hart is not that kind of a writer. Not all narratives need an exciting plot to achieve their ends. And the dialogue, while sometimes burdened with the sort of philosophical jargon that one assumes Hart might traffic in on a daily basis, still manages to communicate clearly those ideas on which Hart’s success as a writer hinges. Rather, what seems most lacking here is any deep sort of character development. Even “fiction of ideas” demands convincing personae through which to communicate the convictions and commitments the author wishes to express. Throughout this collection, though, perhaps the most fleshed-out, engaging character that Hart creates is the titular devil of the opening novella. This is not because Hart is “of the devil’s party without knowing it,” as Blake famously said of Milton, but because–ironically, one would assume–the fallen angel who relates the story of Pierre Gernet is the only one of Hart’s creations who seems to know who he is, and who seems to be at home in this world.
Perhaps this is by design; one of the primary themes of this collection, evinced in the titles: “The House of Apollo”; “A Voice from the Emerald World”; “The Ivory Gate”; and “The Other” is the elusive nature of happiness. It is curious that, in the “Author’s Apologia,” Hart comments that this is the only book he has ever written with which he is “truly satisfied”. Not because this isn’t a worthy collection, but because the pervasive mood throughout is one of dissatisfaction, or rather deferred satisfaction. Nearly all of the characters who populate these fictions, from the priest of Apollo in the twilight of the Roman empire to the traveler treating himself to a fine meal, are consumed with longing–for love, for truth, for an encounter with God. They are thus defined more by what they lack, and by what they are not, than by what they possess, or what they are. If it is Hart’s intention to communicate the alienation and exile of life in this world, especially life without God, by means of these characters, he certainly accomplishes that task, but at a cost. In one story, this sort of characterization would be a minor issue. The cumulative effect over the course of the entire book, however, produces in the reader the same sort of melancholy that burdens Hart’s characters. It might seem like a minor quibble for such an ambitious collection of stories, but knowing what I know of Hart’s body of work, how he demonstrates in other books and essays a commitment to a robust and in many ways life-affirming theology of the incarnation, it is disappointing that he would not embody that theology in any of his primary characters, but only its inverse. Perhaps that is a task for his next collection. I have no doubt that a writer of such talent, with so much to say, will continue to produce fine, compelling work, in a variety of genres, for quite some time.
Todd Edmondson is the Senior Pastor at First Christian Church, Erwin, Tennessee, and an adjunct professor at Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Johnson City, Tennessee. He lives with his wife and two children in Erwin, a great small town surrounded by the Cherokee National Forest.