I mentioned on Twitter a while ago that I’d attended a talk by Marilynne Robinson at Blackwell’s (in Oxford) and promised to write about it. And now, finally, I am! I’ve waited for too long to write this, so I’m having to rely on my dodgy memory…
Last year I did hear Marilynne Robinson give a lecture, and wrote about how star-struck I was then (and you also told me all the exciting authors you’d met). Back then she spoke about philosophy and politics, and I didn’t understand the title of the lecture let alone anything that followed. So it was lovely to hear her give readings from her latest collection of essays, When I Was A Child I Read Books, as well as my beloved Gilead, and then answer questions from the floor.
Oh, but it was wonderful!
She reads undramatically – calmly, sensibly, perhaps. If I call hers a flat voice, then please don’t read that as a criticism – somehow it works, and there is a slight rise and fall at the end of each sentence, which prevents it from becoming monotonous. It is exactly right for the unsensational, intelligent prose which Marilynne Robinson writes, and Gilead would have been ruined in an overly-expressive reading.
Afterwards there were questions. When she is talking spontaneously, rather than from a prepared lecture (a different category, of course, from a reading), she is warm and witty and so very interesting. There were a few questions at the previous talk, and I remember wishing that she’d done more of that – so the event last week was perfect for me. Even though Robinson was still talking about theology and philosophy, alongside her own experience as a novelist, I found it easier to understand. I didn’t make notes, but I’ll try to remember some of it… She spoke eloquently and passionately about the false divide set up between science and religion, and the very reductive models of both which are used in media debates: she is almost as passionate about the wonderful discoveries of science as she is about theology. And in philosophical discussions, she said something I thought very wise, in response to a question about sorrow. (I was a bit confused for a moment, misremembering that a baby in Gilead had been called Sorrow, pace Tess of the D’Ubervilles.) Robinson inveighed against the misdiagnosis and over-diagnosis by doctors, arguing that sorrow is a valid part of human, and just not medical, experience. (Sorrow, of course, is far from being the same thing as depression.)
But this is a book blog, and I shouldn’t be getting too out of my depth. Hearing Robinson speak about writing Gilead was overwhelmingly wonderful – although she spoke about Home and Housekeeping too, it was Gilead which got by far the most attention (thankfully for me, since it is still the only one I’ve read.)
What most interested me was the development of the character John Ames – or, rather, the lack of development. Robinson said that one day his voice simply came into her head, more or less fully-formed. Her comment was that, though she wasn’t surprised that the character was a Christian in Iowa, it was rather more surprising that he was a man who loved baseball…
Incidentally, I know nothing about American geography, nor the stereotypes of these regions. I didn’t know where Iowa was (indeed, the only state I know the location of is New Jersey, and that’s only because a friend at school almost moved there.) In her reading from When I Was A Child I Read Books, Robinson said ‘I find that the hardest work is to convince the world – in fact it may be impossible – is to persuade Easterners that growing up in the West is not intellectually crippling.’ A student newspaper (linked below) mentioned that ‘turning the “middle West” into great literature may seem like an impossible task’, which strikes me as strange. I can’t imagine any location in Britain being considered ill-fitting for great literature – surely the location a book is set has absolutely nothing to do with its literary merit? I’d love to hear what Americans think of this debate…
My memory is terrible. I don’t seem able to recall anything else she said about Gilead, even though I know it was substantial. Apparently Semi-Fictional was also there, so you can read her report, or you can read what the Cherwell student newspaper had to say. (I was once a section editor on the rival student newspaper, OxStu, but they don’t seem to have written about it.)
I’ll finish with one of the funniest moments of what was often a funny evening: