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In With A Side of Knowledge, a podcast from the University of Notre Dame, Marilynne Robinson talks to Ted Fox about her novel Gilead, and shares her thoughts on faith, meaning, and the writing process.

Robert Harrison has interviewed the American novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson about her religious beliefs for Entitled Opinions, hosted by the Los Angeles Review of Books. Their conversation also touches on topics of grief, history, science, Freudianism, and the work of Ralph Waldo EmersonWalt WhitmanEmily Dickinson, and Edgar Allan Poe. Listen.

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Robinson has told us what Lila knows, with a consistent spareness and precision of expression that compel attention from the book’s first line. She has brilliantly voiced a story about deprivation, trust and mistrust, the critical edginess of real compassion – unmistakably a Christian story, but far from an ideologically triumphant argument. Its moral acuity and insistence on what it means to allow the voiceless to speak give it a political and ethical weight well beyond any confessional limits. It will repay many readings for the subtlety of its narration, its sensuously realised descriptions and its stark emotional and psychological clarities. Lila is the work of an exceptional novelist at the peak of her capacity.”

— Rowan Williams, New Statesman

Catching up on my reading. What follows are a few of the articles and interviews that have caught my eye over the last few weeks – and some that I have been inspired to revisit.

Joseph Conrad on Henry James and what makes a great writerMarilynne Robinson on William Faulkner and what literature owes to the Bible • Sonny Rollins on how fifty years of practicing yoga made him a better musician • Alex Ross on the consolations of Arvo Pärt‘s music • Peter Bouteneff in conversation about Arvo Pärt • On the lasting emotional impact of Louis Kahn‘s architecture

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Tom McCarthy

Having finished Marilynne Robinson‘s superb Gilead last week, I am now revisiting one of the favourite novels of my adolescence: Stephen King‘s The Stand. It’s the expanded 1989 version of King’s post apocalyptic novel, which I have been meaning to return to since re-reading King’s It last summer.

Silent Frame has published a great interview with Andrew Gallix, the journalist and translator many will know as the editor-in-chief of 3:AM Magazine. When asked what book he would recommend to Silent Frame‘s readers, he responded: “Remainder by Tom McCarthy. The best French novel ever written in English. It has a special place in 3:AM Magazine’s history, as we were the very first to champion it. This is where twenty-first-century literature began.”

LitHub has posted a conversation with Jacques Testard, founder and editor of the rising independent publisher Fizcarraldo Editions: “I’ve had a few glamorous moments—the pinnacle was the Nobel Prize dinner for Svetlana Alexievich in Stockholm—but I spend a lot more time carrying big bags of books to the post office than drinking martinis with famous authors.”

As spring arrives in Cardiff, I divide my time between teaching responsibilities and reading. This week marks the final week of semester before Easter break. In my spare time, I am reading Marilynne Robinson‘s 2005 novel, Gilead. And in light of Teju Cole‘s essay collection, Known and Strange Things, I have have also been keen to return to his breakthrough novel, Open City.

Over the weekend, I watched an interesting documentary on the life and work of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. The film was produced for BBC’s Horizon series back in 1989, and in just under 49 minutes manages to mount an engaging profile of the twentieth-century thinker. The film includes interviews, anecdotes, and rare photographs of the people and places connected to the philosopher’s life. All in all, it’s a good general primer. For those interested in finding out more about Wittgenstein’s life, Ray Monk‘s excellent biography, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, is the place to go.

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

Spring is here, though on this morning the morose Cardiff sky begs to differ. I have finished reading Thomas Merton‘s memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain, and would highly recommend it. I have now picked up Marilynne Robinson‘s 2005 novel, Gilead, a first-person narrative that takes the form of a letter from an ageing Idaho Reverend to his young son. The novel is beautifully understated and really quite moving.

I recently interviewed the academic David Lloyd about his book on Samuel Beckett and art, entitled Beckett’s Thing: Painting and Theatre (Edinburgh University Press). Lloyd shares his passion for Beckett’s writing, and traces the writer’s abiding fascination with painting (while also acknowledging his abiding friendships with a number of twentieth-century European artists). Among other things, Lloyd mentions Beckett’s visual memory: “Beckett had an amateur’s (in the best sense) deep knowledge of the Old Masters, from Flemish and German painters to Italian painters of the high Renaissance. […] He had remarkable visual recall: to give just one example, there is a St Sebastian by Antonello da Messina that he saw in Dresden in 1937 that he describes with astonishing accuracy and detail in a letter to Duthuit in 1948.”

Finally, I see that my friend Scott Eric Hamilton is guest-editing a forthcoming issue of The Parish Review, a journal celebrating the work of Flann O’Brien. It’s lovely to see that he is currently accepting submissions.

Carson McCullers at her writing desk.
Carson McCullers at her writing desk.

Spent a few days in London with Jennifer. It’s now become customary for us to walk everywhere we go, tiring us out just in time for pizza on the South Bank.

Read John Williams‘ short but sweet tribute to the American writer Carson McCullers in The New York Times: ‘Feb. 19 was the centenary of the birth of Carson McCullers, one of the most distinctive and ill-fated writers in American history. McCullers died when she was 50, in 1967. She suffered a series of strokes before she was 30, and spent much of her life in pain.’

Looking forward to reading three essay collections by the American writer Marilynne RobinsonThe Givenness of ThingsWhen I Was a Child I Read Books, and Absence of Mind. I taught Robinson’s Housekeeping a year or two ago, and have become increasingly fascinated by her work ever since.

In an historical first, the President of the United States sits down to interview an American woman writer about her life and work

From The New York Review of Books:

The President: Well, as you know—I’ve told you this—I love your books. Some listeners may not have read your work before, which is good, because hopefully they’ll go out and buy your books after this conversation.

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Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (1980)

I first picked up Gilead, one of your most wonderful books, here in Iowa. Because I was campaigning at the time, and there’s a lot of downtime when you’re driving between towns and when you get home late from campaigning. And you and I, therefore, have an Iowa connection, because Gilead is actually set here in Iowa.

And I’ve told you this—one of my favorite characters in fiction is a pastor in Gilead, Iowa, named John Ames, who is gracious and courtly and a little bit confused about how to reconcile his faith with all the various travails that his family goes through. And I was just—I just fell in love with the character, fell in love with the book, and then you and I had a chance to meet when you got a fancy award at the White House. And then we had dinner and our conversations continued ever since.

So anyway, that’s enough context. You just have completed a series of essays that are not fiction, and I had a chance to read one of them about fear and the role that fear may be playing in our politics and our democracy and our culture.* And you looked at it through the prism of Christianity and sort of the Protestant traditions that helped shape us, so I thought maybe that would be a good place to start. (more…)