Sunday, April 19, 2009

Lancelot by Walker Percy

I imagine Lancelot must have created a considerable stir when it was published in 1977. The contemporary New York Times review, for one, objected to its ‘upsetting’ ideas, suggesting it succeeded as a novel in ‘few respects’. Given the stony-faced seriousness which surrounded matters of sex and race in the late seventies and early eighties, dismissal of a novel which revels in extreme views on such matters is unsurprising: in this case wrong, but still unsurprising.

In some respects Lancelot is a typical Southern novel. We are debating matters of honour, of degeneracy, of the dangers of scientism, of the intolerability of the modern age – the ‘whorehouse and fagdom of America’ – and, finally, of redemption: all familiar territory. But, in its heavily ironic, even postmodernist, tone, it is clearly at some remove from the traditional Southern novel as we have come to know it. That is its strength and its weakness: it explores fascinating territory in startlingly fresh ways, but those ways are so extreme they are bound to confuse – and repel – the unwary reader. You cannot simultaneously attract and disgust, and disgust is an easy emotion to apply to this novel and its protagonist, Lancelot Andrewes Lamar.

The story begins with Lancelot either in prison or hospital – we are not sure which, but it is clear that a terrible event has occurred, either caused by or affecting Lancelot. The ambiguity is deliberate. So is his placing in such an establishment. There are deliberate echoes of Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, particularly with the phrase ‘Yes, I am a patient in a mental hospital’, which is a direct reference to that novel’s opening line. What Percy is suggesting is that, like little Oskar from The Tin Drum, Lancelot, the inmate, is in fact a dispassionate observer of a world turned insane. Or is he? The novel is never straightforward and, as often as not, its actual meaning can only be divined by inverting the implied meaning of the text. Lancelot is alienated from his world, doesn’t understand it, doesn’t feel at ease with it (‘sinful suffering humanity’,as he describes it) and, in trying to find a way through the moral intricacies of this novel, the reader, too, suffers the same sense of uneasy disconnection.

This is because Lancelot is decidely not a character with whom the reader can form an empathetic bond. His views are outrageous, repulsive even. In one passage he describes Elgin, the black youth who works for him, as ‘his nigger’. Cleverly, though, Percy writes this in such a way that it could be construed as ironic but for Lancelot’s admission, only a page earlier, of his ‘bogus-liberal’ credentials: here they are, then, writ large. Again talking of black people, Lancelot says:

That was one of the pleasures of the sixties: it was so easy to do a little which seemed a lot. We basked in our own sense of virtue in what we took to be their gratitude.

He is also a hypocrite, a snob, a philistine. His anger towards the current age grows palpably. He tells us: ‘I’ll prophesy: This country is going to turn into a desert and it won’t be a bad thing.’ Percy works hard at making his character unpleasant, and he succeeds. Lancelot relishes the prospect of a ‘Third Revolution’ (the First was ‘won at Yorktown’, the Second ‘lost at Appomattox’). The Third Revolution and the resultant new age will be ushered in by his search for the ‘unholy grail’, through which he will discover the ‘evil in the world’. It is here that Lancelot’s misanthropy reaches its nadir, as he reveals what he believes to be God’s aim:

God’s secret of design for man is that man’s happiness lies for men in men practicing violence upon women and that women’s happiness lies in submitting to it.

The secret of life is violence and rape, and its gospel is pornography.

One can perhaps see the reservations of the New York Times reviewer as this unfolds. And Lancelot’s antipathy towards women is deeper still:

What the poor dears [women] discovered is the monstrous truth lying at the very center of life: that their happiness and the meaning of life is to be assaulted by a man.

Ah, sweet mystery of life indeed, yes, exactly, yes, indeed that is what it is: to be rammed, jammed, stuck, stabbed, pinned, impaled, run through, in a word:


In short, Lancelot is completely amoral. He has lost any sense of community or shared humanity. True emotion, he seems to believe, resides in him alone. In his depiction of this solipsism, it appears that Percy is pursuing a Christian attack on the Nietzschean view of the overman – this is the way that such madness must end, he seems to be saying. That would be unsurprising, since American Catholic writers seem to have expended considerable energy over the years in debunking Nietzsche: it is a curiosity that those with the firmest views on the morality of society so often seek to express them through the negation of somebody else’s, rather than the promulgation of their own. But negation, as we shall see, is the key to this novel.

In Lancelot, Percy creates a caricature to test how far one can go before a simple alienation from the modern slides into nihilism. Like Flannery O’Connor with Hazel Motes (although more convincingly), he tries to view the world through the eyes of someone who has become irreconcilably repulsed by it. Certainty becomes madness, rightful indignation rots into evil: in a world untouched by grace, Percy is telling us, only pain may reside, and only evil may obtain.

For it is evil that Lancelot is seeking – the ‘quest for the unholy grail’ – but Percy’s ultimate message is that, like the Holy Grail, it is not to be found. This is the key to the novel, the beginning of the inversions we must understand if we are not to conflate author and protagonist in the way that careless critics have previously . Percy knows there is no unholy grail. As soon as we, too, understand this we can begin to unpick the novel, to realise that in order to understand it we need to invert its message. There is no unholy grail: there is no Third Revolution: salvation is not found through sexual violence: women do not seek rape: men are not sustained by it: the gospel of life is not pornography: nothing is known, all is mystery; and so on. It is, then, discovery through negative: a via negativa – an understanding of what God and godliness mean through knowing what they are not.

It is understandable, however, that the novel causes confusion, and that this confusion leads to outrage. Taken literally, it presents a deeply unpleasant view of modern society. This is a view that Percy might to some extent have shared with Lancelot, but where he differs from his character is in the ultimate hope of some redemption. Lancelot and the world he inhabits are beyond redemption. The USA is a ‘cocksucking cuntlapping assholelicking fornicating Happyland’. Men are ‘walking genitals’ and women relish – indeed rely on – the sexual attacks on them. Taking the simplistic view of this novel it could be argued, then, that Percy is despatching us all to hell, with no hope of redemption whatever. However, the remarkable ending makes clear that Percy believes, on the contrary, that redemption is within our grasp.

To achieve this, Percy consciously adopts the method of Camus in The Fall, with its first-person confessional style, producing what Percy himself, in acknowledging the influence, called ‘a dramatic morality play’. As with Camus, this leads to intentional confusion for the reader: we are being drawn into the drama, made complicit in it, made to act in the role of confessor, and yet both authors present us, through the judgementalism and moralising and overweening vanity of their protagonists and the certainty of their views, with a worldview that is difficult for us to accept. In this way, Camus and Percy are inviting us to consider our views of the modern world. We see the world through the eyes of Clamence or Lancelot – as something corrupt and unworthy – and yet at the same time in our role of confessor we see them for what they are – Clamence ignoring the cries of a suicidal woman, Lancelot murdering four people. The result is that the reader is left in confusion – Clamence is compromised and Lancelot, the prophet of the Third Revolution, is as guilty as the old ways he abjures. Where can one find honour, decency, humanity? In posing these questions, Percy is clearly a successor to Camus but, as a Catholic, one suspects he is asking them as much of himself as of us: we readers, in other words, are confessors not only to Lancelot, but to his creator.

Ultimately, however, (and this is also, probably, because he is a Catholic), Percy comes closer than Camus to a resolution to the questions he asks. John Desmond notes that while Camus’s listener is basically passive, Percy’s listener, Percival, is ‘active, questioning and adverserial.’ This leads to the dramatic, elliptical ending of Lancelot in which Percival (Percy himself? God? Us?) is finally heard to speak, and he answers in the affirmative. This transforms his role from that of mere listener into participant, thus turning him into, in Desmond’s terms, the ‘true penitent who recognizes his owns sins as an offense against a God who can forgive him’. In this way, the road to grace remains accessible, even for as resolute an amoralist as Lancelot.

And for his creator, Walker Percy.

And, should we desire it, for us.

Thus, Lancelot ends on an upbeat note. We are left, remarkably enough, after what has come before, with a sense of hope. This is a fine piece of writing and a difficult trick to pull off. It is not a novel one could say one enjoys, exactly, but in terms of craft there is much here to admire.


matt said...

Excellent review. It's a novel I pick up and read every couple of years. It's a minor masterpiece, for you's a difficult trick to pull off. Thanks!

Tom Conoboy said...

Thanks Matt.

I've just read (and reviewed) his Love in the Ruins, too. That may be more fun to read than Lancelot, but I don't think it's as good a novel. I admire authors who try to do brave things with their writing, and Percy certainly does that.

Amy R said...

I found your blog through googling "use of the word nigger in Walker Percy novels". Thank you SO much for your thoughtful review! I have read and enjoyed, on an admittedly superficial level, many of Walker Percy's novels...but Lancelot just left me cold. I couldn't understand such a self-absorbed person, or what the point of writing about such an unsympathetic character was, exactly.
I'm kinda getting the idea, now. Don't know that I like the book, but it's very powerful.

Anonymous said...

In 1987, I wrote to Walker Percy, reporting that I'd seen a first edition copy of The Moviegoer priced at $600. I also asked about the accuracy of my speculation that the novel, Lancelot, ended with the priest prepared to confess that he was the father of the character, Siobhan.

In a single-leaf, handwritten letter with his rubber-stamped letterhead, Mr. Percy replied on May 29, 1987:

Dear Kevin-

You should have picked up that Moviegoer at $600 if it was in good shape. In NYC last month, I ran into a guy who paid $1500 for one-For odd lesser known books of mine, I'd advise getting in touch with John Evans, Lemuria Bookstore, Highland Village, Jackson, Miss.

In answer to your question re Siobhan: Would you believe I don't remember? I never read a novel once it is written, being sick to death with it. I'll take your version though. It must be so.


To me, it explains much of the story.

Areyoukiddingme? said...

Really great critique.

I am a big fan of WPs and enjoy how I gain some new insight with each reading of his work. But I must say your writing on Lancelot took the novel in a direction I hadn't fully considered, and makes the story that much more relevant.


Tom Conoboy said...

Thanks for commenting. The more I think about Percy, the more I like him. I aim to get through more of his work soon.

LR said...

Thanks for this fine commentary and insightful response to one of the most challenging of Percy's novels. A disturbing and ultimately rewarding read for the patient reader.
As I see it, the story is not only Lancelot's story but Father Smith's (Percival's) story as well, even though, as you point out, he only speaks at the end of the novel. Smith goes through a subtle shift in the novel from psychiatrist-priest to the decision at the end to fully claim his priestly and pastoral identity as a parish priest. He leaves psychoanalysis behind, as a result of his encounter with Lancelot, and embraces the sacramental ministry to which he was originally called. This would be in line with Walker Percy's orthodox Catholicism and an affirmation of the actual hope that the book intends. Smith's Yes, Yes, Yes, at the end is reminiscent of Karl Barth's Divine Yes in tension with the Divine No. There is hope yet for Lancelot, slim though it might be, because Smith's transformation points to a sacramental world view despite the disastrous social conditions of late and post-modernity.

Dorothy Potter Snyder said...

What a wonderful discussion of this excellent and much misunderstood novel by Percy. One add: Though his words don't appear on the page until the end, I would argue that Percival does speak throughout the novel, asking the questions that draw out Lance Lamar's story and thus his at least partial healing. Percival, like his grail-questing namesake, asks the right questions, but in the inverted universe of Lancelot Lamar, those questions appear as mute ones.