“If I could see my mother, it would not have to be her eyes, her hair. I would not need to touch her sleeve. There was no more the stoop of her high shoulders. The lake had taken that, I knew. It was so long since the dark had swum her hair, and there was nothing more to dream of, but often she almost slipped through any door I saw from the side of my eye, and it was she, and not changed, and not perished. She was a music I no longer heard, that rang in my mind, itself and nothing else, lost to all sense, but not perished, not perished.”
I first heard of Marilynne Robinson on a Saturday afternoon in the late spring of 2003. I was reading the Guardian — as we did in those long ago pre-children days — when I came across an article by Paul Bailey about a novel of ‘eerie beauty’ published in 1981 by a writer who in the intervening decade had written several non-fiction books, but no more fiction. Bailey noted, ‘[A] second novel has not appeared. Perhaps it never will.’ His tone was that of one who was grateful that Marilynne Robinson had written anything at all: ‘A first novel, then, and possibly a last. It’s cause enough for celebration that Robinson found the time and space in which to set it down with such loving attention to what Ruth calls the “dear ordinary”.’
Something of his fervour must have stayed with me, for somewhere (I seem to remember the Oxfam bookshop in Brighton) I found a copy of Housekeeping and I too fell under its spell. There it is in my reading list for 2004, between Notes of a Scandal and a reread of Peter Carey’s Bliss. From that first reading, I retain an impression of dreaminess, of wateriness, of the lake and loss and the lyrical, Biblical language of Ruthie.
And, just like that, a decade. Three children. Three more Marilynne Robinson novels, when, like Paul Bailey, I had hardly dared to hope for more. I’ve read Gilead twice (2007, pregnant with T; 2010, pregnant with the Moose) and Home once (2010). Lila is a pleasure saved against future drought.
Coming back to Housekeeping I had forgotten the density of its opening chapter, the way the stories pile one on another, the weight of history pressing down on a house, a town. The writing slowed me down and I noticed for the first time Doris Lessing’s verdict on the back of my copy of the book: ‘I found myself reading slowly, then more slowly — this is not a novel to be hurried through, for every sentence is a delight.’ And that sense of density and slowness reminded me of Donna Tartt’s dictum of density and speed. Perhaps there is room for both. Perhaps this partly explains the difference between a book of 187 pages and a book of 784 pages both of which feel equally ‘lived’ to me.
Ruth’s story had stayed with me, in almost all its particulars, in a way that those other books from my 2004 reading list haven’t. It’s a slight enough tale on the surface — after Ruth & Lucille’s mother leaves them on the porch of the house she grew up in & drives into the lake her own father died in, Ruth’s story is one of loss and the peculiarly large space those we have lost take in our consciousness. For five years their grandmother cares for them ‘like someone reliving a long day in a dream’, then one morning she ‘eschewed awakening’ and the great-aunts Lily and Nona briefly care for the girls before, alarmed at caring for two young children, they flee leaving them in the care of their mother’s younger sister Sylvie. Sylvie is a drifter, in the language of Fingerbone an itinerant, and gradually as Lucille allies herself with the normality of teenage clothes and friendships, Ruthie is drawn further from these things into Sylvie’s drifting lifestyle. But with Housekeeping the surface is hardly the point.
I can’t have missed Housekeeping‘s Biblical references the first time I read it, but I don’t think I was sure what to make of them. One of the pleasures of this reread was the knowledge of Robinson’s enlarged oeuvre & a better understanding of her overall sensibility. Reading Lily and Nona’s justification for calling Sylvie back to Fingerbone to care for Ruth & Lucille one can’t help thinking of Jack Boughton, the prodigal son of Home: ‘They agreed that the forgiveness of the parent should always be extended to the erring child, even posthumously.’ And knowing the centrality of grace to the Gilead books, how could I help reading this line about Ruth’s grandmother and her three daughters with added weight, ‘She had always known a thousand ways to circle them all around with what must have seemed like grace.’. To me, that ‘seemed like’ seems crucial, for perhaps this is not the grace bestowed by God.
Finishing Housekeeping for the first time, I found out what I could about Marilynne Robinson. It wasn’t much. But there was somewhere on the internet at that time a portion of a 2000 interview with her from An American Scholar. I have the print-out still.
MR: I wrote a lot of ‘Housekeeping’ in France. I wrote in a little dark room at the back of the house while trying to hide from the neighborhood children fascinated by this American family living in their midst. I was trying to remember when I was in Idaho.[…]And at first it seemed undoable and then I began to realize that if I gave my mind time it would discover things. It knew things that I would never anticipate it knowing and so there was this whole rising out of the sea of this remembered landscape which was a strange experience in itself because it was a discovery of mind about my mind that I would never have otherwise have made.
And this, which I have always loved,
“It’s very difficult when you’re starting out because you have the strange abstract idea of what it would be like to write without having an experience of yourself writing. So you do all kinds of crazy imitative stuff or whatever.”
Then a snippet from a more recent interview, the Paris Review‘s Art of Fiction no. 198 from 2008,
Did you ever have a religious awakening?
No, a mystical experience would be wasted on me. Ordinary things have always seemed numinous to me. One Calvinist notion deeply implanted in me is that there are two sides to your encounter with the world. You don’t simply perceive something that is statically present, but in fact there is a visionary quality to all experience. It means something because it is addressed to you. This is the individualism that you find in Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. You can draw from perception the same way a mystic would draw from a vision.
How would one learn to see ordinary things this way?
It’s not an acquired skill. It’s a skill that we’re born with that we lose. We learn not to do it.
We learn not to see. But reading Robinson, one might start learning how to see again.
My thoughts on Housekeeping, and particularly on the strangeness and permeability of Ruth’s narrative voice have been made far more coherent by watching two lectures on the novel by Professor Amy Hungerford. She draws out the links that I would have been entirely unaware of between Marilynne Robinson’s interest in 19th century transcendentalism — whose key figures included Emerson, Thoreau & Emily Dickinson — and Ruth’s fluid consciousness.
We’ve just started watching Twin Peaks for the first time. I basically can’t wait until evening and that first twang of the synthesizer and the picture of that little bird. Scouting the internet for advice on which of the pilot episodes to watch, we found an answer that ended by saying ‘lucky you still having TP to watch for the first time’. Well, if you haven’t read it, lucky you for still having a first reading of Housekeeping ahead of you.