Thursday, 31 May 2012

Hearing Marilynne Robinson

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:
"This girl is wondering why I haven't published any poetry.  That's because she hasn't read my poetry!  I would if I could."


20 comments:

  1. I already told you about seeing Marilynne Robinson myself a few years ago. It was a thrill, and I agree that she's really interesting to listen to in a Q&A. And after reading her new collection, I can see why that would be. She's interested in so many different things and her knowledge is so wide-ranging that she ends up with lots of original thoughts to share.

    As for the stereotypes of different regions of the U.S. There's definitely a popular notion that people of the mid-west are not particularly intellectual and don't do much worthy of writing about. That's not true, of course, but it's a common belief. (The region is often called flyover country because people fly over it to get from one coast to another.) I think the reality is just that the coasts are more densely populated and have more major universities, cultural institutions, and such, so they end up dominating the conversation.

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    1. She's such an interesting - and interested - person!

      Thanks for explaining regional stereotypes for me :) I suppose I can see where that has developed from - in the UK we have universities etc. pretty much everywhere.

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  2. So exciting! Sounds like she is a good author to see speak, at least when it's not scripted! I love her writing and I think it would be really interesting to hear her opinions, though I have been a bit nervous of picking up When I was a Child I Read Books.

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    1. I'm still a bit nervous about picking it up - when she does a Q&A it's wonderful, but her writing about politics and philosophy still baffles me rather.

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  3. Place is very important in American literature. Think of Welty, Twain, Cather, Maxwell for instance and you can see how the setting is an integral part of the novel's structure. Also keep in mind that the US is HUGE and very diverse and Americans are much more complicated than they are sometimes represented. We also drive very long distances without blinking an eye. I remember the first time we went to England and drove up from Dorset to visit someone in the Cotswolds. They were amazed that we drove that far in a short time.

    By the way, I think you would love Housekeeping. After that we waited forever for Gilead to appear. Great post, Simon.

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    1. This was from EllenB in NYC. It posted without asking me!

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    2. Thanks Ellen!

      Although I've read some Welty, Cather, and Maxwell, I haven't the smallest idea in which part of the US they were set... oops! I can see how place can be important - especially types of place - but I still think it's ridiculous to say that there can be any geographical location intrinsically unsuited for great literature. I'm sure you'd agree with me! But I should pay more attention to which states they choose.

      Housekeeping is definitely on must-read-soon pile... as is Home.

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    3. Yes, of course I agree! Have you read My Antonia or O Pioneers by Cather? The Nebraska setting is important in those books, but of course since she was a genius those works transcend their settings and cannot be so easily pigeon holed as solely regional work. I don't know what you think of Mary Webb, but Precious Bane for instance could be read as a regional book certainly with those regional accents! But surely it's so much more than that alone.

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  4. It sounds like a fascinating talk and love her poetry disclaimer :) I love Housekeeping (and the film is interesting as well). I've lived in Boston, the San Francisco area, the Central Valley, near Chicago, Los Alamos and Long Island and everyone of those places were so different geographically and esp climate wise. Also I was surprised by how much (education esp.) was in each State's control. Each time was I think a bigger change than moving from SwitzerFrance to Britain. I think the cliche anyway is that the midwest is very insular.

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    1. There's a film? That I did not know, thank you!

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  5. Although I now live in Australia I grew up in Michigan which is the midwest (the state that looks like a mitten with all the lakes around it). There are great writers in the midwest but the east has the Ivy League universities, Princeton, Harvard, Yale, etc, etc. and New York City with it's culture and Washington DC etc... the midwest has farming communities (conservative) and industrial as well as many of the Big 10 Universities that are also good. The north still think the south is as different now as it was 150 years ago and of course the west is the west and then there is California. A big diverse country but great writers can creep out of any location. It will always be an interesting debate. Pam

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    1. Gosh! All very complicated. I suppose it compares to English thoughts about European countries, maybe?

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  6. Sounds like a wonderful evening, thanks for sharing it! to add to your geographical and cultural knowledge of the US, I currently live in Minnesota which is in the upper Midwest and borders Iowa on the south (we make fun of people from Iowa but then they make fun of people from Minnesota) and Canada on the north. I grew up in California. The people who live on the coasts think they are the only ones that have culture or anything interesting going on. They think the Midwest is full of farmers and all we have to do for fun is watch the corn grow. Midwesterners think the people on the coasts are arrogant, pushy and rude. As others have said, the US is HUGE, and each region has its own culture and predominant character.

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    1. Thanks for the perspective, Stefanie - I am learning a lot today about US geography, identities, and stereotypes!

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  7. Barbara M. in NH31 May 2012 20:13

    There are a lot of Americans who don't know where Iowa is! When we moved from Iowa to the New York City area, we found a lot of people who were confused..... "Oh, Iowa..... the potato state," they would say. "No, Idaho is the potato state." Or.... "Iowa..... I have a friend who grew up in Columbus." "No," I'd say, ""Columbus is in Ohio." Our daughter, who was 11 when we moved, asked us if she could have a t-shirt made to say: "Yes, I lived in Iowa. No, we did not raise pigs!"

    Personally, I found NYC much more insular than Iowa.... Mid-westerners follow national news, while many New Yorkers seem to feel if it isn't happening in the tri-state area (New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut) it really isn't important.

    We have moved a great deal and have found lovely intelligent people everywhere we have lived. But NY was my least favorite..... Chicago and London rated well ahead of the NYC area for me. Now I live in New Hampshire and love it..... small enough to be manageable and big enough to be interesting, and nice enough to be curious about the rest of the US.

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    1. Hilarious, Barbara! But it does reveal a lot, too... Hardly anyone in Oxford seems to know where Worcestershire, where I grew up, is - and it's only an hour and a half away!

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  9. Simon, thanks for linking to my piece in the Cherwell & also commenting. She was lovely. I've been enjoying your blog for over two years now, having started in the US and then moved to Oxford. It's great to connect on the interweb - Do let me know if you have any Oxford blogging get-togethers.

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  10. Hi and thanks for linking to my blog! Your report of the evening is great. I'd forgotten she made that funny comment about writing poetry!

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  11. I read all three of Robinson's novels last year and loved them. I was thrilled to find out that she has several books of essays. I'm currently reading When I Was A Child I Read Books. I'm curious if she is going to write any more novels surrounding Gilead. I'd love to find out more details about the back story of John Ames' wife.

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