“Christina the Astonishing (1150 – 1224)”
by Kirstin Valdez Quade
from the July 31, 2017 issue of The New Yorker

We’ve been impressed with the two former New Yorker offerings from Kirstin Valdez Quade: “Ordinary Sins,” from 2014, and “The Five Wounds,” from 2009. I’m personally intrigued by this one because I think it’s fascinating to delve into the lives of saints and nuns from the medieval period. I’m not entirely sure yet if that’s just what “Christina the Astonishing (1150 – 1224)” does, but the story is based on stories of the real Christina the Astonishing, through the eyes of her sister Mara. It begins with Christina about to rise from the dead:

The prises holds the host aloft, the linen sleeves of his alb falling around him like wings. He intones the Agnus Dei, and we sing with him. I can scarcely for the words, my throat is so clotted with grief. Beside me, my sister Gertrude tightens her grasp on my hand.

Sounds promising!

I look forward to the discussion below, as always!

By | 2017-08-02T17:00:37+00:00 July 24th, 2017|Categories: Kirstin Valdez Quade, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. David July 26, 2017 at 9:37 am

    “Ordinary Sins” is the only other thing by Kirstin Valdez Quade I have read, and I liked that a lot. She does seem to have a particular interest in things related to Catholicism, an element of all three stories of hers that The New Yorker has published. With this story I quite like the idea of the story of Christina being told by someone close to her. The perspective of what it must be like to be very close to someone who is both so disturbed and so revered is fascinating. If I have a criticism of this story, it would be that too many times I felt like the description of what happens is kept too much at a distance. There are very few times when the description makes it feel like we are at the scene of the action as it is happening. I suppose the simplistic way to say that would be that there was a bit too much “tell” when I wanted more “show”, but that would have been fine if there had been a bit more depth to the insights her sister has about her perspective of the events described. Overall, however, I thought it was a fine story. I also liked that The New Yorker chose the anniversary of the death of Christina to publish it. Well played, New Yorker. Well played.

  2. Roger Pincus July 27, 2017 at 7:29 pm

    I thought this was well done. Valdez Quade puts the reader right there in the 12th-13th centuries and gives us a believably frightening saint in Christina. She does this by way of unforgettably vivid scenes: Christina flying and screaming from the rafters; Christina in the trees denouncing people for their sins; and Christina spoiling her sister’s wedding are three that come to mind. The antique prose style hits the spot, contributing to the atmosphere without rendering the prose inaccessible. This reminds me of the short ancient historical fiction of Jim Shepard and John Biguenet at their finest.

  3. Ken August 1, 2017 at 3:57 pm

    This is really impressive. The heft of it makes many other New Yorker stories look rather small, shriveled, lacking in ambition. What fascinated me was the presence of the sacred, the religious amidst life. I read a book review in The New Yorker recently, of a piece of semi-fiction by a French writer who had at one time been devoutly religious for a spell, and either it discussed or I extrapolated from it the opposition between the worldly (which might include some interest in or belief in religion) and the more strict religious view which despises this life and sees it as nothing but misery before eternal paradise. The first view is the dominant one of most religious people today. It’s an easier way to live: enjoy life, relax, have fun, work, marry etc. and go to church once a week and pay lip service to religion. Here, Valdez Quade asks us to imagine religion as integral to one’s existence. Not something one reads about, but has to directly deal with and suffer from. The story is also nicely ambivalent which is how something touching on the profound should be.

  4. Greg August 4, 2017 at 11:15 pm

    Thank you Ken for your wonderful review. This was my favourite part:

    “Here, Valdez Quade asks us to imagine religion as integral to one’s existence. Not something one reads about, but has to directly deal with and suffer from. The story is also nicely ambivalent which is how something touching on the profound should be.”

  5. Greg August 4, 2017 at 11:18 pm

    Also, I found the following text from the story to be beautiful:

    “At the far end of the yard, an archway opens onto another courtyard, beyond which I glimpse a garden. I ache to be there, enclosed in that spot of green, to live day after measured day of prayer and work, each as full and serene as a rosary bead.”

  6. William August 10, 2017 at 11:15 pm

    I was astonished the first time I read this story. When I went back to get a more clear-eyed view, I still found it astonishing. Quade’s striking narrative imagination and marvelous writing make this one of the best NYer stories in some time. I agree with Ken: “The heft of it makes many other New Yorker stories look rather small, shriveled, lacking in ambition.”

    What a great choice for a narrative persona, the saint’s sister. It allows Quade to show us that a saint may be astonishing to the outer world, but to her family she’s “a lunatic”, “possessed by the devil”, who shrieks at passersby, accusing them of their sins. She makes it impossible for one of her sisters, Gertrude, to have a normal happy life, and ruins the other sister, Mara’s, dream of living a “tranquil and measured” life.

    Mara starts out naive, puzzled by all that happens. Some of her early statements seem humorous:

    “I loved Christina, I did!”

    “All I can think is that she has returned to punish me for my hypocrisy, for ever thinking that I loved her.”

    Events, however, alter her attitude and make her start to question her faith: Her later statements are much more frightened:

    “He has a purpose of course, He must, but in her shrill judgments I hear nothing of His Son’s love.”

    “How will we get through this? What if it never ends? What if God doesn’t let us die?”

    Then, at the climax of the story, in the section called “Miracle”, a terrible thing happens. Turning the “miracle’ inside out, “Christina begins to starve the baby out of our sister.” When it’s done, she says, “You’re welcome”. What a chilling, self-condemning use of those two commonplace words.

    This completes the stunning irony at the heart of the story: miracles make the faithful revere the saint; but this “miracle” accomplishes the final separation of her sister from God. Mara loses her faith.

    Now her statements take on a third tone – despair:

    “My prayers won’t cohere, the words slip from my mind and God, who once was everything, has vanished.”

    Speaking of the convent, where once she longed to live, she says, “I can no more deliver myself to a place where my sister is venerated then I can to an unfathomable God.”

    Christina, in contrast, is ecstatic, despite her habitual bitterness: “When I pray, I am ravished by the spirit. I whirl like a hoop.” She is a true misanthrope: Humans mean nothing to her. Only her own personal inner life counts.

    Christina’s ecstatic expression is reflected by Mara’s statement when Christina dies: “Quiet whorls of joy spin in my heart.”

    In the final paragraph, Quade has Mara forsake “those old empty words” and make up her own, more appropriate prayer, giving Christina a litany of bitter, unattractive causes.

  7. Greg August 19, 2017 at 7:47 pm

    Thanks William for allowing me to re-live and re-love this story all over again!

  8. William August 19, 2017 at 9:01 pm

    Greg —

    You’re welcome. In retrospect, after reading the story about the teacher in Bulgaria, Quade’s achievement seems even more impressive. Too many NYer stories are from inside the writer’s mind and experience and world. Quade has the daring and imagination to move way outside her own world.

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