The Sunday Times, 21 September 2008
She laughs a lot, and her whole body shakes when she does. She wears a silver bracelet and an enormous watch. She has thick, grey-brown hair, a round, kind face and very watchful eyes. She orders food, but eats almost none of it. There is something slightly nervous, even girlie, about her. She says “you know” in the middle of almost every sentence to mean she does, but you may not. She’s passionate about Obama, John Calvin, the history of Iowa and the Congregationalist church in Iowa City. She likes Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris. She teaches at the Iowa Writers Workshop and loves her students, though she seldom reads their work after they leave. Over a couple of beers, she becomes intense and derisive about the idiocies of certain scientists. She is engaged and engaging. She thinks heaven is all about us.
In 1980, Marilynne Robinson published a novel, Housekeeping. It was critically praised, won awards and was filmed by Bill Forsyth. A substantial new novelist had arrived. But she didn’t publish another novel for 24 years. Instead, she wrote a nonfiction book on British nuclear policy and issued a collection of essays. Then, finally, in 2004 she published another novel, Gilead, about a church minister in Gilead, Iowa: more critical acclaim, more awards. And now, only four years later, she has written Home. It is the story of Gilead through different eyes. “In a way,” Robinson says, “the book is about yearning, you know. It’s as if we have some sort of very, very primordial notion. But, in fact, home is the place people leave, but the word is only implied in the sense that either you regret it or you will return to it. It’s a sort of pole.”
We are in her own home, a neat wooden house on the green fringes of Iowa City’s university district. We are on the large verandah. Outside, rain comes and goes, birds sing unusually loudly and a distant train whistle blows. 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.”
She was born and brought up in Idaho, the setting of Housekeeping. The beauty of the place, she says, has always been valuable to her. It was a middle-class home and she says, tentatively, she was happy. But then she seems to withdraw from this claim. “I think I’ve never been precisely suited to life in the world. It took me a while to get the composure and wherewithal to figure out how I wanted to be situated in the world, and I think my childhood may have contained an element of bewilderment.”
It wasn’t – surprisingly, in view of her adult faith – an especially religious upbringing. “I never doubted the religious serious-ness of my family, but they were never particularly explicit about it. To a very considerable degree, I’m a religious autodidact, but I don’t know if my mother would want me to say that.” She read Poe, Melville, Dickens, Twain, Fenimore Cooper and the Bible. At college – Brown in Rhode Island – she was introduced to theology. She started writing in high school and began a novel in college, but the moment she graduated, she loathed it. Her PhD was on Shakespeare. She married in 1967. And then, suddenly, having got this far, she clams up. “I don’t talk about my personal life. I’ve already talked to you longer about it than any other interviewer.”
She had two sons before the divorce. One is in Iowa City and seems constantly on hand to drive us. The other is in Queens, New York. He is about to have a baby. She admits, sheepishly, she has rented the flat above to be close to her grandchild.
She started Housekeeping when living in France in the late 1970s. “The kids were in the French educational system and, suddenly, I had oceans of time. We were living in the country. Little kids who thought American people were incredibly interesting would come and knock on the windows. I went into a bedroom and closed the shutters. I had a tiny lamp and my spiral notebook. It was like a sensory deprivation chamber. It was an uncanny experience, I found I could retrieve things from memory with a vividness never anticipated. It’s always been my habit to more or less trust my memory to make my choices for me.”
What she retrieved was Idaho. The smell and feel of the place hit you from the first page; also the strangeness. The story is dominated by the image of a railway bridge from which a train once plunged into the lake. But there is much more than evocation – many novelists can do that – going on. The language has an unfamiliar solidity and glow. Like all her novels, Housekeeping doesn’t seem to have been written at all; the sentences seem to have been there for ever, waiting to be discovered. This effect goes to the heart of her greatness as a writer. She rejects the realist conventions of the novel.
“The assumptions of realism as it has been practised are simply wrong. People bring a great deal of memory and also a sense of present experience to everything that they do. If you see someone doing a simple action like hanging sheets on a line, there is absolutely no reason in that person’s perception that there is anything simple about it at all. I have all the respect in the world for reality, but I think the general assumptions about it are wrong.”
She thinks in metaphors because everything is a metaphor. This is her faith – the world, not as a factual cul-de-sac, but as an unfolding revelation. In her essays, this extends to inspiring attacks on the reduced view of humanity offered by contemporary science – in particular, the culturally illiterate view of religious imagery. “For heaven’s sake, the idea the dome of the sky is the skull of a murdered god. What is being described there? A very great deal. The idea that that is the kind of statement that could be displaced by something about gravity or the atmosphere – that’s a bizarre assumption. At a certain point in cultural history, there appeared this idea people are biological automatons, and everything to do with perception and emotion and birth and death is some sort of epiphenomenal thing that should be excluded from the definition of the real. This, to me, is very bizarre.”
She was at the University of Kent for a while and became obsessed with how Britain was shipping plutonium round the world while being bombed by the IRA. If we couldn’t protect ourselves, how could we protect the plutonium? This led to Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State and Nuclear Pollution. It is the work she most wants to survive, a startling statement that makes me wonder if she doesn’t really know how good her novels are.
But, primarily, she immersed herself in American poetry and religious history. She is a formidable scholar. She once shocked colleagues by reading all the works referred to in the footnotes of Karl Marx’s Das Kapi-tal. But she doesn’t publish in academic journals, writing instead for magazines like Harper’s. Academics, however, should be wary about taking her on. She doesn’t write a word of nonfiction without, first, knowing everything there is to be known.
She arrived at the Iowa Workshop, already established as one of the world’s most distinguished writers’ courses, in 1989. She has become its figurehead. Students pack her seminars. She was once given a grant by the American Academy on the condition she gave up teaching. But, after 18 months, she handed it back. She wanted to teach, basically because she doesn’t believe in being a writer as a full-time job: “I think ‘writer’ is a toxic word. I’m a writer when I’m writing something. The rest of the time I like to put that word aside.”
In 1998, she published The Death of Adam, a series of essays on faith, science and, well, everything. It was the product of her long immersion in poetry, science and history. And then, in 2004, came Gilead.
It began in similar circumstances to Housekeeping. She was unexpectedly alone in a house in Massachusetts and the voice of John Ames, an Iowa minister in the small (fictional) town of Gilead, came to her. An old man preparing for death, he is writing a letter to his young son. His memories take in the history of settlement, slavery, the conflicts that lie beneath the now peaceful soil of her adopted state. Ames is ready for the afterlife, but is so in love with this world, he cannot bear to leave it. Like Robinson, he sees heaven all about him. He is that rarity in literature – an utterly convincing great and good man. It is one of the most moving novels you will ever read.
Home is the same story told in a different way. She found she couldn’t leave the Gilead character of Jack alone. Jack is the son of another minister, a good man but a bad sinner. “I’m fond of him. I didn’t want to make Jack a good man in a conventional sense, I wanted to make him a person of value in terms of the whole complexity of his life.” She wanted to see him redeemed.
It’s getting cold on the verandah, and she wants to take me to see her church and minister, Rev Bill Lovin of the Congregational United Church of Christ. She slumps contentedly into a big chair in his office – “I could sit here for ever” – while smart, genial Lovin and I discuss American religion. Later, she and I sink beers and fall about laughing at assorted contemporary follies.
Now let me be clear – I’m not saying that you’re actually dead if you haven’t read Marilynne Robinson, but I honestly couldn’t say you’re fully alive.
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