The Confessions of X: An Interview with Suzanne M. Wolfe, Part 2

By Gregory Wolfe and Suzanne M. Wolfe

Continued from yesterday. Read Part 1 here.

Suzanne M. WolfeGW: One of the most interesting aspects of The Confessions of X is the way that X herself responds to Augustine’s intellectual passions, from his Manichean phase to Platonism. She’s not an intellectual but she’s no pushover and she instinctively challenges Augustine…

SMW: The last thing I wanted this novel to be was either a hagiographical account of the Great Man, Augustine, by the little woman or an intellectual debate about theology. And when I reached deeply into who X was and what her life experience was and how that had shaped her, I realized a couple of things:

1) That only a remarkable woman in her own right would fall in love with a man as fiercely intelligent as Augustine, so she would be no dummy;

2) Lacking a formal education, her grasp of intellectual and theological issues would be through her experience and her instinct. At one point in the novel she says, “I think better in pictures.” This is true to her experience with a father who was a mosaic layer. But it also reveals a more sacramental understanding of the world, a type of understanding in which women, I believe, excel. She and Augustine complement one another. More than that, X provides a necessary check to his tendency towards abstraction both as a Manichean and as a Platonist.

GW: In a sense, she’s a natural incarnationalist, even though you depict her as living in a space between her childhood pagan upbringing and Augustine’s Christianity…

SMW: Not only her experience with art through her father but her own experience of motherhood make her an incarnationalist. For her, beauty has a form; love has a form. She says: “Grace, for me, is flesh and blood, bones and sinew, someone whom my mouth can name.” [Read more...]

The Confessions of X: An Interview with Suzanne M. Wolfe, Part 1

By Gregory Wolfe and Suzanne M. Wolfe

51LiK2wmwIL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Earlier this week, HarperCollins/Nelson released The Confessions of X, Suzanne M. Wolfe’s second novel. Image editor Gregory Wolfe interviewed her about the book.

GW: So I guess doing this interview with you is a case of raw nepotism. You OK with that?

SMW: I prefer my nepotism medium rare.

GW: Your second novel, The Confessions of X, has just been published. What is it about?

SMW: It’s the story of St. Augustine’s concubine told in her own voice—her “Confessions,” if you will. She is a shadowy figure in Augustine’s Confessions. He simply refers to her as “Una”—the One. The first chapter begins with her as an old woman waiting in the courtyard outside the room in which Augustine is dying in the city of Hippo Regius. As she waits for night to fall, she recounts the story of her life and how she came to meet Augustine in Carthage, became his concubine, and bore him a son. And what happens to her after he famously casts her off.

GW: Why did you decide to write her story?

SMW: In religion class at my convent school when I was twelve, I raised my hand and asked who this mysterious woman was in Augustine’s Confessions. Sister Bernadette replied: “No one knows. She is lost to history.” That phrase “lost to history” stayed with me. I thought of all the great women in history whose lives have been eclipsed by the men they loved. Forty years later, I decided to go looking for the concubine so she could tell her story. [Read more...]

Wilberforce: An Interview with H.S. Cross, Part 1

By Gregory Wolfe and H. S. Cross
WilberforceIn September 2015, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published 
Wilberforce, the debut novel by H.S. Cross. Image editor Gregory Wolfe recently interviewed Ms. Cross about the book.

GW: Your debut novel, Wilberforce, is set in an English public school (what in America we’d call a private school) in Yorkshire in 1926. But readers would be wrong to assume a Hogwarts-like idyllic world. It’s a hothouse in a way: a group of adolescents cooped up with one another and an all-male environment. But I suppose that setting is a bit like Jane Austen’s quip about a country house: It’s enclosed and thus ripe for drama?

HSC: I would never call Hogwarts idyllic (people get killed there all the time), but Austen is right. Being confined in a remote boarding school intensifies conflict and makes it harder to escape it.

In the boarding school, the characters put a lot of energy into running away from their problems, but there’s not very far for them to run. When they try to leave the school, there’s a sense that this might be the only place for them—the only place that will take them, or the place oddly most suited to them. Even Wilberforce winds up defending and pleading for the place, though he’d reviled it earlier.

The English public school has been called a “total institution,” meaning it exerts control over every aspect of a person’s life and identity (similar to prison or the military). Choosing such a school as your enclosed environment lets you put extra pressure on your characters because of the way the institution shapes them and concentrates their ordeals through a common culture, common language, common experience, and common goals. [Read more...]

A Metaphorical God, Part 2

Continued from yesterday.

Thomas-Aquinas-Black-largeIn some ways, “mystery” is perhaps the boldest term we chose as a subtitle for Image, the one most out of touch with our times. It is true that secular artists and writers regularly speak of navigating uncertainties and ambiguities. But in their embrace of post-Enlightenment thought, they tacitly accept various determinisms that attempt to explain reality with reference to biology, psychology, sociology, or any of the modernist replacements for ultimate reality. Most secular writers and artists simply live with the contradiction. Though there occasionally arise writers like David Foster Wallace who are more open and anguished about these conflicts, evasion and complacency remain the norm.

At the same time, it is no exaggeration to say that much of the contemporary hostility toward mystery comes from those who enthusiastically embrace religion. The relentless literalism and pragmatism of the fundamentalist stem from a fear of mystery, of the ambiguity of Holy Saturday. In the decades since Image was founded, many believers have awakened to the limitations of politics and polemics and embraced the need to make culture, not war. But there is still a long way to go.

In the preface to Intruding Upon the Timeless, my first collection of Image essays, I focused largely on one aspect of the journal’s mission: the ambition to prove that the encounter between art and faith was far from over, that it continued in our own time and all over the globe. That desire to find a place at the table in the larger cultural conversation was, indeed, central to the founding of the journal. The goal was not to engage secularism and fundamentalism in a new culture war, but to demonstrate that an ancient and still vital alternative tradition remains worthy of engagement. [Read more...]

A Metaphorical God, Part 1

St-thomas-aquinasThe following is adapted from the preface to The Operation of Grace: Further Essays on Art, Faith, and Mystery.

My God, my God, thou art a direct God, may I not say a literal God, a God that wouldst be understood literally and according to the plain sense of all that thou sayest? but thou art also…a figurative, a metaphorical God too; a God in whose words there is such a height of figures, such voyages, such peregrinations to fetch remote and precious metaphors, such extensions, such spreadings, such curtains of allegories, such third heavens of hyperboles, so harmonious elocutions, so retired and so reserved expressions, so commanding persuasions, so persuading commandments, such sinews even in thy milk, and such things in thy words, as all profane authors seem of the seed of the serpent that creeps, thou art the Dove that flies.—John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

The essays gathered in The Operation of Grace: Further Essays on Art, Faith, and Mystery were originally published as editorial statements, each beginning an issue of Image. They seek to explore the trinity of terms we’ve set forth in the journal’s subtitle, “art, faith, mystery.” Whether these words strike you as intriguing or pretentious may depend on your personal tastes, but anyone proposing them for consideration ought to have an explanation or two handy for the curious. [Read more...]


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