Getting It Perfect
Last year was the centenary of the birth of Russell Kirk, so with my typical lag-time I was reading about him and found that he loved ghost stories, and that his fiction may have generated more royalties for him than his influential books on conservatism. So I checked into the Dallas Public Library and checked out Kirk’s 1962 thriller, Old House of Fear.
The copy the library delivered up to me is an early hardcover printing. It has been around for half a century, obviously much read. I found it gripping, just the sort of book, I thought, that my late wife, Susan, would have loved: well-written, clean, full of twists and local lore (here, an old Scottish island), a quite unexpected love-story, and a haunting yet satisfactory ending.
Since Susan is no longer here for me to pester about this, may I recommend it to you? Eerdmans has reprinted it, I see, in a paperback edition. It has a certain theological interest. And you might find a decent old copy in your own municipal library.
One question it raises is the reality of ghosts, spirits, old haunting things. They appear, or are feared, in various points in the action, and yet the weird phenomena turn out to be explainable in other, more normal ways. Another question is the reality, as it were, of evil, and here the book is more ambiguous. The chief villain, who seems to be able to perform such acts as making furniture float in air, is someone, the heroine thinks, who once was good and is haunted by his memory of the tortures and killings he has perpetrated in his life. Nonetheless, he is truly bad and, it seems, irredeemably so. When he dies, his body is simply gone—never found, never washing ashore.
A similar thing happens to the villain in Muriel Spark’s The Comforters: she drowns and there is no body. Evil is a rejection of reality—and at the end, there is nothing there.
So I’m reading this old book with great enjoyment, and then I find a penciled mark on a page. This is the only writing in the book. I do not like it when I find writing in library books—it seems to me a betrayal of trust for a reader to impose upon future readers his thoughts and underlinings and so on. So I was prepared to growl and pass on.
But this penciled comment was actually a correction of grammar. It was a place where the text had “whomever” but should have had “whoever.” And the reason for the “whoever” was also indicated.
At once I felt admiration for this public servant who had improved the text, correctly so. It was a shock to see that Kirk, or his publisher, had fallen into a rather sophisticated yet real grammatical error. Yet, apart from that one word, the entire text seemed to be perfect.
In the books that I own I tend to mark errors (as well as, since they are my own books, making a lot of other comments). An eminent theologian confuses Paul and John: I note it. A translator supplies a biblical reference for Augustine, but to “Cor.” rather than “1 Cor.” You can see I can be rather tedious.
If only we could get everything right! O, the desire for perfection!
It haunts me. In Up with Authority, I refer to a sort of geometrical inversion that Dante performs in his Paradiso as a “slight of hand.” Where is the “e”? That wrong word (I went back to check this) was in every draft of mine, in every review by the copy-editor—I had a score of opportunities to notice it, as did others, yet none of us did. Now it’s in print.
But a friend said: It’s only a slight error!
When I was a young man someone explained Navaho rugs to me. There’s always an imperfection deliberately left in them, I was told, so that the spirits won’t be trapped therein. Might Russell Kirk like the thought that there was an imperfection in his book that takes us so close to evil and uncanniness?
And I am reminded, only Christ is perfect, his only is the perfect word.
Out & About. This Sunday, April 7, my “Good Books & Good Talk” seminar will meet to discuss Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the short novel that amazingly got into print in the USSR in the 1960s, during a brief thaw, and that depicts human resilience in the midst of the horrendous conditions of a Soviet concentration camp. If you read the book you are welcome to our conversation from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas.
I will be preaching next on Maundy Thursday and at the Easter Vigil at Incarnation.