Thursday, June 04, 2009

For Marilynne

Astonishingly - gloriously - a literary prize jury has got something right. This from the first paragraph of Marilynne's winning novel, Home.
'So began all her prayers these days, which were really cries of amazement. How could her father be so frail? And how could he be so recklessly intent on satisfying his notions of gentlemanliness, hanging his cane on the railing of the stairs so he could, dear God, carry her bag up to her room? But he did it, and then he stood by the door, collecting himself.'
It's all like that, prose so close to the delicacies of experience that its very plainness soars. The embarrassingly loud sob with which I finished this book - I was on a plane - matched the mighty inhalation I achieved after Tarkovsky's Sacrifice. He was the other great religious artist of our time.
I open Home at random.
'Such an offense against any notion of honor, her father had said, and so it still seemed to her, and to him, after all those years. She had followed her father's thoughts back to that old bitterness and bitterness simmered in his half-closed eyes as he reflected on the inevitability of his disappointment.'
We are seeing through Glory's eyes but, somehow, we seem to be in a room in which all thoughts are visible and felt. Marilynne's world shines with significance because, to her, it is significant in every aspect. What better way of writing a novel?
'His door was open. The bed was made, and the sash of the window was up so the curtains stirred in the morning air. He was neatly dressed, in his stocking feet, propped against the pillows, reading one of his books.'
No frills, just the world. Glowing. Nothing much happens in Home, but why should it? More, much more, than we can hope to handle is happening in the world and our heads all the time. This is a very American thing, a vision only Americans can now have - or, at least, express.
'I mean this,' she said to me in her home in Iowa, sweeping her hand across the view, 'would be heaven enough for me.'
'Heaven enough' on her lips is an astonishing phrase. What is our problem? Look at what there is, at what we have. Heaven enough. She is a genius so opposed to the spirit of the age that it is amazing that she is even published, let alone that she wins prizes. Know hope, I suppose. Yes, why not? For once.
Nige badgered me to read her for years, telling me at one point her thought was a bit like mine - oh yeah, sure, right. Finally I did and wrote that article and then, suddenly, everybody was agreed on her greatness. If it was down to that article, then Nige won the Orange this year.
And, yes, she was the American friend I exposed to London Luvviedom. She laughed me out of embarrassment.


  1. I've resisted and resisted Marilynne, not because I think your recommendations may be suspect, but because I just haven't had time to read recently. However, with a freshly broken and very painful arm I am now in the happy position of not being able to do very much except sit around being waited on. I shall send one of my minions out for "Home" immediately.

  2. Ouch Sophie, but yes, make the most of it. I would say this is your chance to get through Proust but I seem to recall you need to break a leg for that.

    a genius so opposed to the spirit of the age...

    Why not? A thing that struck me about Gilead is that it seemed timeless, in the sense that it was about human nature which cannot change, while spirits of ages come and go and seem trivial. In fact reading it was a bit like the experience of listening to a radio play. The characters were like Platonic forms in a world of essences. Or some such, don't mind me, I'm not sleeping much lately. Too hot. Where's Malty?

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. [Arggh, the curse of the quoted question marks ... three strikes and I'm out here ...]

    Wow, a big thank you Bryan (and Nige) for this introduction to Marilynne Robinson. Here are a couple of reflections on the theology. How nice is that to say about a contemporary novelist.

    This is spot on:

    Robinson, sitting in a "porch swing", a hanging sofa, swings continuously for two hours. The sounds, the swinging and the damp, dim light make me feel we have been sitting here for ever. In a way, in Robinson's faith, we have, for here is heaven. "In Revelations, what is promised is a new heaven and a new earth..." she says, "which sort of suggests what we have here.. . I would not ask for more. It's a vastly more moving idea to me than the idea of pearly gates. I mean, this" - she sweeps her hand in a gesture that takes in the house and the deep green, soaking garden - "would be heaven enough for me."

    That is much more consistent with the biblical picture than the old pearly gates idea, in my humble view. That really needs setting right in a lot of minds who think they've rejected the real thing. Even better, perhaps, is this sympathetic rereading of Calvinism in the Guardian this morning (and when did I expect to say that phrase next):

    Now this is just about the opposite of the kind of rule-bound and wholly unforgiving religion which most people associate with Calvinism, but in her mind it was linked with predestination, in a most unexpected way. Because predestination implies God's untramelled freedom, he can choose to save those whom the world and its rules - even the church with its rules - might condemn. The prodigal in these two books, Jack Boughton, has done some very terrible things ...

    Without getting too technical I don't think any modern Christian theology or Christology would deny God's untramelled freedom to do this. This is at the heart of the gospel.

    Thanks again. Sorry that the London theatre was such a let-down when Ms Robinson was with you the other evening. But the resultant mirth is another hallmark of the real thing, in my experience.

  6. Heal fast Sophie - but slowly enough to enjoy some Marilynne..

  7. Thanks for your kind sentiments, Nige. I'll do my best to heal at a pace that also allows me to tackle large chunks of The Wire. Proust I shall leave for another injury, Brit - although whether I shall ever venture into the deadly arena of the tennis court again remains to be seen.

  8. Nothing much happens in Home and nothing much happened in Duet for One. I seem to remember nothing much happening in The Peregrine (though I read that one). Are you drawn to nothing much happening, is it an antidote to real life?

    Poor Sophie! Get mended soon.

  9. grace the collieJune 04, 2009 12:11 pm

    I have just come back from the "lit and phil" in Newcastle with a copy of it, hope the sun comes back out so I can sit out side and read it.

  10. "Without getting too technical I don't think any modern Christian theology or Christology would deny God's untramelled freedom to do this. This is at the heart of the gospel."

    The trouble is that the corollary to God's freedom to do this is his freedom to make hundreds of thousands of millions of people suffer agonies for no reason, a freedom he seems to exercise with some glee (a recent visit to the children's ward at LKing's underlined this for me for the umpteenthg time). This is what so many find repulsive in this kind of theology. Sitting on the veranda listening to the swing may be heaven enough for Marilynne but most people now, in the past and to be born are denied these simple comforts, apparantly because god doesn't want them to have them (or what does pre-determination mean?). The cruelty of this world view combined with the mammoth vanity and self-satisfaction when it is held by the privileged (such as Marilynne) is horrible to behold. That doesn't mean Robinson is not a great writer. Many, many great artists have held repulsive views. But let's not kid ourselves that there is anything profound or beautiful in her religion. It is as nasty and self-serving as any other. Butyt I am sure the books survive her beliefs, just as Donne's poetry does.

  11. "Proust I shall leave for another injury"

    Don't put off Proust! It will transform your life. And you don't need much time to read Swann's Way.

  12. Bloody hell John Meredith! I thought I was having a shitty day, and I know that Gordon B. is certainly having one, but something must have really got your goat to have you, not contemplating, but using the word 'repulsive' in the context of Marilynne's work.

    I must assume that your beliefs or, if that is too hateful a word, philosophy are not vain and self-serving, but humble and altruistic.

  13. "but using the word 'repulsive' in the context of Marilynne's work."

    Not her work, but her religion. To believe that god has choosen our fate for us is repuilsive if you take a few mpoments to look around and notice the fates that most people suffer. It is doubly respulsive when the person who holds the view is very well off themselves. I am no expert on Marilynne but from what I have read on here, her view seesm to be that god has decided that she should be rich and successful and idle evenings away on her veranda, but that those children in Kings should die agonisingly of cancer. That is a pretty repulsive theology, isn't it? It compares pretty poorly even with Bin Laden's. At least he thinks god bases his decisions on what you do, rather than just who you are (as the Calvinists/Marilynne do).

  14. Tried reading remembrance some time ago, finished 1 & 2, couldn't remember where I had put 3.

    Bought MLBs Gilead, the wife borrowed it, bought Housekeeping, she borrowed that, Those wishing to read Marilynne's books, marry a woman free from book borrowing tendencies.

    Tough luck Sophie, ideal opportunity to buy an electronic reader, saves painful page turning.

  15. never a buyer, always a borrower be.

    if no one bought books would great works still be written? I hope they would, in an ideal world...

  16. Here's a Thought Experiment for you- how many folk are there out there in Internet land who spend their days cruising for random blogs on which they can fulminate against religion, preferably Christianity, as evil, repulsive, just as bad as Bin Laden etc etc?

    Just curious.

  17. Indeed, Vern, and their main point often seems to be what a horrible bugger the god that doesn't exist is. Much as I respect non-belief, I simply can't understand why folks like John Meredith think those kids at Kings would be better off being told their suffering is random and meaningless.

  18. Sorry that I only just read John Meredith's trenchant comments.

    I actually 100% agree with John about Calvinism as a philosophical system. I rejected it when I was 18, after my first year at Cambridge, and I haven't gone back. I believe that it has put many, many people off the beauty and love that is to be found in Jesus Christ.

    Most people that call themselves Calvinists today, though, are not consistent about things like double predestination (God also predestines the damned, who suffer eternal conscious torment as a result - a doctrine I also reject). They do in practice operate in an open world where people make free choices and God responds to them on that basis.

    Without having read Marilynne's work I find it hard to conceive of a novel that doesn't adopt this point of view and her lovely words about the mercy of God towards Jack Boughton surely confirm this.

    So, John, I didn't mean what you thought I meant by "God's untrammeled freedom". It's the freedom to respond, in love, to every human being, including those that are going through immense tragedy. God reveals Himself in Jesus weeping at Lazarus' tomb - and then in doing something about that tragedy. And in suffering the agonies of the cross Himself. It's a vastly different picture than the old calvinistic one.

    I recommend the first chapter of American theologian Greg Boyd's book "God at War" for those who seek to minimalize the damage done by this 'traditional' Christian way of thinking - and indeed the rest of Boyd's series on theodicy, if the subject grabs you.

  19. "Indeed, Vern, and their main point often seems to be what a horrible bugger the god that doesn't exist is."

    Brininging up the rear, as so often, but , yes, this is pretty much where I am with god. I think I agree with Kingsley Amis: I am an atheist, but it is more that I hate him [god].

    Mind you that wasn't my main point here which was that it is a naive mistake to excuse an unpleasant ideologig simply because it is held by an artistic genius.

    "Much as I respect non-belief, I simply can't understand why folks like John Meredith think those kids at Kings would be better off being told their suffering is random and meaningless."

    I would be horrified if anybody told them this (although it is true). I just don't understand why you would not be equally horrified to have somone tell them that god wants them to suffer. Oh, and when they die (soon) they will also go to hell (sorry, they just didn't make the Calvinist cut and won't be swinging into paradise with the divine Marilynne on a veranda in Idaho).

  20. There's something to be said for a hope of Salvation, if we're talking about the Oppressed.

    You're assuming an awful lot of knowledge about Marilynne's theology, John. (Or is rather that any peg will do when you feel like hanging your Brightism out for a bit?)

  21. I just don't understand why you would not be equally horrified to have somone tell them that god wants them to suffer.

    John, I would be equally horrified if anybody told them that (although it is true).

    Your turn.

    But I suppose if it is the Calvinism that bugs you, we could meet half way at the Catholic perspective and just tell them they are suffering because they didn't do enough good works.

  22. "You're assuming an awful lot of knowledge about Marilynne's theology, John. "

    I am just going by what I have read on here. She may be a Calvinist without Calvinist beliefs, I suppose. But if she is a Calvinist in any of the usual senses she is, to that extent, ideologically, morally squalid in my view. But that does not mean she cannot be a great artist. There are and have been many great artists with disgusting views of one kind or another.

    As for thgis: "There's something to be said for a hope of Salvation, if we're talking about the Oppressed." There might be, but Calvinism doesn't offer any hope. My objection, though, was in attributing any moral value to Marilynne Robinson's satisfaction in her own material prosperity (all that stuff about being quite satisfied with her house and view in Idaho etc). It strikes me as morally blind and no different from the self-satisfaction of a Saudi princeling in his gilded yacht.

    Peter, I am genuinely surprised that you think that the children in the oncology ward of Kings hospital have been chosen by god for that suffering. Can you really find anything good to say about such a god?

  23. John, you are no more surprised than I am that you think their lives are meaningless, they are going nowhere and mommy and daddy love them only because their genes make them. Why would you care a whit what they are going through? Oh right, orders from your genes too.

    Can you really find anything good to say about such a god?

    I see that you are the modern type who answers "I am that I am" with "That's just not good enough!" I can't solve it for you because I can't solve it for myself, but there are a few thousand libraries full of books that try and don't do such a bad job of it.

  24. "John, you are no more surprised than I am that you think their lives are meaningless, they are going nowhere and mommy and daddy love them only because their genes make them."

    I really am. I am amazed that anyone believes that a god has selected these children to die of cancer (worse, has created cancer just so that these children might suffer it). The idea that one might 'love' such a god is really beyond me. I knew people held these views but (I mean this) I haven't actually met one before.

    But don't run away with the idea that I think these children's lives are meaningless, I don't. I think their suffering is meaningless. As to that stuff about genes, those are your words not mine, although the idea that parents love their children because god tells them to (the same god, presumably, who has given their children cancer), does not strike me as obviously more plausible or morally satisfactory, even if it is quaintly old fashioned.

  25. i too feel that a religion where an omnipotent (and therefore omni-responsible) God creates people and then puts them in Hell for fulfilling the fate of their design is morally repugnant. Within time it looks like a bad man made his own choices; but if God IS omnipotent, the bad man is surely merely acting out the script he was handed at birth - by God.

    There are ways around this - talk of God withdrawing so as to allow 'free will' but i don't find them convincing - if God IS omnipotent, then the state of affairs when he has withdrawn can come from nowhere except Himself - he created ex nihilo, so there can be nothing that did not come from Him. You could say 'the Devil is responsible' - well, who created Old Nick?

    And i wouldn't accept the answer to Job - that being a mortal i can't pontificate on matters divine. i think morality is the one thing of which you cannot say "i don't have a right to judge because i'm only a human being". You can say it may be more complicated than you perceive - but this only goes so far - a toddler in agony - is, morally, an atomic fact, i fail to see how it can be broken up and interpreted as really a good thing, or a just thing. To acquiesce in abomination and allow someone or something else to make moral judgements on your behalf is the one thing you should not do. i hardly ever make moral judgements because just about everything seems too complicated for me - but there are things of which i can say 'this is wrong', e.g. John Meredith's example of dying children. If you can justify children dying in pain - you can justify anything.

    However, whereas if you give a computer a programme, it then executes that programme in its whole, human beings work very differently. People seem able to accept a creed and then imaginatively ignore or adapt the bits that don't feel right for them. They may intellectually assent, but not imaginatively.

    i find it perplexing how Christians CAN be good people - but they often are, in my experience - though sometimes not. i find that the good ones intellectually accept Hell but imaginatively either never think about it, or only apply it to themselves. In the imagination, a creed seems more like a deck of cards from which the believer chooses a hand that fits how he feels about the world; the rest are in the background, inactive.

    i would look askance at a member of the Nazi party alive in Germany in '38, say, because the consequences of Nazism should have been imaginatively unavoidable; but one can assent to a religious creed and then shuffle its components, especially now in the West, when people aren't being burnt for their beliefs.

    A religion isn't like a computer programme, because we're not computers. The imagination transforms everything - so a bad man will make the very worst of even a benign religion; and so on.

  26. It just occurred to me, as i was looking for my boots, that surely most people's 'reason' for choosing a religion is that it fits how they feel about their own self & immediate experience. So if a man feels that he is being judged, and that there should be some kind of punishment/reward system to give the judgement substance, then a religion with a Hell/Heaven will appeal. He may at no point even consider if other people go to Hell/Heaven - all that matters is his own case.

    So, intellectually, he would i guess agree that other people go to Hell, but it is of no imaginative significance - it is only a matter of his own case, because he cannot see into another's soul. i would say there's something suspect about a religious person who spends too much time thinking about where other people go when they die, for example someone i know who keeps banging on about how his enemies will go to Hell and are utterly evil, etc.

  27. Ah Elberry I was waiting for you to turn up. You are completely heterodox, but in a truly liberated fashion. Infinitely more interesting than the narrow confines of the 'GRRR I'm angry at God/John Calvin/Jesus brigade.'

  28. i'm angry at everyone.

  29. GRRR I'm angry at God/John Calvin/Jesus....

    There are four entities worth distinguishing: John Calvin and the God of John Calvin, Jesus and the God of Jesus. Only the last two I find turn my anger to delight and peace.

  30. You are all instructed to go away, read Marilynne's essays Death of Adam and then come back and start again.

  31. Already read them - very good.

  32. Hey, you guys are going to love this! Everyone needs more money, check out a no strings attached website where you can search and add money making ideas and read comments from others who have tried the idea. If any of you have a money making idea you would like to share, you can add it for free with the link provided