In yesterday’s post, I mentioned an “online interlocutor” with whom I carried on an extensive debate about War in Heaven years ago. Her LiveJournal name was Orphan Ann. She gave me permission to reprint our debate on my “Islands of Joy” blog — then called “Iambic Admonit”, which I did. I have since lost contact with her. Orphan Ann, if you are out there, please make contact! In any case, I am going to reprint our debate here, hoping that permission still holds (Under the Permission), over the course of several days. I’ll post her writing, then mine, then hers, then mine, and so forth. Here is Part One.
Orphan Ann wrote:
You commented in my Livejournal about Charles Williams’ novel War in Heaven and I thought I’d tell you what I though of the novel now that I’ve finished it. In short, I liked it, but found myself strangely unmoved. I thought that it was good, but too intellectual and didn’t have enough time spent on the characters themselves (with the exception of the Archdeacon and Persimmons.) That it’s a somewhat austere novel for this reason which one wouldn’t ever expect to be popular. And this looks true to me throughout the different parts of the book.
The plot, for instance. It begins with a murder victim being discovered, but this subplot isn’t attached to the rest of the plot until almost the end, when the police realise that Persimmons was the murderer and move to arrest him. This looked wilfully perverse and boring to me when first I read it, but now it’s an obvious part of the novel’s theme of the spiritual world succouring the physical. (Did Williams read thrillers, and was this a deliberate subversion, do you know? Or did he just do what he felt he had to?) As far as I can remember, the mystery subplot serves only one plot function, “mopping up” Persimmons at the end. But the “good” characters are so passive they become a nuisance to read about; I can only remember two times they take the initiative (when the Archdeacon steals the Graal and when Mornington and the Duke attack the chemist’s shop [which was a scene I enjoyed, even if it did involve my favourite character being killed off], which backfires mondo.) I realise that it’s partly the point, but it’s not much fun to read. The Graal’s defence mechanism makes the good side’s actions retroactively pointless, it seemed to me, as well. Now, on the one hand, I quite enjoyed seeing plot subverted, but on the other hand it made the story seem designed solely for the edification of the Archdeacon and the readers – which isn’t just “preachy”, but, I think, completely disrespectful to both readers and characters. There’s no compassion in it. That’s going a bit too far, as both Adrian and Jessie are saved by the Archdeacon’s making a nuisance of himself, and the Satanists’ ill-starred attempt to kill him, but it’s certainly the main thrust of the novel. You won’t find many descriptions of it as “Good vs. Evil struggle over the fate of a serving girl and a four-year-old boy”.
Nor did I think the characters were very interesting people, except Persimmons and the Archdeacon. Most of them have a fairly good introductory scene, especially the Duke, and then pale off into plot-related actions. This is especially bad for Adrian, who is only a child but seems to be little more than a spiritual poker chip for Persimmons to cash in, and Manasseh and Dmitri, one of whom explains to Persimmons that they are literally evil for evil’s sake (in the chapter “The Ointment”.) The satirical aspects of the book I felt were a bit mean-spirited, but I often feel that way about satire (not my favourite genre) and they weren’t that bad. But making the Archdeacon look clever by comparing him to his locum isn’t playing fair. One of the best characters, I thought, was Sir Giles; any opinions there? All the not-explicitly Christian characters seemed to be either entirely unspiritual or, in Lionel’s case, miserable, with the possible exception of Inspector Colquhoun. And that is not true. Non-Christian lives are not necessarily either worldly or meaningless (and yes, they’re both the same in War in Heaven), and this is just a basic mistake Williams makes describing these characters. Unbelief doesn’t lead to depression. (He might think their lives are ultimately worthless because they’re not based on God, but that’s not the same thing either.) I think the fact that the only foreign characters are both evil (and referred to as “the Jew” and “the Greek”) is related to this. He’s too – schematic, perhaps – in his attitude to people, and not interested enough in people per se; who are the bedrock, I think, of a novel.
I didn’t like the ending. It would have been sappy if a lesser talent had written it, but I can’t think quite how to describe it. I didn’t like the fact that Mornington’s death wasn’t mentioned at all, as if it was unimportant, and the rest of the book supports that reading to me. The chapter title was a bad touch. And I thought the identification of the Archdeacon with Sir Galahad, whilst resonating nicely with the Duke’s offhand comment earlier, was truly presumptuous. (That looked like a typical Inklings move to me, wouldn’t you say?)
A few scattered thoughts: the basic Archdeacon/Persimmons structure was too schematic, I thought. I did like the humour, though I wouldn’t call it hilarious; dry, perhaps. Was I totally ignorant to realise that the Holy Grail came from Ephesus? And do you have any idea why Prester John cropped up? I don’t think he’s got anything to do with the Grail at all, and assumed he was an angel, or perhaps the Holy Spirit. But it was only Williams’ second novel, so I’ll definitely give his others a try – have you a favourite?