Monsignor Quixote

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Category: Classic
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Date Published: 1982
Number of Pages: 224
Print Price: $10.24
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Graham Greene is not only one of the most important writers of his generation but is also one of the most elusive. In fact, it was Greene’s view that we cannot understand someone without understanding “the man within.” So, the quest for Graham Greene involves a pursuit of the man that haunted his luridly vivid imagination.

 

Greene’s novels, and the characters that fill them, are pocked with angst and anger. Simultaneously confused and confounded by a deep sense of guilt and failure, his characters are informed and sometimes deformed by a deeply felt religious sensibility. The oppressive weight of the real presence of Catholic faith, or the terrible emptiness of its real absence, turns Greene’s novels into a fascinating and unforgettable conflict between the fertile and the furtive. As we will see, the depiction of a drunken priest in Monsignor Quixote, exudes Greene’s morbid preoccupation with human folly and failure, as well as exhibiting his belief in the remnants of human dignity even amidst the deepest degradation. At other times, he squirms amidst the squalor of sin and cynicism.

In some ways, Monsignor Quixote is similar to The Power and the Glory. Both feature, as their protagonist, a priest. In each, the protagonist is being run out of his parish by authorities. Both are grappling with their faith, and both become wandering envoys of the church, performing priestly duties wherever they are needed. Monsignor Quixote can, throughout most of its length, be seen as a lighter parallel story to The Power and the Glory.

Father Quixote is a humble parish priest, administering the host to his poor and uncommitted congregation in Toboso, hometown of Don Quixote. The lines between fiction and fact are blurred as Father Quixote claims to be a descendant of the infamous Don, and indeed, much of Monsignor Quixote resembles that famous story. And of course, it is impossible to pay tribute to Don Quixote without a Sancho Panza, so that role is filled by the Communist ex-mayor of Toboso, nicknamed (of course) Sancho. After helping a passing bishop whose car has broken down, Father Quixote is promoted to Monsignor, angering his local bishop to no end and causing his virtual exile from Toboso.

Throughout the novel, Father Quixote and Sancho journey through a series of vignettes that mirror the adventures of the Father's esteemed forefather. He helps a man on the run, and is later mugged by him; he tilts at some windmills; and he has lots of discussion of the worth of Catholicism vs. Communism. Monsignor Quixote is another in Greene's line of sympathetic holy men, real people with real doubts and questions. Although Monsignor Quixote never questions his devotion to the faith, he spends a large portion of the book questioning the necessity of Catholic ritual, arriving at conclusions sometimes orthodox and sometimes not.

Monsignor Quixote is gripping because it grapples with faith and disillusionment on the shifting sands of uncertainty in our relativistic age. His tormented characters are the products of Greene’s own tortured soul, and one suspects that he was more baffled than anyone else at the contradictions at the core of his own character and, in consequence, at the heart of the characters that his rich and fetid imagination had created.

In later years, in his last books, the genuine groping for religious truth in Greene’s fiction would often be thwarted by his obsession with the darker recesses of his own character. This darker side is invariably transposed onto all of his fictional characters, so that even their goodness is warped. Greene saw human nature as “not black and white” but “black and grey,” and he referred to his need to write as “a neurosis … an irresistible urge to pinch the abscess which grows periodically in order to squeeze out all the pus.” Such a tortured outlook may have produced entertaining novels but could not produce any true sense of reality. Greene’s novels were often chimeras that were not so much in need of psychological analysis as products of it.

And while the tone throughout Monsignor Quixote is fairly light, but near the end, there's an absolutely stunning scene involving a somnambulist mass that ranks among Greene's best. It is a prime example of how hard-hitting Greene's writing can be, even in his minor works, despite his unwillingness to indulge in the sensational. Character and ideas are king, but, as in all of Greene's books, there is that driving undercurrent of drama, both internal and external.

Monsignor Quixote is a minor work compared to The Power and the Glory or The End of the Affair, but behind its lighthearted premise and comical inspiration, there is substantial discussion of God, ritual, and the place of religion in the modern world.

There are a lot of "ifs" in Monsignor Quixote, both the character and the book. The “ifs” revolve primarily on the primary “if” surrounding God’s existence. The center of the argument was the center itself or, more precisely, whether there is any center.

I believe on this point that Greene could be compared to Thomas Hardy: Greene’s gloomy vision at least allows for a light beyond the darkness, whereas Hardy allows for darkness only. G.K. Chesterton said of Hardy that he was like the village atheist brooding over the village idiot. Greene is often like a self-loathing skeptic brooding over himself. As such, the vision of the divine in his fiction is often thwarted by the self-erected barriers of his own ego. Only rarely does the glimmer of God’s light penetrate the chinks in the armor, entering like a vertical shaft of hope to exorcise the simmering despair.

Monsignor Quixote is a kind of jovial Jekyll and Hyde character who has not succeeded in fusing the two sides of himself into any kind of harmony. The paradoxical union of Catholicism and skepticism living in Greene's character has created a hybrid, a metaphysical mutant, as fascinating and perhaps as futile. The resulting contortions and contradictions of Monsignor Quixote give the impression of depth; but the depth is often only that of ditch water, perceived as bottomless because the bottom cannot be seen. Greene’s genius is rooted in the ingenuity with which he muddied the waters.

(It is no wonder that Greene should have taken the name of St. Thomas the Doubter at his reception into the Church in February 1926. Whatever else he was or wasn’t, he was always a doubter par excellence. He doubted others; he doubted himself; he doubted God. Ironically, it was this very doubt that so often provided the creative force for his fiction. Perhaps the secret of his enduring popularity lies in his being a doubting Thomas in an age of doubt. And this book, like so many of the others, owes a debt to doubt, and its profundity lies in the ultimate doubt about the doubt. In the end this ultimate doubt about doubt keeps Monsignor Quixote clinging doggedly, desperately—and doubtfully—to his faith.)  

Monsignor Quixote is minor compared to Greene’s other works, but behind its lighthearted premise and comical inspiration, there is substantial discussion of God, ritual, and the place of religion in our world.

 

Publisher:
ISBN-13: 978-0143105527
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 7.7 x 5.1 x 0.6 inches


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G. E. Schwartz is the author of Only Others Are: Poems, World, and Thinking in Tongues. His blog, REGAIN'D, is a meditation on faith found in deserts, both metaphorical and actual. He lives in Upstate New York.


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