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Thursday, March 5, 2015

Marilynne Robinson

At a glance
by Marilynne Robinson

Farrar Straus Giroux
219 pages, $$13

In March of 1981, shortly after the publication of her novel “Housekeeping, ” writer Marilynne Robinson talked at length with Spokesman-Review reporter Tom Sowa about what her intent had been.

“I think one of the things that interested me was the feeling I had when a child of the humanness of that landscape,” she said. “As I got older I became more aware that for others wilderness landscapes appeared inhuman and unassimilable to human consciousness. Because my experience was so utterly the reverse, I became curious about the way one’s imagination interacts with the landscape.”

Robinson was referring to the childhood that she spent in Eastern Washington and North Idaho, specifically Sandpoint and Coeur d’Alene. In fact, the town in which she sets her novel, Fingerbone, is. . . well, let Ruth, Robinson’s protagonist and narrator, describe the last part of the “fateful journey” on which Ruth’s mother, Helen, takes her and her younger sister, Lucille. The car trip starts in Seattle:

“Helen took us through the mountains and across the desert and into the mountains again and at last to the lake and over the bridge into town. . . .”

So, OK, it’s not exactly Sandpoint. But it’s close.

And in any event, Robinson isn’t describing Sandpoint literally. Like the overall world that Ruth reveals to us, Fingerbone is a creation, a place built between mountains and a lake on terrain during a time “when the dimensions of things modified themselves, leaving a number of puzzling margins. . . .’’ It’s a place as difficult to describe as life itself because, as Ruth tells us, “memories are by their nature fragmented, isolated, and arbitrary as glimpses one has at night through lighted windows.”

The irony is, of course, that Robinson’s life was likely as ordinary as anyone else’s. Born in Sandpoint in 1943, daughter to a timber worker, Robinson spent her childhood moving throughout the Northwest – from Sandpoint to Clarkston to Spokane to Coeur d’Alene, where she graduated from high school.

When her family moved to Bridgeport, Conn., in 1961, Robinson went along. She graduated from Brown University in 1966, then spent three semesters doing post-graduate work in English at the University of Washington. It was then that she began work on “Housekeeping,” which was published in 1980 and ended up both winning the PEN/Hemingway award for best first novel and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

Since leaving the UW, Robinson has lived primarily in the east. She’s the author of two others books – the nonfiction study “Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State and Nuclear Pollution” (1989), which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and an essay collection “The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought” (1998) which, in a positive review, New York Times book reviewer Roger Kimball praised as “a goad to renewed curiosity.”

“In particular, ” Kimball wrote, “Robinson is against that aspect of modern thought – a large and immensely influential aspect – that inculcates cynicism. We often take the extent of one's disillusionment as an index of one's wisdom. Robinson's deeper purpose is to remind us of the culpable folly of such a view. ”

Robinson is held in such high regard as a writer that, in 1998, the American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded her a $250,000 ``Mildred and Harold Strauss Living’’ grant, which was to be paid out in five annual $50,000 payments. Since 1991 an instructor at the acclaimed University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Robinson was, thanks to the award, able to take a leave of absence from teaching and work exclusively on her writing.

It is “Housekeeping,” though, that has earned Robinson the most praise. Just listen to some of the comments:

From the New York Times Book Review: “So precise, so distilled, so beautiful that one doesn’t want to miss any pleasure it might yield.”

From literary critic Anatole Broyard: “Here’s a first novel that sounds as if the author has been treasuring it all her life. . . . You can feel in the book a gathering voluptuous release of confidence, a delighted surprise at the unexpected capacities of language, a close, careful fondness for people that we thought only saints felt.”

And from novelist Doris Lessing: “I found myself reading slowly, then more slowly – this is not a novel to be hurried through, for every sentence is a delight.’’

Not bad for any book, but raves virtually unheard of for a first novel, especially for one with a fairly straightforward plot. Told years afterward by an adult Ruth, the novel involves what happens after the two sisters’ mother returns them to Fingerbone, drops them off with their grandmother, and then promptly commits suicide. For the next few years, the two girls live with the old lady, and when she passes on they live for a short while with a pair of elderly women (the grandmother’s sisters-in-law).

But the novel really begins when the girls’ aunt, Sylvie, returns and they pass into her care. An eccentric woman who is more attune to the voices in her head than anything remotely resembling reality, Sylvie nevertheless is a gentle soul. And in her absent way, she sets the tone for the house. One girl, Ruth, follows along willingly. Lucille balks. And so the family’s history of disruption, begun with their grandfather’s dreamy death in a train accident many years before, continues.

Plot, however, is not as important to Robinson as mood. In relating her themes concerning the connection between humans and the land on which they live, the power of memory not only to distort reality but actually to determine it, and the thin line between the dream and waking life, Robinson coaxes us into the mind of a woman more at home in an existentialist treatise than a popular novel.

As the now-adult Ruth says, “Everything that falls upon the eye is apparition, a sheet dropped over the world’s true workings. The nerves and the brain are tricked, and one is left with dreams that these specters loose their hands from ours and walk away, the curve of the back and the swing of the coat so familiar as to imply that they should be permanent fixtures of the world, when in fact nothing is more perishable.”

This, clearly, is not meant to be realism, which is something that Robinson readily admitted to Sowa.

“I think for the purposes of the book, it’s not just the lake, it’s the world which attracts and destroys us,” Robinson said. “That’s one reason why I avoided making the book specific to Sandpoint or to one period of time. I don’t want to imply there’s a dark tragedy on that landscape and that tragedy avoids other landscapes.”

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