'Ustina,' by Matthew Teter

‘Ustina,’ by Matthew Teter

Above, the first winner of the Laurus contest: a portrait of the character Ustina from the celebrated Russian novel. Matthew Teter, the San Antonio, Texas, art teacher who produced the striking image above, writes:

I was inspired by the novel LAURUS to paint an imagined portrait of the character Ustina. The novel was so engrossing to me as I found myself lost in its pages. I think the religious person is comfortable reading a story such as this as our lives can have the same “sacramental” attitude and meaning. We see the spiritual forces at work everyday as we encounter people in our sphere. The secular world tries its hardest to tell us this is all myth and we have no real significance. But this is not the case! Life is a glorious mystery and there is a God who loves us and is reaching out to us! Enjoy the painting.

You’ve got it, Matthew — and thanks for sending in a link to your blog. And a paperback copy of Laurus will be headed your way when it comes out in the fall.

Here’s a winning essay by Tom Smith of Madison, NJ:

The relevance of Laurus lies in its unexpected use of Time as it relates to what is known as “modern.” First, it has been described as a “postmodern” novel. This designation is most likely used in its resemblance to “magical realist” literature, especially in its treatment of Time in a way that recalls such futuristic science fiction novels such as Dhalgren or Ubik.

However, Laurus can also correctly be described as “premodern.” The 51Iw4FlGzaL._SX314_BO1,204,203,200_novel’s Orthodoxy, for instance, arises not because it contains theology or apologetics or other such modern devices, but because it takes an Orthodox worldview for granted in that the actions of the characters and the fabric of the story would make no sense without distinct Orthodox beliefs, or at least a willingness to suspend one’s doubts for the sake of comprehending the story. Thus, the book gently edges the reader towards the premodern, partially seeming to recast physicality as a sort of fantasy-land that plays by different rules without acknowledging that the story is in any way ‘fantastic.’

The boldest aspect of Laurus is, however, that in doing this it bridges the postmodern with the premodern. It draws implicit connections with both the Golden Legend and contemporary works such as Invisible Cities, all the while bypassing the linear, reductionist “Modern” worldview entirely. Laurus does not, however, gaze Janus-like both forward and backward – for time does not run forward or backward! – it, rather, contemplates the Eternal Return while lifting its gaze along the spiral path of Ascent.

Another winner, this one from K.I. in Richardson, Texas:

To be a 21st century American is to be deluded. Paul called it 2000 years ago – when you don’t honor God, your thinking becomes futile, and God lets you experience the fruit of your idolatrous ways. Abortion, suicide, and addictions are merely a few signs our idolatrous nation is like Israel in the time of the judges: everyone doing what is “right in his own eyes” to the point of death. Thousands of years’ difference between these and our times doesn’t matter because the truth doesn’t change. When you live in the truth, time is on your side.

21st century Americans are obsessed with time. We use, control, and kill time (and all of God’s creation). The hook of Laurus is the centrality of time to the story. The author’s playful use of time-warpy language and visions connects Laurus with the reader. Yet Laurus, unlike us, lives in peace with time – and has all the time in the world.

Laurus portrays a life surrendered to God, in a time and place unlike ours yet with the same universal issues (love, loss, sickness, humility, suffering). Laurus’s life has meaning and purpose because he pursues eternal, not only temporal, good for others.

For Christians, the “communion of saints” helps us to know what is true; how to pray; how to live. We are connected with them and with Jesus in his death: a connection of eternal matters and thus beyond time. Laurus can help us all understand eternal realities.

Here’s a good one from reader Sam M.:

My take on “Laurus” stems from my work as a Catholic school administrator. We run a great school, but Catholic schools are being forced to take a business-minded approach which often means increasing tuition, paring back programs, and becoming ever-more responsive to students not just as Catholics, but as “customers” to be “satisfied” in a new “data-driven environment.”

When one parent is asking about our Common Core alignment, another is requesting 10 years of SAT scores to assess his son’s chances of getting into Princeton, and holy cow the plow truck just broke… we struggle to keep the unmeasurable wonder of the church on the front burner; the SATs NEVER ask how many hours you have spent at adoration.

This novel’s very existence and its reception make it an essential tool in reinvigorating that wonder. I try to give my students a good grounding in the classics, but they often wonder if that kind of work can be produced anymore. Yes it can. Just as important, the wider culture’s warm embrace of the novel, even in places like the New Yorker, proves that these issues still resonate beyond the walls of a Catholic school that aspires to a healthy balance of orthodoxy and relevance.

Answered prayers are what kept Arseny on the righteous path. For a Catholic school administrator, the fact that Laurus exists and can be shared with my students is just such a prayer answered.

I made the mistake of buying an electronic copy. I need a physical version to pass along to a young English teacher who feels the fire of his faith. He lives it and breathes it but, like me, he thinks his way through theology. Laurus is an incendiary bomb that will set that tinder ablaze.

Alan Orsborn writes:

The novel is a deeply thoughtful work that develops nuanced theological themes without being either explicitly religious or preachy. It also offers a glimpse into the fragility of the fabric of time. Most of us in contemplating an embarrassing past mistake have yearned for the chance to go back and correct the error. In Laurus, time is fluid. While time prohibits do-overs, it may gracefully offer a recapitulation and a second chance to do it right. This instability of time throughout Laurus shows our smallness in the face of forces we cannot control, and that our Enlightenment and our individualism count for little.

The shame of the medieval Russian herbalist Arseny lies in the deaths of his lover and child, unburied due to the sin of cohabitation. He lives to “atone” for the eternal rest of their souls. While we are not told whether he found that atonement, progressively through the phases of his long life from tow-headed child to schemamonk, he finds what it means to utterly empty himself and live for others.

Steeped in individualism, we do not readily understand this utter emptying that transcends the Western theological controversy of grace versus works. But this emptying is simultaneously both grace and works while disclosing the true meaning of love. Though not stated as such, it is a window into a deep appreciation of the emptying of Christ for the life of the world, a most profound message in this most contemplative book.

Eric Mader (who blogs at this spot), writing from Taipei, Taiwan, writes:

Laurus is an extraordinary literary accomplishment, certainly the most powerful novel I’ve read in the recent handful of years.

Eugene Vodalazkin’s mastery of the modes of late 20th century narrative combines with a deep respect for the medieval Christian vision to make this vision fresh for postmodern readers. The result is a hard-hitting wake-up call for all those who’ve succumbed without struggle to the “playful” (read: jaded) sensibility that dominates our literature–a wake-up call delivered with all the more punch because it’s delivered in a narrative idiom more reminiscent of our career literary cynics and deconstructionist wonks.

There’s not a hint of cynicism in Vodalazkin’s book, however. The writer brilliantly proves that major Christian literary prose need not remain faithful to 19th century realist modes.

I’d go even further. Though he’s sometimes compared to Umberto Eco or the magical realists, Voladazkin has clearly surpassed them. I can’t think of another work since Dante’s Commedia that more powerfully links love for a departed woman with a deep spiritual vision of the universe.

I predict this novel will hit many who read it as a bombshell, especially those who feel the anomie and pointlessness of our consumerist culture and who yearn for something deeper, wiser, weightier. The perfect reader is the spiritually curious, literate seeker who has so far remained unimpressed by what contemporary organized religion offers, but who nonetheless continues to yearn.

I look forward to Vodalazkin’s next work to appear in English and thank God that we have him.

Robert Woods writes:

Love calls us to the things of this world, however, we need great literature to assist us in properly naming, knowing, and ordering our many loves. Literature in the older and higher sense of the word enables us to see both things and people in a larger perspective than our myopic moments calls us to apprehend. The best literature transports us in an escapist manner to another time and place only to return us better to our own. Laurus is such a novel. In both form and content, it mercifully rescues the contemporary narcissistic reader from the maudlin and mundane of our normal hollow existence. Laurus sweeps the reader into a reality that is both of this and not of this world. We are reminded throughout this tapestry-like tale that as glorious as our embodied state is, it truly is our intimations of something grander reflecting what is beyond all of these hints and signals. This is a novel that I will read again because when I returned to my everyday life after the first read, I was more aware of the good, true, and beautiful all around me. When Dostoevsky penned the phrase, “beauty will save the world,” it was the kind of beauty described within the pages of Laurus that he most certainly had in mind.

Though I was interested in hearing from readers of Laurus, I opened the contest also to people who could make a short case for what we 21st-century Americans have to learn from Russian literature. Here are a few winners, starting with one who wants to be identified by the initials “M.E.”:

Love is patient. In The Brothers Karamazov, a woman seeks out Fr. Zosima for his advice. She cannot get beyond feeling love to the Christian goal of incarnating her love in action. Fr. Zosima responds: “Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, and with everyone watching… Whereas active love is labor and perseverance.” In other words, Fr. Zosima stresses the need for patience, (the supreme conservative value, one sorely lacking in the era of Twitter), in putting love into action. Consumerism, what Dostoevskij would perhaps label as “sensualism”, must of its very nature try to exsanguinate this patience. As long as men make idols of their demands, individualism and consumerism thrive. Patience produces no demand, and a world without demand frightens marketers. Patience is the idol slayer. Only with patience can consumerism, which gives only the illusion of belonging, be uprooted, allowing true, organic communities to blossom.

The great spiritual struggle of America today is this choice: consumerism or community. Community is life. Consumerism is death. And Doestoevskij reminds us that if you want to live in community, to pray in community, to be saved in community, to resurrect in community, you must labor and persevere. With patience.

Kevin Donohue writes:

While Western novelists, by and large, embraced the headlong rush into modernity lead by the pioneering spirit of those espousing the liberalization rooted in Reformation-era Protestantism and eventual Vatican II-era Catholicism, Russian spirituality came to greatly mistrust the deeper societal havoc wrecked by these forces of capitalism, scientism, and general progressivism. As Dostoevsky points out in Crime and Punishment, Demons, and, most epically, The Brothers Karamozov, these forces serve to unhinge people from their community (whether it be socially or religiously-rooted). This tendency has arisen a new in the modern age of America as progressive forces marshal under banners of justice and equality to remove what they call the last barriers of discrimination, but what Russian spirituality (and many modern Christian writers) recognize as that which gives mankind telos and true humanity. This groundedness against and skepticism of the “new individualized age” is what Eastern spirituality can offer us. Reading any modern American writer of literature (Wallace, Pynchon, Franzen, et al.), I am struck by sheer loneliness that modernity has caused in its great rush. In presenting truly great characters that wrestle with this loneliness in a milieu that acknowledges a spirituality greater than humanity, Russian literature presents a unique voice unheard in most of the Western canon.

Here’s the only reflection I received on Russian literature from the Soviet era. The writer of this is A.R. from Columbia, SC:

“O mighty, divinely delimited wisdom of walls, boundaries!” – We, Zamyatin

The protagonist of Zamyatin’s We lives in a society where walls protect citizens from external threats and, ominously, internal feelings and thoughts that threaten the supposed perfection of collective society. External, superficial harmony is absolute; individuality and an interior life is a threat to this harmony and therefore forbidden.

Russian spirituality may be rooted in the individual struggle to ascend to God and the everlasting happiness found only in that ascent. The oppression in Russian history makes this longing acute, and the resistance to walls more pronounced. The Russian liturgy and Orthodox faith, with its connection to the past and reverence for tradition, perhaps transports us to a time and place without the oppressive walls imposed by society. The ancient liturgy is a taste of freedom, a chance to experience ways of thought not burdened by present constraints.

America is no stranger to walls. Protection and safety have emerged as the primary societal values. As citizens, we not only secure ourselves from every possible external threat, but protect our minds from unsettling words.  Taken further, we self-censor our thoughts in order to conform. Of course, I am not the first person to highlight the mental strain imposed by modern society’s extensive rules for action, speech, and thought, all in the name of security and at the expense of freedom. However, I suggest that a minor part of the appeal of ancient forms of worship is that sense of participating in life outside the walls imposed by the present.

Those are the ten winners. I will be sending your e-mail addresses to the publicist for Laurus, who will be in touch about sending you your paperbacks later this year. Many thanks to Oneworld, the book’s publisher, for its generosity.

One more thing: I wanted to include on this post this very fine reflection from reader K.D. (not Kevin Donohue), but it went way over the stated word limit, and I didn’t feel that it was fair to all the other entrants who followed the rules. However, it’s really very good, and I want you to read it. Thanks to everyone who participated. This was a hard call, because all of the entries really were good! Here’s K.D.’s wonderful work:

To the Russians belong the quality of cultural purity, which has been both its great blessing and its great curse. At the time of Vladimir the Great’s conversion to Orthodox Christianity in 988 A.D., his conversion and the subsequent Christianizing of the Rus took place over what may be characterized as a primitive, pagan, and non-European cultural background. Kievian Russia had never been part of Byzantium or the Roman Empire, nor even, like the Celts and the Teutonic tribes of Europe, existed along a fault line of cultural and military conflict with Rome. It was never Hellenized, never subjugated by Romans, and the Rus were never the subjects of Byzantium. The Christianization of the Rus was thus a pure transmission of the Christian Faith onto a simple people which overwhelmed and displaced their primitive pagan outlook. The Cyrillic alphabet itself, developed in accordance with Byzantine missionary efforts, insured that the emergence of the written word in Kievian Russia corresponded to the introduction of the incarnate word. In this sense, Russian culture became an expression of Christian culture, from its very alphabet outward, in a way that proved impossible to the West.

The same may be said of the introduction of the ideas of the European Enlightenment, which constituted foreign ideas imposed on the Russian people starting with the reign of Peter the Great. But unlike Christianity, which the Russian people embraced, the ideas of the European Enlightenment were confined to a narrow elite of mostly Russian aristocrats, many of whom could not even speak the Russian language of their own serfs. Just as the Russian people received a pure transmission of Christianity, the Russian intelligentsia received a pure transmission of the Enlightenment, one which existed not only in dialectical opposition to traditional Russian culture but to the Russian language itself.

It is in the consciousness expressed in Russian writers of the 19th Century and 20th Century that this dialectal struggle for the Russian soul finds its clear expression, and whether we look to Slavophile Dostoevsky, or Westernized Belinsky, we find the conflict between an authentic apostolic heritage and a modern, Westernized nihilism. What is in the 19th Century a cultural discussion, becomes by the 20th and 21st Centuries a political struggle. November 1917 marks the date of the triumph of the colonization of traditional Russian society by an atheistic intelligentsia steeped in Western enlightenment ideals, culminating in the recapitulation of Peter the Great’s decapitation. Yet in the works of writers like Solzhenitsyn, we find the same old struggle, but now spatialized in concentration camps, instead of those internalized, concentration camp of the soul that characterize the spirit of modernity. The struggle is now politicized, a competition between political answers rather than debate over political questions, and solutions can only be obtained only through blood in distinction to ink. The Soviet period represents the new death of the Word in Russian culture, as the post-Soviet period points to its possible resurrection in defiance of its enemies.

It might seem to the American that there is nothing to be learned from Russian literature. After all, colonial America based its early religious life on the complete rejection of an authentic, apostolic Christian tradition. Only in the American South can anything resembling a pre-modern traditional social order be found, and this order was wiped off the face of the Earth in one of only two wars that Americans universally proclaim to be just. America was not colonized by the European Enlightenment, the Enlightenment grew in an Anglo-Saxon mold organically out of American society and its intercourse with Europe. The fire that the Soviets reduced to smoldering embers in their native country was never introduced to America, save in remotest corners of Alaska.

So why Russian literature? Because only in Russian literature can we engage with a cultural possibility, that of an ancient society rooted in an authentic, apostotlic faith, a possibility that as of this day has never been a cultural possibility for Americans. Through Russian literature, we can understand, as a result of a series of decisions by our ancestors, what we have lost, what we have sacrificed, in order to arrive in our present. For some of us, growing up listening to Johnny Rotten’s prophesies of “No future”, we can only feel a lurch toward an approaching end, coming not only for the United Kingdom, but of a setting sun falling on all roofs globally. Yet this end, whether it occurs naturally or is hastened by deliberate effort, will only serve as the fertilizer for a new future of competing possibilities, one of which may be inspired by a renewed Slavic consciousness, emerging in synthesis with many now dormant and repressed dimensions of American heritage. Russian literature, in its purity, provides a means for Americans to see clearly who we once were, what we have become, and in what direction we must go if we intend to have any future descendants.

Have you not yet read Laurus? What are you waiting for?