Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Room for life, stifling life (Marilynne Robinson's "Gilead" and Andrew O'Hagan's "Be Near Me")

I have been thinking about the difference between Gilead and Be Near Me. I read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson a bit over a year ago, and I loved the picture she slowly paints of an old preacher in a little town, Gilead, in Iowa. He is looking back over his life. I remember that one of the things that struck me was how much room there was in the book for imperfection. The old preacher, John Ames, does not try to present a particularly rosy view of his past, but yet as he reflects on his family history and on God and on random, everyday observations, it feels like he brings things to life.

Andrew O'Hagan's priest in Be Near Me, Father David, is quite different. He takes up the post as Catholic priest in a small town in Scotland for a year, and during that year finds himself increasingly drawn to the rowdiness and disorderliness of some teenagers. He starts hanging out with them. As he tells the story of that year, and brings in moments from his past, it becomes increasingly clear what is going to happen. It also feels very sad, as Father David (and the reader) slowly becomes aware of how hollow his faith is.

Both books deal with love. Marilynne Robinson has given her character a young wife and son to love, and this in some way redeems the memories of previous times when he walked through the night-time streets of Gilead alone. Andrew O'Hagan, on the other hand, has given Father David in Scotland only a past love that ended too quickly. It was at that point that David escaped into the role of a priest.

Both books also deal with beauty and the things we surround ourselves with. Father David enjoys wine and rose bushes, music and books - but while these things seem beautiful at first, they gradually start to seem very empty toward the end of the book. His life charts a progression of beautiful objects, and it seems to me that O'Hagan suggests that the objects in themselves are beautiful, but that the way that Father David uses them - to define himself, as he is devoid of other meaningful definition - hollows out their beauty. John Ames on the other hand fills up his pages with moments of beauty that he enjoys, such as watching his wife and son blow soap bubbles at the cat, and the beauty in life suddenly seems to spring out of nothing, in all kinds of instances.

I have been wondering about these two priests, and the difference between them. One of them is able to create and bring life to what he observes, while the other has hollowed himself out. One draws on the church as something that fills his life and blesses its imperfections, while the other gradually comes to realize that he has used the church as an escape, a means to cut himself off from life.

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