Monday, April 19, 2010

Gilead, Revisited

Two years ago I wrote the following:
Marilynne Robinson's Gilead is by far the most profound and truly edifying piece of fiction I have read for a very, very long time. Robinson's novel, to my mind, is comparable in spiritual depth to anything written by Chekhov, Flannery O'Conner, or C. S. Lewis. It is also the first novel I have read whose hero is a genuinely good person (something that no less an author than Dostoevsky was unable to accomplish). While a novel of genuine religiosity, there is nothing sanctimonious, saccharine, or sentimental about it. It, in fact, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005 -- which, given its explicitly Christian nature, really rather surprises me. The theology can be a bit Calvinist at times (the protagonist's main theological influences are Calvin and Barth, with Feurbach as his foil), but none of this distracts from the book's profundity. It is, in O'Conner's words, both unexpected and believable.
I have just completed my second reading of Gilead, and remain every bit as impressed and moved as I was upon my initial reading. This is just the sort of slow, meditative book that stands boldly opposed to the sort of instant fix we get on our screens, whether computer or television. To read it is to be reminded of what it is to remember, to contemplate, to pray. It is a book of unusual grace – both in the theological sense and in the aesthetic sense – and of Christian sensibility and charity. Its vision of the world is profoundly sacramental. At its heart is the story of forgiveness and blessing between generations. I can’t think of another novel to which I can compare its depth of thoughtfulness and reflection. It receives my highest recommendation.

Here are two passages I especially enjoyed, in both of which the Rev. John Ames, who is in his seventies, is addressing his son, who is seven. First:
Another morning, thank the Lord. A good night's sleep, and no real discomfort to speak of. A woman in my flock called just after breakfast and asked me to come to her house. She is elderly, recently a widow, all by herself, and she has just moved from her farm to a cottage in town. You can never know what troubles or fears such people have, and I went. It turned out that the problem was her kitchen sink. She told me, considerably amazed that a reversal so drastic could occur in a lawful universe, that hot water came from the cold faucet and cold water from the hot faucet. I suggested she might just decide to take C for hot and H for cold, but she said she liked things to work the way they were supposed to. So I went home and got my screw-driver and came back and switched the handles. She said she guessed that would do until she could get a real plumber. Oh, the clerical life! I think this lady has suspected me of a certain doctrinal sloughing off, and now will be sure of it. The story made your mother laugh, though, so my labors are repaid.
This morning a splendid dawn passed over our house on its way to Kansas. This morning Kansas rolled out of its sleep into a sunlight grandly announced, proclaimed throughout heaven – one more of the very finite number of days that this old prairie has been called Kansas, or Iowa. But it has all been one day, that first day. Light is constant, we just turn over in it. So every day is in fact the selfsame evening and morning. My grandfather's grave turned into the light, and the dew on his weedy little mortality patch was glorious.

'Thou was in Eden, the garden of God; ever precious stone was thy covering, the sardius, the topaz, and the diamond.'

While I'm thinking of it – when you are an old man like I am, you might think of writing some sort of account of yourself, as I am doing. In my experience of it, age has a tendency to make one's sense of oneself harder to maintain, less robust in some ways.

Why do I love the thought of you old? That first twinge of arthritis in your knee is a thing I imagine with all the tenderness I felt when you showed me your loose tooth. Be diligent in your prayers, old man. I hope you will have seen more of the world than I ever got around to seeing – only myself to blame. And I hope you will have read some of my books. And God bless your eyes, and your hearing also, and of course your heart. I wish I could help you carry the weight of many years. But the Lord will have that fatherly satisfaction.


orrologion said...

I agree! There were a few bloggers all mentioning it at once toward the end of 2008. My 'review' is here:

I wasn't as impressed by the follow-up to the book, Home. It had the same style, same feel, same characters even (from a different perspective). I realized that what I missed were the punctuations and deepenings found in the passages to his son. It gave a whole different perspective to the 'action' of the book, they provided context and motivation.

Of course, I probably found those sections moving primarily because I had only just become a father the September prior, so thoughts about the beauty and wonder of this creature/son together with thoughts of how quickly time passes, about how much I could miss, about what he has in store for him, even about how my parents must have looked at me (as a child) in much the same way as I was looking at my son (and thus, how I was stepping into my parents' shoes)...

It's funny, now that I think of it, that the geography and landscape of that small town is taken directly from my the little mining town my mother grew up in in the Upper Midwest.

Great book.

John S. Bell said...

I saw the effusive reviews when it first came out but somehow never bothered to pick it up. After reading about your "re-read" I stopped by the library give it a look. I read the first paragraph, immediately checked it out and have been savoring it slowly since.

Thank you.