Gilead

By Marilynne Robinson

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

“I can tell you this, that if I’d married some rosy dame and she had given me ten children and they had each given me ten grandchildren, I’d leave them all, on Christmas Eve, on the coldest night of the world, and walk a thousand miles just for the sight of your face, your mother’s face. And if I never found you, my comfort would be in that hope, which could not exist in the whole of Creation except in my heart and in the heart of the Lord. That is just a way of saying I could never thank God sufficiently for the splendor He has hidden from the world – your mother excepted, of course – and revealed to me in your sweetly ordinary face.” (p. 237)

The trouble is, I have never been any good at writing about love.

I’ve tried to write this review at least a dozen times now, beginning and re-beginning, deleting everything that I had written before and attempting again. I have adopted different stances, approached from different angles, in my attempt to talk about this book, but I can’t seem to find the words, to explain sufficiently what I felt when I read it.

And that’s because I’ve never been any good at writing about love.

Gilead‘ is a novel about love, a novel in the form of a letter from a dying father to his son. Ames is a preacher in Gilead, Iowa, the son and grandson of preachers. He is already an old man, a lonely, good man, when he meets and marries a much younger woman, who bears him a son at the age of seventy. When his son is seven, Ames is told that he, Ames, has angina pectoralis and will die within the year. Because he knows that he will never see his son grow up, because he knows that his son will probably not even remember him, Ames writes his son a letter, containing all the love and all the wisdom that he would have parceled out to him over the course of a normal lifetime.

I took a day off from work to read ‘Gilead‘. I began it late on a Monday night, and was pulled so quickly and so completely into it that I took off work on Tuesday and finished it. I have never done that before, missed work just to read.

I have cried while reading books before – it is (very) rare, but it happens. I can count the books which have wrung tears from me on one hand (it’s three*). I can recall, almost word for word, the single passage in each one which did it.

(*’A Primate’s Memoir‘, by Robert Sapolsky; ‘Moonfleet‘, by J. Meade Falkner; ‘The Story of Edgar Sawtelle‘, by David Wroblewski)

But no book has ever moved me the way this one has. I wept through, well, most of it. Wept actual tears: like, I sat in my comfy chair, in sweatpants and socks, with a box of tissues on hand, and actual tears ran down my actual face. I didn’t weep from from sadness, exactly, because ‘Gilead‘ isn’t a sad book. I wept from the disorientation that comes from being overwhelmed, from confusion, and from a tremendous longing to be happy.

Gilead‘ is a novel about happiness, and about goodness, and about God, but those words, ‘novel’, and ‘about’, are misleading. ‘Gilead’ resists concepts like plot (to the consternation of its detractors). It isn’t a story, per se – it is the examination of a life at its end. It is a window into one man’s heart, and the fact that the man has not technically ever existed does not mean that he is not real. Because he is now as real to me as any character I have ever encountered in print.

“I’d never have believed I’d see a wife of mine doting on a child of mine. It still amazes me every time I think of it. I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. 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.” (p. 52)

My reaction, I should mention, is personal. I’m not the only person who loves this book, obviously – it won the Pulitzer – but a quick spin around the internet reveals the existence of an alienated minority who say things like, “the writing was very boring”; “I found this book dull and tedious”; “just really, really hated this book”; “no subject or plot or story or conclusion”; “I’m so glad that’s over”.

Marilynne Robinson

They aren’t wrong – Tom Clancy this is not. ‘Gilead‘ isn’t a sermon, exactly, but it is a meditation. A meditation on love, on whether true love of another and true love of God are both possible; on what it means to lead a good and virtuous life, on whether it is more important to be good or to be happy, on whether it is possible to be one and not the other; on what it means to love with humility, and what it means to die after having known joy.

If that sounds boring to you, please rest assured: I agree with you. It does sound boring. It sounds awful. I don’t think, if I had known what it was about, that I would have read it. And, despite having thought about it for weeks now, I’m still not sure why it isn’t boring. All I know is that, somehow, despite being about things which don’t really interest me (God, love, goodness, humility) and not at all about the things which do (sex, violence, zombies, epidemics, space battles, hyperinflation, sex, satanism, algorithms, time travel, sex), this book absolutely whuped my heart’s ass.

I know that this is insufficient. I know that I am failing, badly, to express how I feel. And I feel particularly terrible about it, about failing this particular book in this way, because the more a book moves you, the more you want to be moving about it. But I’ve never been good at talking about love, and that’s what this book made me feel. I’m not saying that I love this book – I’m saying that this book made me feel love. And I have thought about happiness, about how to live it, about how much I want it, every single day since I read it.

Some books are events in your life. Not many – only a few. Even people like me, maybe especially people like me, people for whom books are a life, even we don’t get many of these books. ‘Gilead‘ is one of my few. I have never been able to figure out whether there is rhyme or reason to which books reach out and grab you, but I suspect that there isn’t. I think, actually, that it’s just like love: in a long, lucky life, you’ll be side-swiped a few times, without reason, without warning. No way to defend yourself, no way to change back again into the person you were before you got hit. Nothing to do but pick yourself up and go back to work the next day, with puffy eyes, maybe a little wiser, a little better, but maybe not. Different, though, always different.

Julian

By Gore Vidal

All Posts Contain Spoilers

JulianNo one is great at everything.

This is as true of writers as it is of everyone else – no one has mastered all forms.  And, as a reader, one tries to practice tolerance about this: there is no reason to deprive yourself of, say, Paul Theroux’s travelogues (which are astonishing) simply because his novels are…not astonishing.

Nevertheless, it’s always tough when someone you have come to love deeply through one form is disappointing in another.  It’s especially tough when the disappointing form is also the form for which they are most famous.  You expect greatness from them – you’ve seen it elsewhere – but you don’t find greatness.  You find mediocrity which has snuck into the Halls of Greatness behind their other, better work.

And your heart hurts for that writer you love, a little.  Because you know how good they can be at their best.  It’s sad to see them, who can be so wonderful, present themselves to the world in this less-flattering light.

I’m trying to explain my overwrought, emotional reaction to reading Gore Vidal’s novels.

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Gore Vidal

As I have mentioned, I came to Gore Vidal through his essays.  And I fell in love with him.  This was the real deal – this was Great Love.  I thought he was magnificent.  I would have followed him anywhere.

And so I did – I followed him straightaway to the form for which he is most famous, the form he himself loved the best: the novel.  Vidal was a prolific novelist, writing a total of 30 of them (including the ones he wrote under pseudonyms) in his life.  This was great news for me: I had 30 novels worth of Gore Vidal to get through.  That’s like Christmas x 30!

Or so I thought.

Now, no one writes 30 novels of equal quality.  And, loving him as I do, I wanted to prolong the honeymoon.  So I rolled up to what is considered his best work (or among his best): ‘Julian‘*.

*For the sake of full disclosure, I should mention that I actually read ‘Burr‘ first.  It was even less good, but love dies hard, and since Vidal had at least earned from me an open-hearted shot at his best novel, I put it out of my mind and proceeded to ‘Julian‘.

Julian‘ is the fictional autobiography of Julian Augustus, the last Pagan Emperor of the Roman Empire.  Vidal imagines an unpublished autobiography, dictated by the Emperor on his last campaign, against the Persian King Sapor, and annotated by two of his friends and teachers: the philosophers Libanius and Priscus.

If all that sounds a little convoluted and unclear, let me assure you: it is.  ‘Julian‘ takes a little getting used to.  The narrative switches points of view, bouncing between the dead Julian Augustus and the two living philosophers who quibble with him and with each other as they prepare his manuscript for posthumous publication (this semi-epistulary novel is a form of which Vidal is fond – ‘Burr‘ is also told in part through fictional memoir, part through fictional biographer).  But the reader will get the swing of it pretty quickly, especially once the text finally gets around to introducing Libanius and Priscus in the context of Julian’s life (fair warning: this crucial bit of narrative information only occurs a hundred odd pages into the text, so you fly blind for a while).

Julian‘ isn’t a bad novel.  It’s actually a lot better than I thought it was, halfway through.  But it isn’t a great novel.  It is, like most of us, deeply imperfect: it has real strengths and real weaknesses.

I don’t like trashing Vidal, whose essays will remain on my Desert Island Reading List, so let’s get the bad over with: ‘Julian‘ is over-stylized.  It’s too long, and it slogs in portions.  These are defensible sins – in fact, in my experience, these sins are characteristic of novels about the Roman Empire.  I suspect that this is because we have imbibed an impression (perhaps from their writing) that the Romans were all August and Imperial, and so we tend to lard our prose about them with pompous and heavy language.  To us, Latin intones, and so we intone about the Latins.  But intonation is no fun to read.

But ‘Julian‘ commits a graver sin: it lacks subtly.  There’s no missing the essential message of this book – it will be spelled out for you, in the form of long, didactic speeches, at least sixteen times.

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The Emperor Julian Augustus

Julian‘ is an anti-Christian polemic.  Julian Augustus was the nephew of the Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Emperor.  Julian was raised Christian, and secretly converted some time before his accession.  When he was made Augustus, he initiated a series of reforms designed to restore Hellenism as the state religion, declaring a reign of religious toleration while subtly persecuting Christians (the point is well made by the text that, compared to what Christians would go on to do both to non-Christians and to each other, Julian’s persecutions really were just minor annoyances).

It would have been sufficient to simply describe Julian’s conversion.  But Vidal’s Julian is a zealot, a man consumed, and he (and his commentators) are prone to long, righteous passages indicting Christians for barbarity, stupidity, religious theft, hypocrisy, you name it.  By the end of the novel, it is very clear that Julian is not the only one locked in idealogical battle against Christianity, that Vidal himself has also taken up rhetorical arms against the Church.

“Preach only the Nazarene’s words and we shall be able to live with one another.  But of course you are not content with those few words.  You add new things daily.  You nibble at Hellenism, you appropriate our holy days, our ceremonies, all in the name of a Jew who knew them not.  You rob us, and reject us, while quoting the arrogant Cyprian who said that outside your faith there can be no salvation!  Is one to believe that a thousand generations of men, among them Plato and Homer, are lost because they did not worship a Jew who was supposed to be god?  A man not born when the world began?  You invite us to believe that the One God is not only ‘jealous,’ as the Jew say, but evil?” (p. 338)

It’s never good news for a novel when a reader is subjected to long diatribes about what are clearly the author’s own views (this is just one of the many, many sins of which Ayn Rand, who is essentially just a megaphone draped in the thinnest of plot, is guilty).  By the end of ‘Julian‘, one has begun to suspect that the whole reason Vidal chose this subject for his novel was so that he could screed against Christianity.  This is not a decision which bears artistic scrutiny.

Which is a shame, because Julian himself turns into an interesting character, and a novel which begins ploddingly becomes kind of gripping.  Vidal’s Julian is a complicated and evolving character, a human being turning into an Emperor, and as he approaches his death, your anxiety rises.  Like a protagonist in any historical novel, Julian’s death is known and certain.  It’s a feat to make a reader care about a Roman Emperor, and it’s a feat to make them fear a certain death, and Vidal does both.

Maybe it’s because Vidal was a brilliant but grandiose man grasping after truth, that he has a gift for understanding other brilliant but grandiose men grasping after truth.  And he has painted a beautiful portrait, and led his Emperor to a death which will distress his readers.  This is no small thing, and I would not want to penalize ‘Julian‘ for my own high expectations.  If anyone else had written ‘Julian’, I would have said it was a decent historical novel.  It was.  It pales in comparison with Vidal’s non-fiction, but it was well worth a read.

I only wish I had read it first, so that I still had something to look forward to.