Aged seven, growing up in Idaho, Marilynne Robinson was in thrall to her elder brother, David. He drew, so she drew, though she could never draw as well as him. After one failed artistic effort – the simultaneous loss of proportion and potential – her brother took her to one side and said, “I’ll be the painter and you’ll be the poet.” She remembers this now with a long laugh. As a devoted younger sibling, she obeyed and “went off and started writing bad poetry in enormous quantities. That was the moment I began to define myself as a writer, although I didn’t publish a word until I was 35.”
Robinson likes to take her time. In her recent collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books, she says her writing style owes “more to Cicero than Hemingway”. Her sentences are musical, cadenced, slowed with commas. She speaks as she writes, in gradually unwinding paragraphs, which as a listener – even in the quietest of libraries in a Covent Garden hotel – you have to hold in your mind in their entirety to grasp their meaning. (Ironically, her most common conversational tic is saying “you know” at the end of a sentence, when so often you don’t quite know at all.) But she never became a poet: “I just do not have the gift.” Nor does she write short stories. She needs length to establish her fictional worlds and the space to hedge: “Anybody who writes with reasonable care is made uneasy by a flat statement.”
There are no flat statements in Robinson’s three novels, nor in her essays. Instead, there is rolling, meandering thought, marshalled with the care of someone who feels the place of every word in a line. There are no assumptions either, particularly in her non-fiction: only the stubborn desire to hold up patterns of thought to the light and expose their holes.
After her formal education, the most important experience of her life, she says, “has been identifying in my own mind the things that I have assumed and then thinking about them and looking at the basis for them. All metaphors are grossly imprecise but there’s a way in which assumption deadens a mind.”
Robinson enlivened her mind through years of marathon reading. When she says she looked “at the basis” for assumptions, she means that she went back to the original source for every school of western thought and read it: all of it. Marx, Freud, Darwin, quantum physics – all have been studied in their original form and recalibrated. Critics often labour the point of the long pause – 24 years – between her first novel, Housekeeping, and her Pulitzer Prize-winning second, Gilead, forgetting that in that time Robinson was reading, and rereading, everything. She takes her time because she believes in doing things properly. “It is amazing that you find people who haven’t done basic reading at every level of intellectual life,” she wonders, almost too hopeful, even in disdain, that people might think of doing “basic reading” at all.
Robinson, now 68, got married, had children, divorced and now lives alone in Iowa where she teaches at a writers’ workshop. In a startling passage in When I Was a Child, she remembers as a young girl “kneeling by a creek that spilled and pooled among rocks and fallen trees with the unspeakably tender growth of small trees already sprouting from their backs, and thinking, there is only one thing wrong here, which is my own presence”. Solitude, in her conception, is a “privileged state” and she is bemused by the idea that “being a well- adjusted member of the group is basically the defining virtue”. She believes the opposite to be true – each soul is singular, secret. Does she ever feel the sharper edge of that singularity, though? “No question about it. Often when I’m writing, it occurs to me that life is short and this miraculous universe I’m always talking about is out there shining and humming and here I am in my room with my mind, obsessing about people that don’t exist. That’s odd. That just falls into the category of strange.”
Yet Robinson’s world also hums with belief. Like John Ames, the preacher-narrator of Gilead, she reads and writes about theology (she even occasionally preaches) and she has the company of faith, though she would never call it that – the word, she says, makes her “uneasy”. Why? Because “it implies some sort of rigid self-discipline that makes one cling to doctrine . . . My own experience confirms a sort of super-abundant richness and beyond that I don’t feel compelled to cling to anything.”
Robinson’s version of religion, which seems to have no boundaries and mostly involves celebrating the elegant mystery of humanity, can be seductive. “I think it’s not true to the nature of religion to define it,” she says. So is it any more than believing in the idea that there are unknowable aspects of existence? She reluctantly says that religion, to her, expresses something of the human mind, that it speaks of the “wholeness of human experience”: “We can know more, we can know beyond . . . [but] I would not want to narrow the definition beyond that point.” Then how is it legitimate that someone lacking faith can identify so strongly with her definition? “Legitimate? I know nothing about legitimate.” So anything goes? “Well,” she falters only briefly but only to gird her point, “I think the autonomy of human experience is sacred and however people negotiate these questions is not for me to judge.”
Judgement comes quite freely to Robinson in other domains: austerity-driven politicians and domineering atheists are all efficiently dismembered in her essays. She is opinionated about domestic policy, used to leaflet for the Democrats door to door, compulsively follows political affairs and “just can’t begin the day until I know all these poll numbers and all this crazy stuff”.
On the page Robinson can be fierce, almost cruel, in her skewering of a leaky argument. “You know, it’s a strange thing,” she says. “One of the things that I notice is that when somebody asks me what I think about something, generally I have an answer.” She laughs that rich, lazy laugh that can only come from growing up somewhere warm and slow like Idaho. “I think, where did that come from? The feeling that you’re sort of sifting experience all the time and trying to make sense out of it . . . I realise I’ve been, usually quite unconsciously, gleaning things.”
Robinson’s quiet sensitivity filters through her characters – it is Ames’s defining trait – but it is evident in her manner, too. There is a gentleness both to her voice, a deep, Midwest drawl, and her way of taking up space. She is a tall woman and sits airily still – if slightly awkwardly – in her dark suit (her Paris Review interview reveals that her preferred writing costume is “loose pants and a sweatshirt”). You wonder if that mind of hers, as it goes about its gleaning, requires the rest of her to wait in repose until it is ready to spill.
When I Was a Child I Read Books is published by Virago (16.99)