An Evening With Marilynne Robinson

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At this time of the year, the blogosphere is filled with favourite books of the year and so  I thought I would finally get round to writing about my favourite author event of 2014.

On 13th November, Marilynne Robinson was interviewed by James Runcie at the Southbank Centre following the publication of Lila, the third of her novels set in the mid West town of Gilead and following the fortunes of the Ames and Boughton families. What follows is not a verbatim account of the interview but will, I hope, give a flavour of the evening.

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Lila is a repeat of the story in the earlier books Gilead and Home but told from a different point of view, that of Lila, wife of Rev John Ames who is the narrator of Gilead. One of the issues of storytelling, Robinson finds, is to get sufficient dimension. In John Ames’ version [ Gilead] he is writing a letter to his young  son and therefore he is necessarily writing to his son’s mother. It is really like parents telling different stories.

Is Lila, though uneducated, intuitively wiser than her husband John Ames? Lila describes knowing a place before it was known. She is not self-aware in a conventional way. She is outside the sense of things and outside consciousness .

Runcie pointed out that taken as a whole, the stories of Gilead, Home and Lila feel like a parable and the Book of Ezekiel and the Prodigal Son come to mind.

Robinson is haunted by Biblical paradigms . The parable of the Prodigal Son teaches us that if you absolutely love someone you see them in a state of grace. God sees you more purely . The father sees his son at a distance and runs to him. If you love someone, you want to stop them from hurting themselves but it they do, you still love them.

Runcie remarked that there is a high moral seriousness to Robinson’s writing. She replied, dryly, that she was glad to be assured of that. She prefers to call it aesthetic . Good behaviour is beautiful. Humans are an amazing flowering on a planet. We have the freedom to care for one another and to forgive. She calls this a beautiful uniqueness.

Jack Boughton specifically asks for forgiveness and John Ames cannot give it to him. Robinson explained that she has created a theological Rubik’s cube. Jack Boughton may be at odds with his culture but he sees something John Ames and his father can’t. Gilead is a small self-blinded community. Jack lacks the moral confidence to point out that they are violating Christian standards. They are both wrong and both right.

Runcie asked why Lila feels such shame. Lila is fallen in the sense we all are. People who are in poverty, who are ignorant, feel shame. They are embarrassed and this, in Robinson’s view, is the major part of the cruelty of poverty. Shame reinforces injurious cultural norms.

Lila’s baptism is central to her story. Robinson’s own tradition is Congregationalist. There are only two sacraments, the Lord’s Supper and baptism. They both symbolise deep care.The cosmic force of water has always fascinated her. A member of the audience asked about the response of a younger readership to the biblical references. Robinson replied  with a flash of humour that she writes what is on her mind and she doesn’t find resistance to it. She can’t write something deliberately to be appealing.In the writers’ workshops she teaches the Old Testament from time to time. It is part of our inherited culture, for example, why is a book called Absalom! Absalom!

Runcie felt that whilst there was tentative hope in Lila, all the Gilead books are quite sad.Robinson doesn’t like the word pity and she objects to the word sad. We live in the knowledge of our own mortality. This is a profound thing. It is a fact of humaness, indeed it is what dignifies it. Runcie wondered if there is another word for pity or sad. Robinson cannot find an alternative word……..that is why she has to write novels.

Runcie wondered about the sense of loneliness there is in Lila and , indeed, in all the Gilead books. Robinson’s roots are in N. Idaho. People went there and no-one followed them so she is programmed to think that loneliness is a great Idea. She was brought up to be self sufficient.

Is she done with Gilead? She can’t be sure. She starts to write when a voice is clear in her mind.If a voice speaks to her persuasively then she may return there.All three books so far are free standing, they cast light on each other. In her view it is perfectly legitimate to read them in any order.

When she writes, Robinson needs solitude. She also needs hope, she doesn’t want to succumb to cliché . When she is writing and she likes what she is producing she can work for twelve hours. If she doesn’t feel engaged, she doesn’t work at all.She has to feel that there is a nucleus around which something is gathering to gain weight.

She had great happiness when she was writing her first book Housekeeping. She was in Brittany in France and she felt being there helped her to focus on Idaho. She never thought that it would be published. She showed her manuscript to a friend, who in turn showed it to the person who became Robinson’s agent. When she is writing she starts at the beginning and then she does what seems to be the next required thing. She never even writes an outline.

This was a remarkable evening. Robinson’s serenity leaves a long lasting impression and it was fascinating to have a glimpse at her method of working and to hear her discuss the themes in the Gilead novels .

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Book Review : Some Luck by Jane Smiley

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Some Luck is Pulitzer Prize winning Jane Smiley’s latest novel. It is the first part in a trilogy following the Langdon/Vogel family for a century beginning in 1921 with parts 2 and 3 to be published in the UK in May and October 2015 respectively.

I was fortunate enough to receive an advance copy via Pan Macmillan and Netgalley and also to attend the ‘ Meet The Author’ event at the London Review Bookshop on 4th November.

As Some Luck opens we meet Walter Langdon and his young wife Rosanna. Walter has not long since returned from Europe and WW1 and has bought his farm with the help of a large bank loan.Rosanna is a local girl but of German Catholic stock and their first child Frank is just a few months old.

The book spans the years 1921-1953 with each year being given an individual chapter. During this time we get to know not just Walter and Rosanna but their 6 children born at various points and the wider family, in particular Rosanna’s younger inter Eloise.

We learn a lot about farming. The novel takes us through the dust bowl years during which time Frank sees his harvests dwindle and his loan looms large.

But it was no secret to Walter as he drove the tractor from one end of the twenty-acre cornfield to the other that a tractor was a pact with the devil. How could it be that when they woke up one morning they found dust caked on the west side of the house, and the air so thick you had to wear a wet bandana outside, keep all the windows shut, and wipe the inside sills ant yaw? Iowa prided itself on no being Oklahoma, but how much of a sign did they need?

Towards the end of the book new methods are being introduced into farming with chemical fertilisers and pesticides which perhaps foreshadow the events to come in the next volume.

World events impact as well, most notably WW2. Frank enlists and becomes a sniper. At the end of Some Luck McCarthyism is beginning to cast a shadow perhaps with consequences for Eloise, who has married a left-wing English Jew.

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On 4th November Jane Smiley was skilfully interviewed by journalist Alex Clark who opened the evening by announcing that Some Luck was being hailed at the new ‘Great American Novel’. Smiley rather wryly remarked that this was not the case back home. America was reserving its judgement at this point.

After giving a short reading, Smiley was asked about the structure of this novel. She would categorise it as mainly history and gossip.The novel is centred in Iowa but the family necessarily spread out from there. They engage with historical events . Frank in particular wants to escape and he is always looking for ways to get out. He finds a way to get to High School and to College, before enlisting.

As a novelist though, she was surely in control of her characters and must have planned in which events they would engage and how these would impact on their lives? Smiley laughed. Any novelist who thinks they are in control of their characters has a dead novel.She finds that characters seize and shift a novel by their own energy. She frequently sets to to do one thing then the characters take it their own way. For example in this book it was clear that Frank would go to WW2 but the character took that in his own direction. She didn’t go back and fix stuff later.

Smiley has always been interested in he social and political possibilities of the novel. She grew up reading Dickens, The Scarlet Letter and Giants of The Earth. She is fascinated by the idea of art as a revealer or even as an agent for change. In a novel we share the experiences so we can better understand them.

A novel doesn’t have to be overtly political, this can be done in other ways. The example she would give is Nancy Mitford whose work she greatly admires. She is of the view that Mitford’s work has stood the test of time better than many of her peers as her beliefs are expressed through her characters who voice hilariously funny opinions.

The novel is inherently political because  the relationship between the protaganist and his world must be developed or the reader will abandon it. Her view is that the novel as a form  is born not with Don Quixote but with Madame de La Fayatte’s Princess of Cleves. The princess has an inner life which we share. By the time we get to Pamela, even the servant girl has an inner life.

She was asked about her research for this trilogy and the conclusions she had reached about the state of society by the end of it. She had read the New York Times archive fairly extensively. The conclusion she had reached was that we were in deep shit. She had a pretty good idea of when the shit  had hit the fan………but we would have to read the books and draw our own conclusions.

She was asked about her views on publishing today. Earlier in the evening, Smiley had explained that she regarded her first 2 or 3 books as practice novels, but that they had appeared in the 1980s when that had been possible. She thinks that publishing is in a state of flux. There are perhaps more ways to get your work out there, and she gave the example of self-publishing, but not necessarily more ways up. Publishing has always been idiosyncratic in her view.

Her daily writing routine is one of interruptions and chaos. She has 4 horses and 3 dogs.Her day begins with reading the paper, eating granola and looking at the internet.She will then go to her barn and ride. She enjoys eating and cooking so starts looking forward to dinner at an early stage in the day.

She always commits to a certain number of words per day. She finds getting out with the horses prevents her from getting stuck. Her study has 2 doors and a telephone and the dogs are constantly in and out. She is not a writer who needs solitude.

She was asked by a member of the audience for her views on the ‘great’ American authors like Roth, Mailer and Bellow.Apart from Updike , she has not read much of their work and is not a huge fan of what she would call the WW2 generation. She tells her students that in fact your best readers and critics are your peers and not the generation that preceded you. She certainly found this to be the case herself.

I then asked which books she felt had influenced her the most. She thinks that the books you read as a teenager have the greatest impact and so would say David Copperfield and The Giants Of The Earth. Later, when she was researching  13 Ways Of Looking At The Novel ( her readers’ and writers’ handbook) she came to admire Zola and Trollope.

The most important thing to remember when writing is that no novel is perfect. Even The Good Soldier is not perfect as the protagonist does not even sound American! She always has in her mind a sign a friend keeps above her desk ” No-one asked you to write this novel’

Novels are inherently imperfect but each novelist thinks they can do better.

Some Luck was published by Mantle on 6th November.

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