The Ben Op As Light Fiction
Here’s the gist of the storyline. A well-educated woman (Prudencia Prim) moves to the village of San Ireneo de Arnois and takes a job as the private librarian for an eccentric man (think, C. S. Lewis), a master of languages who carefully tends to the education of multiple children. He is also a practicing Catholic with a deep appreciation for gifts inherited from Western civilization. As Miss Prim gets to know her boss, the children, and the people who make their homes in this village, she finds herself drawn to different belief system and new way of life.
A good premise. A Spanish setting. Good characters. Fenollera delivers these and more.
From researching the book, I think the village is actually supposed to be in France. But it’s clearly meant to be a Franco-Iberian village. More:
But the big takeaway from this book is its quiet rebellion, the way it charms the reader while challenging modernity and many of its problems. It’s as if someone dreamed up what Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” for cultural engagement would look like in Spain, extended from church to a whole community, and then wrote a novel about it.
In a world exhausted by the hectic pace of life in capitalist societies or the ideology that squelches innovation and individuality in socialist societies, Fenollera’s family-based model of economics (which resembles Distributism) has great appeal. She defends Christianity’s social teaching by painting a portrait rather than just mounting an argument, but even then, her portrait does include debate and logic and argumentation.
Literature lovers will love the book’s fireside debates over the world’s greatest works. (Should Little Women be on that list, or not?!) From the Greek epics, to the greatest fairy tales, Awakening overflows with references Western classics – never just to analyze and study them, but to let them shape and form us as human beings. Shakespeare, Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Chesterton, Austen, Swift are all mentioned, as are theologians like Anselm, Augustine, Jerome, and Chrysostom.
The beauty of this book is its portrait of Christianity as a life-giving vision of the world.
Trevin messaged me last week and said he had just finished the book, and thought I would love it. I am too swamped with writing my Benedict Option book for any pleasure reading now, but my wife Julie ordered it for herself. She devoured it, and said that the only thing wrong with it is that it was too short. It’s an ordinary length for a novel, but she wanted it to last forever.
Did the idea for your book start with Pride and Prejudice or did the parallels only become apparent as you got into the writing?
I think the idea started with my love of good books. There are a large number of nods and literary references in the novel, because literature plays a major role in the book. The story of Miss Prim is set in San Ireneo de Arnois, a small village that has decided to declare war on the modern world. Its inhabitants have a deep love for the culture of the classical era and the old European civilizations, and are willing to maintain it and uphold it. And literature has a special role to play in their defence of their values. The characters in the book speak about Jane Austen, but also about Dostoyevsky, Dante, Virgil, Schiller, Racine and Petrarch, among others.
San Ireneo is not far off being a utopia, in which the inhabitants have all willingly cast off their once high powered selves in favour of a simpler and more meaningful life. Could you see such a community flourishing in our new age of mindfulness, especially perhaps for
Many of the readers who have read the book keep asking me: ”Where is San Ireneo de Arnois?’ Obviously, no such village exists, it is an imaginary place. But when they enquire whether I know of a similar place, the answer is that San Ireneo does exist, it is real, because it is Europe, it is part of our European DNA. Europe was built upon small communities, often located in the vicinity of abbeys, with small-scale economies, tight-knit families, neighbourly relations, traditions, and a life where order reigned, where there was a time and place for everything. And this idea strikes a nostalgic chord with many readers, especially with those who live in cities full of noise and hustle. I believe that regaining a smaller-scale, more human lifestyle is not impossible. And you do not need to be a senior citizen to realize that the answers to our problems do not always lie in what is new, but also in what is old; that the key is not necessarily found in the future, but also in the past.
Flipping through its pages, I see that it’s got homeschooling, an abbey, old books, good food, and Distributists. Here’s an excerpt:
“I’m surprised you’re one of them. I’d never have dreamed you were a utopian.”
Horacio took a generous gulp of brandy and regarded her affectionately.
“It would be utopian to imagine that the present-day world could go into reverse and completely reorganize itself. But there’s nothing utopian about this village, Prudencia. What we are is hugely privileged. Nowadays, to live quietly and simply you have to take refuse in a small community, a village or hamlet where the din and aggression of the overgrown cities can’t reach; a remote corner like this, where you know nevertheless that about a couple of hundred miles away, just in case” — he smiled — “a vigorous, vibrant metropolis exists.”
Pensively, Miss Prim placed her empty glass on the table.
“This does seem like a very prosperous place.”
“It is, in all senses.”
“So you’re all refugees from the city, romantic fugitives?”
“We have escaped the city, you’re right, but not all for the same reasons. Some, like old Judge Bassett and I, made the decision after having got all we possibly could out of life, because we knew that finding a quiet, cultured environment like the one that’s grown up here is a rare freedom. Others, like Herminia Treaumont, are reformers. They’ve come to believe that contemporary life wears women out, debases the family, and crushes the human capacity for thought, and they want to try something different. And there’s a third groups, to which your Man in the Wing Chair belongs, whose aim is to escape from the dragon. They want to protect their children from the influences of the world, to return to the purity of old customs, recover the splendor of an ancient culture.”
Horacio paused to pour himself another glass of brandy.
“Do you understand what I’m trying to tell you, Prudencia? You can’t build yourself a world made to measure, but you can build a village. …”
Here’s a link to buy the book. Julie says it’s light, very pleasurable reading. I’ve got to travel next week, so I’ll plan on taking it along on the flight (I find it hard to read serious books on planes). If The Awakening of Miss Prim sounds like the sort of book that would interest you, why not get a copy, and let’s plan on having a book club discussion here when I get back from my trip in a couple of weeks?