Putting Religion in Its Place

Colm Tóibín

  • Lila by Marilynne Robinson
    Virago, 261 pp, £16.99, October 2014, ISBN 978 1 84408 880 5

Philip Larkin’s ‘Church Going’, when I read it first, came as a relief. For once, someone had said something true, or almost true, about religion and its shadowy aftermath. The poem seemed to have a lovely assuredness and finality. The self-deprecating voice – resigned and a bit sad – was having an argument with no one. The tone was mild and tolerant, and although it was filled with uncertainty, there was a convincing veneer of pure certainty about the main matter, which is that churches are left-over things, belonging to the sweet foolishness of the past. The future won’t be much better, the poem suggested, but we won’t have churches, except to visit, of course, and wonder about.

It seems strange that the poem was completed just a decade after Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’: there seem light years between Larkin’s melancholy scepticism, his urge to bring religion down to earth, and Eliot’s high-toned, abstract, prayerful urge to coax his images into some large, suggestive, mystical space. And yet there are moments in ‘Little Gidding’ that are as precise and worldly as ‘Church Going’. Even when he meets the ghost, he is concerned to make the case for the encounter as something that actually occurred, or that could occur and belongs to experience, perhaps even common experience. His dead leaves ‘rattled on like tin/Over the asphalt where no other sound was’; they belong to a known, shared, modern world, making the appearance of the spirit less unconvincing:

I met one walking, loitering and hurried
As if blown towards me like the metal leaves
Before the urban dawn wind unresisting.

Eliot is insisting here that the event happened, just as in ‘Church Going’ Larkin makes clear in his very first line that the ‘nothing going on’ in the church he has come to visit is real; if there were something going on, he probably wouldn’t enter. He allows ‘God’ into his first stanza, but only as a figure of speech, and jokingly, or at least ironically: there is ‘a tense, musty, unignorable silence’ in the church, which has been ‘Brewed God knows how long’.

The problem for Larkin in telling so much plain truth is that, once he has written six nine-line stanzas, he has difficulty ending his poem. He could perhaps finish with ‘It pleases me to stand in silence here,’ the last line of the sixth stanza, but we already know that it pleases him: he has made that much clear from the beginning. His final stanza will have to say something more, just as Eliot will have to find a way to let his poem soar towards some mysterious and totalising image in the final section, even after the apparent finality of ‘History is now and England.’ The last stanza of ‘Church Going’ enacts what any writer has to deal with who has let loose images of God and prayer. Unless he is content with mockery or pure old-fashioned nihilism, such images will threaten to have a dialogue of some sort with mystery and the spirit. Larkin’s church, once so modestly described, becomes in the final stanza ‘a serious house on serious earth’, ‘In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,/Are recognised, and robed as destinies.’ Meet and are recognised – but by whom, by what? And what does Larkin mean by ‘compulsions’? Does he mean merely human urges and needs? Or, since the word suggests the irrational, does he mean something more? Does he mean, with the help of the words ‘blent air’ (which has a hint of ‘blessed air’), something beyond the material, approaching the transcendental? And what does he mean by ‘destinies’? Also, the word ‘robed’ (with ‘blent’ close by) suggests something medieval. And when he invokes a ‘someone’ who will gravitate to this church, to a place ‘Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in/If only that so many dead lie round’, surely he is suggesting that the wisdom here isn’t just a worldly wisdom, but may contain something more.

What is the difference, then, between this ‘someone’ of Larkin’s with ‘a hunger in himself to be more serious’ and the voice at the end of ‘Little Gidding’ who states: ‘We shall not cease from exploration’? Poets have it easier than novelists because they don’t have to tell us what the ‘someone’ who saw the ghost or visited the church did next, where they slept that night, what they did for a living, or what they said to their wife. Eliot can say ‘history’ and Larkin can say ‘destinies’ in much the same way an abstract painter can put a single colour on a canvas and let it have its tumultuous effect. We poor novelists, on the other hand, have to deal with perspective, context, point of view and banal issues of narrative line and credibility.

If ‘Little Gidding’ and ‘Church Going’ are religious poems, or poems which don’t ignore religious feeling, what are religious novels, or novels which don’t ignore religious feeling? What are the different implications for their art in Eliot declaring ‘I am an Anglo-Catholic in religion’ and Marilynne Robinson ‘I am a mainline Protestant, a.k.a. a liberal Protestant’? In When I Was a Child I Read Books, her most recent collection of essays, Robinson wrote: ‘Relevance was precisely not an issue for me. I looked to Galilee for meaning and to Spokane for orthodonture, and beyond that the world where I was I found entirely sufficient.’ Surely in the background, as we consider these matters (ignoring, for the moment, the wisdom of looking to Spokane for anything at all), we hear the voice of Virginia Woolf, who wrote to her sister Vanessa in 1928 on hearing from Eliot of his conversion to Christianity:

I have had a most shameful and distressing interview with poor dear Tom Eliot, who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. He has become an Anglo-Catholic, believes in God and immortality, and goes to church. I was really shocked. A corpse would seem to me more credible than he is. I mean, there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.

God represents a real problem for the novelist. The novel is happier in a secular space where people suffer from mortal ailments and failures, where their ambitions are material, their hopes palpable. Changing bread and wine into body and blood could be done in a novel, but it would be hard, and shouldn’t be tried twice. Having miracles from on high interfere with choice, chance, destiny or paragraph endings won’t help a novel, or not much. Novels like human voices, human will, human failure. They like journeys from one place to another without encounters with fellows such as Moses or Muhammad, not to speak of the Buddha. They like the sadness or fun of the mind at play more than showing how a character’s prayers have been answered. Unless of course the prayers haven’t been answered at all, and were merely another example of human foolishness, with interesting consequences for the fool and his or her family.

Nonetheless, because I was born in Ireland and brought up Catholic, I have a serious difficulty when it comes to the creation of characters who live entirely in a secular universe and depend on Spokane rather than Galilee for meaning. Irish Catholicism has many mansions, but one of them includes a good bedrock of paganism, or animism. I’ve never heard the banshee knock on my door in the night to announce that someone in the family would soon die, but I think I would know the sound if I heard it. (As my mother and her sisters did.) I don’t have a fairy fort in my garden, but if I did I wouldn’t allow it to be removed, and if it were removed I would expect bad luck, and soon. (My neighbours have one, and it won’t in our lifetime or any foreseeable lifetime be bulldozed, although it is in the way.)

Also, people around me genuinely believe that, at the saying of some words by a priest, the wafer and the wine literally and actually become the body and blood of a man who was, it seems, crucified in the Middle East two thousand years ago. (While growing up, I often wondered at what point in the digestive process the wafer ceases to be the body and blood, but I knew not to raise this troublesome matter.) They believe in eternal life too. (In an essay Robinson ponders the question of the eternal: ‘The eternal as an idea is much less preposterous than time, and this very fact should seize our attention.’) And they believe in an all-seeing God, who knows us and watches us, one who has read our next novel already or at least knows the general outline. (‘Calvin says that God takes an aesthetic pleasure in people,’ Robinson pointed out in a Paris Review interview. So he might enjoy invented characters as much as real ones, or even more, especially on his day of rest.)

Since, unlike God, I know nothing much, and don’t generally read science or philosophy, and, unlike Calvin, don’t know how God feels, and generally haven’t really a clue what to believe, I have no problem with any of the above beliefs. They might make more sense, indeed, than believing, for example, that nuclear power is safe, or that the United Kingdom shouldn’t be split up, or that putting people in prison is a way to prevent crime. My problem isn’t about belief itself, however, it’s simply a technical one: how do you create a religious or a non-secular protagonist in a novel without making a dog’s dinner out of the book?

Some people, such as Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, Chinua Achebe, Georges Bernanos, Kate O’Brien, Maurice Gee, Brian Moore and Andrew O’Hagan, have made a big effort. Others, such as James Joyce, have managed to weave religion into a larger fabric, with all the sheer drama of faith and doubt, and have managed also to include the comic possibilities of dogma and ritual to liven up their books. In Ulysses Leopold Bloom, in musing on the use of wine in the Mass, comes to the fine conclusion that wine is more ‘aristocratic’ than, for example, ginger ale. It’s hard thereafter, at least for me, to witness the sacred consecration without at least smiling at the thought that there wouldn’t be much future in a religion that changed bread and ginger ale into the body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. One of the purposes of literature, as Joyce made clear, is to put religion in its place.

*

Joyce’s finding Catholic ritual amusing and Woolf’s contempt for Christians are easy to follow and fathom. Having rejected religious faith, they got on with the business of dealing with human consciousness and language and form in the novel without having to genuflect or take the divine into account. We know where we are with them. Part of the result, however, of reading Marilynne Robinson’s formidable, serious and combative essays is that knowing where you are – or thinking you do, and being happy with that – comes to seem a sort of illusion and an example of foolishness. ‘Everything always bears looking into,’ she writes, ‘astonishing as that fact is.’ Or more vehemently: ‘I want to overhear passionate arguments about what we are and what we are doing and what we ought to do. I want to feel that art is an utterance made in good faith by one human being to another. I want to believe there are geniuses scheming to astonish the rest of us, just for the pleasure of it. I miss civilisation, and I want it back.’

Some of her essays are marvellous, as passionately engaged with the world and as eloquent as the essays of James Baldwin or some of the great 19th-century Americans. Part of the pleasure of reading them is Robinson’s readiness to do battle using all her intelligence and ardour in support of what is, for most of us, the mystifying and wearying business of religion. It’s hard to think of another contemporary novelist who would feel free to refer in passing to ‘God’s otherness’, or ‘this honourable art of preaching’. Or to write: ‘The mystery of Christ’s humanity must make us wonder what of mortal memory he carried beyond the grave.’ Her daring and inspiring defence of the word ‘soul’ singles her out:

Having read recently that there are more neurons in the human brain than there are stars in the Milky Way, and having read any number of times that the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe, and that the mind is not identical with the brain but is more mysterious still, it seems to me this astonishing nexus of the self, so uniquely elegant and capable, merits a name that would indicate a difference in kind from the ontological run of things, and for my purposes ‘soul’ would do nicely.

But she can also break into a sugary cliché, as when she writes: ‘God does, after all, so love the world.’ Or: ‘The great narrative, to which we as Christians are called to be faithful, begins at the beginning of all things and ends at the end of all things, and within the arc of it civilisations blossom and flourish, wither and perish.’

Unlike others who rattle on about God, she is hard to second-guess. That phrase ‘God’s otherness’ comes from a sentence so beautifully shaped that I have no interest in whether it is true or not: ‘Religiosity is a transgression against God’s otherness.’

One of the ways to include religion in a novel is to write about it directly, as the novelists I mentioned above have done. Another way is to allude to the matter now and then before letting other more worldly dramas take over. In the early summer of 1926, Ernest Hemingway began to convert from his family’s Congregationalism to Catholicism, but he seemed also to believe that his Catholicism had begun in 1918 in Italy, when, after being wounded, he was anointed or baptised, or both, by a priest. In a letter to his father in May 1926, he wrote: ‘Having been to Mass this morning I am now due at the bullfight this afternoon. Wish you were along.’ By the end of that year, he was taking his religious belief seriously enough to write a ‘Neo-Thomist Poem’, which reads:

The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not
want him for long.

The following year he and Pauline Pfeiffer, whose family had a private chapel in their house, were married in a Catholic church. Archibald MacLeish and his wife, Ada, declined to attend because, as Ada wrote, she ‘was completely disgusted by Ernest’s efforts to persuade the Catholic Church that he had been baptised by a priest who walked between aisles of wounded men in an Italian hospital … To see this farce solemnised by the Catholic Church was more than we could take.’

While Hemingway was revising The Sun Also Rises, writing A Farewell to Arms and many of his best short stories, he was attending Mass regularly. In The Sun Also Rises the protagonist, Jake Barnes, makes clear on a train through France, when the Catholics have taken all the seats for lunch, that he is a Catholic too. On arrival in Pamplona, he sees the cathedral and goes inside and, in one of Hemingway’s finest passages, with the prose fresh and sweet and ironic, he begins to pray:

I knelt and started to pray and prayed for everybody I thought of, Brett and Mike and Bill and Robert Cohn and myself, and all the bullfighters, separately for the ones I liked, and lumping all the rest, then I prayed for myself again, and while I was praying for myself I found I was getting sleepy, so I prayed that the bullfights would be good, and that it would be a fine fiesta, and that we would get some fishing. I wondered if there was anything else I might pray for, and I thought I would like to have some money, so I prayed that I would make a lot of money … and as all the time as I was kneeling with my forehead on the wood in front of me, and was thinking of myself as praying, I was a little ashamed, and regretted that I was such a rotten Catholic, but realised there was nothing I could do about it, at least for a while, and maybe never, but that anyway it was a grand religion, and I only wished I felt religious and maybe I would the next time.

Later, when Jake is asked if he is ‘really a Catholic’, he replies: ‘Technically.’ When asked what that means, he replies: ‘I don’t know.’

What it meant, perhaps, was that Jake’s creator had enough religion in his blood to make dramatic use of it again in 1932 in his story ‘A Clean Well-Lighted Place’, set in a late-night bar in Spain, when the old man who has earlier tried to commit suicide starts to pray as he stands waiting for a drink: ‘Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing, full of nothing, nothing is with thee.’ Joyce would have been proud of Hemingway and his old man. Perhaps it’s a feature of Catholics that we like to make jokes about the most sacred things, that blasphemy and mockery are actually signs of faith, a nervous response to its power. This is something which, as far as I can judge, has not caught on among Calvinists, who tend to be more earnest and respectful.

While Hemingway makes a few stray references to God and to the Catholic faith in the rest of his fiction, he had too much else to worry about to make a big deal of it. His characters were more interested in life than in life everlasting, and more concerned with this world than the next, and Hemingway himself had too many of his own demons to worry too intensely about Satan. Even so, God has a way of lingering in the space between words.

Like Hemingway, Henry James had good reasons not to bother too much about religion. His father had spent a lifetime bothering about it, with no clear result. But if we accept Marilynne Robinson’s definition of the soul, then James had a profound interest in it: what Robinson calls ‘this astonishing nexus of the self’ was, really, his great subject. In the creation of Isabel Archer, say, or in the making of Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors, James allowed his interests in material and moral matters to wane, and, without losing sight of them, he replaced them with a soaring vision of what the human spirit could become, under certain pressures and in a certain light. Although the issue of money is never entirely absent, he creates characters who want something from life which can’t easily be named without using terms borrowed from religion: it includes beauty and generosity, but also something further – grace, redemption, salvation – that can be more easily imagined than attained.

In The Aspern Papers James tempts us to look at his characters for more than their material presence or their material desires. In the last two pages of The Aspern Papers, when the protagonist returns to the Venetian palace the day after rejecting Miss Tita’s offer of marriage, he notices ‘an extraordinary alteration’ in her: ‘She stood in the middle of the room with a face of mildness bent upon me, and her look of forgiveness, of absolution, made her angelic … This optical trick gave her a sort of phantasmagoric brightness.’ When he says goodbye to her, and she replies that she won’t see him again, and doesn’t want to,

she smiled strangely with an infinite gentleness. She had never doubted that I had left her the day before in horror. How could she, since I had not come back before night to contradict, even as a simple form, such an idea? And now she had the force of soul – Miss Tita with force of soul was a new conception – to smile at me in her humiliation.

The force of soul. James uses the term twice, as though it had a clear meaning. It’s hard not to wonder if he meant that this force was available to Miss Tita because she had suffered enough, because she had been despised and rejected, that it was always available but could emerge only after darkness and pain, that it was something lurking beneath the veneer of the self in the material world. It’s interesting that he used not only the word ‘soul’ but also ‘absolution’ and ‘angelic’. If he had wanted to use secular terms he would have done so. Instead, he wanted to invoke something deeper and more urgently mysterious, beyond human explanation, extreme – and the lexicon he saw fit to raid was a religious one.

*

Marilynne Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping, published in 1980, has an undertone of a story from the Old Testament mixed with a novel by William Faulkner. It’s a narrative of misfortune and pestilence, an account of survival in a rugged landscape against all the odds, told in a tone which is fearless, poetic, elaborate in its cadences but also, at times, sharp and precise, and at other times comic. It begins with no nonsense and plenty of command: ‘My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs Sylvia Fisher.’ It’s clear from ‘and when they fled’, from the number of carers and the formal, distant way they are named that this won’t be a story of domestic harmony and bliss.

The next image adds to the sense of dislocation: we are told that before the narrator’s grandfather Edmund Foster ‘put us down in this unlikely place’, he grew up ‘in the Middle West, in a house dug out of the ground, with windows just at earth level and just at eye level, so that from without, the house was a mere mound, no more a human stronghold than a grave.’ ‘This unlikely place’ is called Fingerbone. Ruth says that it ‘was never an impressive town. It was chastened by an outsize landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere.’ The extravagant weather brings a great flood, which ‘flattened scores of headstones’ and makes the house where Ruth and her sister Lucille live almost uninhabitable. The town isn’t greatly helped by the flood either: ‘Much of what Fingerbone had hoarded up was defaced or destroyed outright, but perhaps because the hoard was not much to begin with, the loss was not overwhelming.’ The loss, of course, comes as a gain to the narrative, which has tremendous fun describing flood damage: ‘The afternoon was loud with the giant miseries of the lake, and the sun shone on, and the flood was the almost flawless mirror of a cloudless sky, fat with brimming and very calm.’ Some of the sentences seem overblown: ‘Every spirit passing through the world fingers the tangible and mars the mutable, and finally has come to look and not to buy.’ But the world being described is rooted enough to survive Robinson’s high rhetorical flight, and we breathe a sigh of relief when she ends the paragraph which contains the sentence I just quoted with: ‘But then suddenly the lake and the river broke open and the water slid away from the land, and Fingerbone was left stripped and blackened and warped and awash in mud.’

America here is desolation, an unpromising Promised Land waiting for redemption. The language of the novel moves from terse description to sentences that have distinct references to scripture, not just the general tone of the Bible but images and stories from the Old Testament and the New. When two apple trees die, Robinson invokes Lazarus, as well as the parting of the waters: ‘One spring there were no leaves, but they stood there as if expectantly … miming their perished fruitfulness. Every winter the orchard is flooded with snow, and every spring the waters are parted, death is undone, and every Lazarus rises, except these two.’

Later, when Ruth is on a boat with her aunt, she witnesses the dawn. Writers should always be careful with the dawn – it’s tempting to be overblown – but Robinson manages two reasonable sentences: ‘To the east the mountains were eclipsed. To the west they stood in balmy light.’ And then she moves into what we know from her essays as her area of interest: ‘Dawn and its excesses always reminded me of heaven.’ She is too intelligent to expect her readers to connect the dawn and heaven, so she ends the sentence with a twist: ‘a place where I have always known I would not be comfortable’.

Robinson’s application of high images from religion and high tones from the Bible to the low world – forlorn, inhospitable and backward America – is startling and fascinating. The power of Housekeeping comes from the confidence with which she merges this heightened, numinous world with the ordinary, the detailed, the credible. The problem with casting such a glowing spell on our poor, sad universe, however, is that, as with a novel that changes the bread and wine into the body and blood, it shouldn’t be attempted twice. The danger for Robinson, having managed such a successful piece of high-voltage fiction, is the same as the danger for Hemingway once he had created a low-voltage style, or indeed for James in his opaque late style: the danger of self-parody and the seeping presence of the reader’s irony, the reader’s restlessness. While Robinson gets away by the skin of her teeth with comparing the state of Idaho with the state of grace, she wouldn’t were she to find another state of the union and try the comparison a second time. (‘Let’s go through Georgia fast so we won’t have to look at it much,’ Flannery O’Connor has one of her characters say.)

*

Robinson didn’t publish her second novel, Gilead, until 24 years after Housekeeping. She wrote it, she told the Paris Review, in 18 months. It would be impossible for a future biographer, even if there are diaries and letters, to chart what happened to her sensibility over the years between the two books. Certainly, there is evidence of a tonal softening, a freeing up of the processes of imagining, a peeling away of protection that causes her now to insist less on a high-voltage style and concentrate instead on character. Gilead and the two novels that have come since – Home (2008) and now Lila – depend more on sympathy and ambiguity. Robinson has learned to cast a gentler gaze on the world, but the gaze is still filled with depth and wonder. The Christian God, apparent in Housekeeping, also lives in the body of these three novels, but Robinson has come up with the inspired idea of allowing the souls of the novels, so to speak, to be fully human.

Gilead, Home and Lila dramatise the lives of a small number of characters who appear in all of the books, the focus sharpening on one or two of them in each novel. Although there are references to the wider community in the small Iowa town of Gilead, Robinson hasn’t attempted to create a Middlemarch, or a panoramic view of the society. Instead, the three books concentrate fiercely, and indeed lovingly, on just two households, that of the Reverend John Ames, and his lifelong friend the Reverend Robert Boughton, with flashbacks in Lila into the eponymous heroine’s life before she came to Gilead and married Ames and had a son with him. Gilead takes a strand from Middlemarch and turns it around. Ames, like Casaubon, is old, dry, bookish and alone when he marries Lila. The novel, however, is told from his tender point of view, narrated as death approaches to be read by his young son when he grows up. It begins gently:

I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it.

Ames’s tone is both wise and engaged, without the stuffiness we associate with poor old Casaubon. He writes about his father and his grandfather, about strange things he witnessed, and about religion. Religion fills his life; Robinson doesn’t have cumbersomely to remind us that he has been a Congregationalist minister; she allows Ames’s belief in the scriptures to offer an energy to the rhythm of his thinking. Here he is describing a photograph of his grandfather:

It shows a wild-haired, one-eyed, scrawny old fellow with a crooked beard, like a paintbrush left to dry with lacquer in it, staring down the camera as if it had accused him of something terrible very suddenly, and he is still thinking how to reply and keeping the question at bay with the sheer ferocity of that stare. Of course there is guilt enough in the best life to account for a look like that.

That last sentence has a melancholy acceptance of the fact that we live the aftermath of the Fall, that we’re sinful, but it doesn’t make too much of the notion; it doesn’t feel like something the author thought of and then gave to Ames because she felt she should. It’s intrinsic to the way he sees the world – not as an afterthought or an imposed thought but as an easy thought.

Making religious thought easy is part of the genius of Gilead. Ames has been preaching all his life; he is interested in what truth sounds like and in finding further images for it. Robinson has found a meditative tone for him that can allow in anything at all, including casual observations of each day and serious speculation about the afterlife. The tone is helped by a faint urgency mixed with sweetness and regret as Ames realises he may not have much longer to live. Unlike the narrators, say, of Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer or J.M. Coetzee’s Age of Iron, who are also both close to death and whose tone becomes heightened and sharp and staccato in the face of extinction, Ames remains calm. But he shares with those narrators a particular eloquence, which the reader is made to feel has been given to him now in the light of his old age, and a more poetic tone than he might have used earlier in his life. But it is the memory of life rather than the thought of death that animates Ames. And his life has been greatly enriched by his friendship and discussions about theology with Robert Boughton, whose family becomes the focus of Robinson’s third novel.

In Home, Boughton is old too, and widowed, when his daughter, Glory, and eventually his wayward son, Jack, come home. Just as Robinson is prepared to take great risks in placing religious belief at the very centre of a character’s being – not as something which will animate the plot, but as something as ordinary and fundamental to a novel as money or love – she now takes the risk of making Glory very dull indeed and her daily routines and concerns in her father’s house as tedious to herself as they almost are to the reader. Glory is, at one level, one of fiction’s least interesting creations. Yet she slowly exudes an inner power, a light, almost like the woman in a Vermeer painting or an early Velásquez painting or a Margaret Lawrence novel. Her presence becomes persistent; every detail of her consciousness is etched into the prose with precision and depth. All she really does is regret her life, look after her father, read a bit and listen to the radio, and worry about her brother. And yet that becomes enough to give the novel a bedrock of closely observed drama. In both Gilead and Home Robinson has a way of making nothing much matter, of filling things with gravity and grace, and then offering them depth. She has a seriousness about her characters which helps defeat their solemnity and helps to distract us from what is almost an aimlessness, a looseness, in the plotting of the novels.

The real drama in Home arises when Jack returns. In Gilead, we saw his return from the point of view of John Ames. Jack casts a strange shadow over Ames’s general serenity:

Glory has come to tell me Jack Boughton is home. He is having supper in his father’s house this very night. He will come by to pay his respects, she said, in the next day or two. I am grateful for the warning. I will use the time to prepare myself. Boughton named him for me because he thought he might not have another son and I most likely would not have any child at all.

While Jack, who has been in trouble with the law, becomes a sort of fixation for Ames, as Ladislaw does for Casaubon in Middlemarch, the context is as much religious, or mysterious, as it is sexual. Ames writes to his son:

My impulse is strong to warn you against Jack Boughton. Your mother and you. You may know by now what a fallible man I am, and how little I can trust my feelings on this subject. And you know, from living out years I cannot foresee, whether you must forgive me for warning you, or forgive me for failing to warn you, or indeed if none of it turned out to matter at all. This is a grave question for me.

That paragraph would itself amount to a warning. Perhaps I can say to your mother only that much. He is not a man of the highest character. Be wary of him.

Ames muses over Jack’s antics as a child, his slyness, his loneliness, his sadness and the small mean thefts he committed. ‘Then he started doing the things that got his name in the newspaper, stealing liquor and joyriding, and so on. I’ve known young fellows who spent time in jail or got themselves sent off to the navy for behaviour that wasn’t any worse. But his family was so well respected that he got away with it all. That is to say, he was allowed to go right on disgracing his family.’ It becomes clear that Jack fathered a child out of wedlock and the child died. Ames writes: ‘I have never felt he was fond of me,’ while noting later that Jack’s own family ‘really loved him’ and his siblings ‘would stand up for him no matter what’.

Jack has been away for twenty years, has not even come home for his mother’s funeral. Finally returned, he is damaged, unsettled, unsettling. He waits for letters that don’t come; he leaves the house for no reason; his sister doesn’t know what’s on his mind. He is a nuisance, and yet oddly innocent and uneasy and endearing. Robinson charts all this with patience and skill and, at times, amusement. The scene in which the Boughtons invite the Reverend Ames and his young wife and son to Sunday dinner is worthy of James in its use of minute movement and flickering change of atmosphere, and close also to Alan Hollinghurst’s work in the way it mixes comedy of manners with sheer social tension. There is a marvellous moment when Jack, at the piano, plays some hymns and then begins to sing, ‘I want a Sunday kind of love, a love that lasts past Saturday night,’ only to find that Lila also seems to know the words. They are interrupted by the Reverend Boughton, who, for a moment, sounds like the Reverend Chasuble in The Importance of Being Earnest: ‘I thought we might enjoy something a little more in keeping with the Sabbath.’

The tension between Jack and everyone else in Home increases when he, for no good reason, attends a service led by the Reverend Ames, only to find that the sermon concerns the abandonment of children by their fathers, which Jack believes to be an open reference to his own behaviour. When he gets home he says to his sister: ‘Ah, little sister, these old fellows play rough. They look so harmless, and the next thing you know, you’re counting broken bones again … I left through the chancel. I had half a mind to pull my jacket up over my head.’ As Jack, despite doing nothing to make anyone like him, continues to bask in the love of his sister and his father, a reader might feel that this is a retelling of the story of the Prodigal Son. But slowly it becomes clear that Robinson, with infinite subtlety and care, is dealing with a stranger and more dramatic subject: the matter of predestination.

In a riveting scene, Jack abruptly asks the Reverend Ames: ‘Do you think some people are intentionally and irretrievably consigned to perdition?’ When Ames prevaricates, Jack softly returns to the question: ‘I would like your help with this, Reverend.’ Slowly, the reader begins to wonder if Jack thinks that he might be one of the damned, and if this has been on the mind of the Reverend Ames. Since this scene occurs on page 230 of the book, we already know Jack in all his awkward frailty and uncertainty: he isn’t a cipher, someone who can be reduced to a theory. Once the theory is named, however, it becomes haunting and deadly serious. As well as predestination, Jack needs to know what he should believe about the sins of fathers; he needs to know if a man who is sinful can cause the death of his own child by his own sinful nature.

Robinson manages to dramatise and almost normalise this most difficult subject. As the scene proceeds, it becomes clear that the question isn’t some abstract theological matter best left to Calvinists: the question is tearing Jack apart, and it’s also affecting the reader of the novel. Despite being told that his father is tired, Jack persists with the discussion. Robinson attempts to make us offer Jack our complete sympathy. He is a man who may believe that he is predestined for damnation; or he may be, indeed, genuinely and really among the damned. It doesn’t matter for a moment whether we think this kind of speculation is sheer nonsense or not. Because Jack in all his weakness has been created for us with such tenderness, it matters what he thinks and believes – not what we think. ‘I’m the amateur here,’ Jack says.

If I had your history with the question I’d be sick of it, too, no doubt. Well I do have a history with it. I’ve wondered from time to time if I might not be an instance of predestination. A sort of proof. If I may not experience predestination in my own person. That would be interesting, if the consequences were not so painful. For other people. If it did not seem as though I spread a contagion of some kind. Of misfortune. Is that possible?

In the background of Home, a real America is simmering. There is a mention of polio, there are discussions about the atom bomb, about Eisenhower, about race riots in the South, which the Reverend Boughton thinks should be of no interest to the people of Gilead. Jack takes a different view on this subject, and in a moving, unexpected and convincing end to the book Robinson makes clear why this is so. Although Home makes reference to the story of the bad thief in the New Testament, and although Glory comes in the end to see Jack as the suffering Christ, Robinson seems more concerned with the texture of this world than the tone of the next. Despite her interest in religion, the predicaments dramatised in the book – including the religious ones – are rendered mostly in human terms. She manages to make this seem like amplitude rather than restraint.

*

In Robinson’s new novel, Lila, the tone becomes both more otherworldly and also more oddly venal. In Gilead and Home, the two reverend gentlemen are stable, decent and kind, almost noble. Now, with the character of Lila, Robinson becomes interested, as with Jack, in a wayward nature, in someone who has lived apart from the grace of Gilead. But while Jack is wilful and smart, Lila has a strange, almost feral innocence. Robinson is concerned here with the tension between someone who seems lost in the world, a sort of waif, yet who carries a glow, sometimes too much glow for a novel to bear – a striving for sanctity, the aura of someone destined by virtue of grace for another world.

Lila first came to the town, Ames tells us in Gilead, in 1947, sheltering from the rain in his church at Pentecost, on a day when the sermon was about light, or indeed, about Light. ‘I do enjoy remembering that morning. I was 67 to be exact, which did not seem old to me. I wish I could give you the memory I have of your mother that day. I wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am.’ Before she sought refuge in Gilead, Lila was wandering Middle America with a tribe of the poverty-stricken. The novel moves between her life now, a life of comfort and ease as a wife and mother, and her life before, when she was looked after by a woman called Doll. Robinson deals with hunger and violence and carnality, but she also wishes to dramatise religious questions. This time, because of Lila’s inexperience, her poverty, her life of deprivation, it requires a leap of faith for the reader to follow Lila fully as she discusses divine grace with the Reverend Ames while lying in bed with him. ‘But he seemed to be telling her that … souls could be lost for ever because of things they did not know, or understand, or believe. He didn’t like to say it, he had to try different words for it. So she knew he thought it might be true. Doll probably didn’t know she had an immortal soul … If Doll was going to be lost for ever, Lila wanted to be right there with her, holding to the skirt of her dress.’

This question of what happens to the unsaved continues to preoccupy her. Since none of the people she had known were baptised, could it be that they wouldn’t go to heaven? Robinson manages, some of the time, to make Lila’s concern with this credible and dramatic. ‘I’ve been tramping around with the heathens,’ she says. ‘They’re just as good as anybody, so far as I can see. They sure don’t deserve no hellfire.’ At other times, however, Robinson seems to give poor Lila too many weighty things to say and inquire about. In one scene, when she is out walking with her husband and he asks her what is on her mind, she replies: ‘Nothing, really. Existence.’ Later, as he talks about his thoughts on religion, she says: ‘Near as I can tell, you were wanting to reconcile things by saying they can’t be reconciled. I guess I know what you mean by reconcile.’

It’s possible that Robinson, having put so much concrete detail and credible fact into Gilead and Home, felt that she deserved some freedom, and wished to make Lila a soul as much as a body. She gives her body enough in the novel’s backstory, including a spell working in a whorehouse, and much wandering and hunger, but perhaps that’s not enough for Robinson’s grave and unearthly ambitions as a novelist. Some of the soulful scenes, however, ring true, such as the scenes where Lila and her ageing husband fall in love and want each other, and the scenes where Lila’s spirit seems unsettled. Some of the writing has echoes of the lyricism of Housekeeping:

There was night everywhere and snow, under a big moon. Beyond the few lights of Gilead the great white nowhere that the wind had all to itself, the frozen ponds and stricken cornfields and the ragtag sheds and shacks. The wind would be clapping shut and prying open everything that was meant to keep it out, bothering where it could, tired of its huge loneliness.

But all the time, as she creates this unlikely coupling between the old preacher and the waif, to which she has devoted two full novels, Robinson may have been building up to the exquisite scene after the birth of their child when Boughton falteringly attempts to baptise it in water from melted snow. Since they aren’t sure this worked, they have to repeat the effort, or the sacrament, when the baby is two weeks old. As Lila speaks to the child, Robinson makes it clear why religion, despite everything, can be a godsend to a novelist, as much as it is to her characters. ‘But when you were just two weeks old,’ Lila says,

we took you to the church to be christened for sure, because Boughton kept on worrying until it was done. Your father said it was intention that mattered, and that didn’t matter either, because a newborn child is as pure as the snow. Boughton said if they did not act on the intention when circumstances allowed them to, then the seriousness of the intention was questionable.

The two old men then argue about intention, quoting Calvin for their own purposes, as though they had all the time in the world.