Tuesday 11 January 2022

Housekeeping Again

 I first became aware of Marilynne Robinson when I read an essay by her in the TLS, shortly after her first novel Housekeeping was published. I only recall that it had something to do with the now famous passage in the novel that begins 'Imagine a Carthage sown with salt...' – and that I was practically gasping with astonished admiration as I read it. Here was someone who wrote like no one else, and who seemed to inhabit a realm of mental and moral seriousness long ago abandoned by most writers: she spoke as if from another age, or none. I duly read Housekeeping and was not disappointed: indeed I found it the most impressive contemporary novel I had read in a long while. After that, Robinson maintained silence on the fiction front for nearly a quarter of a century, while I sustained myself on the wonderful essay collection The Death of Adam and even on Mother Country, half of which is a brilliant demolition of what might be called 'political economy'. 
  Then, in 2004, came Gilead, and everything changed. Suddenly Robinson became a popular, prize-winning author – an effect that was only amplified when Home won the Orange Prize, among other awards. I loved Gilead, finding it very nearly as impressive – and as different – as Housekeeping, but, sad to say, Robinson began to lose me with Home, which I found a struggle to admire: I got there in the end, but I don't think I would ever reread Home, and I have never read its successors. With fame, Robinson, once so refreshingly reticent, began to have a public voice, to be interviewed and asked her opinion on public affairs, to be, in a word, a kind of literary celebrity. She became less interesting, and, though it grieves me to report it, I began not only to lose interest but to detect something almost of smugness about her public persona. This is no doubt grossly unfair of me – I am talking only of impressions – but it reminded me of a similar transition in Hilary Mantel, another writer (by no means Robinson's equal) whose early work I greatly admired, and who seems to have been adversely affected by fame.
  Anyway, all this is by way of saying that, after an interval of a decade or more, I decided to reread Housekeeping again. Would I find it as impressive, as original, as altogether extraordinary as I remembered it? Happily, the answer is an emphatic Yes. This astonishing novel  has a uniquely evanescent, indeterminate quality, unstable as the water that is its element; it is like a kind of mirror, but a mirror at once reflective and transparent (like the surface of water). It simply is the mystifying world its young narrator lives in, a world in which she is forever trying to find a path and a meaning – and, above all, a home. Having read it once again, I am as convinced as ever that it is a classic, one of very few written in our times. 
'Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water–-peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savours of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing–-the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again.'

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