Ron Hansen, Hotly in Pursuit of the Real: Notes Toward a Memoir (Slant Books, 2020)
More often than not, the modern memoir proves to be a survivor’s field notes on the loss and reconstitution of self: a lush, gory, or strident examination of a protagonist’s memories—and an antagonist’s sins. So when we pick up a memoir, we assume we will find these two central characters; we wait for their arrival and their opening volleys, and we watch to see if the protagonist is able to intuit a human depth in the heart of their adversary—and so, their self.
The first clue that Ron Hansen’s Hotly in Pursuit of the Real: Notes Toward a Memoir is something different to this is its borrowed title. Hansen lifts the key phrase from Flannery O’Connor’s famous mid-century Mystery and Manners essay, “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers,” a forthright, occasionally wry consideration of the duties of craft incumbent upon a novelist. The reader can almost hear O’Connor’s sweet, sawing drawl meting out the aphorisms now commonplace in discussions of faith and fiction: including her declaration that the true fiction writer is one who is “hotly in pursuit of the real.”
For O’Connor, the real is the good that is the world’s ultimate reality. Her ideal Catholic novelist is a prophet who, regardless of his religious or spiritual proclivities, bears an imaginative perception that glimpses the good—with all its charms, indignities, and redemptions—and, in his devotion to the novel’s form, gains a tool fit to excavate and convey it.
Hansen’s powers of prophetic creativity are broadly manifest in his forty-year body of fiction. He is best known as a master of historical subjects—from Hitler and Gerard Manley Hopkins to Jesse James and Billy the Kid—enlivening spotty or disputed histories with rich psychological portraits and believable speculative undertakings.
He’s at his best conjuring gem-like personalities and mythologies, as in Exiles, his contrapuntal portrait of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the five exiled German nuns whose untimely death inspired Hopkins’ famous poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland. Knitting together sparse facts, particulars gleaned from the biographies of contemporaneous religious sisters, and Hansen’s own powers of insight, the German nuns sometimes rise up as more “real,” more completely rendered than the historical Hopkins, whose life intermittently veers into the kind of reportage that would be welcome in a biography, but sits a bit awkwardly in a novel. It is a weakness apparently born of Hansen’s assiduous powers of research, and one that also hampers intervals of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which reads at times like a lightly-ruddered encyclopedia of the James Gang’s Civil War-era exploits.
Hitler’s Niece, perhaps Hansen’s strongest fusion of history and fiction, suffers from none of this encumbrance. Imagining Hitler’s incestuous relationship with his femme fatale half-niece, Geli Raubal, the novel marries fact, mythology and conjecture with lithe authority, building a taut psychological case that Hitler himself murdered his young lover: a case crafted with such centrifugal force that the reader may walk away assuming it is true. But Hansen’s ability to make the possible plausible is best showcased in Mariette in Ecstasy, perhaps his most daring novel, with no precise historic ballast beyond the liturgy of the hours. Its boldly orthodox assent to the stigmatic’s dilemma allows Hansen’s powers of human insight to shine. The good he excavates is found not in a scientific examination of his charismatic young nun’s grisly hands and feet, but in a wide sweep of the petty, covetous, and tender reactions of Mariette’s convent and community; and in her delicately rendered interior drama with a bridegroom whose gifts honor and confound.
Hansen’s Notes toward a Memoir confirm his power to pursue the real: his capacity to delve voraciously into literature, philosophy, and theology, not to mention an intuitive insight into lives and temperaments. The collection stands as an astute miscellany, plotting various literary, intellectual, and spiritual waypoints. It contains reflective essays on the concept of attention, the Gospel of Mark, and the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises; a Holy Land travelogue, examinations of Thomas Merton’s My Argument with the Gestapo and Edwin O’Connor’s The Edge of Sadness.
But who is the man behind this gesture at a memoir—indeed, behind the astonishingly ambitious novels, clean short stories, and judicious, almost regal essays? In the collection’s preface, Hansen suggests that he is a private man who prizes and protects the quotidian. He characterizes himself as a suburban husband and father who, as a writer, has taken to heart Flaubert’s advice to let a “regular and ordinary life” drive “violent and original” work. Accordingly, Hotly in Pursuit of the Real offers only delicate clues about the memoirist himself.
In place of the modern confession’s embattled protagonist, we find here a narrator of clear mind and robust pursuits. He offers the wide open sky of his Midwestern upbringing as a backdrop against which domestic tableaus and formative moments of wonder—comprehending language for the very first time, lying outlandishly to a bemused teacher—flash up in essays on writing and vocation. There is a mannered sense about his musing; neither the setting nor the stage pieces are judged or played for sentiment; which allows the stunning turn of his urbane literary ascent—vaulting from inquisitive child to traveling textbook salesman to lauded young novelist, mentored by the likes of John Updike—to unfurl in the kind of shrewd surprise sprung only by the modest. When Hansen reveals his present-tense personal life, it is according to the shape of his commitments: a faithful marriage, ordination to the Catholic diaconate, and an enduring commitment to Jesuit spirituality.
Hotly in Pursuit of the Real is a coy memoir. It is offered by a man who deftly sculpts his persona, a memoirist apparently schooled in both Midwestern reticence and the decorous manners of an old-school intelligentsia. And he is, undoubtedly, a writer so deeply taken with and suited to the rigors of fiction that he presents as a kind of intellectual athlete, one whose only palpable adversary is his own stamina, as he strives to match pace with an urgent fascination to plumb the created world with its brimming questions and narratives.
And yet, at the heart of one brief paragraph, we learn that Hansen’s intellectual powers are fueled by a vibrantly supernatural experience of creativity. In the essay “Making Things Up,” he discloses that when gripped by a new subject, “fictional scenes occur to me like many stairsteps to an upper room.” Immersed in the sensory details of that waking dream, Hansen receives the story from a manifestly separate and external source. He and his newly emerging characters metaphysically fuse and refract, so that in the process of following and shaping a story, the author’s own “emotional, psychological, or spiritual concerns are highlighted or weeded out.”
It’s a slightly wacky, almost charismatic act of prophetic intuition that O’Connor might sit up and peer at, amused and curious to watch one of her acolytes intellectually and empathetically merge with a stunning range of sinners and saints as an incarnate “realist of distances”: tugging a meticulously imagined world and its intuited good into the weakened frame of what we now see, as through a glass darkly.
Laura Bramon lives in Washington, DC, where she works on child protection and education issues for an international relief and development agency. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in IMAGE, First Things online, Cardus, Books & Culture, Featherproof Press, and other outlets.