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16 October 2014

Living the good life: Rowan Williams on Marilynne Robinson

Robinson’s trilogy set in small-town Christian America is more than great fiction – it is a political and ethical project. 

By Rowan Williams

Marilynne Robinson
Virago, 261pp, £16.99

One of the most important marks of a serious novelist is the capacity to create a diversity of consistent voices, voices we can hear as having an integrity of their own. Bad novelists ventriloquise, good novelists allow the speakers they create to be other than their creator. Marilynne Robinson’s three interrelated novels (Gilead, Home and Lila) about a small Iowa town in the 1940s and 1950s all exhibit in exemplary ways this quality of allowing voices to be themselves. The first of the books is a first-person narration and reflection by the ageing pastor John Ames, writing down the thoughts he wants to leave for his seven-year-old son. The second is a third-person story told from the perspective of Glory, daughter of Ames’s clerical colleague Robert Boughton.

This third novel in the sequence is, in many ways, the most adventurous of all. It is the story of Ames’s young wife, Lila, an enigmatic presence in the earlier books, both unsettling and reconciling, and it is cast as a third-person narration, carefully and strictly related from Lila’s own perspective. There is nothing in the text that exceeds her character’s vocabulary and frame of reference, and, as Lila’s background is revealed to be one of unbroken deprivation, violence and insecurity, finding and sustaining such a voice is quite a challenge.

She is largely uneducated; she does not know who her parents were or even what her original name was, and she has never known anything but a nomadic life, wandering the back roads of the Midwest with other drifters who are struggling to make some kind of living in the bleakest years of the Depression. She is taught a comprehensive suspicion of the lives of “settled” people in the farms and townships, but also learns a passionate loyalty to those who have accompanied her – especially to a woman named Doll, who has, in effect, abducted her from the ramshackle household where she was boarded out as a child and given her what emotional and practical security she has experienced.

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The novel is about how this almost feral character ends up in quiet Gilead and marries its Congregationalist minister. Bit by bit, Lila’s history unfolds for us as she works hard not to lose the memory of what she has been and who has mattered to her. Haunting the narrative are texts from the prophetic book of Ezekiel in the Bible she has “borrowed” from the church. Lila’s attention is absorbed almost obsessively by a passage in chapter 16 describing God’s covenant with Israel as the rescue of an abandoned newborn child, still soaked in blood, to whom God says simply, “Live!” And Lila’s concern throughout the novel is who has spoken that word to her in various contexts and what it means.

But her laborious biblical reading produces more unexpected moments of recognition. Ezekiel’s vision of the heavenly chariot in which God rides, supported by four “living creatures” – a passage immensely important in the history of Jewish and Christian mysticism, and whose chaotic vocabulary and imagery still induce a frisson – prompts Lila to reflect on “the wildness of things” which she is tempted to forget as she is welcomed into Gilead’s placid religious consolations. The feverish language of the prophet, boiling over with incomprehensible apparitions, and qualifications or withdrawals of images (“as it were glowing metal”; “the likeness of a man . . . every one had four faces”), makes unexpected sense. “She had the likeness of a woman, with hands but no face at all, since she never let herself see it. She had the likeness of a life, because she was all alone in it.”

To Lila, the many-faced creatures of the vision “made as much sense as anything else. No sense at all. If you think about a human face, it can be something you don’t want to look at . . . It can be something you want to hide, because it pretty well shows where you’ve been and what you can expect.”

It is partly this unconventional Bible study that keeps Lila engaged – baffled, lured, repelled – with the religious world represented by John Ames: in the stormy metaphors of Ezekiel and Job she recognises that she has been recognised, that her experience has had words found for it, even if (or especially when) those words are chaotic and bewildering. Her own distinctive voice – laconic, naive, suspicious, naked – is gradually inflected by these strange mythological idioms.

But this goes hand in hand with the developing relationship with Ames himself. He is instantly and deeply attracted – and just as deeply unsettled and even frightened by her; as he says in his own record of the encounter in the first of the novels, he senses her silent and wary presence in the congregation as a challenge to find more honest words in his pulpit. But his own loneliness – as a man who has lost a wife and baby in childbirth many years earlier – is at the same time pressing him to befriend, almost to pursue, Lila.

The unlikely courtship is finely depicted: the admission that neither really knows how to trust the other becomes a moment of unexpected grace; Ames has to learn what his author has had to learn, how to speak Lila’s language – perhaps more importantly, to learn to know what he does not know. He is not a complacent spiritual professional, but he has to keep discovering how easily he can fall into the speech habits of such a professional. His manifest goodness and generosity have to be pushed to their limits so that their limits can actually appear, to him and to the reader. He has to discover why both his human love and his theological consolation can appear patronising, disempowering, false; to discover a face he has never seen in his mirror.

What makes him finally, in all three novels, a touchstone of credible goodness is his willingness to pause and listen to himself from another’s standpoint. Robinson catches wonderfully clearly the way in which this plays out in what he actually says: as in his own narrative in Gilead, the rhythms of his speech are carefully broken up so that statements are followed by a full stop, a pause, then a qualification or expansion. Heard through Lila’s ears, it can sound both comic and alienating. She does not know if and when he is laughing at her, and he manifestly struggles to find a pitch for his voice that will not push her away.

In a poignant and central episode, Lila, already married and pregnant, feels the need to go back to the rural shack where she slept before she and Ames agreed to marry, and finds a teenage runaway there, even more wild, proud and shy than herself. He has run from home having, he believes, killed his abusive father; he is wrestling with whether he should go back to be hanged. After all, what else is there for him? Lila talks to him, begins to allow him to be heard and accepted, gives him her savings, leaves him her overcoat, and then returns to town, realising belatedly that her long and unexplained absence will have left Ames both fearing she has left him for good and fearing for her life.

We see and hear Ames’s heroic effort not to reproach or intrude when he comes back to find her at home. But by this time he and Boughton have already been out to the shack and inadvertently scared the boy away. When Ames finds Lila at home, his imagination is full not only of what she may have done but of the fragility of trust and the danger of his own words and actions to anyone who has had to learn to trust as if learning a foreign language.

This is, at one important level, a novel about the inadequacy of goodness. The world of Gilead is full of virtue and kindness; but it survives by denying something. When Lila, newly baptised, hears Ames and Boughton having a mild theological dispute about the fate of un­believers, she suddenly grasps that all the people who have kept her alive up to this point are “outsiders” to faith and grace, strangers to the kindly old pastors; and she is filled with revulsion at her own “insider” status. She goes to the river and rubs water over her body to “cleanse” herself from baptism, from the pollution of her betrayal of Doll and her graceless friends and travelling companions.

What Lila discovers and slowly formulates for herself is what finally emerges in the last pages of the book, where, almost for the first time, a strong, lyrical passion infuses her reflections: if there is heaven, it has to be filled with those who are there because others could not bear to be without them, whatever they have done or been. There cannot be anyone who is not needed somewhere, in some way. The longing for safe goodness is trumped by the hunger of and for solidarity.

And this is what the merely good do not know. The Lilas of the world are those who challenge the ways in which the good refuse to know what they do not know. This is why Lila in the earlier, but chronologically later, novels can function as a point of (near-silent) reference by which the rhetoric of others is to be judged; why she is an absolving as well as a disturbing presence, aware of the irony of being who she is where she is, but neither rebelling nor colluding, simply stating by her presence that things might be different.

There have been some accounts of these novels that might lead you to imagine that Robinson is constructing an idyll of unfallen rural America, a celebration of small-town values, community loyalties and simple faith. Because she has identified herself as not only a Christian but a Calvinist of sorts, many have assumed that she will line up with a conservative religious agenda and an appeal for a return to frontier virtues. In fact, her political record (including eloquent support for Obamacare) has made her a deeply controversial figure for the religious right. And this novel ought to dispel any such myths for good. The earlier novels actually provide a sharp indictment of the way in which the comfortable society of the town has forgotten its own history – its record in the conflicts around the civil war as a bastion of the Union and a safe refuge for runaway slaves.

The understated but pervasive racism of the 1950s is all the more effectively evoked by being highlighted in the benign figure of old Boughton, Ames’s best friend. Ames himself, in Gilead, comes to see this with unwelcome clarity and to wonder whether the town is under a curse, the curse of no longer being able to hear the question posed to its “goodness” by rebellious and critical voices such as Boughton’s son with his African-American wife. And Glory Boughton in Home reflects, in the same vein, on the “curse of sameness” that afflicts her own life and that of her community.

Lila has already been introduced to us as someone who represents otherness and questioning; this novel allows us to see how she has become that way. Much of her experience is utterly beyond that of Ames. Her friend (and, in effect, foster mother) Doll is self-sacrificially generous to Lila, and capable of violence against anyone threatening her. When Doll is arrested after killing a man in a knife fight who may be Lila’s father or uncle, Lila, abandoned, is manipulated into work in a brothel. The madam’s spite and petty tyranny are described with a sort of expressionless resignation that conveys the emotional abuse and outrage more completely than any overt plucking of the strings. What Lila calls, flatly, “meanness” is pervasive, and she acknowledges the moments when it finds a foothold in her own soul.

Gilead is certainly a place where something other than meanness is possible, and it is not wholly poisoned with hypocrisy. But it only begins to make something new possible for Lila when, in the person of Ames, it faces the dispossessed and marginal, the poor in spirit. We cannot be credibly good without the outcast, the stranger. Lila is as uncertain as Ames about how she can communicate this; but the book ends with her resolve, as she ponders the future of her newborn son, that “some day she would tell him [Ames] what she knew”.

Robinson has told us what Lila knows, with a consistent spareness and precision of expression that compel attention from the book’s first line. She has brilliantly voiced a story about deprivation, trust and mistrust, the critical edginess of real compassion – unmistakably a Christian story, but far from an ideologically triumphant argument. Its moral acuity and insistence on what it means to allow the voiceless to speak give it a political and ethical weight well beyond any confessional limits. It will repay many readings for the subtlety of its narration, its sensuously realised descriptions and its stark emotional and psychological clarities. Lila is the work of an exceptional novelist at the peak of her capacity. 

Marilynne Robinson will be in conversation at a Cambridge Literary Festival event, in partnership with the NS, on 14 November

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