I was talking with a regular visitor the other day. “What have you got for me?” she said. I wasn’t sure how to move on from that. “What do you like?” I ventured. “Anything like Gilead?” I said I’d never read it, but, we just might — yes, there. I drew it from our spinning stack of novels and stories.
“You haven’t read Gilead?”
“No. Should I?”
Now, this visitor is a writer with a fair amount of education, including a degree in Divinity. Gilead was written by Marilynne Robinson, Ph.D., and permanent faculty at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop (similar to UEA’s Creative Writing programme). At a glance I was aware that she is no author to overlook: “Pulitzer Prize-Winning” and “Orange Prize-Winning” are some phrases used to describe her.
So I read Gilead with the scepticism of someone wary of writing with — to quote some of the review snippets — a “slow pulse”, a “spiritual power”, “sublime simplicity”, and “a solemn, measured grace”. Then again, my regular visitor, the writer, seemed taken with it — and also with the fact that Gilead was Robinson’s first novel in 24 years. (Every aspiring author needs to believe it’s never too late, as of course it never is.)
It is 1956. John Ames, Congregationalist minister son and grandson of Congregationalist ministers, is dying. Sort of. Getting ready to die. Sometime before, he had married a younger woman (much younger) and has a small son. The book starts as a letter to this son, and carries on ostensibly so, except that it soon reads like a well-kept journal. It covers three generations, from the American Civil War (with lovely, local historical details) into the 1950s. A grand narrative is made of seemingly random or tangential memories. Its pulse is slow. The words are, often, simple. Here you have the heart-wrenching; a few pages later, the slapstick; another few pages, the essential problems of living. The ideas are powerful.
The ideas are spiritual in nature and touch often on points of religion, and are so powerful that the book has invoked powerful responses from British reviews. That is interesting, because the UK does not seem, by comparison with the American midwest, all that devout. I am not all that devout. Yet this book is strangely absorbing, moving, beautiful, and (perhaps its most forceful quality) inwardly settling. I’m inclined to say that reading it felt a bit like prayer. And it might be noticed that John Ames writes and thinks along very like lines to the person who wrote, recently, a book about science and religion called Absence of Mind (who is also, as it turns out, Marilynne Robinson).
Gilead. It’s not a long book. Read it.
Why 24 years between novels?
Marilynne Robinson was writing nonfiction between her first novel, Housekeeping, and her second, Gilead. It’s worth checking out. Here, at the Memorial Library we have another of her novels, Home, which is about some of the same characters we met in Gilead. The Millennium Library carries her more recent nonfiction work.
Absence of mind : the dispelling of inwardness from the modern myth of the self (Yale UP, 2010), by Marilynne Robinson.
Marilynne Robinson applies her astute intellect to some of the most vexing topics in the history of human thought — science, religion, and consciousness. She challenges postmodern atheists who crusade against religion under the banner of science. In Robinson’s view, scientific reasoning does not denote a sense of logical infallibility, as thinkers like Richard Dawkins might suggest. Instead, in its purest form, science represents a search for answers. It engages the problem of knowledge, an aspect of the mystery of consciousness, rather than providing a simple and final model of reality.
When I was a child I read books (Virago, 2012), by Marilynne Robinson.
This title explores how the frontiers of the unsayable have been opened for the author by every book that she has ever read that was in any degree ambitious, earnest or imaginative.