Hansen: Mariette in Ecstasy

August 4, 2011

Mariette in Ecstasy
Ron Hansen
(HarperCollins, 1991)
179 p.

(Some spoilers.)

I first heard of Ron Hansen a few years ago when he published a novel about Gerard Manley Hopkins (Exiles, from 2008); I did not read that book, but I was intrigued enough that I remembered the author’s name. I later saw this novel and picked it up, not knowing what to expect. It sat on my shelf for several years before I recently took it down, and now, having finished it, I am frankly amazed that Hansen, and this novel especially, were not known to me earlier. It is an impressive book, a rare example of an attempt to treat with sympathy and literary excellence a story saturated with Catholic devotion, theological seriousness, and the miraculous.

At the center of the story is Mariette (pronounced “Mar-iette, like a flaw”, we are told), a young woman of seventeen who seeks entrance into a cloistered community of nuns. Like all novices, she must undergo a period of discernment during which she and the community evaluate one another. Mariette is devout and simple — a simplicity that might be naivety and might be something higher and lovelier — and in her artless way she begins to divide the judgment of the sisters, and of the reader too. I was reminded of Christ’s claim that in his goodness he would divide father against son; there is a light that reveals the hidden places of the heart, for better and for worse. This disturbance, which ripples out from her in gentle waves at first, becomes turbulent in the wake of a crisis that suddenly overtakes the community as a whole and Mariette in particular. In the midst of that turmoil, a crack in the world seems to open up in Mariette’s own person. The community’s priest, seeking solace in the quiet of the church, finds her at prayer:

…he sees Mariette in the night of the oratory, intently staring at the crucifix above the high altar, her hands spread wide as if she were nailed just as Christ was. He puts on his biretta and overcoat and half genuflects with difficulty and goes back to the priest’s house.

Blood scribbles down her wrists and ankles and scrawls like red handwriting on the floor.

As you can imagine, this irruption into their quiet world of the miraculous and grotesque (according to taste) does nothing to unify the sisters’ division of judgment. Some consider Mariette delusional or a fraud, some are convinced she is a genuine saint, and others are unsure what to think but are wary and understandably worried at what this, miracle or not, portends for the tranquility of their cloister and the life of the community. The prioress, speaking with Mariette, expresses how even to the eyes of faith this ‘gift’, even if genuine, is hard to understand:

“[…] And what are these horrible wounds, really? A trick of anatomy, a bleeding challenge to medical diagnosis, a brief and baffling injury that hasn’t yet, in six hundred years, changed our theology or our religious practice. Have you any idea how disruptive you’ve been? You are awakening hollow talk and half-formed opinions that have no place in our priory, and I have no idea why God would be doing this to us. To you. […]

“[…] But I shall not suffer your confusions much longer. And so I pray, Mariette, that if it is in your power to stop this — and I presume it is — that you do indeed stop it.” She pauses and then stands. “And if it is in your power to heal me of the hate and envy I have for you now, please do that as well.”

In lesser hands a story about a young woman with the stigmata could have degenerated into vulgar sensationalism or saccharine piety; Hansen seems to be aware of the dangers, and keeps things grounded and honest. How would you respond to an encounter with someone who claimed to bear miraculous wounds of Christ in her body? Your response is found in these pages.

The book is so intelligently and elegantly written that I have little doubt it could be enjoyed by anyone, religious or not, but it obviously will have a special appeal to Catholic readers. Set in the first decade of the twentieth century, it reads something like a love letter to the liturgical and devotional life of the Church prior to the Second Vatican Council: the sections of the book are structured according to the feast days of the Church calendar, the nuns greet one another in Latin, and the devotions reflect a piety now considered ‘traditional’. There is a good deal of mystical theology in the book (and, given the name of this blog, I can hardly fail to note that Julian of Norwich is among those whose influence is felt). In this sense, it was a luxurious read.

Hansen is an very good writer, with a sensitive and poetic style. The argument from authority may be the weakest kind of argument, but I nonetheless note that he has been nominated for both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Award. I will say, however, that there are elements of his style — in this novel, at least — that I do not like, and which detracted from my enjoyment. The book is written in the present tense; I understand that this is grammatically legitimate and perhaps artistically justifiable, but it always sounds affected to me. Worse, there are sections in which the prose dissolves into isolated clauses and verb-less fragments:

Water drips onto pink brick in the garth.

White skirt, black sandals, castanets.

Written on a rafter is: ‘They mortify their bodies with abstinence.’ And on the one just after it: ‘May they renew and strengthen their souls by good actions.’

Electric blue just before sunrise and two white points of light high overhead. The planet Jupiter. The planet Venus.

This sort of thing sounds precious to me and I find it distracting. I grant that Hansen uses the device to fairly good effect — to establish a quiet rhythm, and to cleanse the literary palette as the story moves from one stage to the next — but I would have preferred that it not be used at all.

In the end I found Mariette in Ecstasy to be a beautiful and intriguing, but disquieting, book. Curiously, I expect that someone who does not share my religious views might describe it in the same way, but for quite different reasons. To the non-religious reader it presents a world of piety and a portrait of saintliness that is strangely and even cunningly attractive, and in good faith it presents an apparent miracle without finally offering a credible ‘natural’ explanation. To a religious reader, on the other hand, and especially to a Catholic, it offers the troubling thought that those who draw closest to God will suffer for it. The book is not meant to be a comfort to anyone. I recommend it.

3 Responses to “Hansen: Mariette in Ecstasy”

  1. Mac Says:

    I read this maybe ten years ago and am a little hazy about it now, and I did think it was very good, but that was a somewhat detached opinion: I appreciated it more than I liked it. The pieces seemed to be there but somehow it didn’t really engage me. I don’t think it ever seemed quite real to me. My problem, perhaps. I do remember thinking that the style was sometimes affected and perhaps contributed to my sense of distance. It’s certainly very well-crafted.

  2. cburrell Says:

    It sounds like I liked it more than you did, but I understand the feeling of distance. Some of the stylistic things I pointed out — the use of present tense, the impressionism — give the writing a self-consciously ‘artistic’ cast, which has a distancing effect on me.

  3. Mac Says:

    I don’t in general care for the present tense technique, either. I have to hedge that slightly because I used it once. And I think I’ve liked it in some fiction, but I can’t remember any specific examples.

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