Thursday, October 29, 2009

Joy writ large

Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Dakota: A Spiritual Geography Gilead The Supper of the Lamb (Modern Library)
I review so many children's books because they are what I mostly read. I'd like to claim that it's only because I have so many children (three); and that, if I had my druthers, I'd be working my way through the world of serious adult fiction. But boy, would that be a lie. I've always read children's books, right through my teens and early twenties. I never stopped. And while several thousand adult books may have slipped in under my guard, they are the exception rather than the rule.

Am I suffering from arrested emotional development? Perhaps. Because quite simply, I find most adult books lacking. They may be beautiful or clever or funny, but, unlike so many children's books, they rarely achieve what I am looking for in a book. And what, you may well ask, is that?

As I ponder this question, I realise it's something quite simple. Fundamentally, I look for joy. I want to celebrate this funny old world, in all its beauty and ridiculousness. I want characters who are fully themselves, who are bursting out of their skins with being alive. I want to feel emboldened to stretch out and touch the edges of life, and find out just how far I can go. I hope that as I age I can become more fully me - not that crimped, cramped and watered down shadow who apologised her way through her late teens; not that angry, brittle and self-righteous young woman who thundered and wept through her early twenties - but someone bigger and more alive by far. And I trust that books will show me the way.

Paradoxically, it is children's books which so often invite me to be more adult. So many children's books leap with joy, tackle fear head-on, and positively crackle with life.

Having said this, I would now like to turn my attention to those precious adult books which do, in fact, crackle. Which stories leap off the page? Which writers inspire me to become more fully human? Which books are so steeped in wonder, that I catch my breath in awe? Where have I read joy writ large?

One of the more exuberant, energetic and honest books I have come across is the memoir Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything by Elizabeth Gilbert. The book opens as Gilbert's marriage is falling apart. We meet her on her bathroom floor, sobbing, and then, to her utter astonishment, praying for the first time. It marks the begining of a lifelong conversation with God. This new conversation slowly leads her to a different way of living, in which she learns to structure her life, not around other people's needs, but around that which brings her joy - which is pretty much to say, that which brings her closer to God. Gradually, she decides to go on a year's pilgrimage: to Italy, to eat well; to India, to pray well; and to Indonesia, where she learns to love again. Her pilgrimage is the subject of this book.

Gilbert uses a friendly conversational style. The prose is quick and enthusiastic, rather than refined. It sounds as if it were dictated in a tremendous rush, all the words falling on top of one another as each idea sparked off a host of associations. One feels like one is sitting at a dinner table with a fascinating and very talkative fellow diner, who is polishing off the wine and waving her glass around wildly as she talks. Part of the fun of the book is watching the glass, and waiting for the wine to slosh onto the tablecloth.

In equal parts hilarious, challenging, and deeply moving, Gilbert's memoir is filled with joy. And her intelligence, jauntiness and wit; her willingness to investigate and deprecate herself; and the discipline she undertakes to become closer to God, are utterly captivating.

A very different but also joyful memoir is Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, by Kathleen Norris. In this more austere, yet gentle, book, Norris interweaves observations about life in a small town in North Dakota with her personal story. Norris is Dakotan by heritage, and, after a lifetime away, finds herself in her family's old town living in her grandmother's house. She brings the eyes of an outsider to her experience of a place that is part of her family history. Part economic and social history, part family biography, part prose-poetry, part prayer, Dakota is a unique geographical investigation.

Norris's primary commitments colour the book. She is married, and yet also an oblate in a Benedictine monastery. Her writing is suffused with the gentleness, patience, generosity and humility that ones sometimes sees arise out of hard and serious commitment: a difficult marriage profoundly affected by her husband's acute depression; the monastic disciplines of study and prayer.

She writes openly about her family, and the challenges of facing up to the demons of violence, suicide, and a corrosive fundamentalist faith. She recalls an aunt, single, pregnant and mentally ill, who committed suicide in her despair; Norris lays her good Protestant ghost to rest at last through Benedictine ritual practice.

Norris joyfully describes her twin loves: this Benedictine practice, and the landscape of the Plains. This is, at heart, a book about the labour of coming home, both to a place and to oneself. Reading Norris, one realises that one must claim one's place and work at it for it to become home. Norris has studied to understand the region's geography, history, people, and weather, and her own marriage, faith, family, and poetry. Her sense of home is hard-won.

Overall, Dakota is a beautiful, solemn book. By inviting us to explore one person's life and place, it implicitly invites us to investigate and learn to love our own place, that we too may find ourselves at home.

The theme of home recalls Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. Gilead is the fictional memoir of an older minister, Reverend John Ames, as he nears the end of his life. Ames married late, and has a very young son; the memoir is a letter to his son who is his joy and his delight. It takes the form of a love song from a man who spent his life living in and loving one tiny town on the Plains. Life was hard and lonely, and Ames admits to terrible failures of relationship. But life was also precious, cherished, and joyful.

The pattern of the story evokes an older man's thinking. He writes with equal love of the past and the present, of stories from long ago and of watching his son trying to catch a soap bubble. And he describes his theology in the hope that one day his son may learn to know him as an adult. Yet even as Ames tells his story, Jack Boughton, John Ames's namesake, returns to town. Boughton and Ames have a strained history, which began for Ames when he christened the baby Boughton with a sense of coldness. Yet events require Ames to take further steps into generosity, humility and forgiveness - and love.

This is a story about transformation: a flawed and ordinary man slowly matures under the combined disciplines of work and prayer. It's a story about love: of wives, of sons, of a town, of a landscape. And it's a story about home: coming home, claiming it, and growing into it.

On a lighter note, thinking about home puts me in mind of dinner. Being, as Nigella Lawson so delicately puts it, a naturally greedy person, I am always interested to read about food. After all, it is over dinner, glass of wine in hand, that I so often experience joy and a profound sense of thankfulness for life on earth. Elsewhere, I have reviewed Robert Farrar Capon's The Supper of the Lamb. In short, the book uses a single leg of lamb and the ways to cook it as an excuse to muse on many culinary and spiritual themes. Capon moves between blood sacrifice and peanut butter without turning a hair. As my tummy rumbles, I will only say here that this is the apex of culinary books: eccentric, wise and totally hilarious, full of joyful jokes and cheerfully ridiculous diversions, and regular generous toasts.

Joy is the underlying theme in all these books. It is no coincidence, perhaps, that they also share another thread. Although not all writers are Christian, all trust in, to use Gilbert's phrase, a 'Magnificent God' - a generous, abundant and glorious Other who is waiting, with arms stretched out towards us, to claim us and show us the way home. And maybe that's what I'm looking for, after all.

> Robert Farrar Capon The Supper of the Lamb (Modern Library) (New York: Modern Library, 2002 (1969)); Elizabeth Gilbert Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything (New York: Penguin, 2006); Kathleen Norris Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (New York: Mariner, 2002); Marilynne Robinson Gilead (London: Virago, 2004 (2006)).

1 comment:

  1. Alison, I so agree with your words re Dakota and Supper of the Lamb that I now feel constrained to go and read Eat Pray Love. So I just might! But not so Gilead ... yes, I know ... Brenda has been trying to twist my arm on this one too. I don't know what it is about me and fiction ... a personality flaw perhaps.