Friday, 14 October 2011

'Gilead' by Marilynne Robinson — beautiful, modest, reflective

Gilead… now that I am about to leave this world, I realize there is nothing more astonishing than a human face … Any human face is a claim on you, because you can't help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and the loneliness of it.

This is a beautiful novel. Like all my favourite literature (and, I guess, art in general) it wields its immense power with restraint, subtlety, modesty.

It is not a pacey novel. It has relatively little in the way of plot. But it is all about characters. And, hey, here's a thing — have you noticed? — so is life. Or my life is, in any case. It is a wonderful study of a truly good man, a truly humble man and a truly brilliant man. The novel takes the form of a long, digressive journal-cum-letter from an old father, left to the son he does not expect to see grow up.

But what's it about? I guess in a large part it's about religion. Which might put a bunch of you right off. But that would be a gaping great pity, because it's about the sweet human face of religion:

When you love someone … you see her as God sees her, and that is an instruction in the nature of God and humankind and of Being itself.

That's amongst the most beautiful ideas I've read for a while. And however staunch an atheist you may be, if that sentence doesn't give you pause and move you just a little, I'm pretty sorry for you.

(For the record, I'd call myself agnostic — not that this really matters much.)

This book made me think a fair bit about TS Eliot's Ash Wednesday (in fact, at times, Robinson approaches poetry — of the most modest and admirable kind — in her prose: 'Ashy biscuit, summer rain, her hair falling wet around her face'). If you know me, you'll be aware that I powerfully admire that poem (and that poet). Gilead has in common with Ash Wednesday a preoccupation with transience and the frustrating, tantalising beauty of this imperfect world. The difficulty of imagining anything sweeter (heaven) than the fleeting, intoxicating experiences of life on earth:

Whenever I think of Edward, I think of playing catch in a hot street and that wonderful weariness of the arms. I think of leaping after a high throw and that wonderful collaboration of the whole body with itself and that wonderful certainty and amazement when you know the glove is just where it should be. Oh, I will miss the world!

… and …

I wish I could give you the memory I have of your mother that day. I wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am. Well, but again, this life has its own mortal loveliness.

Listen, is your face aching with suppressed tears, yet? Because this is beautiful, powerful stuff. Don't you think?

What Gilead also ends up being about is this: true worth, true wisdom. And I applaud any work of art that celebrates the modest, the unassuming, the loving. Like most of the 'points' this novel makes, it makes this one implicitly, subtly and ambiguously — but in its way it's as much a celebration of the Everyman as was 'Ulysses'. It's a wonderful demonstration of the unshowy brilliance of reflection and self-awareness and humility.

Like I said: a beautiful novel.

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