David Bentley Hart’s The Devil and Pierre Gernet

When I first heard that the inimitable David Bentley Hart was publishing a collection of short stories I was almost excited as when I heard that the inimitable David Bentley Hart is publishing a (still forthcoming) translation of the New Testament.  Hart is a Greek Orthodox theologian and classicist.  He authored the staggering book, Atheist Delusions a few years back, for which he won the Michael Ramsey Prize.  He is also a frequent contributor to First Things, where he is currently authoring the concluding article for each issue.  Furthermore, his The Doors of the Sea is one of the more erudite and provocative takes on theodicy that I have ever seen.

Hart is an intellectual who writes theology and history and observations with a certain literary flourish that stops just short of being pretentious but just after the point of establishing his brilliance as a thinker and writer.  He is a wordsmith with a keen sense of insight and perception. I almost never read him when I don’t come away bettered by the experience.

The thought of DBH writing fiction seemed only natural to me when I first heard of it, and it was with bated breath that Mrs. Richardson and I dove into the collection which we finished just a couple of days ago.  The Devil and Pierre Gernet is vintage Hart:  lush and occasionally recondite writing that never leads the reader so far afield that they cannot see at least the shadows of the intended gist.  I kept thinking of Umberto Eco while reading Hart’s fiction, an analogy that he perhaps would not appreciate given his recent piece on Eco, self-explanatorily entitled “The Inertia of Reputation.”  What I mean, though, is that Hart’s writing and style and approach is Ecoan at its best, which is to say that it tantalizes with arcanae without losing the reader in the author’s own idiosyncratic intelligence.

The stories are quite interesting.  “The Devil and Pierre Gernet” reads somewhat like a more nuancedScrewtape Letters set in narrative.  It is less didactic in nature, but equally forceful in its effect.  “The House of Apollo,” perhaps my favorite of the stories, deals with Julian the Apostate’s efforts at the re-paganization of the Roman Empire.  It is pitiful and humorous in its depiction of the frustrated Emporer’s misguided efforts and, perhaps more than any of these stories, depicts the central themes of Atheist Delusions in a fictional vehicle.  “A Voice from the Emerald World” was probably the most moving of the stories, depicting as it does a married couple’s efforts at coping with the death of their child.  “The Ivory Gate” and “The Other” are both well-written but curious stories on which I continue to ruminate, the former being about a dying man’s struggle with transendence and the implications of his own recurring dreams, the latter being about…well…as I say, I’m still ruminating on it!

The reading of these stories requires some effort and some work, as the reading of most great stories inevitably does.  If you would like to read some very well-written, occasionally challenging, frequently humorous and always worthwhile tales, this is a great book to which to turn.

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