It’s a frustrating job trying to reason with people who believe that certain types of books – no matter how well written, sensitive or empathetic – just aren’t relevant to them because of the place or time period they are set in. You’d be surprised how many people I know (and I’m talking about dedicated readers, people who are capable of writing thoughtful reviews themselves) who will cheerfully read the most mediocre Indian fiction in English but will be close-minded to some of the world’s greatest writers – Roth, Murakami, Marquez for instance – because, as Indians living in a particular world, dealing with particular issues, they can’t “relate to them”.
I suppose I shouldn’t be judgemental – to each his own, and why interfere with other people’s reading tastes etc– but this irks because these are people who I’m convinced would get a lot out of the books they reject, if only they opened their minds and hearts to them.
I was thinking about all this as I came to the end of Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer-winning Gilead, a quiet, graceful little book that on the face of it seems to have so little to do with “our world”. It’s set in 1956 in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, and it’s told in the voice of a 76-year-old man who has seen scarcely anything of the world outside this town: this is Reverend John Ames, in the twilight of his life, writing a book-length letter to his seven-year-old son who he fears will never really get to know him.
In Gilead, Robinson’s simple, beautiful prose gives us the story of a man unafraid to admit that even after a lifetime of prayer he sometimes struggles with the moral compass, and with his own flaws. In his soft, measured way the reverend admits to feelings of insecurity, even jealousy, the pain of a life marked by patches of deep loneliness, an inability to forgive certain things and to come to terms with the unhappy relationship between his pacifist father and his abolitionist grandfather, a relationship that cast a pall over the family. He also mulls on death and atheism, speaks with wonder about the beauty there is to be found in the littlest, most everyday things, discusses his experience baptizing a litter of kittens (“the sensation of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same thing”). There is deep, residual melancholy as he talks of a girl he was briefly married to in his youth, who died in childbirth, and his daughter, who would have been 51 years old if she’d survived.
At the heart of the reverend’s story is his relationship with his best friend’s son, named after him, who did something terrible a long time ago, something the reverend has never been able to find it in his heart to forgive or understand. The sin committed by the younger John Ames (impregnating and then deserting a young girl) goes so far against the grain of the reverend’s own strong feelings about the responsibilities parents have towards their children (feelings that are exacerbated by the loss of his own wife and child 50 years earlier) that it takes him the span of the book to conquer his bitterness and make his peace with his namesake. But the reconciliation, when it comes, is therapeutic for both men.
The basic structure of Gilead might seem like something from the self-help section of a bookstore, but it’s deeper, more thoughtful and ambiguous than the “Monk Who Sold his Alchemist” variety of titles. Having said that, it won’t appeal to all readers, especially those who might get put off by the specificity of Christian references. I wanted to take the easy way out and not write about it at all. Partly because the reading experience was a strange one - while reading it I just went along with the flow of Robinson’s story. I was carried along by her soothing writing style and didn’t think too deeply about the things the book was trying to say, or its merits and demerits. (Maybe that’s the best approach anyway, but it’s a difficult one when you’re reviewing professionally.) When you’re moving gently to and fro in a rocking chair and everything around you is still and quiet and there’s a cool breeze blowing, you don’t necessarily want to think very profound thoughts.
But if I really like something, at whatever level, I try to write about it regardless of how scattered my thoughts are. This is a book that grew on me, and having finished it I sometimes open it and read a passage at random, to soak in the beauty of Robinson’s writing.
Here’s a passage for instance that somehow reminds me of the beautiful evening scene in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, where the knight and his squire have a rare moment of respite, eating strawberries and milk with the performing troupe.
“The moon looks wonderful in this warm evening light, just as a candle flame looks beautiful in the light of morning. Light within light. It seems like a metaphor for something. So much does. Ralph Waldo Emerson is excellent on this point.
It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within the great general light of existence. Or it seems like poetry within language. Perhaps wisdom within experience. Or marriage within friendship and love. I’ll try to remember to use this.”