The World, the Flesh and Father Smith

by Bruce Marshall, Human Adventure Books, 230pp, £12

Bruce Marshall was many things: a Scot exiled in France, an accountant, a soldier and a Catholic convert. He was also a novelist whose books sold well in his lifetime, but who has, regrettably, faded from view.

It is heartening, therefore, to see an American publisher reissue one of his most successful books. The World, the Flesh and Father Smith presents episodes in the life of an inner-city Scottish priest in the first half of the 20th century, stretching from the 15th year of his clerical life all the way to his deathbed.

This is a roomier, somewhat looser work than other Bruce Marshall novels I’ve read, but, like Father Malachy’s Miracle, it opens with a priest eyeing humdrum urban crowds. They are smug, complacent, full of fleshy self-regard, and entirely oblivious to the cosmic drama of their own salvation (or otherwise). Like a less fastidious TS Eliot when on London Bridge he echoed Dante (“I had not thought that death had undone so many”), Father Smith imagines those around him being “gathered into God’s basket like so many gaping fish”. And yet, all of them – all of us – are “so very pitiful when you see them asleep; and all stamped in God’s image, all fearfully and wonderfully made, all with eyelashes and finger-nails and ears”.

Father Smith constantly faces a very priestly dilemma: “It was the hardest thing in the world for one human being to shine into another human being the glow that burned within himself, even when the glow was from God.” Far easier, sometimes, to irradiate irritation.

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