A Canticle for Lebowitz: A Timely Classic

A Canticle for Leibowitz

By Walter M. Miller Jr.

Published 1959

Read Feb 2022

It is not surprising to this reader that the book has never gone out of print since its first publication in 1959.   This reader listened to an audiobook version and read a hard copy.  This reader was in college when she first read this book which was coincident with negotiation of SALT II—a treaty to reduce the likelihood of annihilation of the world by nuclear weapons.  As this reader finished reading the book this time, the world is working again to avoid nuclear war while the Putin’s invasion of Ukraine continues. 

Miller’s remarkable book has three parts, apparently originally written separately and then rewritten a bit to draw them together into one novel (1).  The first part, Fiat Homo (“Let There Be Man”) takes place 600 years after a global nuclear war (The Great Flame Deluge) that was rapidly followed by a backlash against knowledge and technology known as The Simplification. Shortly after The Simplification, the Albertian Order of Leibowitz was founded by Isaac Edward Leibowitz, an electrical engineer who had survived the war and who became a monk after he was unable to locate his wife who was presumed dead.  600 years after its founding, the monks residing at the abbey continue to work tirelessly to carry out the mission of their founder—to preserve books via memorization, copying, and careful storage of said Memorabilia.   The second part—Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light”) is set 600 years later as the world is beginning to come out of the dark ages following The Simplification.  Both outside and inside the abbey there are people who are rediscovering fundamental knowledge necessary to build such things as arc lamps.  Simultaneously, war between nation states is brewing.  The third part—Fiat Voluntas Tua (“Let Thy Will Be Done”) is set another 600 years later.  Much of the technology present during the Great Flame Deluge, including space flight and nuclear weapons, again exists.  As the section opens, there has been 50 years of potential nuclear war but the brink hasn’t yet been breached. 

In each part there is an interesting set of characters—the Abbott of the Abbey, a Brother in the Abbey, and someone else.  In Fiat Homo, the story opens as Brother Francis Gerard of Utah is enduring a Lenten vigil in the desert near some ruins and a “pilgrim with girded loins” comes by.  The unidentified old man identifies a rock for Brother Francis to use in building a shelter to protect him from the wolves while he sleeps.  Behind the rock is a metal door that leads to a bomb shelter.  This section then follows what happens after Brother Francis reveals his findings and his encounter with the “pilgrim with girded loins” to the priest visiting vigilantes to receive their confessions.  Much speculation springs up in the Abbey regarding who the pilgrim might be (is it Isaac Edward Leibowitz himself??)  Abbot Arkos works to mitigate the impact of the encounter on the canonization of Isaac Edward Leibowitz who had previously been beatified.  Monsignor Aguerra (God’s Advocate in the canonization process) and Monsignor Flaught (the Devil’s Advocate in the canonization process) join the cast of characters and visit the Abbey from their home base in New Rome (in an unidentified part of North America).  

In Fiat Lux, Thon Taddeo, a scholar and a bastard cousin of Hannegan, leader of Texarkana, wishes to review the Memorabilia at the Abbey of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz.  He engages Marcus Apollo, diplomat from New Rome to Texarkana, to beseech Abbot Dom Paulo to have the Memorabilia transferred to New Rome so he can study it.  Of course, that request is denied and Thon Taddeo eventually goes to the abbey to study the documents.  Brother Kornhoer demonstrates an arc light that he has built in the basement based on his study of the Memorabilia and some of Thon Taddeo’s writings.  Thon Taddeo is quite amazed that a mere monk could create such an invention but is certainly happy to use it to see the Memoribilia by the arc lamp’s light vs only candles. 

Much of this second section involves intrigue around Hannegan’s intentions to expand his empire.  The author also, however, spends a chapter on a discussion between Abbott Dom Paulo and an old hermit, known as Benjamin and whom Dom Paulo calls an Old Jew.  Apparently the two men have enjoyed spirited discussions over the years.  In this chapter they speak about the differences in their spiritual faiths (the Three and the One), whether or not a new Renaissance is going to dawn, and what a new dawn might mean to the Abbey.   Benjamin claims to have been waiting for Him to come for thirty-two centuries which Dom Paulo doesn’t believe.  But, Benjamin also claims to be the man Brother Francis met six centuries previous and who buried him when he was killed on the road from New Rome and who told the abbey where to find his remains…..so who is he really? 

In Fiat Voluntas Tua, Abbot Zerchi oversees the greatly expanded Abbey.  The modern addition is across a busy highway from the original Abbey and there is an underpass that allows foot travel between the two.  Two superpowers have been in a cold war situation for the last fifty years and the brink of war is being crossed.  Abbot Zerchi receives an order from New Rome to proceed with a plan to send the Memorabilia and persons from the Abbey to join others who will all go to Alpha Centuri to start anew.  He works to convince Brother Joshua to agree to become a priest and spiritual leader for the trip. 

While there are some pretty dark moments in the book, including violent deaths of individual characters, the need for Mercy camps to identify individuals whose exposure to fallout means certain death, and Zerchi’s regular encounters with Mrs. Graves who has a second head growing from her shoulder, there are some wonderful bursts of comedy as well.  In section one, Brother Francis’s bumbling confessions and his discussions with Abbot Akros are quite funny at times.  In section two, the dinner Abbot Dom Paulo gives for Thon Taddeo is crashed by the Abbey’s not fully welcomed guest, The Poet, which provides wonderful comedy.  In the third section, Abbot Zerchi’s attempts to use the “Abominable” Autoscribe (which automatically translates input to the desired language) to dictate memos are quite amusing as are the Q&A sessions between reporters and the defense minister as he fields questions about rumors of nuclear tests. 

Some of the themes are quite universal and enduring including:  1) man’s desire to seek knowledge and create new technologies; 2) the desire of some to hold power over others and expand their empires at all costs; 3) man’s general inability to learn from the past despite the magnitude of the lessons; 4) religions, here in the form of the Catholic Church, will be ever-lasting and add value to the world despite their imperfections.    Miller’s work is quite impressive.  It was commercially successful as he uses engaging characters, wonderful dialog, occasional humor, and overall great writing to weave these ideas into a story that attracts a wide range of readers.

Miller (2) was trained and worked as an engineer.  During World War II he was a radioman and tail gunner and flew over fifty bombing missions in Europe.  The Benedictine Abbey at Mount Cassino was founded in AD529 and was suspected to be a garrison and ammunition storage area for the Germans so it was a target taken out in a mission that Miller flew.  After the war, Miller converted to Catholicism (2).   He wrote over three dozen short stories published in science fiction magazines.  After the success of A Canticle for Leibowitz, he withdrew from public and became a recluse.  A book he was working on when he committed suicide in 1996, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman was finished as he requested by a friend and published in 1997.  It’s likely that Miller suffered from PTSD as a result of his bombing missions and especially the one involving the Abbey at Mount Cassino (1). 

This reader wonders if this book should be on (or return to) the reading list for high school students.

Bech: The Book

Bech:  A Book

By John Updike

Published 1970

Read Dec 2018

John Updike was a prolific author, writing the well-known “Rabbit” series and countless stories and essays published in multiple journals, most notably The New Yorker.  He wrote a series of short stories in the 1960’s, published in The New Yorker, about Henry Bech, a Jewish author who published a successful novel “Travel Light” and a few stories in the 1950’s and then enters a “dry” period.  Bech:  A Book is a compilation of these previously published stories plus the final story in the book as well as 2 appendices and an introduction.  The first appendix is a collection of Bech’s diaries during his travels for the state department and a couple of letters written during this period; the  second appendix is  a bibliography of Bech’s writings of the period and items written about him. The forward is supposed to be written by Bech to Updike.  Updike continued to write additional stories about Bech, his “Jewish alter-ego of sorts”  and collected these stories in two additional books published well after this book. 

In this book, the focus is on Bech’s “dry period” in the late 1950’s and early 1960’sfollowing the publication of “Travel Light”.  During this time Bech travels for the US State Department to various communist states and lectures at various remote schools and spends more time being a literary figure than an author.  Unlike “Rabbit” and John Updike himself, Bech is a confirmed bachelor for this series of stories.  

The character of Bech isn’t particularly appealing.  He enjoys having a relationship with a woman but has no interest in any form of commitment.  In this set of stories he leaves one sister to take up with another.   He has no real understanding of what the State Department wants him to accomplish on his trips to the communist countries and there is no indication he undergoes any useful debriefing.  He takes speaking engagements at remote places for the money they pay him.  He’s riding the wave of his previous literary success and is conscious that may be the end of his literary output, of which he is honestly concerned.

I don’t classify this book as “classic” as it doesn’t pass my simple criteria for “published more than 50 years ago” although it is close to meeting this criteria.  The book is witty and the language is really quite wonderful.  As it seems the book was written as entertainment for the author and for his contemporaries I’m not sure we will be reading this in another 50 years unless the reader is studying literary trends of the mid- to late -1900’s.