Friday, February 28, 2014

Part III: Exploring "The End of the Affair" and "A Severe Mercy"

Terry, Efrat and Susan continue their discussion of two books that were prominently featured in Sylvain Reynard's "Gabriel's Inferno" and "Gabriel's Rapture." Part III in this series focuses on "A Severe Mercy" by Sheldon Vanauken.

PART III – A Severe Mercy

Terry: How do you think A Severe Mercy relates to the Gabriel series?

Efrat: These two novels are very different in their writing style. The End of the Affair is fiction (although based on real people) while A Severe Mercy is a true autobiography, and a heartbreaking one. So I think readers would enjoy reading both, for diversity’s sakes.

In A Severe Mercy, the idea of earthly love takes center stage in its first part, as it emphasizes Sheldon and Davy (his wife) Vanauken’s very deep love and worship for one another. Yet, both take a journey that ends in a belief in and recognition of God as the most important form of love. Later on, this gained faith helps Vanauken in coping with the loss of Davy, although he still struggles in remembering her in life form.

The main similarity I saw with the Gabriel series is the worship of a human – a pagan love – that is very evident in Gabriel and Julia’s relationship. Both couples made idols of each other, and had to go through a tragedy to see things differently, or more clearly.

This book emphasizes loss and separation more than anything, but it is for a reason – realizing one’s spirituality. I thought it was clever that both the Vanaukens, and Gabriel and Julia, discuss loss right before they experience it. In A Severe Mercy the Vanaukens say “Love must always be lost in someway to achieve a stronger state: death and rebirth”; sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Sheldon Vanauken had to lose his wife Davy to realize the power of belief in God, Maurice had to lose Sarah to realize God’s existence (in The End of the Affair) and Gabriel and Julia had to lose each other, but came out the other side more spiritual, and less ‘pagan’.

Terry: To be honest, I had some issues with this book. First, I couldn’t quite identify with Davy and Sheldon. I loved the relatively short time I lived the academic life, but I don’t know any academic who can pick up and spend a few years on a schooner, or spend two years in Oxford. I realize the lifestyle was different in the 1950s and far less chaotic, but this just didn’t resonate with me. Secondly, while I recognize that this book would be considered an essential in the Catholic genre (or High Episcopalian, in this case) as a non-Christian, I felt like if I met C.S. Lewis today, he’d try to convert me. I didn’t sense respect for other faith traditions.

Additionally, I had some real discomfort with all the “perfection” of these characters. No one is perfect, and no one has all the answers. The kind of love shared by Sheldon and Davy Vanauken – where they are so high on pedestals that the air becomes thin – I have real issues with that. I realize that the entire purpose of the book was to enlighten readers to the uselessness of that kind of love, but while I was reading it, I found myself questioning all the perfection they see in one another. Maybe I’m just too cynical? My academic training was in the Catholic tradition, so perhaps I’m just more comfortable with a more spiritual aspect.

Efrat: It doesn’t apply only to academics, Terry – most people can’t just leave everything for a couple years at such a young age… But I felt the same about the religious aspect – that it was very ‘Christian’ but less so spiritual, which is what I did find in Greene, despite that The End of the Affair is considered one of his ‘Catholic’ novels.

Susan: I had the same problem with A Severe Mercy. I couldn’t relate at all to Sheldon and his wife Davy, who seemed to live a carefree and charmed life. As I read further, though, I realized that was part of Vanauken’s point. They had a wonderful life and an incredibly strong devotion to each other, to the point where they decided not to have children because they believed that a family would interfere with the intimacy of their own relationship. (I had a lot of thoughts about that too, but that’s another post!) Once Davy became sick and it was clear she wouldn’t get better, Sheldon saw that their previous lifestyle was truly pagan. He resented her belief in God and worried that it would come between them, but ultimately, he saw the wisdom of her choice.

I think that’s a warning of sorts that ties into Gabriel and Julia’s relationship. They’d created idols of each other when they first met while younger. The fact that Gabriel thought Julia was a hallucination is interesting, because only fantasy is perfect. (I sometimes thought that Gabriel’s impatience with her when she wouldn’t listen to him, or refused to take direction from him, was his own reluctance to admit that she wasn’t the perfect Beatrice he’d envisioned.) And Julia had to reconcile the arrogant, difficult Gabriel who was her professor with the sweet Gabriel who’d taken her into the woods and kissed her.

Thank you for reading! We welcome all comments and thoughts.

The fourth and final part of this series will post on Monday, March 3.


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