I just had the privilege of traveling overseas in the company of my renowned, esteemed, and brilliant colleague, Rob Corzine. We shared a hotel room, a penance Rob bore with a smile as his Lenten cross. When my snoring didn’t keep him awake, my uncontrollable laughter did. I had made the delightful mistake of taking Evelyn Waugh’s novel Helena with me, to keep me sane through the inevitable insomnia.
The book is out in a new edition, as part of Loyola Press’s lovely Loyola Classics series (edited by Amy Welborn), which was recently praised by no less a critic than Terry Teachout in no less a paper than the Wall Street Journal. People often ask me the best way to enter imaginatively into the world of the Fathers. I can’t think of a more enjoyable way than reading this novel. It’s well researched, artfully evocative, and full of fun nudges and winks at us latter-day observers.
Inside you’ll meet Constantine, the emperor and Eastern saint. You’ll meet his mum, St. Helena, the proto-archeologist who unearthed the true cross. You’ll meet Pope St. Sylvester, who is an endearing chap. And they’ll all make you laugh — either with them or at them.
My hat’s off to Waugh for bringing these characters so vividly alive. Few authors could make a fourth-century saint so approachable, humorous, and even sexy. He manages to pull this last one off in the most chaste way. Take my word. This book’s a miracle of hilarity and warmth.
The new edition has a nice introduction by George Weigel and good biographical material on Waugh, who has split my sides more times than it’s healthy to remember.
I’ve listed some other good patristic fiction here (scroll way down the page). All of it’s good, in different ways and for different purposes. Waugh’s Helena, though, is in a class by herself.
Rob Corzine, alas, couldn’t sleep through my jet-lagged laughter. But he got the last laugh. He started the book as soon as I finished it.