Blessings in Disguise

The Unfashionable Genius of Marilynne Robinson
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In her essay “When I Was a Child I Read Books,” the novelist Marilynne Robinson describes how, growing up in northern Idaho in the 1950s, she “preferred books that were old and thick and hard.” Reading was, for Robinson, a portal to a time and place before and beyond her own. Books introduced her to ancient splendors: “I knew a good deal about Constantinople and the Cromwell revolution and chivalry.” The old-fashioned nature of her reading, its discontinuity with her own experience, was part of the enchantment. As she writes, “Relevance was precisely not an issue for me. I looked to Galilee for meaning and to Spokane for orthodonture.”

This sense of willed anachronism should be familiar to readers of Robinson’s work. She has pointed to nineteenth-century American writers like Dickinson and Melville as her most cherished influences (“her old aunts and uncles,” she has called them), and Robinson’s writing can seem as if it emerged, Rip Van Winkle–like, from an earlier time.

Robinson told me in an e-mail exchange that “the modern period has succeeded much too well in putting aside metaphysics.” Her own work tries to correct this. Her novels—Housekeeping, Gilead, Home, and now Lila—are slow, meditative, and religious, more Ralph Waldo Emerson than Zadie Smith. The last three all take place in Eisenhower-era America, long before the Great Recession or subprime mortgages. In her writing as in her reading, relevance—that is, making her novels of their specific moment—is not a priority for Robinson.

To her fans—and there are many, from the New Yorker’s book critic James Wood to Barack Obama—Robinson shows that old-fashioned virtues like seriousness and simplicity are still, in fact, virtues. To her detractors—and there are some—Robinson’s work is stylistically accomplished but frustratingly backward-looking, ignoring much of what has happened, both fictionally and socially, over the past three decades. In a recent essay, the writer Jess Row described Robinson’s characters as “quirky, salt-of-the-earth, hardworking folks, nearly all of whom happen to be white.” They are, in short, characters from an earlier America, if not an imaginary one. On this view, Robinson is an accomplished novelist of nostalgia.

Such criticism makes sense only if you think that fiction lives or dies by its explicit engagement with contemporary life. Relevance isn’t the only aesthetic criterion, and social realism isn’t the only defensible literary style. As Henry James writes, “The house of fiction has…not one window, but a million.” Not every writer has to be Jonathan Franzen.

Robinson doesn’t write social realism, but that doesn’t mean she ignores social existence. Her new novel, Lila, is a sustained examination of what it means to live within and without community. Neglected as a child and raised by a wanderer, the main character, Lila, lives an itinerant life on the margins of mid-century America. Such freedom can be exhilarating. It can also be painful. Lila knows homelessness and despair, and this knowledge shapes how she reacts to future gentleness. When she marries a kind preacher and moves into the small community of Gilead, Iowa, she can’t help but pull back: “That was loneliness. When you’re scalded, touch hurts, it makes no difference if it’s kindly meant.” Few novelists write better about the attractions of solitude, but Robinson acknowledges that it comes at a cost.

What most distinguishes Robinson from her peers, however, isn’t her lack of interest in writing an “issues” novel. It’s her deeply felt, deeply reasoned, deeply committed Calvinism. In essays, lectures, interviews, and novels, Robinson has returned again and again to the beauty of Calvin’s thought. For her, Calvin’s much-maligned doctrine of total depravity actually shows how loving God is: Despite our weakness and sinfulness, God loves and sustains us at every moment. Total depravity, Robinson argues in an introduction to Calvin’s writings, is really about God’s unfathomable condescension: “It is as if we were to find a tender solicitude toward us in the fact that the great energy that rips galaxies apart also animates our slightest thoughts. It is as if we were to propose that that great energy only exists to make possible our miraculously delicate participation in it.”

This “tender solicitude,” Robinson writes, is “continuous, unmediated,” and directed at “individual consciousness.” Robinson is firmly Protestant in taste: she told me she prefers Milton to Dante, Augustine to Aquinas. I suspect that this is because of Protestantism’s focus on the individual believer and his or her direct access to divine grace. God, Robinson writes, is “at the very center of individual experience and presence.” Robinson finds herself most moved by those thinkers who take individual experience most seriously.

Faith, Robinson argues, is a “great, continuous instruction in perception itself,” and to perceive correctly is to see “that the beauty that floods our senses has the meaning of vision and revelation.” Robinson is a realist, but she’s a visionary realist: a writer who senses that the real—the world we experience in our bodies and in our consciousness—is awash with divine meaning and intention.

 

ROBINSON WAS BORN IN 1943 in Sandpoint, Idaho, a world of mountains and lakes that continually reminded her of her own smallness: in such a landscape, she writes in “Psalm Eight,” she seemed “a mote of exception, improbable as a flaw in the sun.” In the early 1960s, she attended Pembroke College, then the women’s college at Brown, where she worked with John Hawkes—a writer whose postmodern fiction could hardly be more different from the novels Robinson would go on to write. She then studied for a PhD in English at the University of Washington. Unsurprisingly, she chose to write on an unfashionable text: Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part II.

While researching and writing, Robinson started jotting down metaphors on scraps of paper. “After I had finished my dissertation,” she told the Paris Review, “I read through the stack of metaphors and they cohered in a way that I hadn’t expected. I could see that I had created something that implied much more.” That much more was Housekeeping. Robinson began working in earnest on the novel and, in 1981, it was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It is one of the most astonishing debuts in recent literary history.

Housekeeping tells the story of Ruth, a fierce, lonesome girl raised by a series of female relatives in the town of Fingerbone, Idaho. From its first words—“My name is Ruth”—Robinson declared her epic ambitions: to write a female Moby-Dick of the American West, exploring the bonds of community and the lure of isolation, the visionary nature of perception and memory.

At first glance, Housekeeping doesn’t look much like a traditional religious novel. The work seems unconcerned with theology, and Ruthie doesn’t go to church. So it isn’t surprising that critics paid more attention to the work’s wild metaphoricity than to its metaphysical roots. Housekeeping is Christian like much of nineteenth-century American writing was Christian: in its Calvinist oscillation between despair and ecstasy, in its regular recourse to images of death and resurrection, in its sense that what we see is, in Ruth’s words, “a sheet dropped over the world’s true workings.”

Robinson’s second novel, Gilead, did not come out until 2004, twenty-three years after Housekeeping. Despite the gap, Robinson was hardly idle during this time. In 1991 she joined the faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she still teaches today. It’s a rich irony that Robinson, who has said she doesn’t read much contemporary fiction besides the work of her students, has helped shape so many promising young writers, including Paul Harding (author of Tinkers), Chris Adrian (The Children’s Hospital), and Leslie Jamison (The Empathy Exams). Robinson told me that teaching has given her a renewed appreciation for writing’s many difficulties: “I have learned as much respect for the writers who, to all appearances, fail to master the art as for the ones who excel in it. It is simply so difficult to do, and they are all so exposed in making the attempt.” In between her first two novels, Robinson also wrote two exemplary works of nonfiction: a collection of essays, The Death of Adam, and a polemic against Britain’s disposal of nuclear waste, Mother Country. But she didn’t publish any fiction, and so Gilead was received with intense expectation.

Gilead puts the lie to those critics who say that contemporary fiction doesn’t engage seriously with religion. It shows how Christianity is both a lived practice and a system of belief, a deposit of artistic riches and an endless source of intellectual exploration. The novel’s language is soaked in voices from Christianity’s past: Augustine and Donne, Herbert and Hopkins, Bonhoeffer and Barth. Here is its opening sentence:

I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old.

We soon learn that the time is 1956, that the speaker is an elderly Congregationalist minister named John Ames, and that Ames is speaking to his seven-year-old son. More precisely, he’s writing to his son: Ames, seventy-six years old, knows that he will not see his son grow up and so decides to put his thoughts down on paper. The novel is, in the old sense of the word, a reckoning: an account of Ames’s life as a preacher in Gilead, Iowa, of his Christian faith, of his early widowhood and late rediscovery of love, and of the ways history has touched him and his family. (Ames’s grandfather was a radical abolitionist in the Civil War, his father a pacifist during World War I.)

Gilead is a startlingly beautiful novel. On almost every page, you find yourself marveling at how inevitable and right each sentence sounds, at Robinson’s exquisite control of cadence and imagery. Beyond its stylistic brilliance, Gilead makes a fundamentally good man seem interesting, and part of what makes Ames so interesting is his willingness to talk intelligently about matters of faith—in particular, his willingness to talk about the sacraments.

When I asked Robinson about the sacraments, she said that they were “a little hard to write about.” Despite this difficulty, Ames does it well. Here he remembers an incident from his childhood, when he and some friends baptized a litter of kittens:

I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing. It stays in the mind. For years we would wonder what, from a cosmic viewpoint, we had done to them. It still seems to me to be a real question. There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time.

In this passage, we have both a description of sacramentality and an enactment of it. If, for Ames, to bless is to acknowledge creation’s mysterious life, then Robinson here blesses her readers: we are left with a sense of wonder before the world’s splendor. Robinson wrote to me that the sacraments “are an utterance above language, the kindest deed ever done, the purest gesture of love ever made.” Robinson, through Ames, gets close to capturing in language the mystery and majesty of baptism.

 

GILEAD EMBODIES ROBINSON’S aesthetic of wonder—her sense that humility before the vastness of the world and our experience of it is the proper attitude for the artist to take. Robinson’s moral and imaginative vision could serve as a gloss on the opening of Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.”

For Robinson, if creation is wondrous, it is no less wondrous that we are able to appreciate it. I asked her about the relationship between beauty and pain in the Christian vision, and she responded:

The life and death of Christ are addressed precisely to the fact that beloved humankind are, in greater and lesser degrees, sad and erring creatures, often enough bitter and mean-spirited creatures. Yet here is brilliant Creation shining all around us, and here are our own brilliant gifts of thought and perception to let us enjoy it and celebrate it.

Thought and perception are gifts because they allow us to appreciate the giftedness of all creation.

For Ames, there is a connection between the work of the mind and the work of the soul. “For me writing has always felt like praying.” Memory becomes a religious faculty, too: “Sometimes the visionary aspect of any particular day comes to you in the memory of it, or it opens to you over time.” Nowadays we are often reminded that memory is a flawed instrument, prone to errors of omission and distortion. Gilead makes a subtler argument: yes, memory is imperfect, but it’s nevertheless the best instrument we have for exploring the richness of our experience. The mind is continually re-examining the past, looking for new aspects of old events, finding significance in neglected details. Robinson told me that “among the twentieth-century poets Wallace Stevens is the one I return to” most often. Gilead shows that, as Stevens puts it, “It can never be satisfied, the mind, never,” and this endless curiosity is, to use one of Ames’s favorite words, remarkable.

If writing/remembering is a kind of intellectual prayer, then gracefully moving through the world is a kind of bodily prayer. We see this everywhere in Gilead, from Robinson’s loving descriptions of a young boy’s game of catch to Ames’s delight in preparing grilled-cheese sandwiches. Because of his own weakening body, Ames is better able to appreciate the pleasures of effortless physical exertion, and better able to recognize in physical grace a suggestion of divine grace.

 

THIS ANALOGY BETWEEN physical and divine grace is even more important in Home, Robinson’s 2008 follow-up to Gilead. Home centers on the same town at the same time, but it takes as its main character Glory Boughton, the daughter of Ames’s best friend and fellow preacher, the Rev. Robert Boughton. Glory makes a brief, inconspicuous appearance in Gilead; in Home Robinson shifts her to the center, and this decision makes an aesthetic and theological point. Every character, Robinson suggests, is both a potential fictional protagonist and a being that has been created in the image of God. (This argument receives further support in Lila, which once again approaches the same story from a different angle—this time from the perspective of Ames’s young wife.)

Home is a sadder, more restrained book than Gilead. It’s less brilliant, but it’s after something other than brilliance. Glory hasn’t led a particularly happy life. After a failed relationship, she’s thirty-eight and living again in her childhood home. Though intelligent, she is not as brilliant or well read as Ames. Besides, she has other concerns: throughout the novel, she’s dealing both with her father’s failing health and with the many frustrations associated with her mischievous, occasionally mean brother Jack, who has just come back to Gilead after years spent elsewhere. The central question of Gilead is: How can we make our love felt when we are no longer around to express it? The central question of Home is: How can we make our love felt when we are there to express it, but those we love do their best to escape or frustrate us?

For Glory, the way to grace is through hospitality, through caring even for those who resist her care. Especially for those. Glory tends to her father’s dying body and to her brother’s broken spirit. The most seemingly banal activities—cooking dinner, bathing her father—become ways of acknowledging the sacredness of this world and of her difficult family.

In Gilead, the physical world is shown to be a sign of God’s grace in scenes that could come from a Terrence Malick movie: light shines through a window onto an old church floor; water falls from a tree after a brief rain shower. But in Home, Robinson sees the domestic sphere, the world of cooking and cleaning and eating and mending, as a way into the imaginative and religious sublime. In one remarkable scene, Glory cuts her father’s hair:

So she clipped and trimmed, making more work of it than it was in order to satisfy him that some change had been accomplished, combing it down a little with water so he would feel sleek and trim. The nape of his neck, the backs of his ears. The visible strain of holding the great human head upright for decades and decades…. At the end of so much effort, the neck seemed frail, but the head was still lifted up, and the ears stood there, still shaped for attention, soft as they were. She’d have left all the lovely hair, which looked like gentle bewilderment, just as the lifted head and the ears looked like waiting grown old, like trust grown old.

In Gilead, Ames writes that grace is “a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to essentials.” Home shows that grace works not just in the ecstatic but in the ordinary—in the daily tasks of living for and loving one another. Or, as Robinson wrote to me, “If hospitality is an essential Christian value, then the smaller hospitalities we give to our families are only more essential. I do think that the means we are given to please and nourish and comfort bear a more than accidental resemblance to the means of grace.”

Robinson’s novels seldom end where we think they will, or even where we hope they might. In Housekeeping, Ruth burns down her house and her old life with it, leaving whatever minimal comforts of domestic life she may have experienced and joining her aunt Sylvie in a tramp’s life. On the final, stunning page of Gilead, Ames writes, “I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep,” followed by silence. We don’t know if he has died or just become too weak to write, and we don’t know what will happen to his young wife and son. In Home, Jack leaves Gilead, just missing his father’s death and a longed-for reunion with his beloved, and Glory is left alone.

 

ROBINSON TOLD ME THAT “it seems excessively fictional to really ‘end’ a story,” adding that she feels that her “novels end themselves—that after a certain point they begin to close themselves against me, so that any invention that might prolong them would be an imposition.” And yet the story Robinson first told in Gilead has reopened itself twice, first in Home and now in Lila. The new novel is, once again, piercing and beautiful, but in a very different way. Lila’s life before Ames was rough from the very beginning, as we learn in the book’s first sentences: “The child was just there on the stoop in the dark, hugging herself against the cold, all cried out and nearly sleeping. She couldn’t holler anymore and they didn’t hear her anyway, or they might and that would make things worse.” Soon Lila will be rescued—kidnapped, technically—by a loving drifter named Doll.

Over the years, Doll and Lila move throughout the country, hunting after day labor and moving on when money and work dry up. They find solace in physical work and in the makeshift community that arises among the downtrodden: “She liked to hear people tell stories. The saddest ones were best.” It’s almost as if Robinson has shown us what the future of Ruth and Sylvie from Housekeeping might actually look like.

Lila’s settings are harsh (a St. Louis brothel, an abandoned house on the outside of town), as are the narrated events (abandonment, murder). The novel is written in the third person, but it’s an extremely close third person, with Lila’s mode of speaking and thinking continually inflecting the narrative voice. Unlike Glory and certainly unlike Ames, Lila is uneducated, and she alternatively laments and celebrates the fact that she doesn’t have the words to describe the world as it appears to her. Here is an example of the kind of simple language that Lila presents:

It was still early enough that Lila had to pound on the shop door. She was so desperate to get out of the dress she was wearing, it didn’t matter what she found there if she just had the money to pay for it. And then the woman said to her, when she had taken a look at her, tried to get a look at her face, So what happened? You had a baby? Lila said, No, I didn’t, and the woman studied her sidelong, the blood on her skirt where it showed below the hem of her coat, on her shoes, thinking she knew better, and said, Never mind. None of my business.

Gone are Ruthie’s ecstatic visions, Ames’s gentle melodies, Glory’s biblical cadences. Instead, we have Lila’s wounded and enduring voice.

If Gilead was about sacrament and Home about hospitality, then Lila is about the meaning of affliction. It harrows rather than enraptures, and because of this Lila makes for less pleasurable reading than either Gilead or Home. Reading Lila’s account of her courtship with Ames—how she deliberately met his kindness with Jack-like meanness, how she considered running away even when pregnant—makes you realize how much Ames edited out of his own account. This forced recalibration can be disturbing, like the moment when you realize that your parents are imperfect, that they have baggage and weaknesses all their own.

Yet even amid the pain, Lila provides scenes in which grace shines through. The final pages, where Lila gives birth during an Iowa snowstorm, are as strange and powerful as anything Robinson has ever written. That scene and the novel as a whole recall a passage from Gilead:

Augustine says the Lord loves each of us as an only child, and that has to be true: “He will wipe the tears from all faces.” It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required.

The Lord’s comfort, Ames suggests, doesn’t erase the sorrow we’ve felt. Rather, it acknowledges it and makes it bearable. At some mysterious level, it even makes it beautiful. Lila dramatizes this truth.

For some time now, Robinson has been our most singular writer, defying contemporary trends and carving out her own distinctive place within American literature. Reading Lila alongside Housekeeping shows just how varied Robinson’s achievement has been: she’s written about the plainness of Iowa and the wildness of Idaho, created one voice that echoes Herbert in its plain grandeur and another that rivals Dickinson in its imaginative extravagance. But there is a unity to all of Robinson’s work, and this is part of what makes her so great. Her writing expresses a consistent and compelling vision of the world—a vision that sees the real as revelatory, the everyday as wondrous, Spokane as leading to Galilee. 

Published in the November 14, 2014 issue: 

Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). He writes Commonweal's "Bookmarks" column.

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