On lacrimae rerum and Marilynne Robinson – Hermione Lee in NYRB:
‘The Gilead novels, set in the early to mid-twentieth century, enter inside the minutely attentive and often unsuccessful efforts of a small group of people—essentially two families in one small town, over many years—to understand their own and one another’s “separate language.” The books, which go back over the same scenes and stories, and which Robinson has come to think of as “one enormous novel,” are suffused with solitude and estrangement. But they are shot through, too, with extraordinary moments of acceptance and understanding.’
‘In Home, the narrative belongs to Robert Boughton’s daughter Glory, youngest of his eight children, at the moment of Jack’s return. Glory has reluctantly come home, after her own great disappointment in life, to look after her old father. Through her eyes we learn of the Boughton family’s past, and watch her attempt to understand her baffling brother and to ease the painful relationship between Jack and their father, who is as overjoyed as he is disturbed by his prodigal son’s return. In Lila, we move away from and back into Gilead, as John Ames’s young wife tells the story of her harsh life of abandonment, poverty, and bare survival, traveling on the road in the Depression years, living rough, minded by the tough, desperate Doll, for a time made to work in a brothel, and finding her way, by miraculous chance, to her rescue in Gilead. The friendly understanding that grows up between Lila and Jack, which Ames is jealous of in the previous novels, is made intelligible here: both of In Home, the narrative belongs to Robert Boughton’s daughter Glory, youngest of his eight children, at the moment of Jack’s return. Glory has reluctantly come home, after her own great disappointment in life, to look after her old father. Through her eyes we learn of the Boughton family’s past, and watch her attempt to understand her baffling brother and to ease the painful relationship between Jack and their father, who is as overjoyed as he is disturbed by his prodigal son’s return. In Lila, we move away from and back into Gilead, as John Ames’s young wife tells the story of her harsh life of abandonment, poverty, and bare survival, traveling on the road in the Depression years, living rough, minded by the tough, desperate Doll, for a time made to work in a brothel, and finding her way, by miraculous chance, to her rescue in Gilead. The friendly understanding that grows up between Lila and Jack, which Ames is jealous of in the previous novels, is made intelligible here: both of them, like characters in Housekeeping, are outcast wanderers. But unlike Jack, Lila had no choice.
Jack is an object of attention to everyone; he’s also a black hole and a zone of turbulence. Why, of all Boughton’s children—including saintly Teddy, the doctor, and tenderhearted Glory, the teacher, who never give up on Jack—should he be the mean, harmful one, the one set on earth to test his father and his godfather’s belief in grace, forgiveness, and redemption? From childhood he maliciously steals things that are precious to other people, blows things up and breaks things, always with a mocking smile on his face. He makes a young, poor white girl pregnant, and abandons her and her baby, who later dies. He gets Teddy to sit an exam for him, and he flunks out of college. He runs away from home to Chicago and St. Louis and stays away for twenty years, missing his mother’s funeral and breaking his family’s heart. He’s a gambler and a drunk, a cheat, a thief, and a liar. His reputation is even worse than his record: he’s turned down for military service, though he lets people believe he’s a draft-dodger; he’s sent to jail for two years for a crime he didn’t commit.’
‘Mythological and literary metaphors are lavished on this “special case,” to the point where the novel can feel like a parable or a case history of a lost soul in need of grace. He is the Prince of Darkness; he is Lazarus; he is Satan; he is the Prodigal Son. At times Jack seems almost boastful about his dreadful specialness, and one of Della’s helpful roles is to bring him down to earth: “I am the Prince of Darkness.” “No, you’re a talkative man with holes in his socks.”’
‘Robinson has said, in one of her essays, that she enjoys reading about “the apophatic—reality that eludes words,” and that “as a writer, I continuously attempt to make inroads on the vast terrain of what cannot be said…the unnamed is overwhelmingly present and real for me.” These are interesting clues to her pursuit of Jack. But she runs the risk of making him sound too like her.
In her essays, she has often drawn links between Shakespeare, Puritan writings, and American literature, which she sees as a sanctification of the individual, a fascination with the commonest elements of life as they are mediated and entertained by perception and reflection…. Sacredness is realized in the act of attention…. The exalted mind could understand the ordinary as visionary.
Whether she’s writing about Renaissance literature or seventeenth-century Puritan preachers, Dickinson or Wallace Stevens, Robinson looks for that attention to “the incomprehensible complexity—spiritual, intellectual, and emotional—of anyone we encounter.” Clearly this is her own model for writing fiction. She says that she is exploring “intuition.” She wants to “simulate the integrative work of a mind perceiving and reflecting.” Fiction for her is “an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.” She is trying to get as close as she can to the soul of an imagined human being, who becomes real to her, and to us, in the process. She thinks of character as having “a palette or a music,” “a kind of coherency of tone and manner…a repertory of behavior.” She works “from a sense of the experience of human presence,” without passing judgment.’
‘A self-described religious writer, she has long been battling in print with the racist and exclusionary stance of some branches of fundamentalist Christianity. It’s the central tenet of her religious belief, derived from Calvin, who identifies Christ with “the poor working man,” that the Bible, and Jesus, and the Protestant preachers she most enjoys (like the seventeenth-century William Ames, who gives his name to the hero of Gilead) mind above all about the poor, about inclusiveness, and about the value of individuals. Della voices Robinson’s view: “I just think there has to be a Jesus, to say ‘beautiful’ about things no one else would ever see.” The question that haunts her work—can people change?—is one to be asked of societies as much as of individuals. It is a theological question too. Like the great American writers she is so steeped in—Hawthorne, Whitman, Melville, Dickinson, Twain—there is a profound issue of freedom at the core of her novels. Can we change our lives? As if in answer, every so often Robinson unlocks the prison of the self and lets us out into the world of other lives, wider spaces. She has always written with great tenderness and delicacy about the very poor, people at the bottom of or on the margins of society. And there’s a great deal of feeling in Jack (an urban novel, unlike her other books) for people living under adverse circumstances: the seedy, satirical desk clerk at the terrible lodging house; the kind librarian who knows Jack is stealing her books; the woman trying to keep her shoe store going; the cemetery keeper who patiently turfs out the homeless sleepers at the end of the night; the black waiter at the cheap, mixed restaurant (“I hope you like pork chops, because tonight that’s what we’ve got”); the woman coping with a sick child on the night bus; the harassed, conscientious minister at the Mount Zion Baptist Church; Della’s wonderfully caustic, disapproving roommate.’
Read the complete review here.
I read two of Robinson’s novels, which I appreciated, there was something deeply Calvinistic about these novels, but without the gloominess that is often connected to the original sin that is so dear to Calvinistic thinking.
If you are just a man, a talkative man with wholes in his socks, it can help that you believe that you are the Prince of Darkness. Your life is dark, but at least you are the Prince of Darkness. The gloom, also the gloom of certain religions can be comforting, because just not being ordinary can be comforting.
And can people change? Of course, people can, bust most people do only when necessity is knocking on their doors.
And some people are stronger than necessity.