The Rear-View Mirror: Housekeeping (1980)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

There is no other year that has such a wealth of movies to choose from than the year 1980. I could fill the whole post just with movie titles, but I will give you only a short list to start from: Raging Bull. The Empire Strikes Back. The Shining. Airplane!. The Blues Brothers. Berlin Alexanderplatz. Ordinary People. Breaker Morant. Altered States. Coal Miner’s Daughter. Atlantic City. Friday the 13th. Used Cars. Shogun Assassin. Little Lord Fauntleroy. Le Dernier Mètro. Fame. Private Benjamin. American Gigolo. ffolkes. La Boum. And of course the immortal classic Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.

So now that you’ve bookmarked this post and watched all those movies on the list (including the Herzog short), welcome back. I don’t blame you if you haven’t heard of Marilynne Robinson, although she turns up a lot on any ‘100 best books of all time’ list. She publishes her novels as quickly as Terrence Malick releases his movies or J. J. Cale his albums: once every decade, give or take. That is not exactly true, but it feels that way. Robinson has written the loosely connected trilogy Gilead (2004), Home (2008), and Lila (2014). Housekeeping (1980) is her only other novel, although she has published numerous essays throughout the years. Literary-wise, it’s four novels in 34 years.

Reading Housekeeping made me think of Michael Ondaatje because if you are twenty pages into The English Patient or Coming Through Slaughter, you feel as if you are reading a novel by a poet. In the case of Michael Ondaatje, that is true. Marilynne Robinson, to my knowledge, has never published a poem, but her prose feels as if she writes a lot of poetry. There is a sound, a music to her novel Housekeeping that makes you pay attention to the text. There is not one dull moment in the whole novel. It made me think about how the best novels turn into something else, something more. I don’t mean to say that music is somehow above any novel, or that a novel should aspire to become a novel; I mean to say that, at its best, prose will sometimes turn into music, just as the best music, even an instrumental piece, can tell you a story. Maybe that is what art is: it transcends itself and us. It’s a phenomenon that I cannot fully explain, and I probably don’t want to, but I think the best art of any kind has that transformative quality. Bruce Springsteen tells you stories. Marilynne Robinson makes music. Or the other way round: music needs its lyrics just as a movie needs its score. Storytelling, pictures and sound are more intertwined that we think.

Housekeeping is about two sisters, Ruthie, the narrator, and Lucille, the younger of the two. They are raised first by their grandmother, then by two sisters-in-law, until Sylvie, their young aunt, elusive and enigmatic, turns up and takes them into the woods for long walks and camping trips. It’s hard to describe the tone of the novel just as it is hard to describe what an Emily Dickinson poem feels like or sounds like. There is the Idaho landscape that Robinson herself grew up in, there are train wrecks and accidents, there is a suicide, and there are the dark woods and the deep lake waters that have their impact on Ruthie and Lucille. Housekeeping has an atmosphere that I cannot escape from, nor do I want do. Oh yes, there are those who find the novel in turn boring or overfraught. That is all right, since no good movie or novel is for everyone.

You can usually trace the development of a writer or a musician or a filmmaker throughout her or his career. With Robinson, that is hard to do because she has published four novels which are all on the short to medium side, and every one of them is accomplished. There is no finding her voice or getting into her own; she knows what she wants and what she wants to say from the go. It’s entirely possible that Robinson wrote five novels in her 20es and 30es that she then threw away just to publish her debut as if it was her sixth novel. Which it would be.

In more than one sense, Housekeeping is a well-chosen title. It is about tending, and caring for, a building that is your home, but it is also about the threat of losing that construction of wood and brick and mortar, just as Ruthie and Lucille lose one family member after another. That sounds like a downtrodden read, sadder than a Tom Waits song, but it isn’t. There are colors and smells and sounds at every turn in Housekeeping. There is something of Cormac McCarthy in the writing, maybe also something of Thoreau or Eudora Welty or Shirley Jackson. See? Another list. Listing influences, however, will only get you so far. Robinson wrote a novel that insinuated the nature, very slowly and in the long run, would win over civilisation. Such a novel would have to pay attention to not have a preachy tone, but Robinson doesn’t fall into that trap. Her Housekeeping gives humans a fair deal, but in the middle of a overbearing Idaho landscape, they have to act according to their surroundings as well as their own natures. If these don’t align, life is lost.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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