Marilynne Robinson - Assises Internationales du Roman 2010
Marilynne Robinson reading from Gilead
John Ames, the protagonist of Gilead, writes a letter to his son to tell him about the humanist heritage of his family, about the Civil War and the Abolitionist Movement...
I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I'm old, and you said, I don't think you're old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren't very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you've had with me and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life. And you said, Mama already told me that. And then you said, Don't laugh! because you thought I was laughing at you. You reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face besides your mother's. It's a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I'm always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsinged after I've suffered one of those looks. I will miss them.
It seems ridiculous to suppose the dead miss anything. If you're a grown man when you read this--it is my intention for this letter that you will read it then--I'll have been gone a long time. I'll know most of what there is to know about being dead, but I'll probably keep it to myself. That seems to be the way of things.
I don't know how many times people have asked me what death is like, sometimes when they were only an hour or two from finding out for themselves. Even when I was a very young man, people as old as I am now would ask me, hold on to my hands and look into my eyes with their old milky eyes, as if they knew I knew and they were going to make me tell them. I used to say it was like going home. We have no home in this world, I used to say, and then I'd walk back up the road to this old place and make myself a pot of coffee and a friend-egg sandwich and listen to the radio, when I got one, in the dark as often as not. Do you remember this house? I think you must, a little. I grew up in parsonages. I've lived in this one most of my life, and I've visited in a good many others, because my father's friends and most of our relatives also lived in parsonages. And when I thought about it in those days, which wasn't too often, I thought this was the worst of them all, the draftiest and the dreariest. Well, that was my state of mind at the time. It's a perfectly good old house, but I was all alone in it then. And that made it seem strange to me. I didn't feel very much at home in the world, that was a face. Now I do.
And now they say my heart is failing. The doctor used the term "angina pectoris," which has a theological sound, like misericordia. Well, you expect these things at my age. My father died an old man, but his sisters didn't live very long, really. So I can only be grateful. I do regret that I have almost nothing to leave you and your mother. A few old books no one else would want. I never made any money to speak of, and I never paid any attention to the money I had. It was the furthest thing from my mind that I'd be leaving a wife and child, believe me. I'd have been a better father if I'd known. I'd have set something by for you.
That is the main thing I want to tell you, that I regret very deeply the hard times I know you and your mother must have gone through, with no real help from me at all, except my prayers, and I pray all the time. I did while I lived, and I do now, too, if that is how things are in the next life.
I can hear you talking with your mother, you asking, she answering. It's not the words I hear, just the sounds of your voices. You don't like to go to sleep, and every night she has to sort of talk you into it all over again. I never hear her sing except at night, from the next room, when she's coaxing you to sleep. And then I can't make out what song it is she's singing. Her voice is very low. It sounds beautiful to me, but she laughs when I say that.
I really can't tell what's beautiful anymore. I passed two young fellows on the street the other day. I know who they are, they work at the garage. They're not churchgoing, either one of them, just decent rascally young fellows who have to be joking all the time, and there they were, propped against the garage wall in the sunshine, lighting up their cigarettes. They're always so black with grease and so strong with gasoline I don't know why they don't catch fire themselves. They were passing remarks back and forth the way they do and laughing that wicked way they have. And it seemed beautiful to me. It is an amazing thing to watch people laugh, the way it sort of takes them over. Sometimes they really do struggle with it. I see that in church often enough. So I wonder what it is and where it comes from, and I wonder what it expends out of your system, so that you have to do it till you're done, like crying in a way, I suppose, except that laughter is much more easily spent.
When they saw me coming, of course the joking stopped, but I could see they were still laughing to themselves, thinking what the old preacher almost heard them say.
I felt like telling them, I appreciate a joke as much as anybody. There have been many occasions in my life when I have wanted to say that. But it's not a thing people are willing to accept. They want you to be a little bit apart. I felt like saying, I'm a dying man, and I won't have so many more occasions to laugh, in this world at least. But that would just make them serious and polite, I suppose. I'm keeping my condition a secret as long as I can. For a dying man I feel pretty good, and that is a blessing. Of course your mother knows about it. She said if I feel good, maybe the doctor is wrong. But at my age there's a limit to how wrong he can be.
That's the strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry. And then sometimes those very same people come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things. There's a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn't really expect a find it, either.
An interview with Marilynne Robinson
This interview was filmed at the Hotel Carlton in Lyon, during the 2010 edition of the Assises Internationales du Roman.
Transcript of the interview
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.
K.F.: In Mother Country you took a strong stance against nuclear waste in England and the social policy of Margaret Thatcher. Are there other issues which you would like to address if you were to write another non-fiction book or essay today?
M.R.: Actually I have a non-fiction collection, a series of lectures I gave at Yale about a year ago. The official publication date was the 25th of this month. There is a sort of polemical posture in contemporary society that claims science as its authority but, as far as I am concerned, it grows out of a continuous history that has always claimed science as an authority but has no right to it. There are perhaps a million things going on in contemporary American life that I would like to write about, so many things to pay attention to. One of the things that is very important to me is the contemporary debate about what we have meant historically by the idea of freedom or by a word like individualism. I think there is a really profound misunderstanding. These are the kinds of things that look intramural from an American point of view. It's culturally interesting that we do have these documents that for us function almost like scripture: what did Jefferson mean? A great deal depends on what we understand one man in the eighteenth century to have meant. I think it is an interesting and fruitful discipline to consider that. In a way we have done it historically under the best circumstances. I think we have to go back and look at it. That is something that interests me as an American and which perhaps is not so intelligible to other people.
K.F.: Your writings were compared to the works of Whitman, Emerson and Dickinson. What does that mean to you?
M.R.: It pleases me. They've been my favourite writers my whole conscious life. I teach them over and over again and I read them over and over again. It would be amazing if they were not audible in what I write. They did something consistently. It is amazing that they were contemporary to one another. They had a way of establishing an epistemology through the consciousness of metaphor which seems very profound to me and which has a great deal to do with how we actually do perceive and how language works or lives. That seems inexhaustible to me and I return to it because it always seems fruitful to me.
Pour citer cette ressource :
Marilynne Robinson, Kédem Ferré, "Marilynne Robinson - Assises Internationales du Roman 2010", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), juin 2010. Consulté le 23/09/2023. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-americaine/litterature-contemporaine/marilynne-robinson-assises-internationales-du-roman-2010