So I got two novels by Charles Williams last week -- War In Heaven and Descent into Hell -- and inhaled them both over the weekend. (Really, they are pretty short, I swear.) I've been finding in the past couple of years that I much prefer to just take in a novel wholesale and then, if it has spoken to me, go back and re-read it, perhaps many times, at a slower pace to figure out why I fell in love with it. I shall revisit both these novels, and the other two Williams novels I have , over the summer, not to mention adding to my collection till I have them all . . .
War in Heaven is a grail story, superbly done in Williams' inimitable style, bringing together the most unlikely group to save the holy object. Williams suggests through the story also the most unlikely -- from our human perspective -- possibilities for individual salvation, reminding me of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, who also make much of our human frailties and God's mercy.
But Descent into Hell is the one that had me barely breathing Sunday evening. Williams takes the understanding that self-absorption is hell and shows the temptations to it, the ways out of it, and the consequences of choosing both rightly and wrongly. It is horrifying in its picture of Lawrence Wentworth's fall, and there is nothing simplistic about Pauline Anstruther's salvation from the same fate. It is a true book . . .
There are doppelgangers, suicide, ghosts walking, visions of heaven and of hell, the temptress Lilith (whose story I really must become more familiar with; so many of my favorite writers make use of it), the doctrine of substitution applied in our lives in a more compelling way than I've ever seen it, and again the constant suggestion that the slightest choice that is not evil could serve to put us on the way of salvation . . .
Early on, one of the characters says to poet Peter Stanhope, whose latest play they are going to produce, that "nature is so terribly good."
He agrees, but taking her literally: "it comes from doing so much writing, but when I say 'terribly' I think I mean 'full of terror'. A dreadful goodness."
She replies resentfully, "If things are good they're not terrifying, are they?"
Pauline, who confronts daily her own personal terror, interjects at this point the question, "And if things are terrifying, can they be good?'
Stanhope: "Yes, surely. Are our tremors to measure the Omnipotence?"
At the end, "Under the Mercy," Stanhope tells Pauline. "Go in peace, under the Mercy."