Friday, December 17, 2010

`Nothing Is More Human Than a Book'

A vibrant mind is never inert and never squanders the gift of consciousness, and the most vibrant mind I’ve engaged of late is Marilynne Robinson’s in her Paris Review interview. Humility and assertiveness verging on pugnacity are rarely found in combination, especially among writers, a self-preening bunch:

“I don’t think that living writers should be treated with the awe that is sometimes reserved for dead writers, but if a well-known writer whose work tends to garner respect takes ten years to write a novel and it’s not the greatest novel in the world, dismissiveness is not an appropriate response. An unsuccessful work might not seem unsuccessful in another generation. It may be part of the writer’s pilgrimage.”

Reading this passage by Robinson, I thought immediately of the stupid things said about Ralph Ellison, author of one of the small number of great American novels. That he never again approached the achievement of Invisible Man caused Ellison much unhappiness and certainly disappointed readers, but who are we to disparage him? Writers, at least the good ones, are not trained seals performing tricks on demand. In a more intimate connection, Robinson tells Sarah Fay, her interviewer:

“I’m kind of a solitary. This would not satisfy everyone’s hopes, but for me it’s a lovely thing. I recognize the satisfactions of a more socially enmeshed existence than I cultivate, but I go days without hearing another human voice and never notice it. I never fear it. The only thing I fear is the intensity of my attachment to it. It’s a predisposition in my family. My brother is a solitary. My mother is a solitary. I grew up with the confidence that the greatest privilege was to be alone and have all the time you wanted. That was the cream of existence. I owe everything that I have done to the fact that I am very much at ease being alone. It’s a good predisposition in a writer. And books are good company. Nothing is more human than a book.”

Yes, I feel kinship, the pleasantly unexpected sense of someone articulating what has remained in me a thought without form. More than that, how bracing to know a writer of monastic dedication is working out there, without interest in the supposed “lifestyle” of a successful writer. No back-biting, no talk of parties, agents, advances.

It strikes me that most of the best writers at work in the United States are female – Robinson, Cynthia Ozick, Helen Pinkerton, Kay Ryan – and I draw no conclusions from their sex. It’s a convergence of little significance. Each is gifted and works hard, and we could say the same thing of their male counterparts. Here are Robinson’s final words in the interview:

“There’s always something that I feel I’ve missed. I should travel more, for instance. I went to Paris last fall, which was a great departure for me. I flew Air India, which in itself was quite remarkable. I had a lovely time in France and I thought, I should do this more often. But then I come home and I think, I have all of this work to do. Look at all of these books I haven’t read. Frankly, you get to a certain point in your life where you can do unusual things with your mind. So then, I think, do them.”

Words to live and write by.

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