In recent days a couple of friends asked me if I’d been keeping up with my blog, which brought to mind that indeed, since this unusually busy fall semester began, I’ve broken one of my 2015 resolutions: To post here at least once every two weeks. (My last post was over a month ago.) The good thing is that this pushed me to do this third and last post on Marilynne Robinson’s breathtakingly beautiful, and beautifully written, Gilead (Picador 2004). To re-cap, the book is written as a series of letters from a father who is soon to die to his young son, and in it he speaks of his father and grandfather who, like him, are preachers, and of the ties, and loves, and even sins, that bind these generations. Like the first two I shared, I love this excerpt for the way it captures beauty – the beauty that a man beholds in the woman he loves, the son he cherishes – and which he connects to God, its source, in a most appropriate expression of gratefulness and awe.
“I can tell you this, that if I’d married some rosy dame and she had given me ten children and they had given me ten children and they had each given me ten grandchildren, I’d leave them all, on Christmas Eve, on the coldest night of the world, and walk a thousand miles just for the sight of your face, your mother’s face. And if I never found you, my comfort would be in that hope, my lonely and singular hope, which could not exist in the whole of Creation except in my heart and in the heart of the Lord. That is just another way of saying I could never thank God sufficiently for the splendor He has hidden from the world – your mother excepted, of course – and revealed to me in your sweetly ordinary face” (237).
One of the striking aspects of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is its particular concern for the beauty of this world, a thing made that much more beautiful, Robinson suggests, because it is a temporal experience never to be had again once we find ourselves on the other side, that is, in eternity. Check out this gorgeous excerpt, again from the voice of John Ames, who is writing out his soul to his young son, knowing his end is nearing:
“I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try” (57).
This year I finally read Marilynne Robinson’s celebrated Gilead (Picador, 2004). This is a deeply beautiful novel, written as a series of letters from a dying father to his seven-year-old son. The setting is 1950s Iowa and the father is one in a long line of ministers, so themes revolving around faith and theology, sin and redemption, are prominent throughout the book. Robinson has been rightly praised for writing a book which, as the Washington Post put it, is “so serenely beautiful and written in a prose so gravely measured and thoughtful, that one feels touched with grace just to read it.” It is this “touch of grace” that I was most impressed with: It is as if hundreds of pages in this book drip with beauty, with words capturing the quotidian glory of, say, the reflection of light in water as a baby is baptized, or the quiet courage of a woman (the narrator’s wife) whose uniquely trying life demanded of her a special courage. In this and I hope two more posts I’ll share excerpts that are representative of the profoundly beautiful and in many places intimate language that Robinson is known for. This first excerpt is the opening paragraph; I especially admire the rhythm of the dialogue in the first lines:
“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 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 an 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 unsigned after I’ve suffered one of those looks. I will miss them.” (3)