Friday, 6 November 2015

Gilead, Matterdale and Montelepre

I've never visited any of them, though probably been within 10 miles of the last two. All are places richly evoked in fact and fiction. Gilead, as anyone already hopelessly in love as I am with the poetic, pithy prose of Marilynne Robinson will know, doesn't exist but is modelled on Tabor in Iowa. It seemed too much to hope that there would be a third angle on the events described from the perspective of Rev John Ames in Gilead and mostly - though not in the first person - through the eyes of Glory Boughton in the even richer Home. But here it is, the breathtakingly bitter-sweet narrative of the woman called Lila, from the wanderings of her youth with the woman who kept her from starvation in the Great Depression to the unlikely love of the old pastor which, as far as her natural pessimism and wariness of other humans permit her, Lila reciprocates.

In a way it's a 'prequel' - horrid but useful word - because it predates the events of the first and second books. You can read them in any order and they'll be just as rewarding in different ways - indeed, having finished Lila I now feel inclined to return to Gilead and Home. These are books for life, or rather for revisiting at different stages in one's existence, like Tolstoy's War and Peace, Cervantes' Don Quixote or Lampedusa's The Leopard (I cite these because I've viewed them differently over 20 or 30 years).

The beauty of the very genuine marriage that is the heart of the book is how Ames questions aspects of religion he has taken for granted, and how a guarded Lila gropes her way towards finding names and words for the big issues of life, things for which she never had the time or the need when she was simply trying to keep alive.

He writes to her: 'You must have thought I say the things I do out of habit and custom, rather than from experience and reflection. I admit there is some truth in this. It is inevitable, I suppose'. She's trying to make sense of the one thing she's known, existence, which she's only learned to name through listening to Ames' sermons:

Poor was nothing, tired and hungry were nothing. But people only trying to get by, and no respect for them at all, even the wind soiling them. No matter how proud and hard they were, the wind making their faces run with tears. That was existence, and why didn't it roar and wrench itself apart like the storm it must be, if so much of existence is all that bitterness and fear?

Later, there's the kind of distillation which makes Shakespeare great (I think time and again of Parolles' 'Simply the thing I am shall make me live'). Their child has been born; Ames says 'it's all a prayer'. She says 'The best things that happen I'd never have thought to pray for. In a million years. The worst things just come like the weather. You do what you can'. Just beautiful in its simplicity.

James Rebanks' simplicity in The Shepherd's Life is often distilled poetry - literally, he tells us. But as the most practical of Lake District farmers with a parallel career outside that world, a rare voice from the inside, he's not inclined to sentimentalise the landscape. And as a scholar who came late to Oxford after flunking exams and messing about at school, he's come to value the things he used to laugh at, like the best of Wordsworth's poetry. He sees all that beauty, but he's part of it. And this shepherd's life is very, very complex.

The descriptions of breeding, rearing, knowing your flock make you wonder how he does it - and, of course, the answer is, by sheer hard work, instinct and by a collective experience that goes back generations. His father and grandfather play a major part in the narrative, but the tradition is much longer than that:

Our farming system is not about maximizing productivity, but producing what we can sustainably from the landscape.

It took traditional communities often thousands of years to learn by trial and error how to live and farm within the constraints of tough landscapes like ours. It would be foolish to forget these lessons or allow the knowledge to fall out of use. In a future without fossil fuels, and with a changing climate, we may need these things again.

Rebanks is now 'full of hope for the future', seeing young people coming to the old way of farming, changing and adapting and 'juggling it with more modern lives, but the heart of it will remain'. I hope so too.

Strange how 'tough landscapes' can sustain, or not, such different peoples. Was Sicily's ongoing human waste man-made or rooted in that island? Norman Lewis in The Honoured Society: The Sicilian Mafia Observed and Gavin Maxwell in God Protect Me From My Friends have different propositions that are not exactly answers. At the centre of Lewis's typically eloquent account, full of irony and savage indignation, and the subject of Maxwell's study is bandit Salvatore Giuliano, a son of Montelepre who, it's implied, had the capacity to be something better in different circumstances.

I feared Maxwell was going to romanticise him, but he has his own fierce take on how this half-educated peasant was, after all, a mass murderer, even if he tried to justify his behaviour as a kind of Robin Hood bound to a code of honour which turns out to be fatuous and destructive. The best context for such a mass of contradictions comes in Lewis's summing-up of the period between 1943 and 1964:

For centuries, and as a matter of coolly considered policy, the feudalists had kept back huge areas of Sicily from cultivation. They had developed a neatly effective system for suffocating the periodic outbursts of despair this policy engendered: the desperate spirit turned bandit was enlisted in emergency in the feudalists' private armies, employed like a prison camp trusty to quell the mutinies of his fellow sufferers, and then, the crisis past, coldly destroyed...Slowly they had fused with the Mafia - detached from the peasants it once protected - as the richest men of honour became landowners and the most astute of the feudalists joined the Honoured Society, The Mafia-feudalist combination had pulled the wool over the Allies' eyes in 1943, and the Allies had been tricked into assisting the Mafia's reanimation [because, believe it or not, Mussolini had pursued it close to the brink of extinction, or at least pushed it further underground]. Giuliano had been the puppet of the Mafia-feudalists, and their finger had been on the trigger of his machine-gun when he set off at Portella della Ginestra to teach the peasants what they must face when they dared to vote as free men [this terrible massacre has to be at the core of any book dealing with Giuliano]. The supporters of the feudal system had littered the streets and the waste places of Sicily with the corpses of their opponents, but the damage done by outright violence was nothing by comparison to the crushing of the Sicilian spirit and the anaesthetising of the Sicilian conscience in an artificially prolonged climate of illiteracy, ignorance and fear.

Both Maxwell and Lewis bring novelistic tension to the turning of Giuliano's right-hand man, the romantically handsome Gaspare Pisciotta, both before and after the leader's once-mysterious death. Pisciotta, in fact, is the protagonist of a parallel sweep of story interlocking with Giuliano's. I was captured by his character, too, and surprised to find the name 'Pisciotta' on the card of the nice man who drove us from Scopello to Palermo airport back in June.

Unless you hunt it out, the Mafia tradition in western Sicily needn't be part of any tourist's experience. The reality of life there must be much as Mary Taylor Simeti describes it with so much careful nuance in On Persephone's Island: A Sicilian Journal. Here's an American intellectual who has a right to talk about Sicily as both outsider and insider - the classic 'double consciousness' of Henry James - since she married a man from Alcamo and her children are natives of the island. And a year as she describes it in her multifarious journey weaves Mafia shocks into a narrative of farm and city life - a presence, and potentially fatal, but not the only one. I mention this because it's important, if you love Sicily as I do from superficial experience, to strike a balance between the narratives exclusively devoted to the Mafia and others focused too entirely on the traveller's constant amazement at the archaeological and historic riches such a culture constantly brings forth.


Susan Scheid said...

Your first sentence immediately caught my attention: for me, Montelepre is the outlier. As a union organizer eons ago, I drove the length and breadth of Iowa. I didn't know of or make it to Tabor, but I certainly came close. Eons ago, also, I read Housekeeping and remember enjoying it thoroughly. I didn't have as good a time with Gilead, somehow, though I remember the writing as exquisite. Lila might prove a good way back into her "Iowa" books once I've worked my way through my current stack. (Right now, as I've just been to a performance of St. John's Passion, I've gone back to Gardiner's Bach book, which I'd started but set aside. While his commentary often sails over my head, his writing is breathtaking, and if there is anything he doesn't know about his subject, I'd be very surprised.)

David said...

Your life as a union organiser rings a distant bell but if so, why didn't I ask you more about it before. Write that memoir, whether for publication or not.

As I intimated, Home strikes me as richer than Gilead. Lila just goes straight to the heart, I think, because its heroine is so real and extraordinary.

I too started JEG's Bach book, set it aside and returned to finish it off on returning from Weimar. Absolutely superb, brimming with love and knowledge. I've just been very surprised and impressed by his recording of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, having remembered not thinking a great deal of it in concert all those years ago. Hope he'll do more telly talk, too.

Susan Scheid said...

That settles it. I'm going to pick up Lila at the bookstore today. (As for the union organizer chapter of my life, if only I'd kept notes. At this point, sadly, memory fails. We were quite a rowdy bunch, I can say that.)

David said...

Well, write down or tape fragments of what you remember as and when you can (he says bossily). It's all unique...

Susan Scheid said...

David: There are some things I might prefer not to remember . . . meanwhile, I did get hold of Lila, picked it up today and could not put it down. Cannot remember the last time I read a book in a single day, and what a pleasure. I do want to go back to Gilead and Home now. I thought her portrayal of the Reverend particularly fine.

David said...

Funny, that: I almost wrote 'you could read it in a day' - and you did. I'm in the middle of Patrick Gale's latest novel at the moment: not so richly 'interior' or so singular in style, but he knows how to tell a story and make you feverishly carry on reading.

David Damant said...

Is there a difference between books one wants to read straight off and those which seize you and do not let you go? For me the latter was true for Crime and Punishment and Wuthering Heights.

David said...

Yes, you're right. I had Dostoyevsky mania in my second year at university, when Russian Studies set me on to reading them all. Of course one couldn't read The Brothers Karamazov straight off, but it seized me and held me even when I wasn't reading it.

David Damant said...

I gave Crime and Punishment to a young Dutchman - in Dutch.
After he had read it he said " It's about me"

Just as Hamlet is not about the Prince of Denmark but about all men ( anyway younger ones)

David said...

Inevitably that sounds a little pre-Copernican. I trust he didn't have any old woman's murder on his conscience. But in fact we met a strange Circassian in a service taxi from Amman to Damascus who ended up staying in our hotel and telling us how he wanted to be 'great man', and I fear Raskolnikov did flash into my head. Who knows what became of him? He certainly knocked back the spare bottle of whisky I'd failed to deliver to the friend in Yemen we never got to see because of passport theft...but that's another story.

Laurent said...

I was just about to ask you if you had any books to recommend. Well I have a choice here. It all sounds very interesting.

David said...

There's also Patrick Gale's A Place Called Winter - great storytelling, if not especially deep, combining a gay love story built around the gaps in his great-grandfather's exile, and much about the pioneers in the Canadian prairies which you're bound to find interesting. I have to write, too, about Sanford Friedman's Totempole, a real masterpiece, unsparing semi-autobiographical account of a gay protagonist from aged 2 to service in the Korean War.