Wednesday, December 28, 2011

"Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it."

While on vacation I re-read Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, which I first read years ago and remembered loving but of which I'd had no clear memory. It's a wondrous book, possibly a perfect one, built more like a poem than a novel. Here's a taste:
Cain murdered Abel, and blood cried out from the earth; the house fell on Job's children, and a voice was induced or provoked into speaking from a whirlwind; and Rachel mourned for her children; and King David for Absalom. The force behind the movement of time is a mourning that will not be comforted. That is why the first event is known to have been an expulsion, and the last is hoped to be a reconciliation and return. So memory pulls us forward, so prophecy is only brilliant memory--there will be a garden where all of us as one child will sleep in our mother Eve, hooped in her ribs and staved by her spine. (192)
The book is also a better and more affecting meditation on loss than Didion's Year of Magical Thinking (which I read and liked) or any of the other recent memoirs of grief (most of which I've read only in long excerpts). This is Robinson describing what the rest of us might call, with clinical ugliness, "obsessional thinking"--the inability to let go of the past or the people in it:
[H]ere we find our great affinity with water, for like reflections on water our thoughts will suffer no changing shock, no permanent displacement. They mock us with their seeming slightness. If they were more substantial--if they had weight and took up space--they would sink or be carried away in the general flux. But they persist, outside the brisk and ruinous energies of the world. (163)
But in fact, it's not really grief Robinson is writing about so much as the human condition: transient and marked by loss and hopeful of an escape which is also a transcendence. That's what's wrong, I think, with so many memoirs: they assume that their particulars are, if not universal, at least of universal interest--while not actually being able to capture the truly universal or imagine anything beyond the author's own experience. Maybe that's only due modesty, when the subject is oneself. Maybe fiction is a better place for reflecting on how personal pasts intersect with national ones, or for making claims about the human condition.

Those who have been reading me long enough may have divined that my only real subject, my only real obsession, is how we make meaning out of the past and how we grapple with our sense of loss (past, present, or anticipated); it's probably why I blog, and it is, after a fashion, the subject of almost all my scholarship. So maybe I'm a peculiarly ideal reader for this novel. But if you haven't read it, do. And if you haven't read it recently, read it again.


Sisyphus said...

And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

I really loved _Housekeeping_, sigh.

Flavia said...


Funny, I just re-read Gatsby this year, too!--for the first time in a zillion years. Also a nearly perfect book, and, as you point out, on a related subject. Huh.

I have a lot of complaints about memoirs and memoir-culture, but Housekeeping made me realize what the primary one is: memoirs, if they're good, encourage a sense of identification with the narrative voice (though not always with the narrator-as-character). Fiction permits a wider perspective.

Contingent Cassandra said...

I loved it, too, both times I read it: as part of a class in contemporary women's writing in grad school, and again, about a year ago, when a church group with which I work was contemplating a workshop on all of Robinson's fiction. While many parts struck a chord both times through (the losses and how the family dealt with them, and the centrality and ultimate destruction of the house), I was amazed to realize how much _Housekeeping_, like _Gilead_ and _Home_, draws on the Bible and incorporates religious themes. Somehow I'd managed to forget that entirely, or not notice it (despite a pretty good religious education), the first time through, though I found the same chapter you quote from above amazing on second reading, and shared it with several friends from church. I'm still puzzling over why it didn't "stick" the first time; the best I can come up with is that the ways in which we characterized the novel in the context of that grad seminar -- a revision of and/or rebellion against the domestic novel; a feminist rewriting of Huck Finn -- while in no way contradictory to the book's religious themes, didn't incorporate them either. Or maybe the professor just wasn't knowledgeable enough to feel comfortable taking on those aspects of the novel (though I was/should have been, so I don't know why I didn't do it on my own). Looking at _Housekeeping_ again, I realized that it managed to critique/satirize some religious forms, practices, and practitioners, while -- as the passage above illustrates -- incorporating and commenting on some key Biblical themes. And, thinking about it, I suspect one could say the same thing about _Huck Finn_, though the alternative to religious hypocrisy in that book might also be read as a more generalized humanism or morality. Still, it's interesting to think about how much the critical stories we tell each other *about* and *with* texts shape our readings of those texts, and how hostile to or just dismissive of religion some of those stories are (which runs the danger of making me sound like a religious conservative railing against the liberal/atheist academy, I realize -- but, unfortunately, there's a grain of truth in those rants, even if the remedy isn't to return to some sort of fundamentalist reading of both the Bible and other literary/cultural texts).