I have been in love with Hopkins' poetry since I was 15, and I managed to write a Classics thesis on his Latin poetry. So naturally I ordered Exiles before it was even published. I wasn't sure what to expect, but as I read, I began to understand that Exiles is a novelized biography, not quite a novel. Hansen imposed some very strict limits on his invention, which he summarizes here:
Tackling the subject, various boundaries and limits were ethically imposed. I would never be at variance with the history, insofar as I could determine it. I sought to give life and personality to Gerard M. Hopkins, S.J., while avoiding the harmful and presumptuous conclusion that I had figured him out, which is something I cannot claim for either my family or friends.This is admirable. There are so many people who love to fill in the blanks in Hopkins' biography with homosexual crushes on the one hand and the dark night of the soul on the other, things which no one really knows and probably never will. Hansen succeeds as a biographer in areas where Norman White and Robert Martin fall short. He refuses to interpret what is ambiguous and unsaid, but he takes the known events of Hopkins' life and discerns an order to them where other biographies find a dull and disorderly progression of largely wasted years, crowned by a meaningless death. Hansen uses the story of the five nuns on the Deutschland to bring out the hidden shape of Hopkins' life.
And yet... this wasn't the only road he could have taken. He could have fashioned a character called "Hopkins" who would fit within the limits of the primary sources, and yet be created from all the imaginative resources at a novelist's command. Just as there is the real Virgil, so mysterious with his reticent biography, and then the "Virgil" of Dante or Hermann Broch - so Ron Hansen could have created his own Hopkins and represented a fascinating inner life, from the inside. In some ways he can't help doing this already. "Why pray?" asks Hopkins when asked why he is writing a poem that he thinks few will want to read. These are not Hopkins' own words. And then there is Hopkins' imagined last confession, where he confesses shutting off the grace of poetic inspiration. Both of these invented scenes reconcile prayer and poetry to a degree which the real Hopkins probably didn't. It's difficult to call them "inaccurate," but they do go a little beyond the explicit facts. In an interview on NPR, Hansen was asked how he reconciles his own belief that writing can be a form of prayer with Hopkins' conflicting and conflicted beliefs on the matter. His answer: "I think Hopkins was wrong." And he says that he thinks Hopkins came to see that he had been wrong... but there it is, an interpretation based on the author's desires. I don't think that this is a bad thing. But it hints at a different kind of novel, a more novelistic novel, and one that I would actually rather read. (Though as I said, Exiles is a good way to learn about Hopkins' life.)
But who in their right mind would feel able to write something like "The Death of Virgil" about Hopkins? The problem for anyone who would write a novel about Hopkins is that he is "Hopkins noster." He is one of those people who can go from historical character to beloved friend and guide once you make his acquaintance. I think of him still as Father Hopkins. And as attractive as a more interior novel about Hopkins would be to me, I think that I would be overcome by shyness and protectiveness, just as I would if someone wrote such a novel about one of my friends. And so Exiles succeeds as a biography. It is the best introduction to Hopkins' life for someone who has been dazzled or bewildered by his poetry, while knowing relatively little about him. Hansen says that he wrote the book with a non-Catholic audience in mind, and non-Catholics have given it some of the most positive reviews I've read.
I actually read Exiles at the worst possible time: just a few weeks after I had turned in my senior thesis on Hopkins. Hansen explains the style of his book like this: "[F]or those familiar with Hopkins, I scattered lines from his poetry, letters, and journals throughout the book as a sort of treasure hunt, while hoping that my own prose would provide the gingerbread base for his candies." These scattered lines are indeed as pervasive as gumdrops on a gingerbread house. And I was too familiar with Hopkins, having immersed myself (and nearly capsized myself like the Deutschland) in the same sources that Hansen consulted. It was too much. I could see every borrowing with my research-crazed x-ray vision. My knowledge of these "scattered lines" suggested some fascinating possibilities, though. The landscapes that Hopkins sees are described in his own words - but so are the landscapes that the nuns see. Sister Henrica writes a poem of her own for Mother Superior, and it's dreadful, treacly stuff - but later Hansen puts one of Hopkins' aesthetic judgments in her mouth:
Under each curl [of wave] shone a bright juice of beautiful green. Sister Barbara asked Sister Henrica how she would describe that color, and she gave it thorough consideration before saying, "Chrysoprase."Even though Sister Henrica is no poet, she sees exactly what Hopkins sees. Why? This is just one of the many subtle mysteries of Exiles, which are also the mysteries of our still triumphantly mysterious Hopkins.
Sister Norberta scowled. "What on earth is that?"
Sister Henrica gently told her, "A mineral used for gems. The green of leeks mixed with gold."
NPR interview (via America)
Image interview with Paul Mariani, Catholic Hopkins scholar and friend of Ron Hansen whose biography of Hopkins will be published this October.
Reviews of Exiles:
A tortured Victorian and his art, reimagined (TheStar.com)
God's cold, dark waters (Los Angeles Times)
A novel reason for rapture (Washington Post)