Conversation with Marilynne Robinson
In May last year, as part of The Tablet’s spring festival, I was privileged to engage Marilynne Robinson in conversation. The paper described our exchange as ‘not only a critic and a writer discussing themes in the Gilead series of novels, but two Christians in deep dialogue about some of the most compelling creations in contemporary literature.’ Maggie Fergusson, literary editor of The Tablet, subsequently wrote up parts of the conversation for the print edition of 1 July 2021. Here it is at last on CoramFratribus, too.
Her novels are among the great works of American literature; his The Shattering of Loneliness was one of the most acclaimed books of spirituality of recent years. Both have a gift of making ordinary things numinous, of pointing “towards the light that no darkness can overcome”. Their conversation – conducted between Marilynne Robinson’s sitting room in Saratoga Springs, New York, and Erik Varden’s study in Trondheim, in Norway – was one of the highlights of the Tablet Spring Festival last month.
Fr Erik began by admitting that, while greatly looking forward to the conversation, he had also been dreading it a bit: having lived with Robinson’s “Gilead” novels for the best part of 15 years, “having wept with them and laughed with them”, he hesitated to talk about them because they had come to stand for something so intimate. The series begins with Gilead (2004), and continues with three further novels – Home (2008), Lila (2014) and Jack (2020). Each focuses on the same group of characters, each one of them indelible in the memory; all are members of the households of two Presbyterian ministers, Robert Boughton and John Ames, who grew up in the small Midwestern town of Gilead in the early twentieth century.
Varden plunged in, drawing our attention to a conversation between John Ames and his wife Lila in bed one Saturday night. Ames says to the much younger Lila: “I’m going to keep you safe. And you’re going to keep me honest.” Was it Robinson’s intention from the beginning, Varden asked, to embody an honest articulation of faith and so preserve it from platitudinous certainties and preacherly vagueness?
“I’d be delighted to think that I’d done that,” Robinson replied, “or even approached it. The period I was writing about in those novels was the period most influenced by the abolitionist movement. Many of the abolitionist people were clergy, and they were profoundly religious people: it was at saturation level. The irony is that this is not sustainable over the long term – or at least not in the form in which they would have wished for it to persist. It’s an intensification of religious culture that I have seen, but even that’s perhaps a carry- over from an earlier kind of passion and selflessness and generosity of intention that could not keep its focus, that did not understand its implications.”
Varden described a scene in Gilead that he said had become an important reference for him in his life as a monk, because it said a lot about what it meant to live the contemplative life, and what it meant to be a human being. The young John Ames had set off with his father on a journey to tend his grandfather’s grave. Recalling it later for his own son, he writes: “I can’t tell you how I felt, walking along beside him that night, along that rutted road, through that empty world – what a sweet strength I felt in him, and in myself, and all around us … I have rarely felt joy like that, and assurance. It was like one of those dreams where you’re filled with some extravagant feeling you might never have in life, it doesn’t matter what it is, even guilt or dread, and you learn from it what an amazing instrument you are, so to speak, what a power you have to experience beyond anything you might actually need.”
For Varden, “awakening at that depth” is what goes on in the Gilead novels – “something about the sparseness of life that sharpens this experience and provokes it”. He wondered whether Robinson felt that now, prey as we are to untold comforts and distractions, we tend to miss out on this discovery – and whether part of the modern malaise was a kind of failed acknowledgement of our spiritual depth.
“I have to believe,” Robinson said, “that people simply are capable of whatever profound question or intuition or whatever it is that we live with, with the idea of God. And I think we do everything to distract ourselves from it. I think distraction is secondary to anxiety about the intuition that is really a profound part of experience for many, many people. I think we have that tendency to see people as less profound creatures than God made them. And on the basis of what is really a superficial response to them, we make generalisations about them – or even important decisions about them, about how to present religion to them, or whether there’s any point in trying to. I often teach the Bible to writers, and people are very interested and almost shy that they attach great importance to these texts and traditions, and yet have no approach to them. That kind of longing veils itself: it’s rare that we have the opportunity to address the profound seriousness of the human situation as it is manifested in people who are opaque to us.”
Varden then homed in on Jack – Ames’ godson and the son of his boyhood friend Robert Boughton – the black sheep of the family who is only an incidental character in Gilead and Home, but is the focus of Jack. Jack is ragged and shiftless, a drunkard and recent convict. Yet Varden is struck by his joyousness. Is he, he asked, an emblematic character, representing something – a tendency, a personality, a weakness, a strength? Or is he ultimately Everyman?
“I think of Jack as someone who has taken on the fact that he can incur great guilt. And he corrects it radically by trying to be truly harmless. At the same time he feels he can’t really engage with people and assume that he’s kept his harmlessness. I think he’s an extreme of a human capacity for conscientiousness and self-scrutiny. He has taken himself down to the nervous structures of potential guilt. He can’t be conventional: he’s not in the drift of society. And being scrupulous about the truth and so on has never had the hold on him that they might have on another person.”
And yet, Varden suggested, Jack is a very honest person – almost cruelly honest to himself. “Yes, he is. And I’m glad you see joy in him, because I certainly intended that. Jack wouldn’t want to be someone else, frankly.”
Varden then turned to humour – “Your books do make me laugh.”
“But laughter in your books is also very serious: can you talk about that density of laughter?”
“You know, laughter is an amazing thing. It’s something people do, unless events utterly forbid. It’s an assent, in a way: I’m giving the meaning of the comprehended to something that has happened, or has been said. It’s like a secondary reality. You don’t just walk through the world, you are in conversation with the world, and sometimes the world does something that simply delights you in the way of provoking laughter. So it’s a deep sense of what the world is, or what language is. I’m intentional in making my books, which aspire to seriousness, also humorous.”
Varden had been struck, he said, by a passage Robinson quotes from Calvin, who says that each of us is an actor on a stage, and God is the audience. He liked that image because it suggested how God might enjoy us – which seems a luminous insight.
“Absolutely. Calvin calls human beings ‘the masterpiece of creation’. He speaks often in terms of an artist, or someone appraising an art, so the art is to be what God would wish you to be, with the suggestion that it is you doing this, not just any human being.”
Varden then turned to the soul. Asked what the soul is, Jack responds: “On the basis of my vast learning and experience, I would say it is what you can’t get rid of.” Somewhere else he reflects: “Daylight was Purgatory. It was terrible, being a thing to be looked at.” But when he meets Della, a black high school teacher, also a minister’s child, he awakens to an experience of being seen that is not threatening, that is life-giving. Della, whose love for Jack puts her at risk of imprisonment, sees in him a brightness, what Ames calls an “incandescence”, and she says to him: “In your own way, you’re kind of – pure.” What, Varden asked, is the purity she sees?
“Partly, it is just the degree to which he is undefended by himself. And then the whole framework for all these stories is that there were enormously cruel and rigid social distinctions made for us. Jack by nature is simply not coerced by them: they’re just not there for him. He does not imagine himself in a position of moral advantage to anyone, or anything like that. So there’s a way in which, if you think of the world as tainting or corrupting, he is not corrupted. The great cruelty, the great fraud that he is contemporary with, is not something he has any impulse to engage in.”
The theme of homecoming, a kind of paradigm of the Prodigal Son, runs through the Gilead novels, haunting all the major characters, in that it stands for an emergence out of loneliness. Ames says of his years of loneliness, after the death of his first wife in childbirth: “Now that I look back, it seems to me that in all that deep darkness a miracle was preparing. So I am right to remember it as a blessed time, and myself as waiting in confidence, even if I had no idea what I was waiting for.” For Varden, these words seemed prophetic for a world caught up in the idea of exile, of not being at home.
“I myself,” Robinson responded, “don’t know what to anticipate in any way at this point. And I’m not uncomfortable with that, because I do assume it’s in God’s hands – which does not, we all know from Scripture, guarantee that we will not see hard times. If you understand time as being always equivalent to itself, so you have a long life of loneliness and a few last years of great happiness, how do you understand that? Is the time approaching the period of happiness an instruction? Or is it simply that if you put the two in the balance, you would have to say that my life is basically lonely until the last few years? It’s a theological question, isn’t it: how you choose to value what might seem to be the opposite of itself, how you accept silence, vacancy and so on if you are also conscious of accepting preparation during that time.”
Varden then turned to what he described as “a kind of solidarity in the quest of salvation”. Again and again, he told Robinson, he was struck by “the emphasis you place on compassion – and I mean that in the literal sense of being involved in the pathos of another life, of being entangled in other lives, of each man not being an island, but a stitch in a delicate embroidery – an embroidery that will be forever imperfect if a single stitch is extracted.” Does this suggest, he asked, “among these good Presbyterians”, something of the communion of saints? Something of an active intercession and carrying?
“They would not say that they intercede,” Robinson replied. “But they would say that the love of a human person survives that person, and that there’s nothing inappropriate about thinking very lovingly, and with concern, about anyone who has gone before. I think that a lot of the difficulty of Christianity as a kind of emotional experience is that you don’t know what to do with the great mass of humankind that don’t satisfy the formulae of salvation that you tend to be offered. And I think that if you understand the grace of God as fully sufficient, then it seems more appropriate to the love of God, to the celebration of God, and it makes it so that there’s not exclusion left in the idea of resurrection, immortality and so on.”
Photograph by Brother Martin Horwath.
It was time for questions from the festival audience. How did Robinson see grace at work in American politics today?
“You know, there’s a deficiency. In so far as human behaviour is gracious in response to grace, there’s a deficiency. I’m not in the habit of passing dire judgements, but I’m really unimpressed with many people at the moment. I hope God has not lost interest in us, because I can’t really believe how petty and ungenerous and fearful so much thinking is in certain factions of the country. I think you have to go back to before the civil war to find a mentality of that kind.”
Does she see her work as related to the work of writers like Shusaku Endo, who write what are sometimes called Catholic novels? “I like it very much when people write from the point of view of a religious understanding of reality – to keep that music in the mind of the western world. There’s nothing more natural to human beings than thinking religiously. We have retreated from the traditions that have allowed us to articulate things that are important for people to be able to articulate. So I appreciate it whenever writing is done that carries forward this kind of thinking that people are so inclined to do if they have any help at all.”
And will there be another novel, she was asked? There was a pause – “I might very well write another novel. The longer I think about it, the likelier it becomes.”