In his early poem 'Mr Edwards and the Spider' Robert Lowell betrayed a precocious obsession with the fate of sinners in the hands of an angry god:
But who can plumb the sinking of that soul?
Josiah Hawley, picture yourself cast
Into a brick-kiln where the blast
Fans your quick vitals to a coal --
If measured by a glass,
How long would it seem burning! Let there pass
A minute, ten, ten trillion; but the blaze
Is infinite, eternal: this is death,
To die and know it. This is the Black Widow, death.
(Josiah [Joseph] Hawley cut his own throat after listening to Jonathan Edwards's hell-fire sermon – everyone's a critic...)
Serenity and resignation; stillness and repose – none of which qualities, or attitudes of spirit, are commended by the pitiless Calvinism explored in Lowell's poem. The grand guignol sadism in evidence here – we the fallen squirming on the spike of God's displeasure – says more about the poet's state of mind than anything about the doctrine itself. But Lowell was drawn to the punitive aspects of American Puritanism. Tant pis.
Blessedly Marilynne Robinson's novel Gilead offers us a picture of the Congregationalist communion not morbidly fixated on spiritual agonies, not at all masochistically overheated. Stillness and repose very much contribute to the emotional atmospherics of the novel. Its narrator – the Reverend John Ames – contemplates his life and imminent death with a clearsightedness and candour that breaks the heart. In his mid-seventies he writes a journal meant to be read by his 7 year-old son, a late child, offering moral instruction for when the father is no longer there.
Ames endears himself as a complex mixture of elderly fussbudget and Emersonian sage; and his remarkable voice, sustained so perfectly through the novel, utters the world and its marvels so gently and raptly. Ames's favourite theologian, it turns out, is Karl Barth; of whom John Updike, bearing as it does on the theme of the novel, has this to say: “Karl Barth's insistence upon the otherness of God seemed to free him to be exceptionally (for a theologian) appreciative and indulgent of this world, the world at hand.” And:
Granted that the situation of the world and of the individual life is as desperate as Barth paints it, and granted that the message of the Bible, and of the Pauline epistles in particular, is just as he explicates it, amid these radical truths how shall we conduct our daily lives? Does not God's absolute otherness diminish to zero the significance of our petty activity and relative morality?
“God is not a God of the dead but of the living” - Ames endorses Barth's dictum, and, page after page, demonstrates how 'appreciative and indulgent' he is 'of this world, the world at hand.' He exults in the thisness of all he observes, in a kind of sensorial gourmandise: “I saw a bubble float past my window, fat and wobbly and ripening toward that dragonfly blue they turn just before they burst... Some of the bubbles drifted up through the branches, even above the trees. You two [Ames's son and his wife] were too intent on the cat to see the celestial consequences of your worldly endeavours.... Ah, this life, this world.” A novel of keen retrospect, Gilead is shot through with such perceptual grace-notes. Ames wants to miss nothing, forget nothing. And this avidity of his, this terminal appetite, makes the prose sing.
Marilynne Robinson excuses herself from the conventional trappings of plot, of narrative progression. Ames digresses, pursues the golden clew of thought and reminiscence, moralises, reflects, holds up his conscience to the light as a jeweller might a precious stone. Robinson allows him all this, allows him the latitude to explore his soul's vagaries; signalling, perhaps, her respect for his predicament – which is ours - and for his integrity. Extraordinarily, Ames seems so present in this work, seems so magically realised, that Robinson the novelist is almost a deus absconditis – Ames absolutely fills this book with his essential self, questing, peevish, awe-struck, ruminative. The novel is a ventriloquial tour de force; by its end, you give yourself over to the almost miraculous illusion of a human being set forth on the page, settled in his ontology, with all his crotchets and sudden flaring insights and confided tendernesses. And his unresting mind! his joyful curiosity!
Set in 1957, Gilead the novel memorialises Gilead the (fictional) Iowan town, and the passing of its generations. John Ames was the son and grandson of preachers, for whom the Civil War was a living memory. Ames's grandfather, one of the novel's great portraits, took part on the Union side and fought with John Brown. He was prone to waking visions, brief audiences with the divine; and an object of baffled terror to his grandchildren. Ames observes that “..we all do live on the ruins of the lives of other generations, so there is a seeming continuity which is important because it deceives us.” What of the past can be meaningfully transmitted to the future, without falsifying its witness?
Ames ponders the mystery of grace, “a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to essentials.” His godson Jack, the adult child of his friend Boughton, appears on the scene; and Ames must weigh his mistrust of the man and his 'strange suffering' with his obligation to forgive. Convinced of his damnation Jack taunts the Reverend Ames while at the same time entreating him as one who may have a remedy: their exchanges are among the most psychologically penetrating – and enigmatic – in the novel. (Long ago Jack impregnated a young girl and abandoned her to poverty; and the scene where Ames and Jack's sister visit her, watching her and the infant play by the riverside, must stand as a masterclass of pathos and writerly control – the saddest story.) Ames expresses his gratitude, time and again, for the special providence that brought him, late in life, his second wife Lila, his son's mother; and, again, Robinson invests this with pitch-perfect emotional truth. The novel is rich with these Wordsworthian 'spots of time'; they are, finally, its fibre and nutriment:
I do enjoy remembering that morning. I was sixty-seven, to be exact, which did not seem old to me. I wish I could give you the memory I have of your mother that day. I wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am. Well, but again, this life has its own mortal loveliness. And memory is not strictly mortal in its nature, either. It is a strange thing, after all, to be able to return to a moment, when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing, I mean, that its abiding is a most gracious reprieve.
Gilead – through the proxy of its narrator – impresses on us the stark imperative of reckoning fruitfully with our mortality. Rare that a contemporary novel should enter, unprejudicially, into the Christian heart, without rancorous scepticism, and depict a believer so sympathetically. Ames moves us – against our own impoverished unbelief – as one steadfast unto God; but, more, as a man of humility and principle, free of the kind of torpid Dostoyevskian spiritual violence we're accustomed to in modern fiction. Compellingly, Marilynne Robinson tenders – in the figure of the Reverend John Ames – a picture of a good man; and the novel borrows much of its lambency from his faith.
Theologians talk about a prevenient grace the precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave – that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honour them is to do great harm. And therefore, this courage allows us, as the old men said, to make ourselves useful. It allows us to be generous, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing. But that is the pulpit speaking. What have I to leave you but the ruins of old courage, and the lore of old gallantry and hope? Well, as I have said, it is all ember now, and the good Lord will surely someday breathe it into flame again.