Slightly Less Beloved Classics takes a second look at the lesser-known works of celebrated authors. Here we shall decide what is to remain by the wayside and what is to be led gaily back home, lauded with timbrels and trumpets and fatted calves.Previously in this series: Nightingale Wood.
A Canticle for Leibowitz is the kind of book that, if you have read it and you see it on a bookshelf at someone else’s house, you will immediately demand to know whose copy it is; the two of you will talk of nothing else for the rest of the night.
Its status as a classic is unimpeachable; it won the Hugo Award in 1961 and has never gone out of print. 2010, the year of its 50th publication anniversary, saw a spate of (very good) articles from sci-fi and mainstream book reviewers alike. But it has never achieved the kind of broad public awareness that books like Dune or even Starship Troopers have.
Part of the reason for this is that it’s the only novel Walter Miller — normally a short story writer — ever completed. There’s a sequel of sorts, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman (may a merciful God someday put an end to the Man With a Name and Archetypal Female Companion titling convention), that was finished by an assistant after Miller died, but there is no reason you should read it. Somewhere, perhaps, there exists a world where Nabokov finished Laura and Ralph Ellison finished Juneteenth and Miller finished Saint Leibowitz sometime before 1997, but that world is not here.
Supposedly the book originated as a short story based on Miller’s experience as a bomber in World War II, particularly one mission where he participated in the destruction of a 1400-year-old Italian monastery. He went on to write several companion short stories, then realized he was halfway into a novel and started rewriting everything with that end in mind. It’s layered, sometimes to the point of incomprehensibility, but never to the point of insensibility.
It will never be made into a movie. Are you kidding me? A thoughtful, meandering look at the cyclical nature of history (finally proving Dennis Duffy’s adage that technology repeats itself to be true) from the perspective of a bunch of Catholic monks who keep getting murdered by bandits? It’s completely unfilmable. If it is ever made into a movie, expect the production process to be interrupted multiple times as different directors exit the project in frustration and disgust. It will go wildly over budget, but all of the effects will look incredibly cheap. At some point during production, Johnny Depp would be cast as the pilgrim, because that is the kind of world that we live in.
I mean, you tell me how you’d put this on the screen:
We are the centuries… We have your eoliths and your mesoliths and your neoliths. We have your Babylons and your Pompeiis, your Caesars and your chromium-plated (vital-ingredient impregnated) artifacts. We have your bloody hatchets and your Hiroshimas. We march in spite of Hell, we do – Atrophy, Entropy, and Proteus vulgaris, telling bawdy jokes about a farm girl name of Eve and a traveling salesman called Lucifer. We bury your dead and their reputations. We bury you. We are the centuries. Be born then, gasp wind, screech at the surgeon’s slap, seek manhood, taste a little godhood, feel pain, give birth, struggle a little while, succumb: (Dying, leave quietly by the rear exit, please.) Generation, regeneration, again, again, as in a ritual, with blood-stained vestments and nail-torn hands, children of Merlin, chasing a gleam. Children, too, of Eve, forever building Edens – and kicking them apart in berserk fury because somehow it isn’t the same. (AGH! AGH! AGH! – an idiot screams his mindless anguish amid the rubble. But quickly! let it be inundated by the choir, chanting Alleluias at ninety decibels.)
There is nothing, nothing like the slightly sour mid-century Catholic. He bestrides the narrow world. No one can write about the wearying weight of old knowledge like him. No one is funny like him.
“You heard him say it? ‘Pain’s the only evil I know about.’ You heard that?”
The monk nodded solemnly.
“And that society is the only thing that determines whether an act is wrong or not? That too?”
“Dearest God, how did those two heresies get back into the world after all this time? Hell has limited imaginations down there. ‘The serpent deceived me, and I did eat.”
For a science fiction novel, of course, it’s rather short on technology (by necessity, it taking place after global nuclear war leads to an anti-science revolution) and long on questions of morality and eternity and knowledge. There is a spaceship at the end, though. And plenty of murder and dangerous bands of irradiated mutants and illuminated manuscripts and long days of nothing in the desert.
Do you remember where you were the first time you encountered The Road? Somehow I had missed the book entirely when my brother and mother and I went to see the movie with Viggo Mortensen (“A father and son struggle through a postapocalyptic landscape. Sounds good.”) on Christmas Eve. When we stumbled out of the theater a thousand years later, my brother turned to us with red-rimmed eyes and said quietly, “It doesn’t feel like Christmas anymore.” A Canticle for Leibowitz is a lot like that, but with more Christmas in it.
Francis began the actual illumination of the lambskin. The intricacies of scrollwork and the excruciating delicacy of the gold-inlay work would, because of the brevity of his spare-project time, make it a labor of many years; but in a dark sea of centuries wherein nothing seemed to flow, a lifetime was only brief eddy, even for the man who lived it. There was a tedium of repeated days and repeated seasons; then there were aches and pains, finally Extreme Unction, and a moment of blackness at the end-or at the beginning, rather. For then the small shivering soul who had endured the tedium, endured it badly or well, would find itself in a place of light, find itself absorbed in the burning gaze of infinitely compassionate eyes as it stood before the Just One. And then the King would say: “Come,” or the King would say: “Go,” and only for that moment had the tedium of years existed. It would be hard to believe differently during such an age as Francis knew.