One of my ambitions on arriving in Iowa City for the residency which ends today was to meet Marilynne Robinson and sit at her feet, so to speak. This desire manifests throughout literary relationships and politics, where those who feel not-so-great desire to spend time in the presence of greatness.
It is tiresome I’m sure to those famous writers so afflicted; once when Bob Dylan was asked what he thought of his fans, he replied, “Wasn’t it a fan shot John Lennon?” Yes, he knows about obsessives – and while some may find that remark unkind, he’s a realist. Informed by a Rolling Stone interviewer recently that his fans loved him, he said “They don’t love me, they don’t know me. They love the songs”. Or something like that.
Wanting to meet a writer because we like/love/obsess over their work is a risky business: what if the two, the writing and the writer, have nothing to do with each other? That is, the book is yours but they are not. Literature is very different from the oral transmission of story, where the storyteller is in the same space, possibly of the same tribe or family or subculture – so you do have a relationship with them.
The only prior and enduring relationship I have with Ms Robinson is with her words, her writings, and my own internal responses to the worlds she creates. The false sense of intimacy that creates – that I know her, and that I need to meet her – is actually against the very thing literature can do for me.
Writing freed from the writer frees me; it enlarges my subjectivity as a free person and allows me to travel in space and time. Just as Jesus did his work and left the disciples to it with the help of the Holy Spirit, so the writer does theirs and leaves us to ours.
It is not necessarily a bad thing to meet a writer and have them sign your book, but they are not in the bookshop or on the podium to be your friend. Readings are often part of sales and promotion, and not to be confused with family gatherings. Writers have their own circle of relationships outside of the job – like plumbers and the police. They are not here to make us feel less lonely in the universe.
I did get to see Marilynne Robinson – once passing in the street laden with book bags, coming from a class no doubt. Glancing at her in that moment, she caught my eye, two random strangers. I wrote a poem about it: The glance. That was my reward.
I also heard her speak at a reading in the Englert Theatre. I marvelled at the luxuriant mane of grey hair she kept sweeping back like the curtains of a temple from around her face. She read with a polyphonic sensitivity, sounding out the drama of the human voices in her new novel.
Then yesterday, just before the final IWP reading in Prairie Lights Bookshop, I saw her come in the door as I was standing at the front desk waiting to buy a copy of Osip Mandelstam’s Selected Poems. A middle aged woman grazing the shelves, touching the books as we all do.
There I was, flanked by greatness: one voice dead but speaking to me inwardly of the black earth of Mother Russia; the other passing me silently, breathing still, full of stories only her privacy can protect, that she might one day get fresh ones out onto the same page as Mandelstam. The book is my true friend – writers belong to themselves.
“Salutations, black earth. Courage. Keep the eye wide.
Be the dark speech of silence labouring.”
Osip Mandelstam. Black Earth. Voronezh. April 1935.
Translated by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin (1973)
Statue of Osip Mandelstam, Voronezh.