To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow.

11 02 2008

Finished today: Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson


Although this book is not a  miracle like Marilynne Robinson’s more recent  Gilead, which I would recommend without hesitating to any lover of literature, (besides my recommendation, it also merits the Pulitzer Prize for literature, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and a recommendation from my friend Amanda), this book, Housekeeping (which won the PEN/Hemingway award) shares something of the later book’s style, paragraphs stretched taut with imaginative poetic prose. Gilead had a directness in its poetry that made it an easy read (this nonchalant ease is part of what makes Gilead something of a miracle); Housekeeping demands more from the reader — it’s more literary and conscious of its own significance (perhaps the 23 years gap between the two lent a greater maturity to Gilead). Today was at least the third time that I’ve picked it up to read, but I’m glad I read it today, in the midst of my new “poetic phase.”


I think the mood of the book is best summed up by the main character near the end:

If I had one particular complaint, it was that my life seemed composed entirely of expectation. I expected–an arrival, an explanation, an apology. There had never been one, a fact I could have accepted, were it not true that, just when I had got used to the limits and dimensions of one moment, I was expelled into the next and made to wonder again if any shapes hid in its shadows. That most moments were substantially the same did not detract at all from the possibility that the next moment might be utterly different. And so the ordinary demanded unblinking attention.

The mood of this book is one of expectation. Deliberately, almost obviously, poetic, tightly-wound, full of possibilities, mostly worrisome ones. As in earlier postings, this is no review, if you want some background on the story, go to the link at the top…


The woods themselves disturbed us. We liked the little clearing, the burned-off places where wild strawberries grew. Buttercups are the materialization of the humid yellow light one finds in such places. (Buttercups in those mountains are rare and delicate, bright, lacquered, and big on short stems. People delve them up, earth and all, and bring them home like trophies. Newspapers give prizes for the earliest ones. In gardens they perish.) But 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 these great legs, hearing the enthralled and incessant murmurings far above our heads, like children at a funeral.

I wanted this paragraph just because of “the deep woods are as dark and stiff and as full of their own odors as the parlor of an old house,” but the themes in this paragraph and this poetic use of language fill the book.

It was as if the light had coaxed a flowering from the frost, which before seemed barren and parched as salt. The grass shone with petal colors, and water drops spilled from all the trees as innumerably as petals. “I told you it was nice,” Sylvie said.


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 har is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, long, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.

I chose this not because I am sure of its truth, but because of the language and the images…and perhaps because I am attuned to salt, both because of some slight dislocations in my health (that make me crave it) and because I’ve recently been reading Neruda, who seems to find salt a potently symbolic substance.


This last paragraph I preserve here today strikes me as discerning a truth. The authorities are close to removing the orphaned narrator from the custody of her eccentric, formerly itinerant, not quite sane aunt Sylvie:

Sylvie did not want to lose me. She did not want me to grow gigantic and multiple, so that I seemed to fill the whole house [EB: as memories can], and she did not wish me to turn subtle and miscible, so that I could pass through the membranes that separate dream and dream. She did not wish to remember me. She much preferred my simple, ordinary presence, silent and ungainly though I might be. For she could regard me without strong emotion–a familiar shape, a familiar face, a familiar silence. She could forget I was in the room. She could speak to herself, or to someone in her thoughts, with peasure and animation, even while I sat beside her–this was the measure of our intimacy, that she gave almost no thought to me at all.

But if she lost me, I would become extraordinary by my vanishing…

 There is much of loneliness in this book, most of which didn’t cut me, because I am generally comfortable with my own company, and find myself happy alone. But there are separations–for me, it is from my kids, who I must separate from over and over again–that are the exact opposite of the ‘sweet sorrow’ experienced by young lovers from before Shakespeare’s time, lovers who may prefer the separation, with its pangs, a release from the excitement and stress of the possibilities of a new relationship which must be tended each moment together, especially since the return to a lover’s arms comes with a surge of pleasure. To be with someone and not be proving your worth, not be trying to impress, or even thinking about the impression you give, not swooning, but sharing life, is a pleasure that is always best experienced, and longing for it is no sweet pleasure.