- The "Golden-Hearted" Imagination of Gertrud von le Fort
Gertrud von le Fort and Midcentury Catholic Literature
Surprising wariness of the terms "Catholic literature" and "Catholic fiction" unites many writers associated with the mid-twentieth-century heyday of American and European Catholic literature. Being christened a "Catholic novelist" often provoked authors to irritation at the category's limitations. In the United States, Walker Percy lamented prudish Catholic readers, among whom "the impression seems to obtain that Catholic novels must be written either by a saint or about a saint."1 Describing Percy's final edits to The Moviegoer, which would win the National Book Award in 1962, Flannery O'Connor recounted to a friend that Percy "was finishing his novel and was busy getting the Catholic parts out. A necessary operation as [End Page 129] I well understand."2 Does modern Catholic literature necessarily find its highest articulation by means of such excision?
Flannery O'Connor won her understanding of the challenges of writing Catholic literature from toil and craft as well from serious engagement with the literature of the European renouveau catholique and its theological and philosophical counterparts. She is the daughter of European "Jazz-Age Catholicism," exemplified in the celebrated novels of François Mauriac, Georges Bernanos, and Sigrid Undset, and in the popular philosophical and theological writings of figures including Romano Guardini and Jacques Maritain.3 Although O'Connor's postwar fiction depends on these and other French, British, German, and Russian influences, she also had reservations about this inherited legacy:
I have read almost everything that Bloy, Bernanos, and Mauriac have written. . . . But at some point reading them reaches the point of diminishing returns and you get more benefit reading someone like Hemingway where there is apparently a hunger for a Catholic completeness in life, or Joyce who can't get rid of it no matter what he does. It may be a matter of recognizing the Holy Ghost in fiction by the way He chooses to conceal Himself.4
Theological and authorial wisdom undergirds O'Connor's conviction that the hiddenness of the Holy Spirit's workings calls the writer of sacramental realism to rise to a paradoxical mimetic challenge: to imitate that which exceeds imitation. In explaining her vocation to write Catholic fiction in the seemingly inauspicious setting of the Protestant South, O'Connor lamented the pious fictions of "golden hearts" to which the institutional complacency of 1950s American Catholicism was giving birth, contending that "often the nature of grace can be made plain only by describing its absence."5 The fruitful remedy of salvation courses through O'Connor's vision of art and life, but in her own stories she is loath to describe an unabashed resplendence of redeeming grace operative in the lives she imagines, [End Page 130] elsewhere proposing that even when we find goodness in human life we will discover "the fact that its face too is grotesque, that in us the good is something under construction."6 And this is why a good man is hard to find.
What can get lost along this trajectory of taste and theory in Catholic literature are the theological and literary criteria that allow a Catholic writer to portray Catholicism explicitly, including the real nourishment of sacramental life. The most memorable protagonists in the stories of the German poet and fiction writer Gertrud von le Fort (1876–1971) are, at least on first glance, closer to the saintly "golden hearts" that O'Connor found suspect than the grotesque, broken, and violent protagonists who "bear it away" in O'Connor's fiction. Without ignoring the dark facts of sin and human brokenness, le Fort's stories often describe vexed moments in Christian history and intimate encounters with the Church. A robust ecclesiological vision radiates without ambiguity in le Fort's fiction and verse. Theological riddles spur her imagination more than does a fascination with character or plot. No reader can mistake how the liturgical calendar ticks along with the passing of days or how redemption history plays out at the heart of her stories. With the exception of a few texts written under the strictures of National Socialist censorship...