Take the one – the unforgettable one in Gilead – of the burning church and the children under the wooden cart watching, and the parishioners and Ames’ father the vicar are trying to save things from the church. Part way through, he leaves and comes over to his son and gives him some bread.
‘My father brought me some biscuit that had soot on it from his hands. ‘Never mind,’ he said, ‘there’s nothing cleaner than ash.’ But it affected the taste of the biscuit, which I thought might resemble the bread of affliction, which was often mentioned in those days, though it’s rather forgotten now.’ (p.108)Reverend John Ames - Methodist and man of principle - goes on then to talk from the present about how thinking back to hard times enhances the value of them.
‘ … you never do know the actual nature even of your own experience. Or perhaps it has no fixed and certain nature. I remember my father down on his heels in the rain, water dripping from his hat, feeding me biscuit from his scorched hand, with that old blackened wreck of a church behind me and steam rising where the rain fell on embers, the rain falling in gusts and the women singing….It was so joyful and sad. I mention it again because it seems to me much of my life was comprehended in that moment. Grief itself has often returned me to that morning, when I took communion from my father’s hand. I remember it as communion, and I believe that’s what it was.’ (p. 109)Six pages later, after talking about his grandfather and about his son playing ball, Ames says:
‘When things are taking their ordinary course, it is hard to remember what matters. There are so many things you would never think to tell anyone. And I believe they may be the things that mean most to you, and that even your own child would have to know in order to know you well at all. I remember the day in my childhood when I lay under the wagon with the other little children, watching them pull down the ruins of that Baptist Church, and my father brought me a piece of biscuit for my lunch, and I crawled out and knelt with him there, in the rain. I remember it as if he broke the bread and put a bit of it in my mouth, though I know he didn’t. His hands and his face were black with ash – he looked charred, like one of the old martyrs – and he knelt there in the rain and brought a piece of biscuit out from inside his shirt and he did break it, that’s true and gave half to me and are the other half himself. And it truly was the bread of affliction, because everyone was poor then.’
The writing is so precise and so eloquent, so subtle and deliberate, so full of gravity. Robinson winds in and out of an idea, working on it and recreating it, giving it meaning. But not, cleverly not, telling us fully what that meaning is.
Ames talks about how when we die fear and grief will come to nothing and then he says that surely that’s not so because that would mean we’d forgotten that we’d lived. He continues, ‘Sorrow seems to me to be a great part of the substance of human life.’ There is something about this writing – it seems to me that every word is ineluctable, each letter is perfectly formed and leaning on the one before, the ‘o’s’ are rounder than usual, letting the air through like a deep sigh.
Robinson is a writer who does that Henry James thing: 'No themes are so human as those that reflect for us, out of the confusion of life, the close connexion of bliss and bale..' Which is also very much the theme of my week, which is why I've thought of Gilead, perhaps, a book I read in 2005. You see, my son Paul is 20 today which is cause for huge celebration, and yet a week ago, my friend Kirk (47) took his own life by stepping out in front of a 160kph train. It appears the melt-down in the financial markets is to blame.
This post is adapted from my reading journal for the MA in Creative Writing at Victoria University(2005). Marilynne Robinson also wrote the award-winning Housekeeping (1980) and has just published Home which has many of the same characters as Gilead but is not meant to be a sequel. And here is an in-depth interview with her courtesy of the Paris Review.