Friday, April 17, 2009


why i am not a novelist

A lovely spring day here in Maine. In the morning I went outside to paint for a few hours and it was heaven. I've been struggling for the past few weeks while working indoors, so to be out painting from life again, looking out to sea, was just what I needed. What does this have to do with not writing novels? Nothing, except it had me thinking about creative endeavour in general, and I recently read, back-to-back, Housekeeping (Macmillan 1980) and Gilead (FSG 2004, 2005 Pulitzer-winner) by Marilynne Robinson. They both made me realize that I do not have what it takes to be the kind of novelist I would want to be, were I to be a novelist. (That is to say, the Marilynne Robinson kind.) Holy mackerel, her style and her stories are heartbreakingly wonderful. Beautiful sentences had me thinking, How...? How did she...? Who could think of that...? Of course I was happy to find bookish bits within each novel, too, such as this, from the main character in Gilead (p.39):

"...I've developed a great reputation for wisdom by ordering more books than I ever had time to read, and reading more books, by far, than I learned anything useful from, except, of course, that some very tedious gentlemen have written books. This is not a new insight, but the truth of it is something you have to experience to fully grasp."

Interesting realization about Gilead, after I read it - it takes the same form as another novel I love, Mark Helprin's Memoir from Antproof Case - that of a relatively old man who became a father late in life, running out of time for one reason and another, hence writing down his life history and instructions to his young son, a boy he will certainly never see become a grown man. Thus the story unfolds as the main character decides how much to tell, and when to tell it. Of course there are differences: Helprin gives us a picaresque world-wide adventurer, and Robinson, a quiet home-town preacher. But still, a very interesting way to tell a story.

In Housekeeping, the ending is hard and sad and I'm not sure if I am relieved for the main character or not. Either way, her fate is difficult. But In Gilead, Robinson allows the black sheep character to turn out ok, mostly, and it's frankly a wonderful relief, because I was expecting disaster the entire time, for everybody involved. All in all, it was a pleasure to read a major-award-winning novel I actually love (the past few years I have been underwhelmed, to say the least, whenever I've attempted such a thing).

So there it is. I now know I am not a novelist because I cannot be Marilynne Robinson. Luckily, I am a painter instead. And a writer of - what - something other than near-perfect novels.

You're probably already on top of this, but just wanted you to know that Ronald Blythe's weekly
diary from his East Anglia farm
appears every Friday in Church Times. Click 'Pastimes' in the
Contents Margin at left, then "Word
from Wormingford."

It's one of the highlights of my reading week.

Penguin (I think) has released
six collections of his columns over the years. I always get them
from one of the ABE or Amazon dealers in UK. Next one, due next month, irresistably titled _"Bookman's Journey."

To Spring.....
Thank you, Theo - yes, I am on top of the Blythe situation... I have more books en route as we speak, despite not really being able to afford them (but when has that stopped me before, I ask you). And I am eagerly awaiting the new bookish collection. I will also read the return to Akenfield book at some point - I'd love to know what happened to everyone...
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