Monday, August 30, 2010

Reading Marilynne Robinson (#2)

Interesting to compare Mariilynne Robinson's Home and  Gilead with Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible.

Both are:
  • Set in the 1950s or early 1960s
  • Feature an American preacher and his large family
  • Prizewinning, acclaimed books

The Poisonwood Bible has an evil, bigotted missionary, shattering the lives of wife, dysfunctional children, and society around him. This, it seems to me, is the default view of Christian ministers in modern thought.

Home and Gilead are more ambitious, and more startlingly fresh. They trace the puzzles and struggles and imponderables faced by good people, people who love and are loved -- funnily enough, a lot nearer 'truth' than the mad bully of Poisonwood.

Reading Marilynne Robinson (#1)

'For her, church was an airy white room with tall windows looking out on God's good world, with God's good sunlight pouring in through those windows and falling across the pulpit where her father stood, straight and strong, parsing the broken heart of humankind and praising the loving heart of Christ. That was church.' Home, p 52.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Shirley, a Victorian novel to avoid

I grew up about a mile from the 'Fieldhead House' of this novel and a mile in another direction from 'Briarmains'. The local council, in a fit of local pride, had called the local council estate 'Shirley', a fact that never struck me as odd until this moment. Equally odd is the truth that Shirley never was a girl's name until this novel.

You can strain out some nourishment. As a social history it reminds us that the past was just like the present, only more extreme (the unwashed Methodists,  holding prayer meetings; the mill owner shooting a rioter dead and then getting the ringleaders sent to Australia, magistrates taking a robust view of law-breaking among the lower classes in those days; the genteel women stitching for the Missionary Basket, designed to raise funds for overseas missions). Proto-feminism stirs: the book includes a discussion over a garden fence between two neighbours about the First Letter of Timothy, Chapter 2, for example.

There ought to be rules, however, that even Victorian novels should follow. Finely chisel your characters as you must, and you must. But don't show off your French. Don't write a chapter when a page will do. Don't have the plotting of a melodrama or a farce. (Gosh, my best friend's companion turns out to be my estranged mother! The male protagonist has a dishy brother! He's staying in the same house as the estranged mother! Now both girls can get married!) And don't, whatever you do, create a heroine whose main problem is that she sits around bored all day. It can give Victorian novels, not to mention housing estates, a bad name.

Friday, August 06, 2010

A Romanian bookshop

Eastern Europeans have a bit more of a reputation for things cerebral than the rest of us, hence families of chess-players like the Polgar sisters and playwrights-turned-president like Vaclav Havel and universities that turn out doctors and engineers rather than graduates in film studies.

Three days ago I visited a Romanian bookshop in the western town of Timosoara, home of the Romanian counter-revolution, and with buildings that still bear the scars from Ceaucescu's tanks back in Christmas 1989.

The first two books I saw were a collection of the writings of Schopenhauer and a box-set of criticisms of Freud. Edging past those with some trepidation, I found a happy sprinkling of the modern stuff modern stuff (Steig Larsson for example), but a larger collection of classics, 19th and 20th century, some in Romanian, some in English. The shop held only perhaps 2000 titles, plus a cafe where you could presumably discuss the absurdity of life and shrug a lot, though sadly not while smoking. Almost every title was worth taking the time to read (though the winter nights in Romania would have to be both very long and very cold for me to pick up the Schopenhauer.) 

Compare with a chain bookstore in  England where you squeeze past a front table piled with 3-for 2  biographies of Colleen Rooney and waspish memoirs by out-of-luck politicians plunging their heads one last time in the feeding trough.   We are victims of publishers' bribery and hype. Romania teaches me that bookshops should filter for greatness. Among our local fare only the great Topping and Co of Ely comes close.