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Marilynne Robinson

Last night I was lucky enough to go to a reading by Marilynne Robinson in Blackwells Bookshop in Oxford. First Marilynne read two extracts, one from her latest book, the collection of essays When I Was A Child, I Read Books, and the other from her beautiful novel Gilead. The essay extract was an interesting piece about her childhood and the culture of the American West, where she grew up. It seemed to be a response to people who find it difficult to believe that she became a writer after growing up in Idaho, and are curious about how she could possibly have ended up being educated and writing books. The extract from Gilead described how the narrator, John Ames, fell in love with his wife after seeing her in the congregation of the church where he preached. I liked the way Marilynne read – it was very expressive but gentle and relaxed. She also brought out the humour of the passage, so that I was surprised by how funny it was (I remember Gilead as being a more serious and poetic novel).

The reading was followed by a discussion based on audience questions, which were mainly about her essays and her thoughts on religion, science, politics and history. I have read all (three) of Marilynne Robinson’s novels and like them very much (my favourite is Home which I liked even more than Gilead) but I have never read her non-fiction collections. Maybe because of this, I would have liked to hear more about her fiction (although I am a hypocrite and never dare to ask questions at these kinds of events!). I was interested to find out that she wrote Housekeeping partly in order to inform people about, or explore, the experience of living in such a remote place. I also liked a question that was asked about where the character of Ames came from. Marilynne’s answer was that Ames presented himself to her when she was staying alone in a hotel room – that she suddenly felt this man’s voice taking over her mind. She said she wasn’t surprised that she’d imagined a minister but she was surprised that he was a man who liked baseball! That must be an example of real inspiration. 

I have also read several books recently, all of which I quite enjoyed but none of which I feel compelled to write whole posts about, so I will be very quick! Wanting to read more by Muriel Spark, I chose The Driver’s Seat, a novella about a young woman who goes on holiday by herself to an unnamed foreign city. It proved to be a dark and twisted story with the atmosphere of a bad dream, if the dream also had some comic moments. The concept behind the novel was interesting and unusual enough in itself to keep me reading. I’m not sure whether this concept, a surreal crime story, is based on psychological insight into the character of Lise or is just meant to be bizarre and playful. I’m leaning towards the psychological interpretation because that’s what I find more interesting but there is a kind of distance and lack of emotion in the narration that makes me unsure. I also read Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay, another dark but not entirely serious tale, after Litlove’s review made me curious, and found the central mystery and the atmosphere of the novel quite compelling. And at the other end of the spectrum, I read The New Moon with the Old by Dodie Smith, which wasn’t dark in the slightest but was charming and whimsical.

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