Contemporary Orthodox Fiction
The Brothers Karamazov is unarguably one of the greatest pieces of prose fiction ever written. It is also a distinctly Orthodox novel, that is to say a novel infused with the theology, customs, and culture of the Orthodox Church. Much of the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky fits this bill. Of course, Dostoevsky is low-hanging fruit in this way, the Orthodox C.S. Lewis one might say. There will never be another Dostoevsky, clearly. But it does seem worth asking where his 21st-century descendants are, even if they do not quite meet the brilliance of their ancestor, because we have much to learn about the state of our Church, and its relationship with the faithful and to the world, by examining the secular art it is producing. This is true of music, painting, and literature, but I want to focus here on prose fiction, both novels and short stories. First, that is where my own training and expertise lie; I am in no way qualified, beyond the qualifications of an enthusiastic fan, to comment on the merits of symphonies or oil paintings. Also, and more importantly (because when did someone on the internet ever refrain from offering an opinion due to lack of expertise?), it is in prose fiction that modern Orthodox art found its best and fullest expression, from the great writers of the Russian Golden Age to those lesser known in the West, like the Greek writer Alexandros Papadiamantis and the Serbian Borisav Stanković. It was, in the novel and in short stories, from the 19th-century onward, that modern Orthodox culture found what the Catholic tradition had found in painting and the Protestant one in music: a complete and aesthetically beautiful secular artistic expression, an artistic expression that grappled with faith, the human, and the divine in a way deeply embedded within the tradition and capable of speaking as fully to those outside the tradition as within. And yet, in the past fifty years, it would seem, virtual crickets.
Before I go any further, let me say that I am aware of the methodological problems of taking this approach. Is it possible to speak of an “Orthodox literary tradition”? Do these novelists, past and present, belong instead properly to their national or linguistic traditions? I believe the answer to both questions can be “Yes.” Yes, it is true that the writers and work discussed here do belong to linguistic, national, and ethnic traditions with distinct and frequently divergent histories. And yet, as we now know all too well, identity is a complicated thing. To begin with, it is certainly possible to have more than one. Finally, to deny a unified “Orthodox” transnational/transethnic tradition is to ignore the reality of historically Orthodox cultures, a reality that is firmly grounded in the Orthodox tradition and histories of interconnection within and outside the Orthodox world in which Orthodox identity was the governing principle.
If we then accept that there is an “Orthodox literature” that can be the subject of study and criticism, it becomes possible to evaluate the state of this body of work. To be certain, there is (as has been mentioned) not at present any comparable contemporary author to, say, Dostoevsky: a Slavophile and deeply religious man, whose prose reflects, for the most part, a normative Orthodox morality and ethic, while at the same time still producing subtle and complicated narratives that are accessible and universal. I have previously in the pages of The Wheel lamented the lack of women Orthodox writers currently (or historically) writing anything that might fit these criteria, but I think I was unfair. In recent times, it has not just been Orthodox women who seem incapable of producing anything to comparable that of the 19th and early 20th-century Orthodox male writers. There just has not been much good literature produced within the tradition over the past fifty years, by men or women.
That does not mean that writers connected to historically Orthodox cultures have not produced quality, universally acceptable literature in recent times. But it is to highlight that what has been created is coming not from places at the center nor out of the pens (or computers) of those who likely see themselves and their moral lives as deeply tied to a normative Orthodox ethic. Instead, the best Orthodox literature is coming from the margins of the Orthodox tradition, and frequently from those exiled from the institutional Church. There is certainly a modern historical precedent for this. Leo Tolstoy and Nikos Kazantzakis both found themselves deeply at odds with the institutional Church, though, crucially, at very different moments in their careers. Tolstoy’s excommunication came during the period after he had given up writing fiction, a decision he took as part of the spiritual transformation that led to his excommunication. For this reason, it might still be possible to see War and Peace and Anna Karenina as novels written from within the normative confines of the institutional Russian Orthodox Church.
Kazantzakis, on the other hand, came into conflict with the Church’s hierarchy because of a novel, 1955’s The Last Temptation of Christ. The Holy Synod of the Church of Greece declared that the novel “perverts and hurts the Gospel discernment and the God-man figure of our Lord Jesus Christ in a way coarse, vulgar, and blasphemous,” a statement that, if nothing else, attempts to cast the novel outside of the acceptable limits of the Church. These writers’ exclusion from the institutional Church has caused them to be habitually juxtaposed against their more normatively Orthodox counterparts. This is the famous contrast of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. But the distinctions made between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (or less famously between Papadimantis and Kazantzakis) are more of personality than true engagement with the tradition And no one would argue, whatever differences exist between the faithful son and the rebel, that there is a difference of quality. But that is not true today.
While those on the margins of the Church are producing good literature that is receiving note and praise from people who have nothing to do with the Orthodox Church, the (notably very scant and often self-published) fiction being produced by those firmly within the Orthodox Church, some of which I discussed in the aforementioned The Wheel article, is not terribly good. Moreover, (and clearly less subjectively), it has very little appeal to those outside the Church, both the general reading public and the literary establishment.
Because I have discussed (some) of the not good books (and why they do not meet the mark) elsewhere, let’s focus here on the good stuff. Interestingly, if we are being frank, the very best literature produced by those from Orthodox backgrounds over the past twenty years has come from or been about those effectively driven out of the Church by the ongoing war over issues related to gender and sexuality. The Greek-Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas speaks and writes openly about why he left the Orthodox Church as a teenager, as a growing recognition of his own sexuality and the Church’s condemnation of the same collided as he read the words of St. Paul to the Romans.
His 2019 novel Damascus offers one of the best, most beautiful, and most honest renditions of the life of the Apostle I have encountered. While the novels mentioned in my piece on women’s fiction in The Wheel felt the need to moralize and canonize at every turn, Tsiolkas does not shy away from the moral murkiness of every human life, even when the human life in question is of a revered and quite literally canonized apostle. Tatiana Niculescu-Bran’s 2011 Spovedanie la Tanacu (The Deadly Confession) was a blockbuster hit in its native Romania. A fictionalized account of true events, Spovedanie la Tanacu recounts a 2005 exorcism at Tanacu monastery in northwestern Romania in which Irina Cornici, a 23 year old woman who was said to have been struggling with her sexuality, died. And then there is e Russian journalist and writer Sergei Khazov-Cassia’s 2017 Евангелие от (The Gospel According To), which juxtaposes the life of a gay man in contemporary Moscow with a rendition of the Gospel narrative. Евангелие от offers a jarring juxtaposition against which the reader is called to assess the relationship between the inclusive message of the Gospel and the exclusion we allow to exist within our supposedly Christian societies. (By the way, there is an effort underway to translate Khazov-Cassia’s novel into English by a brilliant young British translator. They are still looking for a publisher, if anyone is interested).
What these novels (only a sampling of what is out there) share is not just the ways in which they are rooted in Orthodox cultural contexts; what they also have in common is what is best about the Orthodox spiritual tradition, the very thing, that make The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina among the best writing humanity has ever produced: a raw, unflinching honesty about the world, human beings, and consequently God. Which is complicated, unkempt, and, ultimately, unknowable this side of Paradise. Something that is distinctly lacking in their institutionally-positioned counterparts.
As a scholar, I am only beginning my examination of what contemporary fiction, as a whole, can tell us about this moment in Orthodox Christian cultural history. But as an Orthodox Christian, and a lifelong bookworm, I cannot help but ask some—let’s call them preliminary—questions. Namely, I wonder why there is no contemporary Dostoevsky. Why is the literature being produced by those within the normative confines of the Church so markedly inferior to that being written by those on the margins? Certainly, historically, the Orthodox Church managed to produce quality literature from its center. The only answer I can think of now, preliminary as it may be, is that the culture at the center of the Church has changed. Increasingly, institutional Orthodoxy mirrors, in the worst possible ways, the culturally barren world of Evangelical American Protestantism, a worldview that, unlike historical Orthodoxy, will not abide by ambiguity or metaphor. And this kind of stridency and literalism is fatal to literature. The shifting mores of our Church, for better or worse, are being written in the books the faithful and the unfaithful write. And I want to read more.
Katherine Kelaidis is a professional historian and Resident Scholar at the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago.