From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Autumn 2008
The world of literary publishing runs on schadenfreude. Cocktail parties are full of paranoid sidelong glances and caustic mutterings. Yet Marilynne Robinson tends to be spoken of in hallowed tones. "I think she's a genius," one literary editor told me recently. Others refer to her "formidable mind". Several editors at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, her American publisher, were said to be nervous about joining her for dinner after an awards ceremony. One reportedly said: "I just don't want to sound stupid."
Robinson has won this reputation with just two novels and two non-fiction books, all persuasive, insightful and unfashionably sincere. Her work is heavy with yearning, full of the beauties and sorrows of the everyday, and the odd existential glimpse of something much lighter or darker. That she is religious--contentedly and engagingly so--seeps into everything she writes, whether she is lambasting the "arcane, rootless, disruptive phenomenon we call global economics" (in a bristling essay, "Darwinism"), or composing a long letter from an ageing minister to his young son, in the Pulitzer-winning novel "Gilead". Her new novel, "Home", revisits the prodigal son.
She is known as a serious person who hates small talk and prefers authors who are long dead: "I'm not terribly interested in clever writing." She mostly keeps to herself in the broad sweep of Iowa, where she teaches at the university's renowned Writers' Workshop. She is sometimes seen walking her dog with her head buried in Melville or Thoreau.
We meet at her home in upstate New York, where she takes part in a summer writing programme. Driving up to the house, by a lake with bobbing boats and American flags snapping in the warm wind, I see her pacing back and forth behind a second-storey window, her hands behind her back.
But if her persona seems somewhat severe--particularly in her impassioned and often disgruntled non-fiction--the woman herself is disarmingly warm. She has a quick laugh and a self-effacing manner--a slight stoop, a quiet hesitation. A copy of Descartes's "Meditations on First Philosophy" is casually splayed on the kitchen counter. Heading upstairs, we pass a yapping dog ("The quietest dog in the world, usually," she says with some embarrassment). We sit by a large window in her study which picks out her bright limpid eyes and silvery hair. Pondering a question, she will gaze out of the window and seem far away.
"It's the strangest thing," she says, when I ask what moves her to write fiction. "Something comes to my mind and I can sense a certain heft to it--that it has the weight of a novel. I go into this sort of self-induced trance, and I write it until it's done." She makes it sound like a sort of spellbound serendipity. This may explain the strangest thing about Robinson's career: the fact that the acclaimed, award-winning "Housekeeping" (published in 1981, when she was 37) was followed by a breathtaking 23-year pause. Attempts to write other novels foundered because there "just wasn't enough there". As the years ticked on, people began to assume that Robinson was a one-novel wonder.
She wrote two works of non-fiction in the interim, about the environmental sins of the British government ("Mother Country", 1988), and the "empty" state of contemporary discourse ("The Death of Adam", 1998). But unlike the wistful longing of her fiction, these were forceful indictments of contemporary culture. It is hard to read her essays and not feel personally rebuked.
"I do have an impulse to sort of leverage what I say against something I disagree with," Robinson says. "That's my usual starting point when I'm writing non-fiction. I tend to take a sometimes, you know, I hate to use the word...polemical approach." Her fiction addresses similarly profound questions, but puts them to beautifully fallible characters.
For "Gilead", Robinson charted the full inner landscape of John Ames, an ailing 76-year-old pastor, who aches over the years he won't have with his young son. The book is in his head and his prose. Each paragraph has the smooth weight of a polished stone. "I meant to leave you a reasonably candid testament to my better self," he writes, "and it seems to me now that what you must see here is just an old man struggling with the difficulty of understanding what it is he is struggling with." It became a swift bestseller, to the surprise of many, given its slow-burning introspective narrative.
Her fans resigned themselves to another long wait. But now Robinson has delivered a follow-up at unprecedented speed. "Home", also set in Gilead, Iowa, is about some of the other characters--the Reverend Robert Boughton, Ames's close friend and neighbour, and two of his children, the sensitive and unlucky Glory and the beloved, melancholic scoundrel Jack. Though it has similar themes, and even some of the same scenes, "Home" feels different from Robinson's earlier work. Told from Glory's perspective, but in the third person, it is full of dialogue and repartee and the energy of a moment--not just a moment remembered.
All this surprised Robinson, who was writing non-fiction when "Home" suddenly imposed itself. "Those characters were just in my mind--it was as if I could sense that there was another whole reality that I could explore. If there's one determining factor in any fiction that I write, it's that I always love my characters. That puts limits on how far out of line they can get, I suppose."
She was aware that the book was a departure. "I kept getting these dialogue scenes, and I kept getting more dialogue scenes. And I was thinking ‘I don't do this'," she says, laughing at herself. "I actually tried to sort of find a way back towards what I considered to be a more characteristic style, but the characters just kept talking, so I kept writing it down."
Her work always evokes a reverence for the landscape, a grateful humility before nature. There is the "hot white sky" and "soft wind" of Gilead (in "Home"), with "a murmur among the trees, the treble rasp of a few cicadas". And the merciless chill of the Idaho town in "Housekeeping", where the lake is "lightless, airless", the winters long and frigid. "When the sun rose, clouds soaked up the light like a stain. It became colder. The sun rose higher, and the sky grew bright as tin."
Robinson was born in Idaho in 1943, in a town called Sandpoint (on which she modelled the fictional town of "Housekeeping"). She went off to Pembroke College at Brown on the east coast in the early 1960s, and then the University of Washington on the west coast for a PhD in English literature. Though she describes the far-west region of her childhood as the "least church-oriented part of the country", and her family as only casually religious, she says she felt God at a very young age. "It was in the air in a way. I lived in the mountains, in a very dramatic landscape. I think those ideas took root in my imagination very naturally beside how the wind sounded. It was a very unpopulated place when I was a child. There was the disproportion between nature on the one hand and human beings on the other. I think in a way that was part of what gave me the feeling of it, of a very powerful other, a very animate other. It just seems true to me."
It is unfashionable for public figures to be religious these days unless they are running for office. In America, religion seems to have become both more prominent and less thoughtful. Scientists and philosophers queue up to dismiss faith in God as deluded or nefarious. Robinson has little patience for the "closed, mechanistic certitude" of writers who presume that science and religion are incompatible. But she loves reading about science and gets giddy describing new discoveries in the vast, unclaimed reaches of the cosmos. "The expansion of the universe is accelerating--well how bizarre is that?" Science, she feels, is the most remarkable non-religious expression of the capacities of the mind. "Contemporary science really is beautiful. It proposes models of being that are fantastically elegant and free in a certain sense."
This is her approach to religion, too. She has little patience for dogma, or the public face of Christianity, "which disgraces the authentic thing". For Robinson, faith presumes misunderstandings and corrections and growth. And while bad clerics tend to be the "loudest in the room", Robinson says churches are responsible for a huge amount of benevolent energy. "They really do feed the hungry and clothe the naked and visit the prisoners--all those things they are supposed to do. I think it would be pretty unpleasant to imagine what this culture would be like if there weren't 30 churches in every town doing these kinds of things."
"Home" and "Gilead" both dealt with the spiritual graspings of fathers and sons. In "Housekeeping", about two lonely girls wading through a doomed adolescence, real maternal figures were absent as well. I ask if Robinson ever intended to write about mothers and sons (she has two, now grown-up). "One of the pleasures, for me at least, of writing fiction is that you can put things at a distance. If I'm writing too close to myself, I feel like something is about to go wrong. Like I'm defending myself. I prefer the idea--even if it's an illusion--that you can reach a level of objectivity, that it doesn't have your handprints all over it."
"Lila" Marilynne Robinson's third novel set in the fictional town of Gilead, is published on October 9th in Britain and October 7th in America
Emily Bobrow is online United States editor at The Economist and a former editor of Intelligent Life's website