Roger Brunyate's Reviews > Exiles

Exiles by Ron Hansen
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Hopkins Said it Better

I so wanted to enjoy this book. I have often been inspired by books about the religious life such as most recently Gilead and Home by Marilynne Robinson. The story of five young German nuns, exiled from their country only to be drowned in a shipwreck off the English coast in 1875, could not fail to be moving. And "The Wreck of the Deutschland," Gerard Manley Hopkins' great elegy on the disaster is not only one of the greatest religious poems ever written, but also the first in which his astounding poetic invention emerged full-blown, in incandescent lines such as these:
I did say yes
O at the lightning and lashed rod;
Thou heardst me truer than tongue confess
Thy terror, O Christ, O God.
But what can the novelist add to the words of a writer who made language his sword? He can tell the story in more understandable terms, and in this Hansen certainly succeeds. He can place the poem in the context of Hopkins' life as a scholastic studying to become a Jesuit priest, but there are numerous biographies of Hopkins already. He can invent personalities and back-stories for the nuns, of whom little but their names are known, and here he is more truly the novelist. But the sequence of back-to-back character sketches near the beginning of the book is too expository, too compressed. The nuns appear as admirable young women, likeably human, but there is no time for them to emerge as memorable individuals before tragedy engulfs them. Still less can Hansen convey the all-compelling, irresistible power of a religious vocation—at least not to compare with Hopkins' own confession:
The frown of his face
Before me, the hurtle of hell
Behind, where, where was a, where was a place?
I whirled out wings that spell
And fled with a fling of the heart to the heart of the Host.
My complaint is not so much that Hansen spends so much time in exposition, but that he is so obvious about it. He cannot have Hopkins open a copy of The Times without listing all the advertisements to be found on its first page. He has Hopkins talk for an entire paragraph about his former tutor at Oxford, Benjamin Jowett, solely to introduce a humorous bit of doggerel that would surely have been known to all his listeners. No sooner have the nuns gone on board than he has one of them is explain the origin of the English word "posh" (Port Out, Starboard Home), even though it makes no sense whatever in German! He does occasionally manage to convey something of Hopkins' feeling for landscape in passages like the following:
The air smelled cleansed; the leaden sky was topped with clouds; a blue bloom seemed to have spread upon the distant south, enclosed by a basin of hills. And again he felt the charm and instress of Wales.
Beautiful—but the use of the Hopkins-coined word "instress" without any explanation immediately makes the rest seem self-conscious and artificial.

Hopkins did not personally know the nuns; when they died, he was "Away in the loveable west | On a pastoral forehead in Wales." So it is important for the author to link them spiritually if not in fact. Other reviewers have suggested that Hopkins also saw himself as something of a spiritual exile. This is something that Hansen will develop later, but he does not go into the reasons for the nun's exile at the time, and he shows Hopkins flying high, the holder of a first-class Oxford degree, poised for success in the Jesuit order. A more likely reason for Hopkins' interest would be the question that, if the five women (and he himself) had given up everything for God, why does God appear to let them down? The point of belief that Hopkins proclaims with such struggle in this and many of his later poems, is the absolute mastery of God—especially when He wields "the lightning and lashed rod."

Two-thirds of the way through the book, however, Hansen draws the two stories together, paradoxically by telling them in two different time-frames. He parallels the two-day ordeal of the nuns on the doomed ship with the twelve-year decline in Hopkins' fortunes until he died of enteric fever in Dublin in 1889. Now he is clearly an exile, barred from higher office as a priest, completely unknown as a poet, reduced to teaching Latin to fractious schoolboys in a distant land. The last fifty pages of Hansen's book are quite moving and attempt something that only a novelist can do. But they do not approach the power of Hopkins' own writing from these years:
O the mind, mind has mountains, cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there….
Once again, Hopkins said it better.

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Reading Progress

June 24, 2009 – Started Reading
June 27, 2009 – Finished Reading
May 7, 2016 – Shelved
May 31, 2016 – Shelved as: poetry
May 31, 2016 – Shelved as: history
August 3, 2017 – Shelved as: gay-lesbian

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