The Mysteries of Faith

By David Plante
Ticknor & Fields. 151pp. $18.95


LONGTIME readers of David Plante will not be surprised to find that his typically short and elegant 12th novel, The Accident, takes place on familiar territory. For while its narrator does not identify himself explicitly as Daniel Francoeur — hero of the autobiographical novel sequence for which Plante is best known — the two characters have almost everything in common.

Like Daniel, the anonymous protagonist of The Accident is a lapsed Roman Catholic, the bright and sensitive son of working-class French Canadians who was born and brought up in New England and educated by Jesuits, and who is guilt-ridden over both his abandonment of the faith and his homosexuality (though here, as in most of the Francoeur novels, the latter is only obliquely hinted at). Like Daniel, he claims to be an atheist, yet speaks of God continually and is plainly still very much in the grip of his Catholicism. (“There were moments . . . when I realized fully that I belonged to God, realized that my life wasn’t mine but God’s, and I would feel a slight thrill throughout my body, and I’d sweat.”) Like Daniel, too, he is obsessed at once with himself and with a fervent desire to be emancipated from that self into an alien realm: “God had made me, from my birth, want to be in another world.”

The Accident is not the first Plante novel about an unnamed youth that has seemed to fall neatly into the Francoeur sequence. Such was also the case with The Foreigner (1984), in which a 19-year-old undergraduate takes a fateful vacation in France and Spain during the summer of 1959. The Accident might well be seen as picking up the story where The Foreigner left off: Its hero, also 19, having spent the summer of 1959 in Spain, begins his junior year abroad at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. This was, he tells us from the vantage point of adulthood, “the last year of my adolescence, the first year of my maturity.”

For him, the university at Louvain is very much another world, though not quite the one for which he has longed. There he befriends several fellow students, most notably a good-natured young Irish-American named Tom who is as meekly pious as our hero is noisily atheistic. Together they attend lectures, get to know Belgium, and conduct earnest late-night tête-à-têtes about life and death, sin and grace, belief and unbelief. As Daniel Francoeur fretted in The Catholic (1986) over whether romantic love is properly a matter of volition or of surrender to external forces, so our hero ponders whether faith should be an act of will or of helpless capitulation. He decides it should be the latter:

“For a religion to be a religion, it has to descend on you, descend and descend and descend on you, and knock you to the ground and make you totally helpless and possess you and make you believe whether you want to or not, so it’s not you who decides if you believe, never, never you, but something that insists you’re going to believe, you’re going to believe, or die, or believe and die, something that you hate because it’s going to kill you but that you can’t stop. That’s the only religion that is convincing. The only one.” (Tom, incidentally, disagrees: while tempted by this conception of faith, he prefers “the choice of loving [God] or not.”)

As our hero’s tone may suggest, his year away from home finds him increasingly confused, alienated and tormented — at once unable to believe fully in God and incapable of shaking Him from the center of his consciousness. He examines himself with a severe moral eye, questioning the genuineness of his own impulses, worrying that religious belief is a sham and positing that “faith in the impossible was not different from no faith at all.” As baffled by human love as by its divine counterpart, he feels heavily the weight of his own vanity and jealousy, suffering guilt over his immense self-absorption even as he recognizes that to shake it off completely would be to abandon his duty, as a Catholic, to conduct a ceaseless examination of his own soul.

Plainly, he has begun to loosen the moorings of his childhood and to prepare for a voyage across frightening and unfamiliar waters; yet he cannot make a complete break and, unable to imagine setting his own course, clings desperately to the quay with one hand even as he tries to push away with the other. “As much as I insisted I must be free to think whatever I wanted,” he says, “I was terrified of my mind’s becoming uncontrollable. I needed a center of control.”

As in the Francoeur novels, Plante tells his story with a directness, limpidity and precision that seem at once Gallic and Jesuitical. Like those books, The Accident is very short, consisting more of crisp, no-nonsense dialogue and stage directions than of prolonged descriptive, reflective or expressive passage; the diction is plain throughout, the syntax uncomplicated, and Plante leaves much — sometimes, perhaps, a bit too much — unspoken. Even when, toward the novel’s end, his hero is confronted with the horrible, apparently senseless side of life, Plante’s tone remains almost frustratingly composed, his focus on surface detail undetected.

Yet what differentiates this novel from the lackluster minimalistic fiction it resembles in some respects is its author’s ability to convey, in a quiet and unobtrusive way, a sense of the mystery that lies beyond the mundane, and his insistence upon the abiding relevance of the Important Questions; while what distinguishes it from other self-obsessed novels is its author’s serious engagement with the moral implications of self-obsession, and his understanding that no self finds meaning except through communion with another (whether human or divine). Poignantly and perceptively, this novel testifies to the mystery of human affections, the preciousness of friendship and even – thanks, largely, to Plante’s own relentlessly skeptical and unsentimental approach to this theme — the tenacity of faith.