About A. G. Harmon

A.G. Harmon teaches Shakespeare, Law and Literature, Jurisprudence, and Writing at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His novel, A House All Stilled, won the 2001 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel.

Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents

two nuns walking through an empty alleyway into light.After World War II devastated eastern Europe, the Red Army pushed into the countries allotted to them as spoils, such as Poland. There, they continued the destructive work that the Nazis had begun. Among those hardest hit were the women religious of Warsaw.

French Red Cross physician Madeleine Pauliac, sent to find and repatriate the French who were still in the Polish countryside, discovered that whole convents of nuns had been gang raped by pillaging Russian soldiers. Some of the women were molested thirty to fifty times each. Unsurprisingly, a good number died in the process, and those who survived often fell pregnant. Lives of avowed purity were changed forever into lives of violent desecration.

Pauliac, who herself died in an automobile accident while still on duty in Poland, wrote of these women in her diary. That work formed the inspiration for Anne Fontaine’s 2016 film, The Innocents. The movie provides a careful, respectful, and convincing portrayal of the emotional array that comprises such a tragedy. For nuns do not stop being women when they take the veil, nor are women who have not consecrated their lives to God any less called to the courage that nuns must possess. [Read more…]

Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea

The cast of Manchester by the Sea dressed up for the release of the movie, standing under a title of the movie. It’s impossible to speak of Kenneth Lonergan’s film Manchester by the Sea without alluding to its major premise: Some events in life simply can’t be overcome. However, stating that conclusion does not betray the work’s plot, because from the outset the story depicts a man upon whom a terrible blow has been dealt.

There is no hiding the reality of Lee Chandler’s all but palpable melancholy. Casey Affleck (the much more talented actor of the two Affleck brothers) shows the quiet range of his skills in the glassy-countenanced depiction of a suburban-Boston janitor whose sorrow is wrought into every movement of his mundane life. One doubts that he even feels the cold of the snowy New England winter as he loads a dumpster with trash and brushes off the advances of bored tenants.

So when news comes that Chandler’s older brother has passed away back in his hometown, the loss, though felt, has the effect of another stripe added to the back of a whiplashed mule; the animal winces, but is far too calloused from old, deep injuries to cry out in any audible way. Still, what he finds when he arrives for the funeral is a complication that adds new dimensions to his burdens. [Read more…]

Transcendence: A Tribute to William Christenberry (1936-2016)

house window light 800“The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” Elizabeth Bishop said, with irony. Still, it’s true that we mislay so many things over a lifetime that we become quite adept at bearing our deprivations. By the end, it’s a wonder that we have so much left to convey; the reading of wills should be bankrupt affairs, little more than legacies of good wishes and snatches of fair poetry.

But it’s not just carelessness that empties our pockets. Some things—many things—we simply let fall away. There is intent behind the release, and if not intent, recklessness. As in Bishop’s poem, among the things most commonly lost in this fashion are people. They have a habit of slipping out of our lives all too easily and much too regularly. [Read more…]

The Nightingale Floors

craig-pennington-birds-on-flickrIn Kyoto, Japan, seventeenth-century Nijo Castle contains an architectural feature meant to protect the ruling shogun. The floors in the inner most chambers are constructed in such a way that the nails rub together when trod upon, creating the acoustical effect of chirping birds. Known as “nightingale floors,” the sound acts an alarm, providing a warning against enemies attempting to take the shogun by surprise.

The richness of such a design is manifold, as beautiful as it is practical, as charming as it is inspired. Leave it to the people of silk screens and floating worlds to make something so delightful out of a military defense. The Japanese just have a knack for poetic juxtaposition achieved by means of elegant economy, creating eternal wonders within the space of a few square inches—bonsai trees, haiku, etc.

But when a wildly uneconomic Western mind such as mine comes across something like the concept of the nightingale floors, the idea ranges into metaphors and ironies. Oriental simplicity gets “all mussed up” by occidental complication. I cannot leave the “nightingale” alone, but instead must think of all that it implies. Call it maximalizing the minimal. [Read more…]

An Interview with Newbery Medal-Winning Author Clare Vanderpool, Part 2

walking-away-by-simple-insomnia-on-flickrClare Vanderpool, Newbery-Medal winning author of the novels Moon over Manifest (Delacorte, 2010) and Navigating Early (Delacorte, 2013), got her start by attending a writing workshop at The Milton Center, with which Image was associated in its early years and whose programs are now run by Image. While under a Milton fellowship in the mid-90s, I read one of her earliest works and now discuss her accomplishments in a two-part interview.

Moon over Manifest, set in depression-era Kansas, features 12-year-old Abilene Tucker, whose itinerant father arranges for her to stay in a small Kansas town where he spent his boyhood. There, Abilene is met by a variety of townspeople that have a story as mysterious to her as the reason her father has sent her away. Navigating Early, set in post-WWII New England, tells the tale of young Jack Baker, whose military father puts him in a Maine boys’ school following the death of Jack’s mother. Jack has to make his way in a new world, and finds himself befriended by a strange boy, Early Auden, who sets the two of them on an adventure to find something that everyone, except Early, believes is lost forever.

Continued from yesterday.

AGH: The idea of a youth setting out on a journey, on a “quest” to find himself, is in the line of romances, of chivalric literature, where the hero sets off to prove himself and earn his name. The second novel even has parallels to the Fisher King myth. Was that kind of literature an influence?

CV: I’m sure it was. My two sons grew up reading Tolkien and the Redwall books, so I knew how much questing books were valued by young readers. I read these books as an adult, but really all the books I’ve read throughout my life have gone into a story vault and somehow come out when I need them. [Read more…]