We love Marilynne Robinson and so does James Wood. Links go to reading selections from the books. For more about her check out the category of posts in her name to the right of the page here.
Growing up in a religious household, I got used to the sight of priests, but always found them fascinating and slightly repellent The funereal uniform, supposed to obliterate the self in a shroud of colorlessness, also draws enormous attention to the self; humility seems to be made out of the same cloth as pride. Since the ego is irrepressible — since the ego is secular — it tends to bulge in peculiar shapes when religiously depressed. The priests I knew practiced self-abnegation but perfected a quiet dance of ego. They were modest but pompous, gentle but tyrannical — one of them got angry if he was disturbed on a Monday — and pious but knowing. Most were good men, certainly less venal than the average; but the peculiar constrictions of their calling produced peculiar opportunities for unloosing.
This is probably one of the reasons — putting the secular antagonism of novelists aside — that priests are overwhelmingly seen in fiction as comical, hypocritical, improperly worldly, or a little dim. Another reason is that fiction needs egotism, vanity, venality to produce drama and comedy; we want our sepulchers craftily whited. The seventy-six-year-old Reverend John Ames, who narrates Marilynne Robinson’s second novel, Gilead, is gentle, modest, loving, and above all, good. He is also a hit boring, and boring in proportion to his curious lack of ego.
At home in the Iowa town of Gilead, in the mid-1950s, aware of his imminent demise, he writes it long letter to his seven-year-old son, which is presented as a series of diary entries. (Georges Bernanos’s novel The Diary of a Country Priest seems to have been one model.) Mellowly resigned, tired but faithful, he is a man who can serenely exclaim “how I have loved this life,” or inform us that he has written two thousand sermons “in the deepest hope and conviction.”
The reader may roll his eyes it this and think: “All two thousand? Not one of them written in boredom or out of obligation?” Yorick, the parson in Tristram Shandy, who is so impressed with the eloquence of one of his own eulogies that he can’t help writing a self-loving “Bravo!” on his text, seems closer to the human case, and more novelistically vivid.
As if sensitive to the piety of Gilead, Robinson subverted this potential traditional objection by making her novel swerve away from the traditionally novelistic. Ames’ calm, grave diary entries contain almost no dialogue, shun scenes, seem to smother conflict before it has taken a breath. Very beautifully, Gilead becomes less a novel than a species of religious writing, and Reverend Ames’ entries a recognizable American form, the Emersonian essay, poised between homily and home, religious exercise and naturalism:
This morning a splendid dawn passed over our house on its way to Kansas. This morning Kansas rolled out of its sleep into a sunlight grandly announced, proclaimed throughout heaven — one more of the very finite number of days that this old prairie has been called Kansas, or Iowa. But it has all been one day, that first day. Light is constant, we just turn over in it. So every day is in fact the selfsame evening and morning. My grandfather’s grave turned into the light, and the dew on his weedy little mortality patch was glorious.
The result was one of the most unconventional conventionally popular novels of recent times.
Robinson describes herself as a liberal Protestant believer and churchgoer, but her religious sensibility is really far more uncompromising and archaic than this allows. Her essays, selected in The Death of Adam (1998), are theologically tense and verbally lush in a manner almost extinct in modern literary discourse, and which often sounds Melvillean or Ruskinian.
She is a liberal in the sense that she finds it difficult to write directly about the content of her belief, and shuns the evangelical childishness of gluing human attributes onto God. As a child she “felt God as a presence before had a name for him,” she writes, and adds that she goes to church to experience “moments that do not occur in other settings.” In a way that would seem palatable to many Americans, and certainly to her thousands of liberal readers, her Protestantism seems borne out of a love of religious silence — the mystic, quietly at prayer in an unadorned place, indifferent to ecclesiastical mediation.
But she is illiberal and unfashionably fierce in her devotion to this Protestant tradition; she is voluble in defense of silence. She loathes the complacent idleness whereby contemporary Americans dismiss Puritanism and turn John Calvin, the great originator of Puritanism, into an obscure, moralizing bigot. “We are forever drawing up indictments against the past, then refusing to let it testify in its own behalf — it is so very guilty, after all. Such attention as we give to it is usually vindictive and incurious and therefore incompetent.”
We flinch from Puritanism because it placed sin at the center of life, but then, as she tartly reminds us, `Americans never think of’ themselves as sharing fully in the human condition and therefore beset as all humankind is beset.” Calvin believed in our “total depravity,” our utter fallenness, but this was not necessarily a cruel condemnation: “The belief that we are all sinners gives us excellent grounds for forgiveness and self-forgiveness, and is kindlier than any expectation that we might be saints, even while it affirms the standards all of us fail to attain,” she writes in her essay “Puritans and Prigs.”
Nowadays, she argues, educated Americans are prigs, not Puritans, quick to pour judgment on anyone who fails to toe the right political line. Soft moralizing has replaced hard moralizing, but at least those old hard moralists admitted to being moralists.
I do not always enjoy Robinson’s founded ecstasies, but I admire the obdurateness with which she describes the difficult joys of a faith that will please neither evangelicals nor secularists. Above all, I deeply admire the precision and lyrical power of her language, and the way it embodies a struggle — the fight with words, the contemporary writer’s fight with the history of words and the presence of literary tradition, the fight to use the best words to describe both the visible and the invisible world.
Here, for instance, is how the narrator of Housekeeping, Robinson’s first novel, describes her dead grandmother, who lies in the bed with her arms flung up and her head flung back: “It was as if, drowning in air, she had leaped toward ether.” In the same novel, the narrator imagines her grandmother pinning sheets to a line, on a windy day — “say that when she had pinned three corners to the lines it began to billow and leap in her hands, to flutter and tremble, and to glare with the light, and that the throes of the thing were as gleeful and strong as if a spirit were dancing in its cerements.”
“Cerements,” an old word for burial cloth, is Robinson in her antique, Melvillean mode, and is one of many moments in her earlier work when she sounds like the antiquarian Cormac McCarthy. But stronger than that fancy word is the plain and lovely “the throes of the thing,” with its animism and its homemade alliteration.
Her novel Home begins simply, eschewing obvious verbal fineness, and slowly grows in luxury — its last fifty pages are magnificently moving, and richly pondered in the way of Gilead. Home has been presented as a sequel to that novel, but it is more like that novel’s brother, since it takes place at the same narrative moment and dovetails with its happenings.
In Gilead, John Ames’s great friend is the Reverend Robert Boughton, the town’s Presbyterian minister (Ames is a Congregationalist). The two men grew up together, confide in each other, and share a wry, undogmatic Protestantism. But whereas John Ames has married late and has only one son, Reverend Boughton has five children, one of whom is a very prodigal son, Jack Boughton.
In the earlier novel, Ames frets over Jack Boughton (now in his forties), who has been difficult since he was a schoolboy: there has been petty theft, drifting, unemployment, alcoholism, and an illegitimate child, now deceased, with a local woman. One day, Jack walked out of the Boughton home and stayed away for twenty years, not returning even for his mother’s funeral. Recently, we learn, Jack has unexpectedly returned after all that time away. In the last part of Gilead, Jack comes to Ames for a blessing — for the blessing he cannot get from his own father — and spills a remarkable secret: he has been living with a black woman from Memphis named Della, and has a son with her.
Home is set in the Boughton household at the time of Jack’s sudden return, and is an intense study of three people — Reverend Boughton, the old, dying patriarch, his pious daughter, Glory, and prodigal Jack. Glory has her own sadness: she has come back to Gilead after the collapse of what she took to be an engagement, to a man who turned out to be married. Like Princess Marya in War and Peace, who does daily battle with her father, the old Prince Bolkonsky, she is the dutiful child who must submit to the demands of her tyrannical old father. She is fearful of Jack — she hardly knows him — and in some ways jealous of the freedom of his rebelliousness.
Both children differently resent the facts of their return, and their biological loyalty to their father. Robinson evokes well the drugged shuffle of life in a home dominated by the routines of an old parent: how the two middle-aged children hear the creak of the bedsprings as their father lies down for his nap, and then, later, “a stirring of bedsprings, then the lisp lisp of slippered feet and the pock of the cane.” There are the imperious cries from the bedroom — help with bedclothes, a glass of water — and the hours distracted by the radio, card games, Monopoly, meals, pots of coffee. The very furniture is oppressive, immovable. The numerous knickknacks were displayed only “as a courtesy to their givers, most of whom by now would have gone to their reward.” For Glory, who is in her late thirties, there is the dread that this will be her final home:
What does it mean to come home? Glory had always thought home would be a house less cluttered and ungainly than this one, in a town larger than Gilead, or a city, where someone would be her intimate friend and the father of her children, of whom she would have no more than three …
She would not take one stick of furniture from her father’s house, since none of it would be comprehensible in those spare, sunlit rooms. The walnut furbelows and carved draperies and pilasters, the inlaid urns and flowers. Who had thought of putting actual feet on chairs and sideboards, actual paws and talons?
Much of Home is devoted to an attempt to puzzle out the mystery of Jack Boughton’s rebellion, his spiritual homelessness. From earliest years, he had seemed a stranger to his relatives. The family had been waiting for him to walk out, and he did, and then this story became their defining narrative: “They were so afraid they would lose him, and then they had lost him, and that was the story of their family, no matter how warm and fruitful and robust it might have appeared to the outside world.”
Even now, now that he has returned, reflects Glory, there is “an incandescence of unease about him whenever he walked out the door, or, for that matter, whenever his father summoned him to one of those harrowing conversations. Or while he waited for the mail or watched the news.” Over the course of the book, we discover a little of what he has been doing in the twenty years away — as in Gilead, we learn about the early illegitimate child, and about his eight-year relationship with Della, who is, ironically enough, a preacher’s daughter.
Jack is a suggestive figure — a very literate nonbeliever who knows his Bible backward, but who finds it hard to do theological battle with his slippery father. Back home, he dresses formally, putting on his threadbare suit and tie, as if to do his reformed best; but he has a perpetually wary expression and a studied politesse that suggest an existential exile.
He tries to conform to the habits of the old home — he tends the garden, does the shopping, fixes up the old car in the garage — but almost every encounter with his father produces a tiny abrasion that smarts and festers. The novel finely mobilizes, without explicitness, the major biblical stories of father and son — Esau, denied his birthright, begging for a blessing from his father; Joseph, reunited finally with his father, Jacob; the prodigal son, most loved because most errant.
What propels the book, and makes it finally so powerful, is the Reverend Boughton, precisely because he is not the gentle sage that John Ames is in Gilead. He is a fierce, stern, vain old man, who wants to forgive his son and who cannot. He preaches sweetness and light, and is gentle with Jack like a chastened Lear (“Let me look at your face for a minute,” he says), only to turn on him angrily like a Timon or Claudius.
There are scenes of the most tender pain. Robinson, so theologically obsessed with transfiguration, can transfigure a banal observation. In the attic, for instance, Glory finds a box of her fathers shirts, ironed “as if for some formal event, perhaps their interment”; and then the novelist, or poet, notices that the shirts “had changed to a color milder than white.” (The cerements, again.)
Father and son clash while watching television news reports of the racial unrest in Montgomery. Old Boughton imperiously swats away his son’s anger with his bland, milky prophecy — “a color milder than white” — “There’s no reason to let that sort of trouble upset you. In six months nobody will remember one thing about it.” If we have read Gilead, we know, as Jack’s father does not, why Jack has a special interest in matters of race.
As the old man palpably declines, an urgency sets in. The funnel of the narrative of imminent death should insist on forgiveness, but this is precisely what the father cannot allow. Nothing will change, and Jack will leave again, as his father always knew he would: “He’s going to toss the old gent an assurance or two, and then he’s out the door,” he complains. Nothing will change because the family situation rests on a series of paradoxes, which interlock to imprison father and son. Jack’s soul is homeless, but his soul is his home, for as Jack tells his sister, the soul is “what you can’t get rid of.”
He is condemned to leave and return. If the prodigal son is the most loved because most errant, then his errancy and not his conformity is what is secretly loved, even if no one can admit to that heretical possibility: perhaps a family needs to have its designated sinner? Everyone longs for restoration, for the son to come home and become simply good, just as everyone longs for heaven, but such restoration, like heaven itself, is hard to imagine, and in our lack of imagination we somehow prefer what we can touch and feel — the palpability of our lapses. At least they are palpable, and not otherworldly.
Behind all of Robinson’s works is an abiding interest in the question of heavenly restoration. As she puts it in Housekeeping, there is a law of completion, that everything “must finally be made comprehensible. What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?” But will this restoration ever be enough? Can the shape of the healing possibly fit the size of the wound? The mundane version of this in Home is the way in which the novel ponders the question of return. The Boughton children come home to this strange, old-fashioned Iowan town, but the return is never the balm it promises to be, for home is too personal, too remembered, too disappointing. Eden is exile, not heaven:
And then their return to the pays natal [French for “native country”], where the same old willows swept the same ragged lawns, where the same old prairie arose and bloomed as negligence permitted. Home. What kinder place could there be on earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile? Oh, to be passing anonymously through an impersonal landscape! Oh, not to know every stump and stone, not to remember how the fields of Queen Anne’s lace figured in the childish happiness they had offered to their father’s hopes, God bless him.
So as old Boughton is dying, nothing changes, and instead, he petulantly chides his son: “We all loved you — what I’d like to know is why you didn’t love us. That is what has always mystified me.” He continues a little later: “You see something beautiful in a child, and you almost live for it, you feel as though you would die for it, but it isn’t yours to keep or protect. And if the child becomes a man who has no respect for himself, it’s just destroyed till you can hardly remember what it was.”
Early in the novel, the reverend had seemed to want his son to call him something other than his customary, rather estranged “Sir” — Papa, or even Dad. Late in the novel, when Jack calls him Dad, he bursts out: “Don’t call me that. I don’t like it at all. Dad. It sounds ridiculous. It’s not even a word ” When he is not rebuking his son, he is complaining about old age: “Jesus never had to be old.” He is only calm when asleep: “His hair had been brushed into a soft white cloud, like harmless aspiration, like a mist.”
In a final encounter of devastating power, Jack goes to his father to tell him he is going away again. Jack puts out his hand. “The old man drew his own hand into his lap and turned away. `Tired of it!’ he said.” They are the last words the Reverend Boughton speaks in this book, an obviously angry inversion of the last, tired words of serene John Ames in Gilead: “I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.”
So luminous are this book’s final scenes, so affecting, that it is all the critic can do not to catch from it, as in this review, the contagion of ceaseless quotation, a fond mumbling.