The World, the Flesh and Father Smith by Bruce Marshall, Human Adventure Books, 230pp, £12
Bruce Marshall was many things: a Scot exiled in France, an accountant, a soldier and a Catholic convert. He was also a novelist whose books sold well in his lifetime, but who has, regrettably, faded from view.
It is heartening, therefore, to see an American publisher reissue one of his most successful books. The World, the Flesh and Father Smith presents episodes in the life of an inner-city Scottish priest in the first half of the 20th century, stretching from the 15th year of his clerical life all the way to his deathbed.
This is a roomier, somewhat looser work than other Bruce Marshall novels I’ve read, but, like Father Malachy’s Miracle, it opens with a priest eyeing humdrum urban crowds. They are smug, complacent, full of fleshy self-regard, and entirely oblivious to the cosmic drama of their own salvation (or otherwise). Like a less fastidious TS Eliot when on London Bridge he echoed Dante (“I had not thought that death had undone so many”), Father Smith imagines those around him being “gathered into God’s basket like so many gaping fish”. And yet, all of them – all of us – are “so very pitiful when you see them asleep; and all stamped in God’s image, all fearfully and wonderfully made, all with eyelashes and finger-nails and ears”.
Father Smith constantly faces a very priestly dilemma: “It was the hardest thing in the world for one human being to shine into another human being the glow that burned within himself, even when the glow was from God.” Far easier, sometimes, to irradiate irritation.
Marshall’s novels are not short on grouchiness. He delights in clanging together our most humdrum earthly concerns with “the vast supernatural machinery of the Church”. One morning Father Smith begins to hare through the Ordo Baptismi Parvulorum because he is hungry for lunch. A whole chapter is devoted to an eloquent, heartfelt debate between Father Smith and his bishop about the proper stance of the Church towards governments, politics and war, conducted while the two men are changing a tyre.
Father Smith maintains a simple, joyful faith, even though he sees the worst life can do, whether when trying to give absolution to a woman pushed from a tall tenement building and now a pulp of blood and hair on the pavement; or, as an army chaplain in World War I (a conflict in which Marshall himself lost a leg), he sees a boozy, philandering but likeable major, who had just been beating a teaspoon against a tin mug when there was no bell to ring for the Sanctus, lying dead “with a great bloody gape in his belly”.
Father Smith gets through the war reminding himself of his bishop’s conviction that when it was over there would be a return to God, a spiritual awakening, and the world would be a better place. A nun later reminds him that war comes “because of the absence of love, but that does not mean that love will come because of the absence of war”.
Though a contemporary of Waugh and Greene, Marshall does not try to emulate them. The comedy is often broad and buttery. When Father Smith has a ding-dong with a dying sailor about repenting his past encounters with prostitutes in Buenos Aires and Hong Kong, the passage concludes with the sailor agreeing that he was at least sorry for not being sorry.
And then, just after absolution, at the moment the sailor dies, Marshall fires out a line that makes you catch your breath: “His face seemed to shrink away and away as if it were trying to become a baby’s face again.”
Father Smith is never shy of squaring up to the enemies of Christ, be they a flighty novelist championing communism and psychoanalysis, or an Italian cinema owner over-enamoured with Mussolini. Christianity is, he believes, “the only true and daring revolution”. But for the most part he is fighting the quiet, lonely battle for grace in a society enthralled by its own ease and pleasures, by “the suck and swirl and swish” of ordinary sins.
This is also a novel imbued with the spirit of Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum. The General Strike of 1926 deepens Father Smith’s disillusionment with the easeful rich. He harangues fellow priests about people believing that the Church “teaches a short-range rather than a long-range morality. They hear the adulterer, the thief and the murderer condemned from our pulpits, but not the employer of sweated labour, not the shareholder in armaments factories, not the men who make their money out of films about gangsters, not the politicians who compromise with the perpetrators of cruelty in faraway lands.”
Bruce Marshall the accountant seemed to develop a special contempt for the complacency of the haute bourgeoisie. Bruce Marshall the author deserves to retake his place in the Catholic literary constellation. Three cheers for Human Adventure Books for this welcome step along the way.