Salvation: Scenes From the Life of St. Francis

by Valerie Martin

Published by Knopf

268 pages, 2001


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Luminous Kiss

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning

 

Valerie Martin's fictionalized biography of the revered Saint of Assisi is neither fish nor fowl, but a rare bird hiding its gorgeous plumage in mysterious shadow. The popular author of Italian Fever and Mary Reilly has turned her considerable talents towards a delicate illumination of a strange, extraordinary life. Here she lights a candle, there she focuses a beam of moonlight on this enigma, not so much to understand the saint as to sit in awe of his Christlike life.

Her paean to Francesco di Pietro Bernardone is carefully set up in a thoughtful, scholarly introduction which by itself makes the book worth reading. Martin believes that now, more than ever, the world needs a figure who deliberately rejected the material wealth and comfort we all deem so essential:

All sorts of popular venues, from self-help books to TV evangelists, suggest that if you can only place yourself before the proper spiritual door, when you open it, money will pour in. ... The connection between destitution and virtue is largely lost upon us now, especially, it seems to me, in America, where poverty is so clearly unconstitutional that we once declared war on it.

This 13th century counterculture figure became a real presence in Martin's life while she lived in Italy for three years. She would spend hours in art museums gazing on the exquisite Renaissance frescoes of Cimabue, Giotto, Sassetta, Bellini and Gozzoli, in which highlights of the saint's life were portrayed in panel after panel. Here Martin was inspired to take a novel approach to her biography:

It occurred to me that his story might be best presented in a series of scenes, beginning in the dark, final days, so full of physical suffering and the adulation of the mob, and concluding in the bright clear light of his conversion, when he was a young man with all his possibilities before him.

The fact that she starts at the end and works backwards is only one of the ways in which she breaks with convention, but it works so well for a couple of reasons: her subject is wildly unconventional, and her writing is kissed with a luminous grace.

It's hard to know what to call Salvation: a long prose-poem, or a sort of drama made up of separate but linked vignettes. Though it's obvious Martin decided not to take a linear path, the depth of her research shows through in the subtle accuracy of the details, showing us St. Francis in all his quirky glory rather than merely telling us what he did.

At the book's beginning, the aging saint is so racked with illness that he is barely attached to his body at all and his brother friars are carrying him to medical aid. Ironically, this humble figure who embraced abject poverty has become a spiritual superstar to the masses:

The populace showed no mercy. They crowded about the doors and windows and shouted his name. The boldest slipped past the guards and ran madly about, throwing open doors and snatching whatever they could find, bits of food they would claim he had tasted, a cushion he had surely sat upon, a napkin he must have pressed to his suppurating eyes.

Martin reveals the horrors of medieval medicine in the "treatment" of his infection, which involves cauterizing his eyelids with a red-hot iron:

In the room, the doctor lays the iron back upon the grate and turns to examine his handiwork. Francesco does not move, he has not moved, has not spoken, clenched his fists, cried out, or wept. He gazes placidly into the middle air with the vacant, listening attitude of the blind. The bright red flesh between his ear and eyebrow still sizzles, and at the edges of the wound thin strips curl away, blackened by the heat of the iron. Carefully, the doctor bends over him and removes a few hairs from the singed brow. "Now for the other side," he says.

Martin does not always choose the most familiar images of St. Francis for her vignettes: the child of nature with birds fluttering down on his shoulders, the ragged friar kneeling before the Pope, the young convert tearing off his clothes in dramatic renunciation of the worldly. Her aim here is to reveal the inner man, and she does so by very human means. The brothers love to sit around and gossip amiably about the eccentricities of their beloved leader:

"We were sitting around the fire," Angelo begins, "just as we are now, and a spark flew into Francesco's robe. In a moment the fire began to climb up the hem of his tunic. I was sitting next to him, and when I saw it, I shouted, 'Francesco, your tunic is burning!' and I tried to put out the fire with my hands. But he backed away, and he said, 'Oh, do not harm Brother Fire.'"

"He's flaming up like a torch," Leone puts in.

"What could we do?" Angelo continues. "Stand by and watch him burn alive? He made absolutely no effort to save himself. Finally we were obliged to break our vow of obedience and beat Brother Fire with feed sacks. Francesco was desolate."

Some passages seem to view the world through Francesco's own pure gaze:

The moon is full and sheds its light upon the white landscape which reflects it, so that the air itself seems bright, suffused with a pale light, not warm, like daylight, but charged and magical, like the cool, all-seeing light that might pour from the eyes of God.

In its moments of innocent beauty Salvation is reminiscent of Franco Zeffirelli's lovely biographical film Brother Sun, Sister Moon. But this is a much darker, more unflinching take, revealing all the ambiguities of the human heart: the jealousies and passions which are so nearly impossible to subdue. Even the saint's nearest and dearest followers continually strayed off the path, tempted by worldly power and the need for hierarchy and structure.

But St. Francis was a spiritual anarchist, resembling Christ so closely in his white-hot commitment that it was a wonder he wasn't put to death by the crowds who claimed to love him. Though other books may deliver more facts, Martin's poetic work reveals the man in all his radical simplicity. Even all these hundreds of years later, his paradoxical embrace of abject poverty is somehow, miraculously, still news. | September 2001

 

Margaret Gunning has reviewed many books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has written a novel (A Singing Tree) and a book of poems (Nonsongs and Neopsalms), and is currently at work on her second novel, Better than Life.