"Is there no balm in Gilead?"
Three books in and Marilynne Robinson' is clearly creating a body of work which can be compared with any other. I read this and Home back to front (Home is a sequel to Gilead, written from a different perspective) but found that one still deepened the other to an extraordinary degree. I could quite happily spend a lifetime looking at the town of Gilead if each perspective were as beautifully realised as it is in these two extraordinary books. The variations of the story between perspectives have set me to imagining other perspectives and narratives hidden within what we have been given. It seems as blind and fathomless as life itself.
The story is in the form of a letter from the aging Reverend John Ames to his son, firstly telling him of his 'begats' but then increasingly focussing on the prodigal son (John Ames Boughton) of his best friend Reverend Boughton. He was named after John Ames because at the time it seemed that he would have no child of his own. He was old when he met and married the mother of his son. He is now 76 and suffering a heart complaint. His son is six. Death is at the door and he knows that he won't see his son grow up.
Early on he reminisces about going on a journey through drought torn Kansas with his father John Ames to search for the grave of his grandfather, also John Ames. This section was almost reminiscent of The Road, with his father having to scavenge for any kind of food at all, even getting shot at: "That was something to see, my father in his shirtsleeves straddling a rickety old fence with a hank of carrot tops in his hand and a fellow behind him taking aim. We took off into the brush, and when we decided he wasn't going to follow us, we sat down on the ground and my father scraped the dirt off the carrot with his knife and cut it up into pieces and set them on the crown of his hat, which he'd put between us like a table, and then he commenced to say grace, which he never failed to do" "It was like eating a branch, and there was nothing to wash it down with either."
The three generations of Ames (I will call them Grandfather, father and son) were all preachers and one of the key themes of the book is how many different forms of belief there are, as well as forms of unbelief. The grandfather acts from certainty. He had a vision of his Lord in chains and "said he knew then that he had come to Kansas and make himself useful to the cause of abolition." Riding at night with abolitionists, he may have shot and killed a man. When the world becomes less black and white he is somewhat lost - "My grandfather had nowhere to spend his courage, no way to feel it in himself. That was a great pity."
Even when taking his grandson to see a baseball match there is something of the old testament prophet in the least thing that he does. "That day he bought a little bag of licorice, which really did surprise me. Whenever he put his fingers into it, it rattled with the trembling of his hand, and the sound was just like the sound of fire."
I have to include the following sentence describing him which seems to me a masterpiece all on its own. "My grandfather seemed to me stricken and afflicted, and indeed he was, like a man everlastingly struck by lightning, so that there was an ashiness about his clothes and his hair never settled and his eye had a look of tragic alarm when he wasn't actually sleeping."
This is not the religion of the father and the two have serious disagreements about things, the father being particularly anti violence. The son tries to find a middle ground. "I truly believe it is waste and ingratitude not to honor such things as visions, whether you yourself have seen them or not."
He has a sort of vision himself, as the Spanish Influenza that came towards the end of World War 1 struck, that this is a message from God "I believe that plague was a great sign to us, and we refused to see it and take it's meaning, and since then we have had war continuously." "I said, or I meant to say, that these deaths were rescuing foolish young men from the consequences of their own ignorance and courage, that the Lord was gathering them in before they could go off and commit murder against their brothers." When he looks at the congregation ("no more approving of the war than I was") he changes his mind, but he wishes he had "kept it because I meant every word." This sequence struck me as a response to the various reactions to the sermons given in Camus' The Plague.
It also reminded me of Momus' very different take on the Spanish Influenza in the magnificent Morality is Vanity. "All the heroes of Valhalla, weigh less than a virus"
His father is not as certain of his faith as his grandfather. His brother William, considered the brilliant one, leaves the faith and embraces atheism. Finally his father leaves to join his brother and when he returns (on vacation) says that he can no longer preach. It seems that his initial disappointment at Williams' atheism has waned and he has himself followed him into unbelief. "I myself was the good son, so to speak, the one who never left his father's house - even when his father did, a fact which surely puts my credentials beyond all challenge." It is as if even God has stopped believing in himself.
His father's journey away from his faith was largely reading the books that William sent to his brother and the narrator is aware of much sophisticated thought on religion, and indeed is able to say "It seems to me there is less meanness in atheism, by a good measure."
His own belief is not mean, or limited. He believes that "the Lord absolutely transcends any understanding I have of Him, which makes loyalty to Him a different thing from loyalty to whatever customs and doctrines and memories I happen to associate with Him."
He does not deny that these customs and doctrines have fallen far from what might be thought of as man's better side. "The history of the church is very complex, very mingled. I want you to know how aware I am of that fact. These days there are many people who think loyalty to religion is benighted, if its not worse than benighted."
But for all its sophistication and the wonderfully expressive way Robinson has found to integrate thoughts on belief and the practice of religion it is her understanding of the human heart that is the astonishment at the heart of this book, particularly the things that can threaten to break those hearts. The narrator lost a wife early in his life, and an infant daughter too. It left him stranded in loneliness for many years, a condition that can have a good effect on bad books but can leave a life adrift in time:
"You can love a bad book for its haplessness or pomposity or gall, if you have that starveling appetite for things human, which I devoutly hope you never will have. 'The full soul loatheth an honeycomb; but to the hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet.'"
"My own dark time, as I call it, the time of my lonliness, was most of my life, as I have said, and I can't make any account of, myself without speaking of it. The time passed so strangely, as if every winter were the same winter, and every spring the same spring."
This loneliness, however, is framed by his escape from it, a late marriage and son have allowed light to enter areas that were dark. This he sees as a form of redemption and he tries to tell his son how incredible his very existence seems to him: "You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you."
Now he wants nothing more than more winters and more springs to watch his child grow into a man. "I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again."
He describes his son playing with his friend: "you two are dancing around in your little iridescent little downpour, whooping and stomping as sane people ought to do when they encounter a thing so miraculous as water." Water, light, the "twinkling of an eye", there are list of things that make life possible, and also worthwhile. The miracle of existence is described in a way that is comprehensible to believer or atheist. It is the fact of being itself because "there is nothing more astonishing than a human face." "Any human face has a claim on you, because you can't help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it."
But these joys and their consummation in our lives are not always simple and accessible. "Sorrow seems to me to be a great part of the substance of human life." A great part, but not all. Thinking of childhood pranks he played with his childhood friend, Reverend Boughton he writes "All that laughter, I wish I could hear it again." He also writes of how wonderful it is to be able to go back in our memories to particular moments in time.
But it is not just light and water and memories of laughter that can define lives. There are other, darker currents. These seem to pass through John Ames (Jack) Boughton more than most. He has fathered a child when young with an even younger girl. He left the town and the child died, perhaps partly because of neglect. His parents and sister had done all they could to help the mother and child but the girls family had resisted them. "It has been my experience that guilt can burst through the smallest breach and cover the landscape, and abide in it in pools of darknesses, just as native as water."
Over the course of the book we find out why he has come back. In part it is for help, but he finds it hard to accept help, particularly when it is packaged with a judgement. He seems almost preternaturally alert to the feelings of others. "I felt sorry for him, and that's a fact. It seems almost a curse the way he can see through people. of course, I couldn't be honest with him, and there he was watching me as if I were the worst liar in the world, as if I were insulting him, as I suppose in fact I was."
Jack doesn't even define himself as an atheist, saying "'It's probably truer to say I am in a state of categorical unbelief. I don't even believe that God doesn't exist..'" The Reverend Ames withdraws somewhat from arguing for faith, as he wrestles with his feelings towards Jack and his belief that "the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it."
I will sign off with a quote from the Song of Songs the most voluptuous part of the Old Testament (or New) and one which Bob Dylan has used "'I am sick with love.' That's Scripture."
I feel like I have only touched the surface of this book and am certain that I will read both it and Home again. Both are incredibly rich and exciting. I am finding it hard to find traction in another book after reading this. They all seem slight and gauche.