Five years

Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove,
That Valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.

And we will sit upon the Rocks,
Seeing the Shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow Rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing Madrigals.

And I will make thee beds of Roses...

(Christopher Marlowe)


How great is that darkness

Imagine my delight when I found this record of my favourite author in conversation with my favourite president. This exchange between Barack Obama and Marilynne Robinson (one of his favourite authors) is an articulate peregrination through contemporary politics, theology and literature. Reading their conversation feels like a glimpse into the kind of exalted correspondence that winds up in a presidential library, or a literary museum.

They talk about a persistent “us versus them” mentality in America, in which Christians are especially implicated. The President asks: “How do you reconcile the idea of [...] taking faith seriously with the fact that, at least in our democracy and our civic discourse, it seems as if folks who take religion the most seriously sometimes are also those who are suspicious of those not like them?” Ms Robinson replies: “Well, I don’t know how seriously they do take their Christianity [...]. I mean, when people are turning in on themselves—and God knows, arming themselves and so on—against the imagined other, they’re not taking their Christianity seriously.” She goes on to say that “Christianity is profoundly counterintuitive—‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’—which I think properly understood means your neighbor is as worthy of love as you are, not that you’re actually going to be capable of this sort of superhuman feat. But you’re supposed to run against the grain. It’s supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to be a challenge.”

Meanwhile, in a lecture named for his favourite Prime Minister, our recent Prime Minister has argued that Christianity must disown itself in order to preserve itself. Or at least that the West should disown Christianity's central idea in order to preserve its Christian character. “Love thy neighbour,” runs his argument, was never meant to apply to people who are not like us, whose preservation might require our sacrifice. Christ, no. Mr Abbott might do well to heed the warning Robinson gives in her new essay “Fear,” which she and Obama discuss: “When Christians abandon Christian standards of behavior in the defense of Christianity [...] they inflict harm that would not be in the power of any enemy. As Christians they risk the kind of harm to themselves to which the Bible applies adjectives like ‘everlasting.’”


Reading Lila: There is nothing lost

People said of Gilead that though it was a religious novel, you didn't have to be religious to enjoy it. You could bask in the elegy, and take or leave the theology. I don't think readers of Lila, Marilynne Robinson's third Gilead novel, have the same choice. Here, Robinson returns to the themes of her first novel Housekeeping: loss, transience, an ambivalence about home, a multivalent poetics of water. But here the waters are deeper, the currents stronger. What falls in is not lost but brought up from the depths, dripping and shining. In the end, nothing is ever really lost.

Here Robinson takes up the grander themes of redemption, judgment, and shame. Where the overwhelming quality of Gilead's narrative voice was radiance, here it's honesty, sometimes brutal, often beautiful. Lila's story unfolds in a kind of loose spiral where glimpses of the gravest things she's seen become gradually clearer. Race is the subtext of the first two novels, but here poverty and want, with their assault on dignity, are the background of Lila's life.

She grows up half wild, during the Depression, on the very edge of an already outcast tribe, raised by a woman whose courage and kindness hide beneath a savage ignorance. Her encounter with Reverend Ames and his entire tradition illuminates the Christian experience from the outside, and, though sweet at times, it can often seem glib. The church carries on its business of fellowship and casseroles, while throbbing hurts go untended. Theology is another language than the one Lila speaks, and yet she can read Ezekiel and find it utterly relevant. Robinson seems to be peeling off the layers of orthodoxy, and churchgoing, to find whatever yet lives within it. And she does find something living, something lovely, though it's bloodier and more wounded than picket-fenced churches show. Death and birth, blood and water, persist beneath the whitewash.

Of the cast of all three novels, Lila herself is probably the least religious, yet her story is the most profoundly spiritual. The plot turns on her salvation, in every sense of that laden word. She's retrieved from a perilous subsistence into the peace and safety of marriage with a respected preacher. She was lost and is found. But this never sits easily with her. She's never quite comfortable with the comfort she's offered. In this way the book asks what it means to be saved, or to be among the saved. At the same time it seems to say that nobody is ever ultimately lost. The people she's known - vagrants and drifters, mostly - though their lives seem utterly fragile and contingent, they persist somewhere, somehow. They outlive their contingencies. They are precious. And Lila can only accept her own savedness if they are saved too.

This is a very tender and profound vision of this perishing world: nothing can be kept, and nothing will be lost. One of Lila's questions is how life in this world is to be endured. But this final story also answers the longing question of Gilead: how can I leave all this behind? Holders of a different doctrine might quibble with this view of salvation for everybody and everything, but this is a portrait of God, refracted through a broken woman, that is full of a kind of raw glory, full of grace and truth. A God who seeks the lost, who reconciles to himself not just the saved but all things.

Gilead won a Pulitzer and Home won the Orange Prize. Lila has won the National Book Critics Circle award, but was overlooked by the Man Booker and other prestigious prizes. To my mind, though, it's the best book Robinson's written, and in time will be acknowledged as one of the truly great American novels. 


Honestly brutal

I couldn’t be happier for Marlon James, who’s just won the Man Booker Prize with his third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings. I like his style and his own story. But I find myself wondering again why bleakness and brutality in literature command so much respect, or at least why they take up so much space. 

In The Guardian’s write-up, James won with an “uncompromising novel not for the faint of heart. It brims with shocking gang violence, swearing, graphic sex, drug crime” and “a lot of laughs.” Indeed the whole shortlist this year was “striking for the grimness of the subject matter and the toughness of the reads,” including Hanya Yanigahara’s A Little Life: “a huge, draining novel which contained some of the most awful accounts of child abuse, cruelty and self-harm that most people are likely to ever read.”

Why are we reading about this, and why are we rewarding those who write about it? Cathartic memoirs are one thing, but the success of fiction that dwells relentlessly in the darkest places - like the Oscar success of Holocaust movies - suggests that we think this is the best art or the art most like life. Is it? 

Critics very often use words like “uncompromising, courageous, unflinching” as terms of praise. Why? What is it that might be compromised? What happens if a writer does fear or flinch? Is a book that doesn’t dwell on what we might as well call evil somehow dishonest or craven? We think it’s gutsy to look, but it’s almost as if we can’t look away; our eyes propped open, Clockwork Orange-style. Yes, we can look at evil, but can we see anything else?

I’ve written before that tragedy has always worn the mantle of greatness, the literary crown. But tragedy and evil are not the same. Hamlet is a great tragedy; Titus Andronicus - a play strewn with rape, murder, mutilation and cannibalism - is just a horror show. Maybe we’ve missed the eclipse of tragic form by unfettered atrocity. Maybe we’ve mistaken the blood and guts for greatness.


Pride and Prejudice and Popcorn

It’s twenty years since the BBC’s definitive Pride and Prejudice, which launched the stellar careers of both Mr Darcy and Colin Firth, and became for many the gold standard of period drama in general, Jane Austen in particular. And it’s ten years since the ‘other’ version: the Keira Knightley one, with Matthew McFadyen as Darcy, Judi Dench as Lady Catherine, Brenda Blethyn and Donald Sutherland as the Bennets, and a then-unknown Carey Mulligan as Kitty. For ten years, prejudice prevented me from watching it, but this year, for some reason, I swallowed my pride. 

To my own surprise, I enjoyed it. It has nothing like the thoroughness or the stateliness, the grace of the BBC’s, but it has pleasures of its own. For one thing, it’s seductively beautiful. It glows. Indoor scenes are rich as Dutch paintings. Outdoors - where a good deal of the action takes place - woods, meadows and rivers shimmer in gorgeous light. Visually, it’s utterly romantic. It’s also, like Dutch painting, appealingly realist. We see washing and cooking as well as talking and dancing. The family shares Longbourn with their farm animals; as Guardian reviewer Peter Bradshaw put it “there is hardly a footfall out of doors that does not dislodge a hen or a goose.” This is of a piece with the film’s generally heightened physicality. Bodies, energies, even hormones, prevail. The electricity between Darcy and Elizabeth is palpable, especially when they touch. At Pemberley, Lizzy visits a gallery not of portraits but of sculptures. It also goes at a breakneck pace. There's hardly a still moment in the entire film.

There are elements here that ring true that were missing from the BBC’s. Keira Knightley’s strikingly lovely Lizzy is youthful and playful, where Jennifer Ehle, lovely though she was, played the part too soberly. Mrs Bennet is softened here, more silly than shrewish. Rosemund Pike’s angelic Jane doesn’t require any suspension of disbelief. Rupert Friend’s Wickham is believably attractive, if a little too dangerous. David Bamber’s Mr Collins would be hard to out-do, but Tom Hollander turns in a very creditable creep.

But other things are not quite right. Lydia is played as a sweet child, rather than an obnoxious teen. Georgiana is a bubbling extravert. Matthew McFadyen, lovely though he is, seemed more sad than proud. Bingley, for some reason, is played as a wittering fool. The Hursts, and Maria Lucas, were entirely absent. Still other things were definitely not right. Anyone who knows the period would find it jarring for Mr Bingley to pop into Jane’s bedchamber while she’s ill at Netherfield, or for Darcy to stride into Elizabeth’s to deliver his letter. Lady Catherine, oddly, shows up at the Bennets’ in the middle of the night. The scene where Lizzy accepts Darcy’s second proposal has them in their respective dressing gowns, meeting on the misty moors before breakfast. Other things feel even less true: Lizzy yelling "Leave me alone!" Charlotte Lucas yelling "Don't you dare judge me!”

These moments jar more on reflection than they do during the film. That’s because they fit into the film’s raised emotional volume, its adolescence, its romanticism. This film does for Austen what Baz Luhrmann did for Shakespeare: it brings great art to a new audience in a way that says more about the audience than the art.   As a movie, it’s enjoyable, but it’s a different kind of joy from the subtler, more decorous kind Austen usually delivers. It’s as if the director, Joe Wright, found the book insufferably tedious and thought he’d like Austen infinitely better if it were louder, grittier, racier - more romantic. Much more romantic, perhaps, but not near so much like Austen.