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Housekeeping

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Here we have one of the rare cases where a book demands a page of its own.

Housekeeping (Novel) by Marilynne Robinson, 1980

For ages, I’ve been noticing references to this "modern classic". So this summer seemed like a good time to catch up with it. Given the title, I was expecting some cozy domestic thing about women’s lives – you know, the kind of thing that lots of writers are turning out these days.

Well, it’s about women’s lives, all right. But cozy, it ain’t. And it’s unlike anything that anybody else has written. In fact, the most amazing thing about the book is that you feel you’re hearing a unique voice. This is somebody whose take on life is distinctly her own. Which is not to say that she doesn’t touch on perennial truths. In fact, Ms. Robinson’s contemplative approach, her seeing into the depths of things, brings to mind some of the great landmarks of world literature – On Walden Pond, Remembrance of Things Past, War and Peace.

As profound as those in its own way, Housekeeping makes you stop and ask: what is great fiction about anyway? There’s a story here, yes, and an intriguing one. But the work goes far beyond telling a story. In effect, it’s a meditation on what it means to be a living, sentient being in this world. And, most tellingly, a being that knows it's going to die. It’s the kind of book, then, that you need to own so that you can go back to it again and again to let the words wash over you and sink in with renewed freshness, the way you do with the bible and great poetry.

But this impression of the book’s greatness didn’t come on first glance. The novel opens with the narrator’s discussion of her family’s history: something about her grandfather, a rugged guy, who built a strange home in the mud on the side of a hill somewhere in the Middle West of the US. There, he and his wife produced three daughters. I found all this rather hard to sort out. It wasn’t very clear to me who these people were and what was going on.

Then came a passage where the narrator talked about the grandfather’s demise in a train that plunged off a bridge into a river. She described the attempted rescue at night, with townsmen whose bodies had been oiled up and who were descending on ropes into the murky deep to see if they could find any trace of the doomed train. The eerie stillness and quiet of the scene, the stoic bravery, sent a chill through me. I was thinking: I’ve never read anything like this before. Thus, my first encounter with author Robinson’s formidable powers of evocation.

Other than referring to that train accident, it would be a pity to say much about the plot. The story, while enthralling, is simple and to give away any of the major details would be to rob a potential reader of the pleasure of discovery. Let’s just say that Ruth, the narrator, the granddaughter of the drowned man, ends up, as a result of various twists of fate, to have an unconventional upbringing. Through it all, she reflects on what is happening to her, she observes human beings astutely and she lavishes on us some of the most beautiful writing that the English language has ever been used for. Every sentence feels freshly minted for its particular purpose. There’s never a phrase or a thought that seems re-cycled or borrowed from the writers’ common storehouse of catchy formulae.

For starters, then, some of Ms. Robinson’s astonishing metaphors. Talking about walking in the woods with her sister, Ruth says, "...the deep woods are as dark and stiff and as full of their own odors as the parlor of an old house. We would walk among those great legs, hearing the enthralled and incessant murmurings far above our heads, like children at a funeral." About school lunches where she was shunned by her sister and other kids, she says, "It seemed as if I were trying to eat a peanut-butter sandwich while hanging by the neck." Could anything sum up more acutely a kid’s anguish at being cut out? Certainly, nothing could catch the effect of a bonfire better than this: "There seemed to be no wind at all. We could watch the heat from the fire pull and tease the air out of shape, stretching the fabric of dimension and repose with its furious ascending."

Then there’s the attention to detail, the specificity of which brings you up short against the reality of things. For instance, this bit of domestic business:

Sylvie and I started a smoldery fire and boiled water for tea and soup, and Lucille piled up the fallen wood and swept the bobbing clothespins behind the pantry curtain with a broom (it was the same broom we used to whack the woodpile before we used any wood from it, so that the spiders and mice would be warned away, and would not bite our fingers or drop into our sleeves, or perish in the stove flames).

In a seaside setting, the kind of locale where most of us would vaguely sense the activity of the gulls as random, Ruth observes that:

At intervals the gull on the northernmost piling departed with four cries, and all the other gulls fluttered northward by one piling. Then the sojourner would return and alight on the southernmost piling. This sequence was repeated again and again, with only clumsy and accidental variations.

Another seaside memory, this one drenched in sorrow, includes this sentence:

That was where she sat me on her shoulders so that I could paddle my hands in the chestnut leaves, so cool, and that was the day we bought hamburgers at a white cart for supper and sat on a green bench by the seawall feeding all the bread to the gulls and watching the ponderous ferries sail between the sky and water so precisely the same electric blue that there was no horizon.

Who would ever have thought to describe the chestnut leaves as cool? And what a stroke of genius, that "ponderous" as applied to the ferries! But, given that the memory involves very sad circumstances, the bit that really gets me is buying hamburgers from the white cart. To think the little girl remembered that tiny detail, so many years later, after so much tragedy, is heart-breaking.

As for Ms. Robinson’s superlative skill at description, one example, a scene at dawn, will have to suffice:

The absolute black of the sky dulled and dimmed and blanched slowly away, and finally half a dozen daubs of cloud, dull powder pink, sailed high in a pale-green sky, rust-red at the horizon. Venus shone a heatless planetary white among these parrot colors, and earth lay unregenerate so long that it seemed to me for once all these blandishments might fail. The birds of our world were black motes in that tropic.

So much for Ms. Robinson’s observation of nature and of things. But no book could succeed as superlatively as hers does without a keen eye for human nature. Her report on her grandmother’s life with three daughters, after the grandfather had drowned, comes through with an immediacy that makes you feel you’re seeing the scene more clearly than most other scenes in fiction. As each woman goes about her customary activities in the parlour of an evening, you feel you’re sitting there with them. An analysis of the family’s somewhat aloof attitude includes this very perceptive comment on societal relations : "If my family were not as intelligent as we were pleased to pretend, this was an innocent deception, for it was a matter of indifference to everybody whether we were intelligent or not." Regarding loneliness, a state that the narrator comes to know well, she remarks that even people who can boast of only one social bond tend to be smug about it, "....and it is the smugness as much as the comfort and safety that lonely people covet and admire."

For me, one of the most astounding passages regarding human nature has to do with charitable visits by local ladies to families in distress. Ms. Robinson conveys the awkwardness on both sides, the stilted conversation, the pained efforts to show friendly concern without too much intrusion, to try to touch on mutual interests, not to mention the faint note of condescension from the ladies. And yet, she manages to make us see that the visiting ladies are essentially good, that this is what they feel right about doing. Another author might ridicule them or even despise them. But Ms. Robinson convinces me that this is all about human beings trying, in their fumbling ways, to do right by one another.

That scene takes on a special shine, thanks to Ms. Robinson’s sly take on some aspects of the visitors’ behaviour: "They had some general notions of tact but very little practice in the use of it, and so they tended to err on the side of caution, to deal in indirection, and to succumb to embarrassment." That note provides one of the flashes of humour essential in any book, no matter how lugubrious the subject matter, if it’s going to win me over. Ms. Robinson’s sense of comedy seeps through just often enough to assure me that I’m in the hands of a person capable of a blithe take on life when that’s called for. About the charitable ladies, for instance, she notes: "...the obligation to perform these works rested squarely with the women, since salvation was universally considered to be much more becoming in women than in men."

As in that example, it’s often on the subject of religion that Ms. Robinson’s humour comes to the surface. Imagining her grandmother’s reception in heaven by her pre-deceased relatives, Ruth says: "And my grandmother would scan the shores to see how nearly the state of grace resembled the state of Idaho, and to search the growing crowds for familiar faces." One of the most delicious jokes, to my taste, involves the recollection that Jesus restored the severed ear of the soldier. Ruth considers that "a fact that allows us to hope the resurrection will reflect a considerable attention to detail."

Of course, no novel could succeed without good characterization and Ms. Robinson does characters as well as anybody. There’s the strong, terse grandmother who doesn’t show affection to anybody other than her family and even then not much. Ruth’s mother is enigmatic, to put it mildly, and Ruth’s sister Lucille develops in a way that is both startlingly unexpected and entirely plausible. But certainly the standout character, and one that deserves a place up there with the icons of modern literature, is Ruth’s aunt Sylvie. One of those people who marches to her own tune, Sylvie might be diagnosed today as suffering from something like Asperger’s syndrome. It’s only with the greatest effort that she can be brought to care much about what people expect and to do anything about those expectations. While Sylvie may be a lost soul, pathetic in some ways, there is something incredibly courageous in her kookiness – as with many a marginalized person if you look close enough.

And, if you’re going to have good characters, you’ve got to have good dialogue. At first, this book seems sparse on that score. But suddenly, around page thirty, you get two pages of conversation between two elderly women, as overheard from upstairs by Ruth when she was a child. The quick statements back and forth, mostly simple declarative sentences or fragments, using mostly monosyllables, speak volumes about the characters of those two women. Harold Pinter should be lucky to pack so much into so few words.

For the rest of the book, dialogue remains scarce – as befits a very internalized story. However, one truly outstanding example of human speech comes in a tirade by Ruth’s sister, Lucille, as a young teenager. It captures so perfectly the rage, the frustrated love and the hot embarrassment of a female towards her sibling that it made me cringe.

Some of Ms. Robinson’s most thoughtful observations on human nature have to do with what might be called the cerebral functions of the species. One sentence makes a distinction about perception that most of us miss or typically gloss over. Referring to one of Aunt Sylvie’s strange notions, Ruth says: "I felt so, too, though I did not think so." Another important insight comes in the recognition that a clear distinction isn’t always possible in other aspects of the inner life: "I have never distinguished readily between thinking and dreaming. I know my life would be much different if I could ever say, This I have learned from my senses, while that I have merely imagined."

Then there’s this about longing vs having:

To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it?

On the power of memory, Ruth says: "...even things lost in a house abide, like forgotten sorrows and incipient dreams...." But the most arresting observation on the subject comes in a statement about Jesus’ followers after his death:

....He was so sharply lacked and so powerfully remembered that his friends felt Him beside them as they walked along the road, and saw someone cooking fish on the shore and knew it to be Him, and sat down to supper with Him, all wounded as He was.

That probably wouldn’t satisfy many Christians by way of an explanation of the Resurrection but it rings very true in terms of human response to loss.

Which is perhaps, the main theme of the book. But there are so many! How can you list the thematic notes in a work that encompasses the whole business of life and death in this world? You could as easily sum up the point of Ecclesiastes. But let’s try to give some hint of the thematic riches to be found here:

One that looms large is the tricky business of perception in all its ramifications. Belatedly, it struck me that the strange house at the beginning of the book – the part of the novel that didn’t come through very clearly to me – occupied an important place in this respect. The house had windows at eye level "so that from without, the house was a mere mound, no more a human stronghold than a grave, and from within, the perfect horizontality of the world in that place foreshortened the view so severely that the horizon seemed to circumscribe the sod house and nothing more."

As the book progresses, though, vision is seen to become unreliable, to the point where we find a disparity between appearance and reality.

- "Everything that falls upon the eye is apparition, a sheet dropped over the world’s true workings."

- "I was always reminded of pictures, images, in places where images never were, in marble, in the blue net of veins at my wrists, in the pearled walls of seashells."

- "Was this coincidence just another proof of the conspiracy of the senses with the world?"

- "If appearance is only a trick of the nerves, and apparition is only a lesser trick of the nerves, a less perfect illusion, then this expectation, this sense of a presence unperceived, was not particularly illusory as things in this world go."

In a world that’s chancy in such ways, Ruth and her sister spend their lives "watching and listening with the constant sharp attention of children lost in the dark." The sight of faces in windows will often catch their attention. These kids will come to see that "the very ordinariness of things" recommends them: "Every spirit passing through the world fingers the tangible and mars the mutable, and finally has come to look and not to buy." The metaphysical implications here remind me strongly of W. H. Auden’s poem with the haunting line, "A crack in the teacup opens a lane to the land of the dead." In such a world, "Fact explains nothing. On the contrary, it is fact that requires explanation."

And what of the titular theme? Throughout much of the book, it seems that housekeeping doesn’t figure very largely, other than a few passing references to the art. Eventually, though, housekeeping takes on tremendous significance in strategic terms. This mundane activity is transformed into something both desperate, pitiable and heroic.

In a book where loss figures so prominently, it’s not surprising that death occupies a central place. It’s most often associated with drowning. As with faces in windows, faces are often seen under water. A deceased loved one becomes "a music I no longer heard, that rang in my mind, itself and nothing else, lost to all sense, but not perished, not perished." Although the vague hope of Resurrection surfaces now and then, one chilling statement effectively stamps the whole work with a seal of gloom: "By some bleak alchemy what had been mere unbeing becomes death when life is mingled with it."

It almost seems churlish to find any little fault in such a sublime book. But I can’t help mentioning one quibble raised by the author’s use of the first person narrator. Given what we know about the narrator at the end of the book, it seems a trifle unlikely that this person would ever have sat down and written this book. Now, I know that may seem irrelevant. Most people nowadays recognize that King David didn’t write the psalms penned in his name but that doesn’t stop us from appreciating them.

On the other hand, doesn’t it add to the enjoyment of a novel when you can picture the narrator, as you have come to know her or him, devoting time and energy to the writing? Think of Marcel Proust. To see him sitting in bed at night and scribbling away at his masterpiece fits in perfectly with the picture of him that we have formed through our reading of the novel. Even such a non-literary type as Holden Caulfield can readily be imagined taking a few hours to dash off his frenzied screed.

This tiny doubt about the narrator of Housekeeping is not meant as any sort of repudiation of the book. God forbid that anything would ever have prevented this amazing work from reaching as many readers as possible. Nearly thirty years after its first publication, I feel blessed to have discovered it. To choose from many marvellous passages, I’ll end with the one that moved me most. Think about someone you have lost and see if you can read this aloud without bawling:

But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com