Andrew Klavan, creator of crime novels, screen writer, and satirist, has written the kind of book I prefer to spend time with: one that you want to spend even more time with. One you want to reread as soon as you have finished reading it for the first time. Few books give me that today. The novels of A.S. Byatt. The work of Thomas Sowell. The books — all of them — of C. S. Lewis. For older writing, the poets Klavan covers in the first two sections of his book: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, to name a few of the Romantic poets, and, inevitably, John Milton and his great epic, Paradise Lost.
The argument is simple. Klavan believes that, as the cover of the book says, reading “England’s greatest poets point[s] the way” to knowing Jesus. But the argument, when we reach the third section of the book, its heart, turns out not to be so simple after all. And it all hinges on the Logos, the Word, the beginning of John. On language incarnate: the God made Man. And, for those of us who believe in the God made Man, our commitment to also embody the Word, the language, his story in our story, our story in his.
For, to Klavan, life is a story; we are literature, just as the greatest story, the greatest literature, was Jesus. However, as he writes, “It is not that Christ is who we should be. It is that he became what we are trying to become” (215). He continues: “The Sermon on the Mount is a map of that experience, a way to recreate that experience in our own minds.” But to reach this conclusion, we must first travel with Klavan through Part One, “The Problem of a Godless World” and Part Two, “The Journey Toward Solutions.” The trip is worth it. For those readers who know the poets and novelists Klavan reads for us, it is as if we are reencountering them with him. For readers unfamiliar with the Lyrical Ballads, or the Odes of Keats, or Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Klavan provides a marvelous introduction, especially in his recounting of what he calls “The Immortal Evening.”
The tale begins simply enough, as many of Klavan’s complicated works do, with these words: “One cold Sunday in the Christmas season, 1817, Benjamin Robert Haydon had four friends to his room for dinner.” One was Wordsworth; one Keats; one a Thomas Monkhouse, cousin of Wordsworth’s wife; and, finally, the essayist Charles Lamb. From that simple beginning, Klavan roams far and wide in English literary and political and religious and scientific history, telling stories within the story of that boisterous dinner when, according to Klavan, the loss of faith was made manifest. Klavan calls it, boldly, “the spiritual hinge of history.” When we come to the conclusion of the dinner, we are bound to agree. But not before John Milton enters to tell us “Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit/Of that Forbidden Tree….” Milton, says Klavan (citing C. S. Lewis as witness), explained the crack in the world when the true Hierarchy was shattered. It is a tour de force.
Along the way we meet Charles Dickens, the French Revolution (uncomfortably close to our own parlous political time), Dorothy Wordsworth (whose letters are well worth reading on their own), Mary Shelley and Frankenstein…. It is as if Klavan set out to provide readers with a thorough education, the one he undertook on his own, as he explains in his memoir, The Great Good Thing. I would venture to say that his new book should be read as a companion to his memoir, as it is a natural result of his conversion at 49 from a secular Jew to a struggling Christian.
In short, The Truth and Beauty, is idiosyncratically Klavan’s own journey to know the Christ — as he admits. But, also in short, readers on this same journey must admit that his journey and our own journey meet in many — if not all— respects. But until we read his book, we just don’t know it. To read Klavan is to put ourselves under the tutelage of a wise guide to the Word made flesh. To understand the physicality of Christianity, of Christ, of our struggle to embody what He did.
But Klavan, in his conclusion, puts it better than I can:
The world has told us that all our truths are mere stories, but this man who walks with us on the road to Emmaus, he told us that all our stories are really truths—truths in human form, which is the form of beauty, which is the form divine, which is his form, the form of the Word made flesh (229).
Then comes the final line of the book, which I will not quote here. Instead, I will put down the book, pause to think, then pick it up, and read it all over again.
Cheryl Forbes is Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. She is the author of eight books on theology, philosophy, science, and memoir.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.