Such is My Beloved
"...when you think of the girls hunting around the streets here and the young men and the married men going to them because of their secret passion and their lust, it looks almost as if the girls, even here in my own parish, were in a way doing some good—in a way, had a spiritual value. These girls were taking on themselves all these mean secret passions, and in the daytime those people who had gone to them at night seemed to be leading respectable and good lives...."
Such is My Beloved
Dull story hides erotic subtext
Such is My Beloved is the first of three similarly themed novels Morley Callaghan wrote during the 1930s, the other two being They Shall Inherit the Earth and More Joy in Heaven. And strange novels they are for that era.
While his colleagues depicted war, poverty and social uprising on big canvases, Callaghan focused on small moral quandaries arising in the Depression, but universal to all times and societies in which economic injustice exist and personal conscience confronts societal hypocrisy. Odder still was the religious context in which he placed the battle. In this he foreshadowed later writers, like Graham Greene and William Trevor. Not religious writers by any stretch, but authors ever aware of the success and failures of religious philosophy and institutions to help the afflicted.
Such is My Beloved is often considered Callaghan's best. It is a novel that sneaks up on you. At first it seems too plain a story, too plainly told. The plot seems rather predictable. An avid young priest finds himself drawn by pity to help two prostitutes. His motives are honourable, but it soon becomes clear some inner uncertainty is pushing him to the point that the girls' welfare becomes a compulsion with him. Meanwhile, eyebrows are raised among his parishioners and in the church hierarchy, which fears a scandal.
Callaghan's writing through this buildup is always simple and straightforward. He tends to tell directly what the characters are thinking, feeling and expecting, rather than let the reader read between the lines of dialogue and action as sharper writers of his time do. Even when he presents dialogue and speech, it's awash in adverbs—characters talk solemnly, they stare mournfully, they look down the street carefully, they are desperately serious. The result is an overall flatness.
But in the last third of the book, as the fate of the priest starts to unfold as expected, a deeper theme becomes evident—one that you realize has been there all along but which you were lulled into missing. I won't give it away entirely but it has to do with the different kinds of love. Bear in mind the title is a reference to "my beloved" of the Song of Songs, the most erotic poetry of the Bible, but which has been interpreted in Catholic tradition as presenting love of God.
But symbolism or allegory has never moved me to appreciate a work of literature. The story, the characters, the writing, the ideas on the page before me—those are the things that move me, not some reference to other grand ideas of history or mythology. And there is enough of this in Such is My Beloved to make it an affecting, thought-provoking tale on its own. Even despite my impatience with Callaghan's dull style.