A la Recherche

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Halfway through Marilynne Robinson’s gorgeous novel Gilead, the narrator, John Ames, a 77-year-old preacher in Iowa, makes this observation: ‘Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behaviour, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense.’

It is unusual for moral responses to be set aside in favour of aesthetic ones in a theological context, especially (one might think) where the context is Calvinist. The practice is more familiar, even if it often goes unrecognized, in literature. It is, for example, one of the sustaining tensions of Tolstoy’s work – Anna concludes that Karenin is a bad man immediately after being disgusted by his clammy hand. More directly than most fiction, Gilead portrays an individual trying to make sense of his life. This might also serve as a description of the art of autobiography, and I immediately found myself applying Ames’s remark to a clutch of autobiographies I had recently read.

The first one – I’ll call it The Incoherent Me – was bad, and it was not redeemed by the author stating at the outset that he was going to write as he remembered, without any attempt at ordering his material. Why, I wanted to ask him, are you saying this? You are a writer: it is your business to order your material. What use is an autobiography that involves no serious self-examination? Then I read Vesna Goldsworthy’s wonderful memoir Chernobyl Strawberries. Born in Belgrade in 1961, she was educated in the twilight years of Yugoslav socialism. In a sequence of short, wonderfully evocative passages, she describes how the stable world of her childhood contrasted with the chaos of her grandparents’ lives. Simultaneously, we see how an apparently secure world was revealed in the end to be hopelessly flims

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About the contributor

John de Falbe has been selling books at John Sandoe’s in Chelsea for almost 20 years. He is the author of two novels, The Glass Night and The Bequest, and he reviews regularly.

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