Ireland and Italy--two God-riven countries separated by a common religion--are the subject of Niall Williams' second novel, "As It Is in Heaven." It's hard to think of a more dramatic contrast (at least within Europe) for a writer to wrestle onto the page.
Stephen Griffin is a 32-year-old from Dublin, a tall, ungainly stork of a loner, living with the ghosts of his dead mother and sister at the edge of the sea on the west coast of County Clare. Gabriella Castoldi is a few years older, a classical violinist from Venice who has remained in Ireland following the failure of a love affair. An intensely unhappy woman, she brings a "cold passion--a frowning intensity" to her playing, especially to her playing of Vivaldi, the patron composer of her hometown.
Nevertheless, on the cold and rainy night when Stephen first sees Gabriella perform at the Old Ground Hotel in Ennis, the magic of Gabriella's quartet-playing produces a warmth that soaks through Stephen's jacket and shirt and heart and leaves him hopelessly in love. Deserting his school post and ailing father, Stephen follows Gabriella, happy just to be in her presence and the aura of her playing. And then one night, at a concert in Kenmare, Gabriella looks up from her music stand and finds Stephen in the third row of the audience. "A quality of longing in his look pierced her, and as she pressed into her chin rest, she had to steady herself against the suddenness of feeling. . . . Then, as unexpectedly as life, Gabriella Castoldi walked down amongst the chairs and the departing audience to Stephen Griffin and asked him if he would like to walk out into the fog with her."
It is a promising, romantic overture, the feverish dream of any groupie, to have the worshiped icon--whether it be a classical Cecilia Bartoli or a baroque Leonardo DiCaprio--descend from the altar for a stroll in the dark. But as the novel plays on from this overture, the twists of the plot become progressively more jarring. Within a few pages, Stephen modulates from stalker to saint. "As unexpectedly as life," Gabriella takes Stephen to her bed for "a brief season--a time which glimmered with the quality of fables."
Then, of course, boy has to lose girl--to Venice, of all places. But there's a ciabatta in the oven (or is it Irish soda bread?), so back to Ireland she comes. The two players are rejoined but, strangely, not as a coherent duet. The effect is always of two indistinct instruments playing different melodies at the same time, an effect that fails so spectacularly to sing to the human heart that one wonders whether the fault lies with the two countries, whether the two cultures are simply too dissimilar to harmonize.
It made me think back on a glimpse of Ireland from Italy I had earlier in the year. When the Royal Court Theatre received the European Theatre Prize in Taormina, Italy, it decided to present "The Weir," by Williams' fellow Irishman Conor McPherson. At first glance, there was something wholly inappropriate in their choice of a play. Taormina is a city of sunshine and sparkling sea, of Greek ruins and Sicilian wine. How would they move from that balmy sunset to the drafty winter of a rural Irish bar and the ghost stories that make up McPherson's drama?
Yet two hours later, the infernal scar of red lava on the cheek of Etna shone cold with the Irish ghosts that followed the audience out of the theater into the full darkness of the night. For McPherson not only has the Irishman's gift for language but something equally important--an ear for the ethereal terrors that move men and women of flesh and blood to do terrible and, often, ordinary things.
And therein, perhaps, lies the beginning of an understanding of why Williams has doomed himself to failure. For Williams, the ethereal is the province not of humans but of the real hero of his novel--God. "There are only three great puzzles in the world," he says in the opening, "the puzzle of love, the puzzle of death, and, between each of these and part of both of them, the puzzle of God."
Williams' theology suggests that not only will God's will be done "on Earth as it is in Heaven," but that our own wills, our own futures, will be determined by heavenly signs. Even earthly, human love, the love of Stephen and Gabriella, of Stephen's father and his dead mother, is but a reflection and product of "[t]he love that moves the sun and the other stars," as the author quotes Dante's "Paradiso" in an opening epigram.
So it is God who rescues Stephen from a rainy ditch at the beginning of the novel and gets him to Gabriella's first concert on time. It is God who, 20 years earlier, caused a drunken priest to swerve into the car carrying his mother and sister. It is God who vouchsafes visions of the dead mother to Stephen's slowly dying father; God who allows the father to delay his appointment in heaven long enough to see his son happy in love. It is God, speaking Italian now, for whom Gabriella, large with child in a cold January in Venice, listens, trying to decide whether to return to Ireland and Stephen. Unable to find answers in her own character, Gabriella lay "on a bed of diminished hope--waited for a sign that did not come, and balanced on the edge of new life unable to move. For the plots of love and death had stopped altogether." Yet move she must. And if God doesn't move her, who will?
Perhaps God, Williams ponders, is only an "invention to excuse the existence of the random and the brutal where they crisscrossed our days." What that means, in the world of a novel, is that God is only the nom de plume of a writer named Niall Williams, and that it is Williams after all who, in one Deus Ex Word Processing Machina after another, is steering Stephen and Gabriella on arbitrary left and right turns that owe more to the author's whim than to the characters' inner fire. Because of these arbitrary twists, little in the novel feels real, from the tourist board Ireland to the stage set of Venice. Even the Vivaldi that Gabriella plays, the Angelus that changes Stephen's life, comes across as a lite classical soundtrack.
God knows that what passes for romance in the daytime soaps works in mysterious ways that often have as little to do with heaven as they do with Earth. Williams' goal is certainly clouds rather than suds. Yet heavenly love, as anyone who has tried to swallow the whipped cream of Dante's "Paradiso" can attest, is so full of courtly phrase and lofty sentiment that it can serve as only the most distant of metaphors for the kind of love that passes between two mortals named, say, Stephen and Gabriella.
There's a reason, after all, why the "Inferno" is exponentially more popular than the "Paradiso," why we sinners would rather read Joyce under the volcano of Etna than Moses on Mt. Sinai. If Earth were literally as it is in heaven, what a dead boring place it would be.