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02 March 2008

Women make language - Marilynne Robinson

Marilynnerobinson If there were no girls like them in the world, there would be no poetry. -Willa Cather, My Antonia

Suzanne Maggio-Hucek has inspired me to focus on women this month, in honor of Women's History Month. And so, a month of women, some you will know, others you won't, all women. All 500 words (ish) or less. Let's go, we're already a day late.

Marilynne Robinson is not a name I knew until recently when her novel, Housekeeping, was assigned reading in my writing course. I'm only three-quarters through it, and already I've put on real shoes and eyebrows and run back to buy everything she's ever written, including her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gilead.

There are only a few people I've read who had the same impact on me, spurring a reading marathon of everything they wrote: Canadian novelist Carol Shields was one after I read her book, Unless, and the spectacularly brilliant Richard Powers was the other after reading The Time of Our Singing, which ranks at the top of my "best books ever" list. Well, of course as a child, there was Astrid Lundgren, too, due to my Pippi adoration/fixation/obsession.

Robinson's writing is absolutely heartbreaking in its beauty. It is poetry masquerading as prose. Hers are books to read slowly, to savor the language. It's a cruel trick to assign such a book in a writing course, because my initial reaction is to throw up my arms in surrender, close my MacBook, and get a job on a tofu farm. Who am I kidding? I thought to myself, pen in hand, underlining every word, dotting the margin with stars.

Listen, listen:

"The lake still thundered and groaned, the flood waters still brimmed and simmered. When we did not move to speak, there was no proof that we were there at all. The wind and the water brought sounds intact from any imaginable distance. Deprived of all perspective and horizon, I found myself reduced to an intuition, and my sister and my aunt to something less than that."

"They searched for her. Word was sent out a hundred miles in every direction to watch for a young woman in a car which I said was blue and Lucille said was green. Some boys who had been fishing and knew nothing about the search had come across her sitting cross-legged on the roof of the car, which had bogged down in the meadow between the road and the cliff. They said she was gazing at the lake and eating wild strawberries, which were prodigiously large and abundant that year. She asked them very pleasantly to help her push her car out of the mud, and they went so far as to put their blankets and coats under the wheels to facilitate her rescue. When they got the Ford back to the road she thanked them, gave them her purse, rolled down the rear windows, started the car, turned the wheel as far to the right as it would go, and roared swerving and sliding across the meadow until she sailed off the edge of the cliff."

"For why do our thoughts turn to some gesture of a hand, the fall of a sleeve, some corner of a room on a particularly anonymous afternoon, even when we are asleep, and even when we are so old that our thoughts have abandoned other business? What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?"

"We had spent our lives watching and listening with the constant sharp attention of children lost in the dark. It seemed that we were bewilderingly lost in a landscape that, with any light at all, would be wholly familiar."

"Her net would sweep the turning world unremarked as a wind in the grass, and when she began to pull it in, perhaps in a pell-mell ascension of formal gentlemen and thin pigs and old women and odd socks that would astonish this lower world, she would gather the net, so easily, until the very burden itself lay all in a heap just under the surface."

Yeah, I'm thinking tofu farmer.

So, let's start Women's History Month by celebrating the prose of Marilynne Robinson, a woman exploring ordinariness in extraordinary words.

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Yes! a month of women--woot!

Gilead was the last book I gave to my mother, the Christmas before she died (I shared another book with her, Haven Kimmel's Something Rising, Light and Swift, which she was in the middle of when she died, but I had cracked that one first). We both read it and loved it. Just seeing the name of the book makes me nostalgic for the moments I spent -- so fleeting, I now realize -- lying on her big bed contentedly reading together.

Toni Morrison's work possessed me like that. I read Sula and felt the characters around me for a month while I traveled and lived back n forth between New Orleans and New York.

Once settled, I proceeded to get every book she had written and read them one right after another, till there were none left.
Sula remains one of my favorite books.

I read both of her books you mentioned last year...having picked them up for a dime apiece at a thrift store sale. Her writing does nothing short of bowl me over...and leave me gasping for more.

I've not read Marylynne Robinson... thanks for the review.

I do agree completely with that evaluation of Robinson's poetic prose, her style, the depth under the fascinating words (spumy, cerements, a familiar). I also discovered her just recently, through the recommendation of one of my Book Group members. If she doesn't know the late Mexican Juan Rulfo ("Pedro Paramo", "El llano en llamas", then they've both drank in the same Faulkner's source).
A minor reservation, though, at this early time in my reading (half of "Housekeeping"): as moving and poetic and full of authentic religious feeling as it is, I find myself hungry for a 'real story' to develop...

I do agree completely with that evaluation of Robinson's poetic prose, her style, the depth under the fascinating words (spumy, cerements, a familiar). I also discovered her just recently, through the recommendation of one of my Book Group members. If she doesn't know the late Mexican Juan Rulfo ("Pedro Paramo", "El llano en llamas", then they've both drank in the same Faulkner's source).
A minor reservation, though, at this early time in my reading (half of "Housekeeping"): as moving and poetic and full of authentic religious feeling as it is, I find myself hungry for a 'real story' to develop...

" a woman exploring ordinariness" would be enough to send me looking for her books - but "in extraordinary words" means I have to run to find them - and discover such a woman and her writing for myself. Thanks, Patti.

I really enjoyed reading this; it was so well-written and interesting. I absolutely love poetry so this was right up my alley. Thank you for sharing this.

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