Saints Preserve Us

Little Saint
Random House; 276 pages; $25.95

The Dead of the House
Books & Co./Turtle Point Press; $12.95

Where will readers be able to find the late Hannah Green’s extraordinary book, now being published four years after the author’s death? Judging from the official classification on the back jacket, Little Saint will end up on the Religion shelf of your local Barnes & Noble. I’ve learned to expect little from the superstores, whose desperate need to identify and then target “markets” (which have “buying habits,” as opposed to readers, who have minds) has resulted in a passion for taxonomy that makes Linnaeus look like Oscar Madison. I wouldn’t bat an eye if I found Moby-Dick in the Marine Biology section at my local behemoth. But Random House, which is publishing Little Saint, should be ashamed of itself for classifying this remarkable work as anything but Literature – for marking it, in other words, in a way that will take it out of the path of people interested in good and interesting writing (and in going wherever such writing might take them) and placing it in a “niche.” I’m not someone who’d voluntarily visit the Religion section of any bookstore; I hate to think of others like me who, due to the demands of Mammon, are likely to miss this little gem because it talks about God.

It’s not that Green’s book isn’t about religion. The book’s ostensible subject is the fourth-century Saint Foy (“Faith”), who was martyred as a 12-year-old girl in the year 303: tortured for refusing to renounce her faith (she was barbecued alive) and then beheaded. Her bones eventually came to rest in a stony mountain village in the Auvergne called Conques, which is where Green, traveling in France with her husband, the artist John Wesley, first encountered her in 1975; from the “stilled moment, awed and torn with tenderness” when the writer first beheld the jewel-encrusted reliquary in which the saint’s skull is kept, she fell under a kind of spell that she describes here with a distinctive mixture of quiet, observant intensity, and helpless, amazed mysticism.

But Little Saint is much more than a saint’s life. You could describe it as a travel book that records two interconnected journeys. The first was a literal one. After that initial encounter with St. Foy, Green – who was born in Ohio and lived in California and New York over the course of her career as a teacher and occasional New Yorker contributor – kept returning over the course of twenty years to Conques; the book is the record of a great love for a place whose plainness, like that of its inhabitants, conceals great riches. Most travel writing wobbles between equally unattractive extremes: overperfumed rhapsodizing and banal list-making. Green’s prose, on the other hand, glints and gleams like the countless jewels that have poured into the treasury of the girl-saint’s basilica since the ninth century, “as if it were to satisfy her feminine vanity.” (Many of the legends about St. Foy concern her “jokes” – the amusing ways she’s moved people to donate their gems to her shrine.) The sense of illumined awareness that this writer’s devotion to St. Foy has awakened in her infuses even the most casual descriptions with startling life; the resultant style is characterized by a kind of exultant narrative blurring of the visual with the aural, or the physical with the metaphysical. For Green, the local rivers make a noise “like the sounds of thousands of hands clapping, clapping as they would, in waves of applause down through ages”; in St. Foy’s basilica you can hear “the heavy musical grace of the rounded arches.”

The intricate, lulling structure of Green’s narrative also blurs boundaries, to magnificent effect. One of the distinctive pleasures of this book is the way that the author creates a giant history – of her own life and mind, of Conques and its people, its traditions, its religion, its saint – from ostensibly small tales, linking discrete narratives in an ever-widening circle that allows the author to impart a great deal of information in a deceptively casual way. (It’s a technique called “ring composition,” and it goes back to Herodotus.) We hear how Green’s neighbor, the delightful Rosalie, raises lettuce in one of her eight gardens; in the dressing she prepares for her lettuce salads, Rosalie uses walnut oil; there follows a description of how walnut oil is prepared locally; this leads to a description of some local walnut orchards owned by Rosalie’s husband, Charlou; Green then recalls Charlou’s explaining how he pays the men who help him harvest the walnuts, a story that suggests much about the local economy; and then voilà – we’re back at the table with Rosalie and Charlou, eating the salad. A lesson in local customs, agriculture, geography, cuisine, and sociology, all disguised as lunch.

Green’s treatment of Rosalie and the other townspeople is free of the aren’t-they-just-the-quaintest-things condescension of, say, Peter Mayle’s Provençal tales. These poor villagers are anything but endearing clichés, although it’s typical of Green’s somewhat languorous style, which only occasionally feels a bit stretched out, to tempt you into thinking they’re adorable “characters” – only to reveal, suddenly and deep into the narrative, odd, sometimes disturbing shadows. (This is true of the town as a whole: Throughout the book there runs like a leitmotif a series of dark references to World War II, which “broke all our lives,” as one local woman puts it.) The gallery owned by the local artist Jean Sègalat, with whom Green has an ongoing debate about the number of times the town’s church bell rings each day – 336? 621? – is named for a married lover who killed herself; the adorable Mme. Benoit, who at 91 is possibly the town’s oldest, and definitely its most pious, resident (“I am saved,” she cries one evening after Green and her husband walk her home during a rainstorm, and you can’t quite tell whether she’s referring to the fact that they all managed to fit under Green’s umbrella or to the Resurrection) has, as you learn only at the very end of the book, lived a life of great suffering and loss. “People thought that with so much grief and tragedy I would lose my faith,” she says one day. “But au contraire. I had to strengthen my faith.”

Faith is the second of the two journeys that Little Saint so richly and movingly records. Let me say here that the phrase “spiritual journey” usually inspires in me the urge to gag; in an age of fifteen-minute yoga fixes, when scented candles are thought to constitute a spiritual experience, “spiritual” is a word not to be trusted. But just as Little Saint builds its narrative beauty out of concrete details and careful observations of material things, so too is its investigation of the spiritual “force or power that could be felt” beneath Conques’s buildings grounded in concrete detail.

Her book is all the more persuasive for it. Green takes small, real things – the way in which the sculpted figures adorning St. Foy’s basilica resemble certain present-day townspeople; photographs of Mme. Benoit’s long-dead children; the beatings local children once received every time they spoke the local patois instead of French – and (I can think of no other word) transubstantiates them into a grand parable of faith. Faith not merely in God but in those things in which God, for Green, and especially St. Foy are manifested: the continuity of human experience through time, the ability to see beauty in the face of loss, and traditional culture, which like a living thing clings stubbornly to life even in the harshest conditions. Little Saint is an example of the best that our culture offers; it too deserves to flourish.

In the author bio that appears in Little Saint, Random House matter-of-factly refers to Green’s 1972 novel The Dead of the House, her other major work, as “near-perfect.” (Still, they left it to Jeannette Watson’s boutique press, Books and Co./Turtle Point, to reclaim it.) After reading this novel, I can see what they’re talking about. Like Little Saint, The Dead of the House is both meticulous and deceptively simple-looking: a three-part first-person narrative (by a girl called Vanessa, roughly Green’s age and background) that looks like little more than the history of a single midwestern family, the Nyes of Ohio. And as in the St. Foy book, the novel’s narrative is assembled from narrated scenes, oral histories, and written documents into which darkness occasionally erupts: “I don’t remember anything happy ever in that room.” Yet for all that Vanessa feels haunted by “the dead of the house” – the ghosts whose interlinked stories range from the French and Indian War to Pearl Harbor – this book is about life: the life, really, of America itself. With any luck, the sacred Little Saint will awaken interest in its secular predecessor; the latter, at any rate, you’ll be able to find easily enough, without having to find God first.

Saints Preserve Us