06 April 2012

Marilynne Robinson should not be allowed to retire just yet

Last night I went to see Marilynne Robinson at the 92nd Street Y. I have wanted to see Robinson read for a long time, ever since I serendipitously picked up her novel GILEAD at an academic library in Madrid, but she doesn't do a lot of readings -- in part, I would surmise, because she still teaches at the University of Iowa (although she says she plans to retire).

Marilynne Robinson has long gray hair and is very serene onstage. She read the titular essay from her new collection WHEN I WAS A CHILD I READ BOOKS, through which she would not be rushed. I had expected something personal and impressionistic from WHEN I WAS A CHILD I READ BOOKS, but several of the essays are more Transcendentalist in nature, addressing topics like the state of democracy, the pressure of modern-day educators to turn out "workers" rather than thinkers, and the implications that famous Christian heretics have had on the faith. Faith was a topic that came up often enough in the Q&A after her reading, but more in theory than in personal practice.

Robinson said she writes at a paragraph level, with an eye on the culminating sentence, when she's constructing her pieces. If a sentence doesn't sit right she will walk around the block until it is put right. She said she has tried to write poetry, but after deleting all the banalities "I had about 14 words left" -- an odd confession from someone whose writing is fairly poetic in the first place. I was hoping someone would ask her why so many years went by between her novels HOUSEKEEPING (1980) and GILEAD (2004), but either that question was culled from the audience stack or no one else saw the need to know.

Robinson was introduced and interviewed rather poorly by some dude whose name I know, to be honest, but don't want to give him the indignant satisfaction of reading on the Internet that he tanked. Some dude was a former student of Robinson's who later became a success when his debut novel won a major literary award, and his intention last night seemed to be to show that he was her best student ever. He liberally quoted Wallace Stevens and "casually" dropped the major works he was reading into his questions, which oftentimes weren't questions at all. Robinson's reaction to this could not be discerned. Some dude should have steered the conversation better, with the audience in mind, but maybe some dude just had too much of a relationship with her to keep out of that old (presumably) dynamic. There may be some dude at every reading, but normally not in a position to drive the evening.

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