Thursday 4 October 2012, 17:06
Editor's note: Radio 4's Bookclub is on at 4pm this Sunday 7 October and is repeated on Thursday 11 October at 3.30pm. You can also listen online after broadcast or download the podcast. Here, Jim Naughtie talks about the themes that are discussed in Bookclub this week with Marilynne Robinson discussing her novel, Gilead. - PMcD
When Marilynne Robinson talked to this month's group of Bookclub readers, we were discussing an unusual novel. First of all, in Gilead there is very little dialogue between the characters, because it is written in the form of a long letter, from a man approaching the end of his life to his young son. Second, it is the story of a good man. As Marilynne pointed out, this is unusual. Yet when the Rev John Ames "presented himself to her" as she put it, he did so as an unquestionably decent human being. "The voice makes the rules, and this is the voice of a good man."
She went on to say that she was driven crazy, as a teacher and writer, by the clichéd assertion that it is difficult to write novels about good people, because damaged characters are thought to be more interesting. "I think anyone who tries to be good knows there's nothing simple about it, much easier to be bad. I knew that about the character - and, also, I don't quite believe in bad characters."
It is just as well that Ames is good, because as a pastor he has to lead his flock. That is his calling, in the American mid west, and Gilead is a picture of a society - just before the middle of the nineteenth century - that Marilynne knows well. It is her territory, and the church where she is still an elder and sometimes preaches is conscious of precisely the same sense of mission, and the set of community values, that drive Ames. We spoke about that piece of American history, and I for one was happy to be reminded of a phenomenon which is often forgotten when people talk about the westward movement of Europeans in the 1830s and 40s.
There was enormous pressure on new states to permit slavery in the manner of the south. As a countermovement, large numbers of people - often a third or a half of a church congregation - would leave relatively comfortable lives in New England and travel to the undeveloped prairies to fight that proposition, bringing instead the ideals that had been taken to the north-east by the first pilgrims, bringing their religious beliefs together easily with ideas of democracy and equality.
So Gilead is a book with an unusual epistolary form, and one that is rooted in a particular, vivid chapter of American history. It is also, as you'll hear on the programme when Marilynne reads a passage, an intensely poetic work. It was only her second novel, and quite different from her first, Housekeeping, which was immensely successful. There is a gap of 24 years between the two, which is remarkable in itself, and it is difficult to read Gilead without feeling that it has been maturing for a long time. The delicacy with which Ames's feelings are described; his feeling for the bittersweet autumn of life; his concern about his son's future under the influence of friends and neighbours who don't share his values - they are all fully-realised, and beautifully rendered. It is a book in which each word seems perfectly placed.
It is also a book which deals with profound themes - the loss of a wife and daughter, the balancing of religious loyalty and the loss of faith which coexist in any society like Ames's, and the contemplation of the end of life. I do hope you enjoy Gilead. Marilynne spoke compellingly, with great wit and insight.
I should let you know that our next recording for which we have places is with Ben Macintyre, talking about Agent ZigZag on 4 December. If you'd like to take part please apply for tickets.
And the next programme to be broadcast will be with David Almond on Skellig, with a lively group of readers in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, on Sunday 4 November at 4pm. Incidentally, Radio 4 Extra will be broadcasting a dramatisation of Skellig on Friday 12 October at 11.15am.
Jim Naughtie presents Bookclub