Walter Pater’s formula for romantic art’s dynamism (as opposed to the frozen majesty of the classical) was “the addition of strangeness to beauty.” That is a tag I would append to Marilynne Robinon’s classic 1980 novel, her first, Housekeeping. In truth, I took up this book rather dutifully—I’ve been intermittently but semi-deliberately reading American fiction from roughly 1960-2000, coming to the end of Morrison, getting better acquainted with Updike and McCarthy, and catching up with the Roths and DeLillos I missed along the way. I read Housekeeping because it is considered a great novel of the era, but I did not really expect to love it. I had read some of Robinson’s cultural commentary years ago, and while I admired, more or less aesthetically, its generous liberal-Puritan vision of American civilization, I was not quite persuaded (see the middle part of this William Deresiewicz essay for more on Robinson’s political position and its limitations). While I appreciated the old-time grandeur of Robinson’s essentially nineteenth-century social stance and prose style, I suspected it would express itself in fiction as an intellectualized and lyrical high-culture version of Christian inspiration, which I doubted would be to my taste. But Housekeeping, a masterpiece, seems to have been written before Robinson arrived at her present convictions, as Deresiewicz suggests. It is a work of primal power, more prose-poem than novel, and written, as far as I can tell, not out of religious faith but from an intuition of what Walter Benjamin, praising Kafka, described as a world older than myth.
The plot is simple enough, encapsulated, really, in the novel’s first two sentences:
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.
Housekeeping is set in a sparse Northwestern town named Fingerbone, to which Ruth’s grandfather migrated from his even more rudimentary Midwestern existence (“He had grown up in…a house dug out of the ground”). Fingerbone is located on a mountain lake, beneath which is an even older lake, and the town floods every spring. The novel’s first event is Ruth’s grandfather’s death, which occurs when the train he is riding on plunges into the lake. Later in the novel—but not much later—his daughter Helen commits suicide by driving into the same body of water. This death precipitates the novel’s central problem, which is the question of who will care for Helen’s children, Ruth and Lucille. The novel mainly concerns itself with their “transient” aunt Sylvie’s attempt to rear them. Sylvie, a rider in freight cars and sleeper on park benches, who keeps money pinned under her lapels and who goes to bed with her shoes on, who allows the orchard beyond the house to penetrate its interior, exemplifies the life of fluidity and constant change, the anti-civilizational drive ever outward, symbolized by the concentric and overflowing lake and by her sister’s and father’s plunges into the watery unknown. Ruth, our narrator, is attracted by Sylvie’s transience, while Lucille becomes progressively more appalled and leaves them to join conventional civilization, portrayed in this novel as a dull assemblage of busybodies and rule-followers denying the contingency of all that exists without and within them.
The prose-poetry of Housekeeping could be quoted extensively, though I do find that the novel passes into the didactic in its last thirty or so pages. In a key passage, Sylvie and the children dance in the spring-flooded living room, pitting nature’s endless concentric circles against the sqaure enclosure of civilization, and meeting nature’s unending flow with the measured steps of art:
Sylvie pushed at the water with the side of her foot. A ribbed circle spread to the four walls and the curves of its four sides rebounded, interpenetrated, and the orderly ranks of light swept and swung about the room. Lucille stomped with her feet until the water sloshed against the walls like water carried in a bucket. There were sounds of dull concussion from the kitchen, and the lace curtains, drawn thin and taut by their own sodden weight, shifted and turned. Sylvie took me by the hands and pulled me after her through six grand waltz steps. The house flowed around us.
In another essential passage, Ruth expresses her sense that all but darkness is illusion:
I simply let the darkness in the sky become coextensive with the darkness in my skull and bowels and bones. Everything that falls upon the eye is apparition, a sheet dropped over the world’s true workings. The nerves and the brain are tricked, and one is left with dreams that these specters loose their hands from ours and walk away, the curve of the back and the swing of the coat so familiar as to imply that they should be permanent fixtures of the world, when in fact nothing is more perishable.
Redemption is hinted at:
Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water—peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. 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? And here again is a foreshadowing—the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again.
But that, to me, is not as evocative as the novel’s more tangible images of ruin and disaster, and this confession of Ruth’s skeptical idealism seems to summarize the novel’s extraordinary sensibility:
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.
This is strange book to read right after Blood Meridian in my haphazard tour of late-twentieth century American literature; the two novels, both written and published in the late 1970s and early 1980s, are like mirror-images of each other, equal and opposite visions of human insignificance and natural absoluteness, extraordinary landscape paintings in elevated prose. Both novels strive to encompass the totality of classic American literature and thereby to master the whole western canon. Each novel insists, however, on a gendered lens through which to command their perspective: there are next to no women in Blood Meridian (which begins with the kid’s mother’s death) and next to no men in Housekeeping (which begins with Ruth’s grandfather’s death); both novels hew, in fact, to highly gendered genres in their narrative outlines—McCarthy’s epic, Robinson’s domestic Gothic.
While I was reminded of more modern fictions by Housekeeping—My Ántonia, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Sula—the novel struck me with its many echoes of the words of the American Renaissance writers Robinson so reveres. At the level of plot, we have the women-alone-on-the-periphery-of-a-judgmental-society motif from Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter and also not a little of Poe’s Gothic, his devouring maelstroms and tarns, his half-silly haunted houses and doppelgängers.
Above all, in the image of the concentric lakes, the falls of those who have died in them rippling out to infinity, in which beneath every deep a lower deep opens wide, we hear, in a more melancholy tone, the Emerson of “Circles”:
The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary picture is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world. St. Augustine described the nature of God as a circle whose centre was everywhere and its circumference nowhere. We are all our lifetime reading the copious sense of this first of forms. One moral we have already deduced in considering the circular or compensatory character of every human action. Another analogy we shall now trace, that every action admits of being outdone. Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.
(Emerson’s seeming progressive meliorism about the prospect of endless change and development should be qualified by the recollection that this language of the “lower deep” is borrowed from Milton’s Satan.)
And in Ruth’s skepticism that she perceives anything real, we hear the rueful voice of Emerson in “Experience,” who grieves that has not grieved enough, because nothing, in the end, is real enough to count as a loss:
I take this evanescence and lubricity of all objects, which lets them slip through our fingers then when we clutch hardest, to be the most unhandsome part of our condition. Nature does not like to be observed, and likes that we should be her fools and playmates. We may have the sphere for our cricket-ball, but not a berry for our philosophy. Direct strokes she never gave us power to make; all our blows glance, all our hits are accidents. Our relations to each other are oblique and casual.
Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion.
And the novel’s water-and-train motif, its sense that our origin and our end can be found alike in the dark waters that are stirred by our transient passing, evokes Thoreau as he watches the train-track-cut sandbank, during the spring thaw at Walden, vomit forth a flow of mud from which we and our words emerge in grotesque embryo:
Few phenomena gave me more delight than to observe the forms which thawing sand and clay assume in flowing down the sides of a deep cut on the railroad through which I passed on my way to the village, a phenomenon not very common on so large a scale, though the number of freshly exposed banks of the right material must have been greatly multiplied since railroads were invented. The material was sand of every degree of fineness and of various rich colors, commonly mixed with a little clay. When the frost comes out in the spring, and even in a thawing day in the winter, the sand begins to flow down the slopes like lava, sometimes bursting out through the snow and overflowing it where no sand was to be seen before. Innumerable little streams overlap and interlace one with another, exhibiting a sort of hybrid product, which obeys half way the law of currents, and half way that of vegetation. As it flows it takes the forms of sappy leaves or vines, making heaps of pulpy sprays a foot or more in depth, and resembling, as you look down on them, the laciniated, lobed, and imbricated thalluses of some lichens; or you are reminded of coral, of leopard’s paws or birds’ feet, of brains or lungs or bowels, and excrements of all kinds. […] The whole bank, which is from twenty to forty feet high, is sometimes overlaid with a mass of this kind of foliage, or sandy rupture, for a quarter of a mile on one or both sides, the produce of one spring day. What makes this sand foliage remarkable is its springing into existence thus suddenly. When I see on the one side the inert bank — for the sun acts on one side first — and on the other this luxuriant foliage, the creation of an hour, I am affected as if in a peculiar sense I stood in the laboratory of the Artist who made the world and me — had come to where he was still at work, sporting on this bank, and with excess of energy strewing his fresh designs about. I feel as if I were nearer to the vitals of the globe, for this sandy overflow is something such a foliaceous mass as the vitals of the animal body. You find thus in the very sands an anticipation of the vegetable leaf. No wonder that the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, it so labors with the idea inwardly. The atoms have already learned this law, and are pregnant by it. The overhanging leaf sees here its prototype. […] If you look closely you observe that first there pushes forward from the thawing mass a stream of softened sand with a drop-like point, like the ball of the finger, feeling its way slowly and blindly downward, until at last with more heat and moisture, as the sun gets higher, the most fluid portion, in its effort to obey the law to which the most inert also yields, separates from the latter and forms for itself a meandering channel or artery within that, in which is seen a little silvery stream glancing like lightning from one stage of pulpy leaves or branches to another, and ever and anon swallowed up in the sand. It is wonderful how rapidly yet perfectly the sand organizes itself as it flows, using the best material its mass affords to form the sharp edges of its channel. Such are the sources of rivers. In the silicious matter which the water deposits is perhaps the bony system, and in the still finer soil and organic matter the fleshy fibre or cellular tissue. What is man but a mass of thawing clay?
And is the novel’s master-spirit not that of Emily Dickinson, with her sly nihilism, her worshipful skepticism?—
But nature is a stranger yet:
The ones that cite her most
Have never passed her haunted house,
Nor simplified her ghost.
To pity those that know her not
Is helped by the regret
That those who know her, know her less
The nearer her they get.
Back beyond the American Renaissance no doubt is the Bible; Housekeeping is a failed, even a parodic, Book of Ruth, with no worldly redemption, no successful reproduction, for its exiled women. In his introduction to Ruth in the Norton Critical Old Testament, Herbert Marks writes:
At the deepest levels, its brief chapters combine the two principal archetypes of Western narrative: the Abrahamic myth of definitive rupture, the journey forward into a world unknown; and the Odyssean myth of ultimate return, the journey home. In the book of Ruth, the journey out becomes, without one’s ever knowing quite how or why, a journey back to everything one has had to renounce.
No less narratively capacious, albeit at the other end of human history, is Housekeeping, a remarkable feat of language in any place or century, even if its century evinces considerably less faith in a redemptive nostos and has learned moreover that transience may be superior—ethically, politically, aesthetically—to Zion.