How great is that darkness

Imagine my delight when I found this record of my favourite author in conversation with my favourite president. This exchange between Barack Obama and Marilynne Robinson (one of his favourite authors) is an articulate peregrination through contemporary politics, theology and literature. Reading their conversation feels like a glimpse into the kind of exalted correspondence that winds up in a presidential library, or a literary museum.

They talk about a persistent “us versus them” mentality in America, in which Christians are especially implicated. The President asks: “How do you reconcile the idea of [...] taking faith seriously with the fact that, at least in our democracy and our civic discourse, it seems as if folks who take religion the most seriously sometimes are also those who are suspicious of those not like them?” Ms Robinson replies: “Well, I don’t know how seriously they do take their Christianity [...]. I mean, when people are turning in on themselves—and God knows, arming themselves and so on—against the imagined other, they’re not taking their Christianity seriously.” She goes on to say that “Christianity is profoundly counterintuitive—‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’—which I think properly understood means your neighbor is as worthy of love as you are, not that you’re actually going to be capable of this sort of superhuman feat. But you’re supposed to run against the grain. It’s supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to be a challenge.”

Meanwhile, in a lecture named for his favourite Prime Minister, our recent Prime Minister has argued that Christianity must disown itself in order to preserve itself. Or at least that the West should disown Christianity's central idea in order to preserve its Christian character. “Love thy neighbour,” runs his argument, was never meant to apply to people who are not like us, whose preservation might require our sacrifice. Christ, no. Mr Abbott might do well to heed the warning Robinson gives in her new essay “Fear,” which she and Obama discuss: “When Christians abandon Christian standards of behavior in the defense of Christianity [...] they inflict harm that would not be in the power of any enemy. As Christians they risk the kind of harm to themselves to which the Bible applies adjectives like ‘everlasting.’”

Reading Lila: There is nothing lost

People said of Gilead that though it was a religious novel, you didn't have to be religious to enjoy it. You could bask in the elegy, and take or leave the theology. I don't think readers of Lila, Marilynne Robinson's third Gilead novel, have the same choice. Here, Robinson returns to the themes of her first novel Housekeeping: loss, transience, an ambivalence about home, a multivalent poetics of water. But here the waters are deeper, the currents stronger. What falls in is not lost but brought up from the depths, dripping and shining. In the end, nothing is ever really lost.

Here Robinson takes up the grander themes of redemption, judgment, and shame. Where the overwhelming quality of Gilead's narrative voice was radiance, here it's honesty, sometimes brutal, often beautiful. Lila's story unfolds in a kind of loose spiral where glimpses of the gravest things she's seen become gradually clearer. Race is the subtext of the first two novels, but here poverty and want, with their assault on dignity, are the background of Lila's life.

She grows up half wild, during the Depression, on the very edge of an already outcast tribe, raised by a woman whose courage and kindness hide beneath a savage ignorance. Her encounter with Reverend Ames and his entire tradition illuminates the Christian experience from the outside, and, though sweet at times, it can often seem glib. The church carries on its business of fellowship and casseroles, while throbbing hurts go untended. Theology is another language than the one Lila speaks, and yet she can read Ezekiel and find it utterly relevant. Robinson seems to be peeling off the layers of orthodoxy, and churchgoing, to find whatever yet lives within it. And she does find something living, something lovely, though it's bloodier and more wounded than picket-fenced churches show. Death and birth, blood and water, persist beneath the whitewash.

Of the cast of all three novels, Lila herself is probably the least religious, yet her story is the most profoundly spiritual. The plot turns on her salvation, in every sense of that laden word. She's retrieved from a perilous subsistence into the peace and safety of marriage with a respected preacher. She was lost and is found. But this never sits easily with her. She's never quite comfortable with the comfort she's offered. In this way the book asks what it means to be saved, or to be among the saved. At the same time it seems to say that nobody is ever ultimately lost. The people she's known - vagrants and drifters, mostly - though their lives seem utterly fragile and contingent, they persist somewhere, somehow. They outlive their contingencies. They are precious. And Lila can only accept her own savedness if they are saved too.

This is a very tender and profound vision of this perishing world: nothing can be kept, and nothing will be lost. One of Lila's questions is how life in this world is to be endured. But this final story also answers the longing question of Gilead: how can I leave all this behind? Holders of a different doctrine might quibble with this view of salvation for everybody and everything, but this is a portrait of God, refracted through a broken woman, that is full of a kind of raw glory, full of grace and truth. A God who seeks the lost, who reconciles to himself not just the saved but all things.

Gilead won a Pulitzer and Home won the Orange Prize. Lila has won the National Book Critics Circle award, but was overlooked by the Man Booker and other prestigious prizes. To my mind, though, it's the best book Robinson's written, and in time will be acknowledged as one of the truly great American novels. 

The humane imagination

One of the great pleasures of the reading life is buying the latest book of a loved living author. This is a rare pleasure for me, as there are only about four living authors I like. But it’s a keen one. Knowing a new book is coming, finding out the day of its release, calculating how soon it could be found in one’s local bookshop; then seeing it, laying hands on it, feeling the weight and texture of it, purchasing it, taking it home and cracking it open, placing it on the shelf next to its brethren, watching the loved collection grow, ever so slowly, book by book. 

I had that pleasure last week, when I bought Marilynne Robinson’s new book of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books. Fans of Robinson’s fiction usually have a longer wait than most; there were twenty-four years between her first novel and her second. Her non-fiction, though, is getting faster. It’s only two years since her last offering: Absence of Mind: the Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self. The new collection, as its title suggests, is somewhat more personal and colloquial than its predecessors, but it lacks none of her characteristic cogency and authority. It’s based on lectures she’s given over a lifetime, but it feels very current, a wise and lucid rebuke to the various social and political and philosophical afflictions of present-day America. 

I haven’t got to the title essay yet, but I’m utterly persuaded by an early essay called “Austerity as Ideology.” This is a brilliant though mild fulmination against “the march of Austerity”: the economic dogma that has grown up in the wake of the financial crisis, and in spite of all its most obvious lessons. Blame for the disaster has somehow been shifted from the shoulders of highly paid capitalists onto governments and the wider population; venerable public institutions and services are being sacrificed to a hyper-capitalist ideology that bears little relation to the facts of recent history or the culpabilities of recent events. 

Robinson points, I suspect in all the essays more or less, to a present “dearth of humane imagination for the integrity and mystery of other lives.” The capacity to imagine and embrace the other, even when radically different from oneself, is the engine of democracy. Democracy today is threatened by the preeminence of the new economics, and by a perverse politics that claims to value America’s history and founding doctrines, but takes no account of the deeply-rooted collectivism that has in fact made America great. It is instead divisive and ignorant, unable to imagine its others, intent on tearing up the roots of America’s rich common life. 

Democracy, community, humanity. All these are under attack in America and ailing elsewhere. Robinson is their ardent and eloquent defender. Though much of civil and common life is precarious, a book like this reminds us how much potency humane and imaginative discourse still commands. 


My recent reads include Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Franzen and Tim Winton. I'd love to dwell on them, but since time's scarce, here are my 140-character reviews:

Cloudstreet is the house where two ramshackle families shack up in a post war pact, on which Lady Luck and the Lord each cast their shadows.

The Corrections puts a modern family whose foibles border on surreal near the heart of a sharp critique of almost everything America now is.

Housekeeping’s reflections on sorrow and transience pool in the hollows of a gentle story of finding and keeping family in the face of loss.

West of Eden

The Iowa Writers Workshop turns 75 this year, and a number of alumni will be writing about it. You can read all the essays as they come in here. IWW was the first creative writing program offered at an American university. Its alumni boasts three laureates and seventeen Pulitzers, and the program itself won the National Humanities Medal. Former faculty include Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Philip Roth, Anthony Hecht, and Robert Lowell, and past students include Michael Cunningham, Nam Le, and Flannery O'Connor.

Marilynne Robinson (one of those Pulitzers) has been on the faculty for twenty years. In this lecture at Washington U, she gives a wry account of the contest between East and West in the United States:

"I find that the hardest work in the world— it may in fact be impossible—is to persuade easterners that growing up in the West is not intellectually crippling. On learning that I am from Idaho, people have not infrequently asked, 'Then how were you able to write a book?' Once or twice, when I felt cynical or lazy, I have replied, 'I went to Brown,' thinking that might appease them—only to be asked, 'How did you manage to get into Brown?'"

Iowa, being roughly in the middle, but still west of east, defies the preconception. It's a byword for culture, and its capital is a UNESCO City of Literature, rubes and all. I want to go to there.