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Top 10 literary believers

From Dostoevsky to Zadie Smith, the novelist picks his favourite portrayals of characters struggling with Faith.

1. Franny in Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger

Marcus and Abby Glass, two of the heroes of The Revelations, take their surname from Salinger's precocious family. Franny's breakdown in the second story perfectly captures the headrush of adolescent spirituality (and its resultant comedown). I have always been a little bit in love with her which is, I suppose, creepy, now I'm over 30 and she's still at college.

2. Alyosha Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Alyosha is a novitiate Russian Orthodox monk, Jesus-like, compassionate but totally powerless. He clashes with his brother Ivan, a rationalist and an atheist. Alyosha isn't divorced from the real world, though; he is a realist. As Dostoevsky says: "Faith, in the realist, does not spring from the miracle. But the miracle from faith."

3. Samad Iqbal in White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Literary grandees from Updike to DeLillo tried (and mostly failed) to represent the east/west cultural clash in the post-9/11 years. The most nuanced and sympathetic portrait of the experience of British Muslims comes earlier, in the form of Samad Iqbal, a devout believer attempting to fit his faith to his adopted nation. When tempted by his children's music teacher "he felt a cold thing land on his heart and knew it was the fear of his God". A character funny, touching and tragic in equal measure, through Samad Iqbal we understand the burden of the comfort of faith.

4. Sir William Gull in From Hell by Alan Moore

A high-ranking Freemason who suffers an extraordinary theophanic episode when the god Jahbulon is revealed to him in a vision, Sir William Gull uses the prostitutes he kills in the East End of London to satisfy an ancient religious blood rite. The image of the future in which a vast City skyscraper rears up above the crazed royal physician seems strikingly relevant as we survey the wreckage of the post-crash financial system: Gull's mystical cult seeks to perpetuate male dominance of society. Written at the start of the bubble that just burst, testosterone-fuelled derivatives traders were the offspring of Sir William Gull's gruesome satanic rituals.

5. Herr Naphtha in The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

A Marxist Jesuit practicing a kind of religious fascism, Naphtha is one half of the dialectic duo that will bring Hans Castorp to his Bildung. The dark mirror of Settembrini's rational humanism, for Naphtha piety and cruelty are inseparable. Naphtha struggles with his inability to achieve the "graveyard peace" which he sees on the faces of his fellow believers. His death, like his life, is shockingly uncompromising.

6. Oscar in Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey

Brought up by a fundamentalist father from the Plymouth Brethren, Oscar sees "God's hand everywhere about", whether in gambling dens, at the racecourse or in the fate that brings him to Lucinda. "Our whole faith is a wager," he tells her. "We bet that there is a God. We bet our life on it."

7. Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix in By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño

A Chilean priest and member of Opus Dei, Lacroix is the narrator of this deathbed novella of religious compromise and hypocrisy. A priest for the ease of lifestyle it offers, Lacroix's real calling is literature. He meets Pablo Neruda and Ernst Jünger, gives lessons in Marxist theory to General Pinochet, and then, in a brutal final scene, realises that Santiago's principal literary salon has been held above a torture chamber. As he slips towards death, a hesitant truth begins to reveal itself …

8. Esti Kuperman in Disobedience by Naomi Alderman

Esti is the barren, lesbian wife of an Orthodox Jew, Dovid. Although only a foil (and lover) to the ballsy heroine, Ronit, this frail, silent character carries the heart of the novel with her. Esti is trapped with a paunchy, neurotic husband she doesn't love by her devotion to her religious belief. A book about a world that is at once bafflingly alien and surprisingly familiar.

9. Maurice Bendrix in The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

While his lover Sarah's faith is stronger, Bendrix's tentative, stumbling epiphany brings the novel to its breathtaking end. Greene pits the jealous lover against a jealous God; there will only ever be one winner. Bendrix's lament of "I hate You as though You exist" finally, reluctantly, becomes a prayer: "O God, You've done enough, You've robbed me of enough, I'm too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone for ever."

10. Margery Kempe in The Book of Margery Kempe

Kempe's autobiography, dictated to an amanuensis, is the occasionally hilarious record of her attempts to relive Jesus's life. Her visions are full of male genitalia and gore, but they are also surprisingly touching (particularly the scene in which she makes a hot drink for the Virgin Mary to comfort her after the crucifixion). We read of Kempe's meeting with that other great medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich. Julian's Revelation of Divine Love is more spiritual and pious; The Book of Margery Kempe is more fun.


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