Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Housekeeping

I should say up front that I approached Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (1980) warily. She is someone whose work enough people in my field respect that I ought to have some familiarity with it, but most of the references I have seen or heard have placed her fiction in one of two broad genres I do not tend to enjoy: nature writing and religious writing.

And up until the last two chapters, I have to say I did find the book quite dull, although not entirely for the reasons I had feared. Briefly, the novel focuses on a girl on the verge of puberty, Ruthie (and to a lesser extent her sister Lucille), whose grandfather and mother die in dramatic circumstances. Left in the care of their grandmother, then two great aunts, then their mother’s sister Sylvie, Ruthie and Lucille lose their sense of connection to society. Sylvie herself, still reeling from her own unvanquished grief over her father’s death, does very little except encourage them to embrace a quasi-oblivion in nature and outside the reach of their rural community.

Against the proclamations of Robinson’s lyricism, I found the prose stale, even in the nature scenes where you might expect some transcendental sparkle. Granted, some of this may be due to the novel’s focus on a variety of grief that completely immobilizes you and then transforms you into an outcast. Still, one of the consolations, even payoffs, of this grief is supposed to be a freedom and a curiosity about nature that should come across more beautifully; but, in the inevitable go-to-nature climactic chapter, when Sylvie does finally take Ruthie out on the lake to a place that, she claims, is “really very pretty,” nature feels quite uninteresting.

Strangely enough, it was when the book took a sudden, temporary turn towards religious didacticism late in the book that Robinson’s style suddenly had some lyrical pull. Here is the first paragraph of the penultimate chapter:

Cain murdered Abel, and blood cried out from the earth; the house fell on Job’s children, and a voice was induced or provoked into speaking from a whirlwind; and Rachel mourned for her children; and King David for Absalom. The force behind the movement of time is a mourning that will not be comforted. That is why the first event is known to have been an expulsion, and the last is hoped to be a reconciliation and return. So memory pulls us forward, so prophecy is only brilliant memory—there will be a garden where all of us as one child will sleep in our mother Eve, hooped in her ribs and staved by her spine.

Reading this, I can understand why Robinson has made something of a name for herself as an essayist defending religious humanism. I have no inclination to agree with her viewpoints as they come across in this novel (I suppose Robinson is not the first to take priestly commitments to poverty and turn them into a romance of wasting away), but she works so well with the sudden flourish of allusions to various families in the Old Testament that I could finally, late in the novel, be swept up in her prose. The last image of Eve is so grotesque as to be beautiful.

As a final aside for those who like Housekeeping: I do recommend you read Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s 1822 novel A New-England Tale, which seems to me an implicit reference throughout Robinson’s novel. Sedgwick’s story is a religious fiction with a view of nature verging on what would become Emerson’s transcendentalism. In it, a young girl orphaned when her parents die ends up in the care of an aunt. Sylvie, however, seems modeled less on the aunt than on “Crazy Bet,” a wild woman and vagrant tolerated by the community, who becomes a guiding spirit for the protagonist Jane.

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