The Wonder that is Wendell Berry
Over the summer holidays I read one of the finest novels I have ever come across – Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. For those who haven’t yet encountered him, Wendell Berry is an outstanding figure on the contemporary literary scene. He has not only published over forty books of poetry, fiction and essays, but he is also a widely-respected social critic and environmental activist. Berry is also a Christian and therefore in the uncomfortable position of finding his faith unpalatable to some who share his social and political values, and at the same finding those values alienate him from some who share his faith.
In a profoundly counter-cultural move, he turned away from early academic and literary status to spend most of the last forty years of his life farming a small patch of land in Port Royal, Kentucky. That locality is obviously the inspiration for the fictional community of Port William on the Kentucky River which is the setting for Jayber Crow and a number of his other novels and short stories.
The central character and eponymous narrator of Jayber Crow sets out to become a minister, but loses his faith and his calling and returns to his small community where he becomes the town barber. In that role he becomes the astute observer of the changing social landscape and unintentional confidant of many of its inhabitants. This is above all a novel about love – love and respect for the land, love of a way of life that is being destroyed by a harsh modern economy, and love for people and the value of community. And at its heart is a haunting story of an unusual and unrequited personal love.
This is a highly evocative novel without a word wasted. You find yourself inhabiting the lanes and fields, the town, the farms, the hill-sides, the river and the sun-dappled plantations of Jayber’s world. It’s a novel, too, about the value and dignity of ordinary people battling the destructive forces let loose in the wider world. It wonderfully captures the down to earth humour of a country community.
It is also a novel that intriguingly and insightfully addresses the big issues of time and eternity. Jayber is an intelligent and reflective character. He grows back to a faith that is much more rooted in the love and goodness of God. He reflects: “If love could force my own thoughts over the edge of the world and out of time, then could I not see how even divine omnipotence might by the force of its own love be swayed down into the world? Could I not see how it might, because it could know its creatures only by compassion, put on mortal flesh, become a man, and walk among us, assume our nature and our fate, suffer our faults and our death?”
Because it is a novel about love it is also about suffering and the reflection that brings: “Just as a good man would not coerce the love of his wife, God does not coerce the love of His human creatures…. To allow that love to exist fully and freely, He must allow it not to exist at all. His love is suffering. It is our freedom and His sorrow” (p. 254). The big question about suffering, of course, is – why does God allow it? Jayber poses the question well:
“Christ did not descend from the cross except into the grave. And why not otherwise? Wouldn’t it have put fine comical expressions on the faces of the scribes and the chief priests and the soldiers if at that moment He had come down in power and glory? Why didn’t He do it? Why hasn’t He done it at any one of a thousand good times between then and now?” Jayber answers his own question:
“I knew the answer. I knew it a long time before I could admit it, for all the suffering of the world is in it. He didn’t, He hasn’t because from the moment He did, He would be the absolute tyrant of the world and we would be His slaves. Even those who hated Him and hated one another and hated their own souls would have to believe in Him then. From that moment the possibility that we might be bound to Him and He to us and us to one another by love forever would be ended.” (295)
This is a wonderfully moving book about love and suffering, and what Wendell Berry calls our “short, surprising, miserable, wonderful, blessed, damaged, only life.” More than that, it is shot through with glimpses of another life. So while the directness is unexpected, it is not surprising or out of keeping near the end to read: “This is a book about Heaven. I know it now. It floats among us like a cloud and is the realest thing we know and the least to be captured, the least to be possessed by anybody for himself. It is like a grain of mustard seed, which you cannot see among the crumbs of earth where it lies. It is like the reflection of the trees on the water.” And a little later – “But the earth speaks to us of Heaven, or why would we want to go there?”