SAN JOSE, Calif.—His writing is “luminous,” acclaims the New York Times; “brilliant,” says the Chicago Tribune. It is work that “takes your breath away,” hails The Detroit News, while Booklist declares its author to be “a major talent' `
Two of his novels, Mariette in Ecstasy and Atticus, have made the best-seller lists, and Atticus was named a National Book Award finalist in 1996. Nebraska, a short story collection, won an award in literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and his rich themes and vivid storytelling have found a place in university English courses.
To those who think the first and last words in Catholic American literature are Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy, comes a worthy successor in, contemporary novelist Ron Hansen.
“Ron Hansen is not simply one of our best Catholic writers, he's one of our best writers,” said Deal Hudson, editor of Crisis magazine. “One finds through all of his novels not only a high degree of artistry—which is lacking in religious novels today—-but a breathtaking insight into the human condition.”
Married to the writer Bo Caldwell, Hansen lives in San Jose, Calif., where he also teaches writing at Santa Clara University as the Jesuit school's first Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., Professor of Arts and Humanities. He attends daily Mass at the university chapel, numbers Jesuit priests among his close friends and stands unapologetically Catholic in a literary world that sometimes blatantly shuns religious faith.
“I consider myself, in a minor way, an evangelist. I try to spread the good news through my fiction and also through essays,” Hansen said in a recent interview. “A lot of people don't know very much about the Catholic Church, or about Scripture, about the life of Christ. So I use, especially my nonfiction writing, to teach them about what actually is true, what is available.”
“In fiction I do it, I hope, in a subtler way—a subtext—to provide metaphors for good and evil, for ways of proceeding and for ways of avoiding destruction, death and loss.”
Although Hansen's books reflect a unified moral vision informed by Catholicism, his thoroughly researched subjects are far-flung, ranging from wild West gangs to turn-of-the-century religious life and most recently to the early rise of Adolf Hitler.
In his 1991 Mariette in Ecstasy, Hansen's most explicitly Catholic book and his first major seller, he opens the doors to the shushed intricacies of the cloister and the conflict created by the unusual devotion of a beautiful postulant who bears the wounds of Christ.
Atticus, which he began writing in 1983 and published in 1996, is a two-tiered mystery, telling on one level the story of a Colorado oilman puzzling out the suspicious death of a rebellious son in the fictional coastal town of Resurrecci6n, Mexico. Sprinkled with everyday Catholic images—Mass attendance, rosaries, the Church in Resurrection—the novel is also a retelling of the Gospel's most vivid parable of God's forgiveness, the story of the prodigal son.
In his newest novel, the just released Hitler's Niece (HarperCollins), Hansen illuminates the darker side of the human drama. A work of fiction, the book is a disturbingly authentic examination of the 20th century's most notorious figure of evil from the point of view of Geli Raubald, the charming niece Hitler favors, obsessively loves, and then—as Hansen and some historians believe—finally kills. Her death was ruled a suicide, but whether readers accept the official record or Hansen's conclusion, the novel speaks to a deeper theme.
“It's about how a young woman can be seduced by this character who we think of as evil incarnate,” said Hansen. “In The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, he has one meditation ... when you're supposed to imagine a figure of evil, of Satan, and then see how he works. What would he do to get to you, to persuade you to do evil?... I just translated that to the hell of the 20th century and Hitler with all these bodies he's responsible for, this Holocaust.”
Hansen, 51, was born and reared in Nebraska, the son of an electrical engineer and a “saintly” mother—both converts. He has three older sisters and a twin brother. Though Hansen has yet to unravel in fiction the complexities of that special brotherly bond, it was the fact of his being a twin that first inspired him to the writing life.
“Our kindergarten teacher had designated various parts for our Christmas pageant. She went through the entire kindergarten class, and I was left out, probably because I was a twin. She thought she'd named me and had only named one Of us.
“So, fearing that I'd been kicked out of kindergarten I went up to her and asked what was wrong, and she quite spontaneously said, `Well, we'll need a narrator, and you can be the narrator,”' Hansen said. “I ended up memorizing the passage from Luke about how Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. I stood up in front of all those people, saying those lines, and really impressed by these words I didn't understand that people were paying attention to. I think I developed a love of language from that point on.”
Hansen graduated from a Jesuit high school and went on to Creighton University in Omaha, another Jesuit institution, from which he received an English degree. During the Vietnam War he served in the army at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., then with the GI Bill enrolled at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he befriended John Irving. He wrote his first published novel, Desperadoes, while earning his living as a traveling textbook salesman.
Looking for a way to move to California, where he said he's “always been able to write well,” Hansen in 1977 accepted the Wallace Stegner Fellowship in creative writing at Stanford University and stayed until 1981. Other teaching jobs followed until a permanent position opened in 1989 at the University of California Santa Cruz.
AT SANTA CLARA
In 1996, Santa Clara made Hansen “an offer I couldn't refuse”—the endowed chair he now holds. He recently completed a master's degree in spirituality at the university and is active in the campus Catholic community, where he is a lector and Eucharistic minister.
“Having someone like [Hansen] as a role model for students has been very helpful,” said Father Paul Locatelli, president of Santa Clara, who first got to know the author after reading Mariette in Ecstasy, which he describes as a “one of a kind novel in its capture of religious life.
“I think it's wonderful to have a Catholic author like this, who reflects the values of the university and is a scholar as well,” he said.
Hansen tries to teach his college students, who tend to “cramp up” in their writing, a way to discover where stories come from. In “Writing in the Community,” a class he created, students met with Latin American immigrants one semester and with grade school children another.
The author eaches, he said, because “it's just good to get out of the house,” then added, “You end up having a lot of opinions about writing, and it offers an opportunity for a sounding board for those opinions.”
Outside the university, he and his small circle of Catholic scholar-writer friends, including John L'Heureux and Tobias Wolff, both at Stanford, run into an “incredible” amount of anti-Catholicism, he admitted.
“The publishing world can make it seem that Christianity in general is benighted, that only uneducated people are interested in it. You can get the feeling that there's a kind of ghetto that you've been put in,” he said.
One famous novelist told Hansen to his face that he hated Catholics. “Well, I'm a Catholic,” Hansen answered him. “He was somewhat embarrassed, but not as embarrassed as he should have been.”
On another occasion a novelist friend suddenly walked out of the room when he found out Hansen was Catholic. A third assumed him to be a “lapsed” Catholic, and upon learning that Hansen actually practiced his faith, said, “That makes me really nervous about you.” That makes Hansen wonder aloud: “Can you imagine saying that to anybody of any other religion?”
Despite the prejudice, which Hansen attributes to the effects of the Enlightenment and the unbalanced portrayal of the Church in the media, the writer takes advantage of opportunities to tell people the truth about Catholicism.
“A friend of mine used to say that mine was the ministry of the cocktail party,” Hansen said. “People, knowing that I'm a practicing Catholic, come up to me with questions about the Catholic Church, or their pet peeves. I catechize.”
And if asked, Hansen would say it's ultimately to God and his faith that he can credit his literary achievement.
“You're always aware it could have gone the other way. It makes you more mindful of God's grace,” he said. “I could have made a lot of missteps, given up—a lot of things could have happened that didn't happen probably because of my religious faith and because of God's guiding hand.
Ellen Rossini. “Novelist Is a Rare Catholic Voice in Literature.” National Catholic Register. (Sept. 26-Oct. 2, 1999).
Reprinted by permission of the National Catholic Register. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.
Ellen Rossini is based in Dallas.
Copyright © 1999 National Catholic Register