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The Religious Affiliation of Acclaimed Novelist
John Irving
Academy Award-winning Screenwriter for Cider House Rules


Acclaimed American novelist John Irving was already fairly cynical about religion while in high school (Exeter prep school), although he regularly attended worship services, as students were expected to do. Irving is not known to have been a regular churchgoer or a member of any organized religious group as an adult.

From: John Irving, The Imaginary Girlfriend: A Memoir, Ballantine Books: New York (2002; copyright 1996), pages 28-34:

I can't read Proust, or Henry James; reading Conrad almost kills me... [Gunter] Grass, Garcia Marquez, and Robertson Davie are my three favorite authors; when you consider that they are all comoic novelists, for whom the 19th-century tradition of storytelling--of narrative momentum and developed characters--remains the model of the form, I suppose you could say that I haven't ventured very far from Dickens.

With one exception: Graham Greene. Greene was the first contemporary novelist I was assigned to read at Exeter; it would probably have provoked him to know that I read him not in an English class but in the Reverend Frederick Buechner's extremely popular course on Religion and Literature. [Buechner was a Presbyterian clergyman, a professor, and an author.] I took every course Fred Buechner taught at Exeter, not becuse he was the school minister but because he was the academy's only published novelist--and a good one. (I wouldn't realize how good until, longer after Exeter, I read Buechner's quartet of Bebb novels--Lion Country, Open Heart, Love Feast, and Treasure Hunt.)

We were a negative lot of students at Exeter, when it came to religion. We were more cynical than young people today; we were even more cynical than most of us have since become--that is to say that my generation strikes me as less cynical today than we were. (Is that possible?) Anyway, we didn't like Freddy Buechner for his sermons in Phillips Church or in our morming chapel, although his sermons were better than anyone else's sermons I've ever heard or read--before or since. It was his eloquence about literature that moved us; and his enthusiasm for Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, which engendered my enthusiasm for all (or almost all) of Greene, was unstoppable.

I feel that I know Greene's people better than I know most of the people in my life, and they are not even people I wanted (or would ever want) to know: it is that simple. I cannot sit in the dentist's chair without envisioning the terrible Mr. Tench, the expatriate dentist who witnesses the execution of the whisky priest. It is not Emma Bovary who epitomizes adultery to me: it is poor Scobie in The Heart of the Matter, and poor Scobie's awful wife, Louise; it is Helen,the 19-year-old widow with whom Scobie has an affair, and the morally empty intelligence agent, Wilson, who is a little bit in love with Louise. And then there is the ghastly sleaziness of Brighton Rock: the utterly corrupted 17-year-old Pinkie, and the innocent 16-year-old Rose . . . the murder of Hale, and Ida drinking stout. They have become what an "underworld" means to me, just as The End of the Affair is the most chilling antilove story I know. Poor Maurice Bendrix! Poor Sarah and poor Henry, too! They are like people you would shy away from if you encountered them on the street, knowing what you know...

If, in the beginning--when I first read him in prep school--Graham Greene showed me that exquisitely developed characters and heartbreaking stories were the obligations of any novel worth remembering, it was also Greene, later, who taught me to loathe literary criticism; to see how the critics would dismiss him made me hate critics. Until his death in 1991, Graham Greene was the most accomplished living novelist in the English language; in any language, he was the most meticulous.

As Greene was always keen to observe: coincidence is everywhere. Greene's niece, Louise Dennys, is my Canadian publisher. The man who introduced me to Greene, the Reverend Frederick Buechner--no longer the school minister at Exeter--is my old friend and neighbor in Vermont. (Small world.) And it is only mildly astonishing to me that by the time I left Exeter I had already read most of the writers who would matter to me in my life as a writer...

Irving, The Imaginary Girlfriend: A Memoir, pages 75-76:
In Vienna, I shared an apartment on the Schwindgasse, next to the Polish Reading Room, with a fellow American named Eric Ross; he was from Chicago. Eric was tall and athletic, with honey-colored, curly hair; on skis, especially, he was the picture of Aryan perfection, but of course he was Jewish--and most savvy of the myriad, insidiuous forms of anti-Semitism in Austria. I knew nothing about anti-Semites, but I learned. I was short and dark and my last name was Irving--a Scots name, but common enough as a Jewish first name so that several Viennese anti-Semites were confused. (This is on the level of intelligence with thinking that John Milton was Jewish because of Milton Friedman, but--as Eric Ross was wise to point out--no one ever said anti-Semites were smart.) Eric and I developed a routine for exposing anti-Semites. Whether I was mistreated by a waiter or a shopkeeper, or by a fellow student at the University of Vienna, it was only necessary for the faintest hint of an anti-Semitic slur to emerge; I would not infrequently miss the slur--my German being as flawed as it was--but Eric, whose German was much better than mine, would instantly alert me to the insult.

"You're being treated like a Jew again," Eric would tell me.

Whereupon , pointing to Eric, I would deliver my well-rehearsed line to the offending anti-Semite: "He's the Jew, you idiot." ("Er ist der Jude, du Idiot.") Eric always had to help me with the correct pronounciation, but we usually got our point acress: Jew baiting was not merely distasteful--those with the inclination to do it were also stupid enough to think that they could tell who was Jewish and who wasn't.

...Vienna... is a small town; its notorious anti-Semitism is only part of a mean-spirited provincialism--an overall xenophobia, a suspicion (leading to hatred) of all outsiders.

Irving, The Imaginary Girlfriend: A Memoir, page 79:
Baron [Georg] von Wergenthin might have attracted my interest in The Road into the Open because of his ceaseless fantasizing about women--and the ongoing difficulty of his relationships with them--but young Georg was also a Christian aristocrat whose principal friendships were with Jewish intellectuals, at a time when anti-Semitism was on the rise. By the time Eric Ross and I arrived in Vienna, anti-Semitism had not only risen, it had arrived--and it was intractable. It was also much more vulgar than my encounters with it in Schnitzler. [More about anti-Semitism in Vienna, not excerpted here.]
Irving, The Imaginary Girlfriend: A Memoir, pages 158-160:
This is a tough sell to students rooted in social realism and young writers without the imagination to move beyond autobiographical fiction--namely, to that host of first novelists who treat a novel as nothing but a thinly masked rendition of their lives up to that point.

Nor are the earliest efforts young writers make to escape autobiographical fiction necessarily successful. A student of mine at Iowa--a brilliant fellow, academically; he would go on to earn a Ph.D. in something I can't even pronounce or spell--wrote an accomplished, lucid short story about a dinner party from the point of view of the hostess's fork.

If you think this sounds fascinating, my case is already lost. Indeed, the young writer's fellow students worshiped this story and the young genius who write it; they regarded my all-too-apparent indifference to the fork story as an insult not only to the author but to all of them. Ah, to almost all of them, for I was saved by a most unlikely and usually most silent member of the class. He was an Indian from Kerala, a devout Christian, and his accent and word order caused him to be treated dismissively--as someone who was struggling with English as a second language, although this was not the case. English was his first language, and he spoke and wrote it very well; the unfamiliarity of his accent and the cadence, even of his written sentences, made the other students regard him lightly.

Into the sea of approval that the fork story was receiving, and while my "but . . ." was repeatedly drowned out by the boistrous air of celebration in the class, the Indian Christian from Kerala said, "Excuse me, but perhaps I would have been moved if I were a fork. Unfortunately, I am merely a human being."

That day, and perhaps forever after, he should have been the teacher and I should have given my complete attention to him. He is not a writer these days, except on the faithful Christmas cards he sends from India, where he is a doctor. Under the usual greetings, the annual phohtograph of his increasing family, he writes in a firm, readable hand: "Still merely a human being."

On my Christmas cards to him, I write: "Not yet a fork."

...And what about the fork author--where is he today? In Boston, I believe; more pertinent, he's a published novelist--and a good one. I much admired his first novel and was overall relieved to see that the characters in it were human beings--no cutlery among them.

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