In my first year in the senior house at school, the same good-looking Jesuit priest (so recently ordained that we still sometimes addressed him as Mr.) introduced us to the Gospel of Matthew, which, he was keen to inform us, preceded that of the terser and more tormented evangelist Mark in the protocol of honour only and not in that of proper historical chronology. Since he doubled as an English master, he also took us through that scheduled syllabus, which included John Steinbeck’s ghastly (his word) novella The Pearl, along with half-a-dozen decent paperbacks – in all fairness, Catcher in the Rye sprang out among them – that had been vetted by the Prefect of Studies during the summer recess.
I knew nothing about pearls, except that it named a psycho-geriatric Presbyterian down the road who had given me three Victorian pennies for my coin collection, each with a different image of the long-lived Queen, from debutante to dowager through mother of the bride. My own mum’s pearls, which lay among pin-cushions and aromatic haberdashery in a forbidden basket, were palpably paste al dente, so the pearl of great price in the Revised Standard Version was a theological enigma, even if my helpful father showed me snapshots of submarine Ainu divers on Okinawa, with nothing on them at all and hardly any hair where there should be, in the slick centrefold of a National Geographic magazine.
Besides, the message I was getting was altogether contradictory. On the one hand, the incomprehensible parable recommended an almost obesely obsessional focus on one prize, one pursuit, one admirable monomania, while the Steinbeck novel, pace the priest who deplored it as the work of a well-fed man, appeared to argue that commercial prosperity would only corrupt the purity of the poor. One of my classmates, whose father was a Marxist and went to Mass but not to Benediction, because he regarded the adoration of the host as an act of idolatry, said so; and the good-looking priest, who would fall in love in the fullness of time and leave the Order, and become a Mr. again who had briefly been Father, said that reading a book was a dangerous thing to do, and potentially disastrous, a virus with no known vaccine, and he advised us against the practice, except in an armchair with antimacassars and a bottle of wine beside it, the same as our childless parents on Saturday evening, in which case we could be sure, almost, of the next morning’s amnesia erasing the consternation of the night before.
Then the bell rang, and English class ended, and R.K. began, and we took out our Bibles instead at Matthew 13.