John Irving wrestles with religious themes new and old

Photo courtesy of John Irving.

His most recent novel features a protagonist named Juan Diego, whose sister Guadalupe experiences childhood visions of the Virgin Mary. As in his dozen other novels, moments of redemption are often punctuated by the bloody sacrifices of important characters who give life or limb so that the innocent might live. Statues weep, miracles abound, and the supernatural seems more real than the natural. Other characters in Avenue of Mysteries (2015) include a Jesuit scholastic, a slum priest and enough strife between the sexual teachings of the Catholic Church and the lives of the characters to light a trash dump ablaze. And, as in many of his other novels, Graham Greene is quoted: “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”

John Irving, Catholic novelist?

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In John Irving's latest novel, statues weep, miracles abound, and the supernatural seems more real than the natural.

Not by a long shot, according to the foremost authority, Irving himself. “I continue, as many Catholics you know continue, to rail against the rules and doctrine of the church,” Mr. Irving told me during an interview at his office in Toronto in December 2017. Avenue of Mysteries might seem steeped in Catholicism, but he makes a distinction between his characters and his own belief—and notes that it would be well-nigh impossible for a writer to try to write a novel about mysticism in the Mexican context and leave out Marian devotions:

What I wanted to do in this novel was to make the miraculous very real, while the institution of the church itself is severely criticized. Not unlike my habit of writing ending-driven novels, I set myself a kind of situation in which the Virgin Mary herself would have to participate. She would in some way have to make a gesture to say, “Let him go.”

It is impossible to spend even as much time as I spent in Mexico and in those basilicas, those cathedrals, those churches, in the presence of those various virgins, and the many people you see on their knees asking something of them—it is impossible not to feel the strength of faith in those virgins so many people have.

And truth be told, perhaps the most Greenian aspect of Avenue of Mysteries, as in many of Irving’s other novels, is not the religious faith of his protagonists but their topsy-turvy struggle to navigate their sexuality in various cultures—religious and otherwise—where the acceptable limits of physical desire are strictly defined or the subject of furious dispute. His sprawling 1978 novel The World According to Garp, with its prescient depiction of the future of sexual identity politics (and perhaps fiction’s first positive portrayal of a transsexual in the character of Roberta Muldoon, a former N.F.L. star who transitions to a woman), set the stage for this theme in much of his later fiction. And after all, the character of Juan Diego in Avenue of Mysteries lives out his adult years trying to decide which pill is better for him to take—his beta-blockers or his Viagra.

In this vein, I was reminded after our interview of something George W. Hunt, S.J., once wrote in the pages of America, regarding the fiction of John Updike: “Both the church and sexuality are reminders of man’s ambiguity, both are incentives for his self-transcendence, both enjoin ‘life’ commitments. Therefore, the church and sexuality are legitimate reciprocal metaphors.”

Despite the novel’s setting in the uber-Catholic realms of Mexico and the Philippines, Irving says his immersion in the world of mysticism is not that far from his approach in earlier novels—and his distaste for institutional Christianity is not a rejection of belief. “I think it would be a misreading of religion or faith in my work to say that I disparage it,” he commented. “I disparage human institutions. Schools, governments, churches—all of them. I disparage the fallibility of man-made institutions and man-made rules.”

Now 76 years old, Irving has kept an athlete’s physique from his days wrestling and coaching the sport, another trope his readers will immediately recognize in his novels. A wrestling mat and free weights occupy a corner of his office. He maintains a strenuous writing schedule, working both on a new novel and on screenplay projects. He writes longhand on yellow legal pads, using a computer only for research and notes.

Irving has publicly acknowledged his favorite writers to be Dickens, Robertson Davies, Thomas Hardy, Günter Grass and the magic realists like Gabriel García Márquez, but he is omnivorous in his consumption of literature. The books scattered across a large table in his office formed a contradiction. On the one hand they seemed a random selection of topics and genres; on the other, they provided a series of guideposts to Irving’s own fictional themes. Among them were Ron Hansen’s novel The Kid; the English-Canadian novelist Kathleen Winter’s 2010 book about an intersex child, Annabel; an issue of Amateur Wrestling News; a collection of Christmas stories written in German (Irving studied in Vienna as a young man, an experience reflected in his early fiction); and a massive tome of Bob Dylan’s song lyrics from the last half-century.

John Irving: “I disparage human institutions. Schools, governments, churches—all of them. I disparage the fallibility of man-made institutions and man-made rules.”

Irving’s apparent youthfulness can make it a shock to realize that his first novel, Setting Free the Bears, was published half a century ago. He rose to international prominence a decade later with The World According to Garp, which won the National Book Award for its paperback edition in 1980 and was later made into a famous movie starring Robin Williams, Glenn Close and John Lithgow (as Roberta Muldoon). In the following years he scored critical and commercial successes with novels like The Hotel New Hampshire, The Cider House Rules and Son of the Circus. His next novel, tentatively titled Darkness as a Bride (a line from Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” he noted: “If I have to die, I will meet the darkness as a bride, and hug it in my arms.”) will be his 14th, along with several nonfiction and short-story collections. Irving’s screenplays—he writes with an eye toward both the page and the screen—have also won him accolades, including an Academy Award in 2000 for his screenplay adaptation of The Cider House Rules.

Irving was raised a Congregationalist in New Hampshire and is not a member of any organized religious congregation, but he is open and loquacious on the subject of religion, prompting me to ask if Pope Francis’s emphasis on popular religiosity, and his call that the church focus less on sexual morality than on evangelization, had nuanced Irving’s opinion of the Catholic Church. Not really: “To say that I like Pope Francis a lot more than I cared for Pope Benedict [XVI] or John Paul II probably goes without saying,” Irving commented. “He strikes me as a vastly nicer guy. What you call his populism is surely a part of it.” But Irving retains a gimlet eye for the institution, in large part because of the Catholic Church’s pro-life stance and policies. Because of the centrality of abortion to the plot of The Cider House Rules (both the book and the movie) as well as Irving’s outspoken advocacy, even many who are unfamiliar with his writings know him as a forceful public proponent of legal abortion:

I remain dubious when [Pope Francis] has said that he believes we, the church in general, have emphasized too much the gay marriage issue and the abortion rights issue—which so many, as he admits, good and practicing Catholics are on the liberal side of. I don’t disparage—and I welcome—his likeability. I do not see, however, the rules regarding the subjecting of women to childbirth [changing].

Perhaps one day, if not in my lifetime or yours, some relenting on the gay marriage issue strikes me as more likely than any giving-in on the abortion issue. Which, especially in Third World countries, puts so many poor and disadvantaged women in a minority and subservient role...I would not want to be born a girl in a Third World economy where the Catholic Church is calling the shots.

The institution aside, I wondered, was there still a Catholic imagination that informed Irving’s work? His protagonists—priapic though they often be—also regularly undergo a conversion experience that makes them realize they need not to be heroes so much as to be the willing instruments of a higher purpose: the classic denouement of the Catholic novel. Did he see parallels between his writing and that aesthetic sense?

I would caution that the parallels to this motif, as you put it, of the Catholic imagination, [exist] in many 19th century novels, and in most old-fashioned literary work, where any kind of odyssey or mission of accomplishment is involved…. In those 19th-century novels as well as in Shakespeare's plays, this formative thing happens to someone, no surprise, at a formative age.

Yes, there is a kind of hellish passage that makes some young person the adult he or she will or does become, and I certainly wouldn't deny that there are many spiritual parallels to this. St. Ignatius not only survived the cannonball, he famously said that he would sacrifice his life to save the sins of a single prostitute on a single night. Well, that's extreme. But you gotta give a damn for that.

What can I say? I do admire the tenacity—in St. Francis' case, in St. Ignatius' case, and in the case of many characters in fiction….Tribulations, suffering, even the self-inflicted kind, have long been not only teaching experiments and, in the long run, good for us and educative, but in both the athletic world and the religious world they are considered almost essential necessary sacrifices to meaning what you say you mean, and to being able to do anything worth doing. So that I sometimes think the very definition of heroism or a hero in a novel or a play does have an almost religious definition.

What is next for Irving after Darkness as a Bride? A return to Garp, this time as a five-part television miniseries. Because the world of sexual politics has changed so dramatically over 50 years in the North American context, I asked, would the character of Roberta Muldoon be different in the miniseries? Yes, said Irving: She will be the deserving focus of the story:

She is the point of view that you, the reader, are mostly in. She’s the guiding force of that family. And it’s her death, Roberta’s, that is the last death knell of that novel. She’s the only character in the novel who loves Jenny and Garp equally. Almost everyone else is more on one of their sides than the other. And despite the extreme difficulty of what she’s doing, the transition in her life that she is making, she’s also one of the most normal and least hateful characters in the novel…. She was like the sexual arbiter in a novel about sexual hatred and sexual contention.

John Irving: "I sometimes think the very definition of heroism or a hero in a novel or a play does have an almost religious definition."

This focus—on the defiant outcast who proves to be the moral center of his or her universe—has never been particularly heavy-handed in Irving’s fiction, with the result that the reader (and the interviewer) can feel at times that he is as playful with his characters and his themes as he is deadly serious. On his own religious background, he had this to say:

In school and university I took every academic course in religion and the history of religions. Because I was always interested in the power of belief and what it was that people believed in, without feeling that I much resembled a believer myself. In the same vein, I would say that I'm often as resistant to the confidence of atheists as I am to the confidence of true believers...

I find the most outspoken atheists and true believers also have in common the desire to bring you into their fold. It is not sufficient for them to have their beliefs and to allow you to have yours. It is necessary that they bring you on board. Pot smokers are a lot like that too.

This remains a curious dichotomy in Irving’s thought and fiction: He seems a profoundly religious writer whose instinct is nevertheless to reject, resist or complicate the role of religion in public and private life. Is he a gadfly? A natural mystic? In a 2015 review of Avenue of Mysteries in The New York Times, Dwight Garner noted that there is a bit of Irving’s fellow septuagenarian, the musician John Prine, in his fiction: “He’s got a secret, if not an illegal, smile.”

Correction: The author Robertson Davies was identified as Robinson Davies in an earlier version of this article.

 

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Rory Cooney
1 year 3 months ago

Fine article, and Irving’s latest novel (Avenue...) really is wonderful. But how did you get through an article about him without mentioning the greatest novel of the 2nd half of the 20th century, “A Prayer for Owen Meany”? Not Catholic enough, maybe? ;-) Good piece.

James Keane
1 year 3 months ago

Particularly galling about my omission is that "A Prayer for Owen Meany" was the first Irving book I ever read!

Jake Gallerano
1 year 3 months ago

Great interview with a fascinating writer and man, thanks.

Mark Silverbird
1 year 3 months ago

Since John Irving believes: “I disparage human institutions. Schools, governments, churches—all of them. I disparage the fallibility of man-made institutions and man-made rules.”, then to Mr. Irving, the creation of Jesus, and all God's creation, including him, is disparaging.

Frank Gibbons
1 year 3 months ago

I don't understand why America's columnists always give artists and others leeway on abortion. Would you cut the same slack to a writer who supported capital punishment? (By the way, I do not.) Or would you try to see the religious aspects of an artist who wanted stricter enforcement of immigration laws? Would you try to portray these people as "religious" or ask if they were "natural mystic[s]"? John Irving says "I disparage human institutions" though he makes his living through the human institutions of the publishing industry and Hollywood. Irving is simply a man with a point of view who has admitted that "Cider House Rules" is "political".

Irving says "I remain dubious when [Pope Francis] has said that he believes we, the church in general, have emphasized too much the gay marriage issue and the abortion rights issue..."

He should remain dubious. For Pope Francis has had some devastating things to say about abortion. Pope Francis has called abortion an "absolute evil". On another occasion he described it as a "horrendous crime" and a "very grave sin". On yet a third occasion, Francis echoed the words from the Vatican II document, "Gaudium et Spes" that called abortion an "unspeakable crime". This not mean old Benedict or JPII speaking -- it's Pope Francis. And the quote about abortion being "an unspeakable crime" is from Vatican II -- not Trent or Vatican I.

James Keane
1 year 3 months ago

"Would you cut the same slack to a writer who supported capital punishment? (By the way, I do not.) Or would you try to see the religious aspects of an artist who wanted stricter enforcement of immigration laws? Would you try to portray these people as "religious" or ask if they were "natural mystic[s]"?"

Not sure if you actually wanted an answer or this is just polemic, but since I wrote an article last year on Steve Bannon's spirituality, I'm going to answer this with yes. 

Pat MacRae
1 year 3 months ago

I don’t have to support all of his positions to find John Irving a wonderful Illuminator of the wavering, human, faulty line between “my religion,” and the true core that it was built to serve. We all need practice, discernment and correction in navigating that line, and he certainly helps! Your article helped confirm how he can do that.
Just a wee edit: the name is Robertson Davies, not Robinson.

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