Saturday, April 21, 2012
WHEN I WAS A CHILD I READ BOOKS
In her celebrated novels, “Housekeeping” (1981), “Gilead” (2004) and “Home” (2008), Marilynne Robinson gives us “isolated towns and single houses” where the afternoon sun draws “the damp out of the grass and . . . the smell of sour old sap out of the boards on the porch floor.” It is a laconic world where adults conserve “syllables as if to conserve breath” while children brave an “outsized landscape” by day and seek shelter by night even as they long to break away from the “regime of small kindnesses” that makes home both comforting and confining.
Robinson grew up in Idaho and now lives in Iowa — places where, as she puts it in her new collection of personal and critical essays, “When I Was a Child I Read Books,” “ ‘lonesome’ is a word with strongly positive connotations.” In her lexicon, lonesomeness means the opposite of isolation. It envelops the mind and heart in unsullied nature, allowing focused apprehension of the miracle of creation, as when she remembers kneeling alone as a child “by a creek that spilled and pooled among rocks and fallen trees with the unspeakably tender growth of small trees already sprouting from their backs, and thinking, there is only one thing wrong here, which is my own presence, and that is the slightest imaginable intrusion — feeling that my solitude, my loneliness, made me almost acceptable in so sacred a place.”
One inference to be drawn from Robinson’s essays is that her novels contain a good deal of self-portraiture. When she was young, she seems to have been a prairie version of one of J. D. Salinger’s Glass children — except that rather than urbanity, her precociousness took the form of piety. “I looked to Galilee for meaning,” she tells us, “and to Spokane for orthodonture.” Only such a reverent child could have felt, as Ruth, the narrator of “Housekeeping,” feels when the boat she’s in seems about to capsize, that “it was the order of the world that the shell should fall away and that I, the nub, the sleeping germ, should swell and expand.” This kind of high-mindedness can appear a little chastising to those of us who would have worried about drowning.