Flash and Substance: Fanny Howe's The Winter Sun: Notes on a Vocation

The Winter Sun

The Winter Sun:
Notes on a Vocation

BY Fanny Howe
(Graywolf Press, 2009)


From the Publisher:

“Through a collage of reflections on people, places, and times that have been part of her life, she shows the origins and requirements of ‘a vocation that has no name.’ She finds proof of this in the lives of others — Jacques Lusseyran who, though blind, wrote about his inner vision, surviving inside a concentration camp during World War II; the Scottish nun Sara Grant and Abbé Dubois, both of whom lived extensively in India where their vocation led them; and the English novelists Antonia White and Emily Bronte. With interludes referring to her own place and situation, Howe makes this book into a ‘progress’ rather than a memoir.”

Fanny Howe describes The Winter Sun: Notes on a Vocation — her latest work of nonfiction — as a “collection of notes and memories” constellating around a series of metaphysical questions, culminating in the final one, “What could I call what was calling me?” Her answer, “A vocation that has no name.” As it gives witness to all three — the call, the caller, and herself as the called — in words, however slippery, this book is product of that nameless vocation.

Since Howe has written twenty books of prose and poetry, readers might be tempted to assume that writing is the vocation to which she refers. Not exactly. The author acknowledges, “I have never been sure of the need for it, the use of writing at all, the value of any completed poem, or the idea that writing might lead somewhere.” Then a few pages later, she offers a daunting rationale: “Why write if it is not to align yourself with time and space?” In the absence of that, she states, “Better to wash the bottoms of the ill or dying.”

As it gives witness to all three — the call, the caller, and herself as the called — in words, however slippery, this book is product of that nameless vocation.

This dichotomy she revisits often. In a later chapter, she recounts a spiritual retreat she took in Italy in 1999. The Dalai Lama says in his homily: “Don’t talk; act.” Although not specifically referenced, this tension, among many she explores, is the Martha-Mary quandary of Luke’s gospel, whether action or contemplation is the preferred path, a challenge Howe became acquainted with at an early age. While strongly drawn to introspection and contemplation, she understands our lived reality is constituted in such a way that “without an action there would be no past, present or future in any direction.”

Composed of nine separate pieces, of varying lengths, The Winter Sun builds on one paradox after another. As its title suggests, light and warmth coexist with chill, at least for residents of the Northern Hemisphere, from where Howe writes. The title extends an Edith Stein reflection, that “streams of consciousness are different for everyone… Like the sky dappling the cover of a river with reflections and refractions of all kinds, and the river keeps sliding along with its content intact.” Howe says only a certain quality of sunlight, among them, a pale winter sun, can infiltrate such water.


This book is not an easy read. Right from the start, the author establishes a pattern of presenting to the reader questions, the universal questions that have haunted her personally along with musings that border on her personal answers. But she makes no case for these answers being fixed; in fact, the fluidity of her prose and her elegant leaps of understanding militate against certitude. If a reader is not drawn in by the startling truth of a passage such as “But wherever I step I am stepping into a place that was just finished at the moment I arrived. If I freeze here, one foot poised to go forward, to land on the path, I will at least be living in the present and the past will know it,” that reader might not stick around for other, even more insightful passages.

This book is not an easy read. Right from the start, Howe establishes a pattern of presenting to the reader questions, the universal questions that have haunted her personally along with musings that border on her personal answers.

Stylistically, the book proceeds by parataxis, the splicing together of disparate thoughts, without subordinating nor coordinating conjunctions, leaving the reader to fill in the gap. The lyric intensity Howe achieves is a byproduct of such compressed cognition. Much like the cinematic technique she admires, she replicates in many places the style of her novel, The Deep North: “reverting to my interest in film techniques, I began to move parts together according to theories of juxtaposition, montage, close-up and distant tracking… I saw surprising connections between one scene and another. These were unintended connections that created the inevitable action…” And so forth.

Unintended connections imbued deeply with capital I- inevitability. Autobiographical nuggets are scattered throughout the work, particularly in the longer essays, “Branches” and “Person, Place and Time.” Daughter of an Irish-born actress-author-artist and a law professor-political activist father, her life is fascinating, on a personal, social and cultural level. But such joys are secondary compared to the inevitable connections she has forged with living and dead thinkers. The way Howe recounts her intellectual and spiritual biography, Simone Weil, Sara Grant, Michel de Certau, Emily Bronte, Bhartrhari have heard a call similar to hers, and found their individual ways to enter that flow of language which crosses the borders of time and space, a way to fulfill their own nameless vocations.

Stylistically, the book proceeds by parataxis, the splicing together of disparate thoughts, without subordinating or coordinating conjunctions, leaving the reader to fill in the gap. The lyric intensity Howe achieves is a byproduct of such compressed cognition.

As she describes (strangely twice, once in “Branches” and again, in almost the same words, in “Water Wide”), the split search for oneself and for God demands ultimately a process: “You align yourself with some ethereal figure behind and ahead and above you; you call on it for help, realizing the vacillation and inadequacy of your acts, your words.” With this book, she herself becomes such a figure, when she shares her own brush with eternity: “Not long ago I realized I was wrong about the relationship between the world and time. This revelation came to me walking on a path alone on an ordinary winter day, and it needs no description except to say I stepped into eternity beside a river in Ohio.” The same river, we assume, that keeps sliding with its content intact.

It takes courage in our Western, materialist culture to lay claim to mystical experience. Yet when done, even as delicately and evanescently as here, with all the necessary caveats, it expands the potential for the rest of us. As she has written elsewhere, “Name the things whereby we hope / Before the story scatters.”

There is no closure in this book, nothing prescriptive or definitive, in Howe’s series of koan-like inquiries. She successfully resists being “drawn to this task of describing a circle of order in the midst of chaotic scenes” while steadfastly honoring her desire for truth. “If I am convinced,” she writes, “that the story of your life and thought reveals the truth about our condition on this planet, then will I be happier as I proceed? Why else am I asking it?”

Story might dissipate and distort under scrutiny, but for one moment in time, nailed down in language, this memoir, like a pale ray of winter sun, does illumine.

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