Tuesday, September 15, 2020

The Eyes of the Heart by Frederick Buechner

There are few writers whose prose delights me as much as Frederick Buechner’s. It’s always good, but the narrator of Godric (one of the four books I’ve read 11 times as an adult) is one of the voices in my head and I’m glad to have it there. I’ve read sixteen of his books (if you count the Bebb books separately even though they’re collected in an omnibus), probably evenly divided between the fiction and his sermons/theological work. Buechner, like the catholic writers Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Graham Greene, are often cited as gateways into the faith for some people; in some way they were gateways out of the faith for me. Buechner’s liberal theology, his insistence on doubt. and the fallibility of his characters, who were often hilariously fallible, really challenged my certainty in my worldview; I was encountering different ways of thinking in a palatable way for the first time.

Because Buechner seems to really believe in God and in Jesus. His is a faith that is far more willing to doubt than most Christian thinkers I had encountered before who could invoke grandeur and a sense of awe, but seemed unassailed by doubt. I’m thinking here of writers like AW Tozer, not writers like CS Lewis, who definitely towards the end engaged seriously with doubt than Tozer, but it was not as central to his work outside of A Grief Observed and Till We Have Faces (the latter one of the other books I’ve read 11 times as an adult). I’m sure Tozer did have doubts at some point, but they were never the point of his writing, at least in the half a dozen or so of his books I read in the ‘90s. Buechner, though, fully embraced it as part of the human condition. And yet he was a believer. Through the sermon collections and other nonfiction of his I read that is clear. 

He wrote four volumes of memoir, this the final one. I read another, The Longing For Home, and, judging by my Goodreads rating, I did not enjoy it as well as this one several years ago. As soon as I started reading The Eyes of the Heart I was caught up in his voice, not entirely dissimilar from Godric’s, if more muted and restrained. Buechner writes the book as an old man (then in his 70’s. He’s 94 now) looking back at his life by way of conversations with the imagined ghosts of family, primarily his grandmother, as he takes them on a tour through his library/memorabilia room. In other hands this could be the epitome of boredom, but Buechner manages to make it captivating. He talks about his friendship with the poet James Merrill, his best friend from college. Buechne never quite seems to have come to terms with Merrill’s homosexuality despite his obvious affection for the man and his jealously for how openly Merrill expressed himself in his life and memoir. Buechner seems to lament his inability to be that open outside of fiction: “I think, by contrast, of how timorous I have been not only in my life but in these now four volumes of memoirs that I have written, in which I have touched from time to time on the dark guest who dwells in us all but have never risked laying fully bare the lust, the anger, the childishness, the paralyzing anxiety that are so helplessly part of who I am." In fairness that all comes through much more clearly in his fiction, which may well be why I prefer that over the nonfiction. 

I don’t know how this would play to someone who had not read extensively in his earlier work. When he talks about his father’s suicide (when Buechner was six) I felt the weight of that because the absent father is a consistent them in his work, especially in Godric. But for me, who has read quite a bit of his work it was a powerful reading experience. 

Highly Recommended (But read Godric or The Book of Bebb first).

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 70/75

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