Frederick Buechner Essay - Buechner, Frederick (Vol. 4)

Buechner, Frederick (Vol. 4)

Buechner, Frederick 1926–

Buechner, an American, is a Christian novelist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14.)

It is a common presumption that Frederick Buechner is the delight of the more precious academic critics. His novels, it is said, honor their stately edicts on the art of fiction, and his exquisite sensibility—hushed comparisons are made with Henry James, Elizabeth Bowen, Truman Capote—offends no canons of taste. True, Buechner is sometimes the willing victim of his most elegant vices, but he is also the victim of a larger controversy in which the word acȧdemic has become a shibboleth. Buechner has taught in preparatory schools; he is also an ordained Presbyterian minister, and a novelist who has tried, with uneven success, to harmonize a world of subtle human feelings and complex religious ideas. Steeped, by his own admission, in the great prose writers of the seventeenth century—Jeremy Taylor, Sir Thomas Browne—he has also schooled himself in the theology of Buber and Tillich, and he has lately shown unexpected interest in the broils of American politics. After A Long Day's Dying, 1949, a novel written when the author was 23 years old—its aura still hangs about his name—Buechner produced two others. The Season's Difference, 1952, is an over-refined account of a mystical experience, the way it infiltrates the consciousness of children and adults in a narrow circle of people. In The Return of Ansel Gibbs, 1958, Buechner makes a more decisive departure from his earlier manner. The book is reasonably forth-right; its material, though rich in moral ambiguities, is topical rather than mythic, dramatic more than allusive. But though it calls for the resolution of complexities in action, it fails to unify the political, moral, and ideological questions which distend the framework of its story. All in all, and hackneyed as it may seem to say so, Buechner remains a writer of distinct promise rather than incontrovertible achievement. His failures are not the product of a trivial imagination. They happen, in fact, to reflect some chronic difficulties of fiction in our time….

Ihab Hassan, in his Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel (copyright (© 1961 by Princeton University Press; Princeton Paperback, 1971; reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1961, pp. 153-54.

Buechner is a fine writer, and he is one who delights in the common things of life. His novel [The Entrance to Porlock] will appeal particularly to those "academic" readers who joy in asking: Does this mean that? Is Strasser the demon lover? Is the rain storm at the end of the journey the "mighty fountain momentarily … forced"? Is the land on Tinmouth mountain the equivalent of Xanadu? If such questions apply, then Mr. Buechner has given us a literary companion piece to those elaborate paintings of the Renaissance whose symbolism was so complex that only the painter knew for sure what it all meant—and even he was probably doubtful at times. Such works usually endure either as curiosities or as beautiful pieces of workmanship so stunning that the observer can find pleasure in them even if he ignores the symbolism entirely. I think the latter case will be true of this work. Buechner has written a much better book than he intended.

Richard Marius, "Prisoners of Dreams," in The Christian Century (copyright 1970 Christian Century Foundation; reprinted by permission from the April 1, 1970 issue of The Christian Century), April 1, 1970, pp. 393-94.

A lot of recent fiction—most of it? all of it?—is about people who are unable to believe in anything and how they go about accommodating the emptiness of their souls or transcending, sometimes, their own cruel gracelessness. Open Heart … is about people who individually believe, or try to believe, in something and about what this belief does to them. The novel suggests, with at times a too-cozy certainty, that everyone really believes in something….

Buechner lays down his narrative as effortlessly as a flycaster drops fifteen yards of line on the surface of a still pond, and expresses his most profound doubts with fluid decisiveness. The author has also listened carefully to the way people really talk to each other, and his accurate report of their words, in the mouths of his characters, lends considerable humor to the novel. Still, I am left with the feeling that Open Heart hasn't taken me anywhere. I've spent several hours inside a few extraordinary people, and they manage to become "ordinary" in the best sense of the word; I feel hope for them because they show me the remarkable resilience that most people possess. But if Open Heart is about something more than staying alive as best we can and doing it with a simple readiness to receive epiphanies along the way, then I missed it.

George Malko, in Saturday Review of the Society (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), July 29, 1972, p. 64.

Open Heart is the second novel in a trilogy about an American evangelist, which Frederick Buechner began last year in Lion Country. The characters, interests and style remain the same—and so does the leisurely pace. The narrator, Antonio Parr, relates the story in a folksy, introspective manner which allows him room to ramble through psychology, philosophy and theosophy as sidelights on the character and deeds of Leo Bebb, his father-in-law….

Mr Buechner is more accomplished with the minor than the major incidents. He has a fine eye for the quirks and oddities of situations and people, and the small moments that alter large issues….

[As] in earlier novels Mr Buechner insinuates his Christian affirmatives and an acceptance of mystic revelations. He is quite content to suggest that one character might be a government inspector, an angel, or a man from outer space, and leave the question unresolved. This approach creates not merely ambiguities, but a lack of resolution in the novel as a whole.

"Rogue Preacher," in The Times Literary Supplement, December 29, 1972, p. 1588.

"There are poetry books and poetic books—the first a book with poems in it, the second a book which may or may not have poems in it but which is in some sense a poem itself."

So speaks Frederick Buechner, developing a distinction by which we identify his newest book [Wishful Thinking] outside the sequence of his seven novels which have placed him in the first ranks of American writers. He goes on: "In much the same way there are religion books and religious books." The latter are transparencies through which we can "experience firsthand what a religion book can only tell about." Such, he says, rightly, are "The Brothers Karamazov" and "King Lear." His present volume, small but powerfully concentrated, is "a religion book," explicitly about "religious ideas, symbols, attitudes."

The same stylistic power, subtlety and originality that have distinguished his novels, from "A Long Day's Dying" (1950) to "Open Heart" (1972), lift "Wishful Thinking" far above commonplace religion books nearly to the level of C. S. Lewis's "Screwtape Letters." An artist is at work here in the vineyard of theology, an able aphorist with a natural gift for gnomics, a wit with wisdom.

Edmund Fuller, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 13, 1973, p. 20.