Saturday, May 03, 2008


I picked up Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping after reading the discussion about it at the reading room blog of the new york times. I am finding it hard to concentrate on reading these days because of too many boring distractions (just real life intruding, nothing unusual). This one looked accessible and also from the description it looked like the kind of book I would like, so I picked it up.

The novel is narrated in first person by Ruth who is reminiscing about her childhood upbringing in a small town in American pacific northwest called "Fingerbrook". The town is surrounded by a lake and the way Robinson describes the lake (and the landscape in general) the whole thing becomes very mysterious and unreal (like the photograph on the cover). It may be also be because it is through Ruth's consciousness that we see all these details of everyday life in Fingerbrook. As it happens, Ruth's mother had committed suicide by driving her car off the cliff into the lake. Before that Ruth's (maternal) grandfather had died in a train accident in the same lake. The lake in the scheme of the story becomes a mythical and symbolic presence - representing some sort of unfathomable and mysterious darkness, enveloping the whole town. Ruth and her sister Lucille first come to live with their grandmother but when she also dies (this time it is of simple old age, no accident or suicide) they come under the protection of their aunt Sylvie, who is their mother's sister. She is actually the central character of the novel. Like Ruth she is emotionally damaged too - early experiences of loss and pain have made both of them detached from their surroundings and from the life itself and has made them "transient" (a word which Robinson uses in very interesting way). This tone of detachment comes off beautifully in the the voice in which Ruth narrates the story. It is only in the end we realize that it is the voice of a deeply troubled and unstable consciousness.

These days I am finding it hard to appreciate a book built around only "poetic" writing, the kind of writing which gets called "evocative". The whole book is written in purely descriptive manner. Ruth never tries to explain things to herself, and she never intellectualizes. It is not that I don't like this kind of writing at all, (these days) I just prefer some explicit discussion of ideas, ruminations about conceptual and abstract questions etc. I guess I should be reading philosophy and not fiction but towards the end there is a line which really struck me as something that showed the absence of theoretical explanations as intentional. Ruth says, "Fact explains nothing. On the contrary, it is fact that requires explanation." She is not using the facts of the story to generalize about some abstract idea but she is also not providing an explanation while admitting that an explanation is indeed required. There is something deeply religious about it, which is another subtle them that runs through the book. On the whole, it is definitely worth a look even though personally it passed me by without doing much.

An extract from the book I really liked:

"Of my conception I know only what you know of yours. It occurred in darkness and I was unconsenting. I (and that slenderest word is too gross for the rare thing I was then) walked forever through reachless oblivion, in the mood of one smelling night-blooming flowers, and suddenly - My ravishers left their traces in me, male and female, and over the months I rounded, grew heavy, until the scandal could no longer be concealed and oblivion expelled me. But this I have in common with all my kind. By some bleak alchemy what had been mere unbeing becomes death when life is mingled with it. So they seal the door against our returning."


Madhuri said...

Seems like the kind of book I might like, though more often than a descriptive style throws me off unless I am reading a Harry Potter :-)
I picked up Kierkegaard's Seducer's Diary on your recommendation - very interesting. Though Johannes has some maddening ideas about how a girl should and shouldn't be, and also on the superiority of men. And no matter how much I shrug my shoulders, I can never completely get over the instinct to strangle such people!

Alok said...

Haha.. I should have warned you, it contains some classic misogynist passages... Kiekegaard was certainly no gynaephile, no different in this from his fellow 19th century european philosophers Kant, Schopenhauer or Nietzsche... but his case is a little more complex. First, it was written under a pseudonym so basically you have to read it as a work of fiction. and further, this is actually one section of the whole book. the second part contains a long essay by another pseudonymous author "Judge Villhelm" who attacks this egotistic and hedonistic (or "aesthetic" as Johannes calls it) way of life, "love is heaven and marriage is hell" philosophy - even love is valuable only in so far as it provides for intellectual and sensory stimulation, that's all. there is no notion of duty and responsibility towards the other... So Kierkegaard was at least aware of the problems with seducer's worldview.

what i loved in seducer is his amazing intellectual ability and the kind of extreme self-consciousness that he brings to his relationship. Every reaction of hers, every potential feeling generated in her soul is a food for thought for him. I haven't read this kind of in-depth, detached analysis in any love story :)

there is also a biographical subtext in the book. Kierkegaard himself broke off his engagement to a young girl he was in love with. there are lots of debates, theories and speculations about what really must have happened but one way to read the diary is to read it as a bitter self-portrait that he wrote in order to get over with the pain and suffering. I don't know if your edition has an introduction by John Updike. He talks about this in his essay... I will see i can find it anywhere.

Madhuri said...

I did read about the connection with the engagement on Wiki. However, my edition does not have the introduction by Updike and I have been hunting for it.
The book is great despite the misogynist allusions. He really does work through the seduction like an art.