Which book am I most looking forward to in 2014? Perhaps, surprisingly, Marilynne Robinson’s forthcoming novel, Lila. Robinson’s life and writing is suffused with religious faith, indeed with a strong-souled Calvinism (though, improbably, she tends to see John Calvin more as a kind of Erasmus-like humanist than as the firebrand preacher who railed against the human race as constituting a ‘teeming horde of infamies’). Her most celebrated collection of essays, The Death of Adam, she describes as ‘contrarian in method and spirit’. It is an unfashionably sturdy defence of Calvinism. It is an equally unfashionable call to arms against cynicism:

When a good man or woman stumbles, we say, ‘I knew it all along,’ and when a bad one has a gracious moment, we sneer at the hypocrisy. It is as if there is nothing to mourn or to admire, only a hidden narrative now and then apparent through the false, surface narrative. And the hidden narrative, because it is ugly and sinister, is therefore true.

We have been, Robinson observes acutely, ‘launched on a great campaign to deromanticize everything, even while we are eager to insist that more or less everything that matters is a romance’. It is this combination of cynicism and sentimentality that oozes through much of contemporary life and against which Robinson bears arms.

There is much on which I disagree with Robinson, for there is a great distance between her view of the world and mine. And yet even in her wrongness she often possesses the power to illuminate and to make you question your certainties. And even in her wrongness the grace of her writing makes reading both a pleasure and an education.

It is Robinson’s fiction that this grace truly haunts. Her novels allows me both to apprehend a world that would otherwise be closed to me, and to translate her sense of awe and wonder into a language that I can inhabit.

Lila is rooted in the same fictional world as her previous two novels Gilead (which won the Pulitzer prize in 2005) and Home. Gilead in particular is a remarkable work. Set in 1956, the story is narrated by John Ames, the Congregationalist minister of a small Iowa community, a man in his seventies, married to a much younger second wife, Lila (whose story Robinson’s forthcoming novel relates), and with a seven-year-old son. Ames has a bad heart, and knows that he may never have the chance to tell his son all that he wishes to. The novel is in the form of a letter from father to son, a letter that looks back on Ames’ life, and those of his father and grandfather, in a narrative that finds its roots in the days before the Civil War.

What makes Robinson’s fiction so luminous is her exquisite control over language, the austere beauty and intense poetry she brings to every page. Her prose is spare and sinewy – she mostly disdains adjectives and adverbs – and is suffused, as the critic James Wood has put it,  ‘with a Protestant bareness’ that recalls both the English poet George Herbert and ‘the American religious spirit that produced Congregationalism and 19th-century Transcendentalism and those bareback religious riders Emerson, Thoreau and Melville.’


There is in Robinson’s writing, as Wood observes, a spiritual force that clearly springs from her religious faith. It is nevertheless a spiritual force that transcends the merely religious. ‘There is a grandeur in this vision of life’, Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species, expressing his awe at nature’s creation of ‘endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful’. The springs of Robinson’s awe are different from those of Darwin’s. And yet she too finds grandeur in all that she touches, whether in the simple details of everyday life or in the great moral dilemmas of human existence. It is a sensibility that she imparts to Ames. Consider, for instance, this passage from Gilead in which the pastor, on his way to church, comes across a young couple walking ahead of him in the street:

The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it.

Ames, like Robinson, possesses a rare gift for uncovering the poetry even of the mundane. Robinson would probably describe it as the uncovering of a divine presence in the world. But it is also the uncovering of something very human, a celebration of our ability to find the poetic and the transcendent, not through invoking the divine, but as a replacement for the divine. I am reminded of Pablo Neruda’s Ode to Things:

I have a crazy,
crazy love of things.
I like pliers,
and scissors.
I love
and bowls –
not to speak, of course,
of hats.
I love
all things,
not just
the grandest,
small –
and flower vases.

Oh yes,
the planet
is sublime!
It’s full of pipes
through tobacco smoke,
and keys
and salt shakers –
I mean,
that is made
by the hand of man, every little thing:
shapely shoes,
and fabric,
and each new
bloodless birth
of gold,
carpenter’s nails,
clocks, compasses,
coins, and the so-soft
softness of chairs.

Mankind has
oh so many
Built them of wool
and of wood,
of glass and
of rope:
ships, and stairways.

I love
not because they are
or sweet-smelling
but because,
I don’t know,
this ocean is yours,
and mine;
these buttons
and wheels
and little
fans upon
whose feathers
love has scattered
its blossoms,
glasses, knives and
scissors –
all bear
the trace
of someone’s fingers
on their handle or surface,
the trace of a distant hand
in the depths of forgetfulness.

I pause in houses,
streets and
touching things,
identifying objects
that I secretly covet;
this one because it rings,
that one because
it’s as soft
as the softness of a woman’s hip,
that one there for its deep-sea color,
and that one for its velvet feel.

O irrevocable
of things:
no one can say
that I loved
or the plants of the jungle and the field,
that I loved
those things that leap and climb, desire, and survive.
It’s not true:
many things conspired
to tell me the whole story.
Not only did they touch me,
or my hand touched them:
they were
so close
that they were a part
of my being,
they were so alive with me
that they lived half my life
and will die half my death.

As writers, and as thinkers, the Calvinist Robinson and the communist Neruda have little  in common. Except, that is, for the grace that haunts both their work and the almost magical power that both possess to release the poetic from unexplored nooks and crannies. And in possessing that gift, both possess too the power to release and to celebrate our humanness.


  1. She wrote the introduction to a selection from Calvin’s writings. I have it, but have not read it. Any faith that can produce both John Brown and Andrew Carnegie is worth taking seriously.

  2. I first fell for her work with Housekeeping as a young man, and look forward to her further work. It was good of you to highlight her, and to be explicitly inclusive about her Calvinism.

    The bad news is that there’s no more tangible logos than precisely this kind of inspiration and awareness that can lead us to reasonable futures. It’s an understandable mistake, then, to assert that science affords us the best window into life, because it’s so categorical and discrete- it seems a way to hotwire our way to optimization. Science should be paid the high compliment of getting things half-right, in the sense of being a good proxy for the “replacement for the divine”. We are poor merchants of science’s ready stores not because of bad luck, or tough logistics, or budget battles, or an evil dictator or two. Useful science goes begging because of our poverty in the poesis that gives breath, context, and meaning to that science. There’s a reason why the root of the word poetry is “to make”: In the absence of proper vision, science propels recklessly, and misguides more than it reveals. That’s the danger that this coming age of science occludes from society: its priests, whose words will likely be at least 98% spot on, will unwittingly steer largely subconscious-driven efforts, with cruelties and casualties that will only be clear through hindsight.

    Neruda and Robinson, the atheist and believer, stand quite close to one another for a greater reason than their shared ability to see and translate. I think the distance between “divine” and “replacement for the divine” will end up no distance at all once we humans move out of this furious early pubescence of ours- it will be a difference without useful distinction. For many of us already, the clamor between amounts to a bit of semiotics and highjacked imagination. We need this world revealed to us as a place where infinite truths are created, tended, and destroyed, like these scenes of soaked lovers under trees, or bowls that become a part of us. Poetry is our scant cataloguing of these infinite pieces of existence, but they’re only available to us when we observe closely, or when we’re shown by others. Standing more properly, then, neck-deep in the garden of such things, we will never see well where communism and Calvinism diverge and combine. We shed some questions in that garden, gain many more, and make connections we couldn’t have seen before. Humanity’s overarching truths will continue to be torn down and rebuilt that way, from below, as the complexity and beauty of life is mapped out by a people who pay attention to the endless small truths that inexorably arise around and within us. I don’t think it happens with any real efficacy any other way.

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