Friday, February 16, 2007

American Masterpieces, Not Read in Loserville

Maureen Howard’s Novels of the Seasons are contemporary American masterpieces, little read. Think of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time as written by an American Virginia Woolf. Yet who reads them? Very few seem to have heard of her. There are so few Catholic writers I really like. She lacks the masochistic streak of Mary Gordon. She is no Flannery O'Connor, but writes about the sweep of geography, history, art, and perhaps the end of Catholicism in America. (The end of civilization? No, I'm joking.)

Howard fuses the stories of several Catholic families, immigrants, refugees, Catholic commune workers, priests, stockbrokers, farmers, artists, computer guys, professors, Audobon's wife, and even an autobiographical sketch of Howard. Personally, I find these novels more eloquent and less sentimental than Alice McDermott's Catholic novels. Why do critics love McDermott rather than Howard? Because the critics can understand McDermott? (I don't mean to put down McDermott, who is very good in her way.) Yet Howard’s pyrotechnics of language and prodigious leaps back and forth in time are much more gorgeous and layered. Give this woman a National Book Award or Pulitzer.

A Lover’s Almanac is perhaps the simplest novel in the cycle: Louise Moffat and Artie Freeman, a young couple without a history at the millennium, learn their personal histories and invent their own life-style, rebelling against parents and grandparents who concentrated on American rather than personal history. Louise and Artie see themselves as more sophisticated and ironic, but these Generation X-and-a-halfers have not lived through wars or sacrificed for family or country and only partially, through photographs and letters, come to understand their family relationships (yet self-centeredly and without much knowledge of their country’s history). The second and third novels give us their 20th century families' viewpoints, as well as Audobon and his wife’s. The refugee family from Austria in World War II is Catholic, not Jewish: fascinating in itself, since the Catholics who died in concentration camps are largely forgotten. The novels are told in sream of consciousness, straightforward narrative, illustrations, almanac pages, and histories of Franklin, Edison, and other Americans.

Perhaps religion is missing from Louise and Artie's lives.

These novels are showy and magnificent, the story of America. Too flamboyant? I don’t think so. The fourth novel--Autumn-- is yet to come.

Where are the Modern Library editions?

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