Kédem Ferré: You were invited by the Villa Gillet to discuss the importance of the Bible in modern fiction with two other writers: Aharon Appelfeld and Vincent Delecroix. Do you believe that the changes in the way writers handle biblical themes is consistent with the way religion is perceived nowadays?
Marilynne Robinson: Well, those are two very large generalisations that I suppose are, in a certain sense, culturally specific. I think that most writers who are acquainted with the Bible respect it very much as literature and perhaps are less vulnerable, therefore, to the unfavourable characterisations that are made of the Bible, both by those who are its enthusiasts and those who are its critics. I think that it simply is a great literature and many writers are very sensitive to the fact that it is.
K.F: You speak of the Bible as a source of inspiration in the literary sense.
M.R.: Yes. I am indebted to narratives, for example The Prodigal Son, the narrative of David and Absalom, the narrative of Isaac and Jacob. They are very economically written but they are extremely complex. If you begin to ponder them, they open and open and open. I think that is part of the reason they are so accessible to writers because they really do permit or demand a complex interpretation, a complex pondering.
K.F.: Is that what you are interested in? To write something which leads to interpretation?
M.R.: I was struck by Vincent Delacroix saying last night that he writes and then finds that something biblical is coming into his mind, something that in a certain sense creates a focus or a frame that seems natural as a part of the articulation of his thought. It's the same for me: I don't set out thinking I'm going to consider the narrative of The Prodigal Son but I can't help but think of it when I think of parent-child relationship because it is so pregnant.
K.F.: You once said that plot was not the main idea, that you were more interested in getting to know the characters and leading what they had to say. Is that still true with the writing you do today?
M.R.: Yes. My fiction is always very dependent on my feeling that I know a voice and the voice of course is simultaneous with the character. On the basis of my own experience of writing fiction, which is slender by comparison with many people, I can't imagine myself writing from another impetus than hearing the voice.
K.F.: What was the role of protestant ethics in the making of America? Do you think that this heritage is being overlooked today?
M.R.: It's hard for me to know. First of all because I am pretty well immersed in Protestantism and second because I'm pretty well immersed in America. That doesn't give me all the perspective in the world but I do think that there is an ethic of autonomy, a personal responsibility to one's own sense of things. What is to be desired? How is it to be achieved? This, of course, as any human thing, has perils and excesses and strengths and virtues. At this particular moment, we are seeing quite a good deal of volatility in American culture which I think grows very clearly out of that same ethic. In principle it is a good thing that people feel morally responsible to their own perception of what is to be desired, what is to be done, what is right.
K.F.: Speaking about what is right. Can we just go back to Gilead. How did you react when you learnt that it had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize? Why in your opinion was it singled out?
M.R.: It's difficult to know. The Pulitzer Prize is like the Supreme Court except it doesn't have to publish its decisions. I think that people were a little startled that I produced a novel after a quarter of a century but I hope that's not too large a factor. I hope it's a good book. That's all I can say.
K.F.: Speaking about the success of the book. How do you explain its success to a secular audience bearing in mind its theological content?
M.R.: Theology lies behind metaphysics and philosophy. It articulates questions that become philosophical. In other terms, I think that many people recognize the idea and are not disturbed by the particularity of its expression. I think that in America there is such a melange of cultures that we are all accustomed to the fact that there are active religious traditions. I think that one of the things that has been important in American culture is that, almost at the level of folk music, we have universal hymns that keep the phrases of the Bible not only active but also interpreted and aesthetically employed. You have people like John Coltrane who are interpreters in terms that are highly accessible to people with a strictly secular understanding. Perhaps America is different in that way: the availability of religious thought as a means of expression, even to people for whom there is no specific religious allegiance.
K.F.: Could you say that John Ames's letter is a kind of sermon to people who might not believe in God, to make religion available for them?
M.R.: That wasn't really my thought. I have belonged to Churches for my whole adult life. I'm interested in the role of Ministers. It's a very interesting, very complex role that they have. He simply presented himself to my imagination as an old Minister and there I was.
K.F.: Just to go back on Gilead and biblical references, about the title of the novel, in the Book of Genesis, Gilead is referred to as the hill of testimony, and that's what it's all about: John Ames's letter is a kind of testimony. Is that what influenced your choice for the title?
M.R.: What influenced my choice more than anything else is a famous American hymn: There is a Balm in Gilead which is of course a black hymn. Everybody knows it. That specific reference comes from Jeremiah: Jeremiah asks the question is there no balm in Gilead? because Gilead was associated with the healing herb, hence balm. The hymn says that there is a balm in Gilead so that it's a kinder statement to this cry of despair from Jeremiah. That always seemed very beautiful to me. Also there are many small towns in America that settled in the middle and early 19th century which have biblical names, Gilead being one of the common ones.
K.F.: Speaking about times and places, you could have set the date of the narrative any time, why choose specifically 1956?
M.R.: Well it felt very determined to me by the fact that on the one hand I wanted my narrator to be old enough that he could possibly have a personal memory of someone who was involved in the Civil War and the Abolitionist Movement and then at the same time living at a moment when the Civil Rights Movement began. Everything that had been learnt in the abolitionist period had to be learnt all over again.
K.F.: Why did you want to tackle that particular aspect of American history?
M.R.: I think that it epitomises American history: the definition and redefinition of what the pursuit of happiness actually means and how widely it extends. That has been our historical project in all our better moments since the beginning.
K.F.: When Home was published, people said that is was a sister novel to Gilead. You were asked why you wrote it this way and you said "after I wrote a novel or a story, I miss the characters, I feel sort of bereaved". Isn't there more to it? Home is about ongoing doubt and redemption whereas Gilead was about inner peace and faith in man. Would you say that Home might be viewed as a counterpart to Gilead or that the two novels are actually two pieces of the same entity?
M.R.: I think of them as two pieces of the same entity although I didn't expect to write the second one for some time after I wrote the first one. I love John Ames: he was a good companion during the years I was working on that. One of the problems about religious belief is that it tends to put boundaries around things. It is almost contrary to its own spirit that it does do that. So long as Grace is thought to be operating within a certain circumference, it's not really Grace. I'm a Calvinist and one of the things that Calvin said is that we don't think about God loving us aesthetically, because we are beautiful, and I thought it would be an interesting problem, to create a character that could perhaps be uneasy about morals and ethics and nevertheless love aesthetically. That is how it seemed to me that Jack would exist if I succeeded with him.
Pour citer ces ressources :
Marilynne Robinson - Kédem Ferré. 06/2010. "Marilynne Robinson - Assises Internationales du Roman 2010".
La Clé des Langues (Lyon: ENS LYON/DGESCO). ISSN 2107-7029. Mis à jour le 4 juin 2012.
Consulté le 22 mai 2013.
Url : http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/marilynne-robinson-assises-internationales-du-roman-2010-98332.