In the beginning: neither fish nor fowl

Reading Genesis by Marilynne Robinson

This article is taken from the July 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I have a confession to make: I don’t get Marilynne Robinson. She is not short of high profile fans, from historian Tom Holland and Oprah to Barack Obama. The words “greatest living American/Christian novelist” get thrown around a lot. I can certainly understand the idea of Marilynne Robinson, who represents smalltown Midwestern piety in the same way Bruce Springsteen embodied the Rust Belt, Flannery O’Connor spoke for the Catholic south, or Cormack McCarthy reignited rugged individualism. 

Reading Genesis. Marilynne Robinson (Virago, £25)

So when Robinson, already heralded as a modern day literary-religious prophet, wrote a book about Genesis, it was greeted in rather the same fashion as when Moses descended from Mount Sinai bearing the Ten Commandments: with rave reviews in outlets across the political spectrum.

But whatever other people find in her work, whatever torch burns eternally on her literary altar, just wasn’t there when I looked for it. There’s no nice way to say it, but even one sentence into her writing I found myself bored and searching for the exit. Her latest book, her most ambitious foray into theology thus far, has only driven me yet further into the literary outer darkness, feeling thoroughly left out of the party.

The book itself is divided into two parts — the second half is simply the King James Bible’s translation of Genesis, while the first comprises Robinson’s commentary. And here the problems begin. There are no chapters, no index, no footnotes or endnotes. This is a feature of Robinson’s novels, of course, and I noticed with grim familiarity the long sentences, rambling paragraphs, and subsections broken up by the infamous asterisks she loves to sprinkle throughout her work. 

Whether or not this is defensible in literary terms, it is extraordinarily obnoxious in a work of non-fiction, especially one sprawling across 230 pages. The effect is that of a stream of consciousness, and for trying to convey abstract ideas it is simply hopeless: I found myself continually losing the thread. 

If readers feel I am unfairly prosecuting the work on the basis of format, I would beg them to consider that books are not written in a void. Robinson is addressing herself not only to a text, but to a tradition: scriptural commentary. It is this — not an original, standalone work of theology — to which she has evidently and consciously directed herself, with a clear chronological close reading. This genre has a format that is largely unchanged all the way from Augustine to Calvin. Such commentaries are strictly structured around the text; Calvin’s own commentary on Genesis is written such that you can zero in on specific chapters, passages and even individual words. 

The simple expedient of placing the KJV Genesis at the back of the book within the body of the text, broken up as it is addressed, would have placed Robinson’s work in this ancient tradition, and made it infinitely more readable.

These editorial choices, I suspect, can be blamed either on Robinson herself, or the publisher’s deference to her. If it is clear from how the work is structured that it is aiming at scriptural commentary, it is no less clear that it would struggle to live up to the rigorous specificity that typifies scriptural commentary.

So what, you may ask? As other reviewers have suggested, this aims to be a literary, not academic or even apologetic treatment of scripture. Francis Spufford, writing in the New York Times, defends the book in these terms: “Marilynne Robinson’s Reading Genesis is a writer’s book, not a scholar’s; it has no footnotes. 

Its power lies in the particular reading it gives us of one of the world’s foundational texts, which is also one of the foundations of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s mind and faith. We want to know what Robinson thinks of Genesis for the same reason we’d want to know what Tolstoy thought of it.”

But it is here, I think, that Robinson fails. The book is neither fish nor fowl — it is far too long and referential a work to be a halfway enjoyable poetic reflection on scripture, but far too imprecise, vague and poorly organised to work at the level of philosophical or theological commentary. 

Most unforgivably, the place at which useful theological-literary synthesis might be expected to occur — textual analysis — is the weakest aspect of the book. Robinson, like a competent Calvinist minister, sifts endless (if repetitive) improving lessons and observations from Genesis, but says remarkably little about its language, especially as it presents itself so consequentially in the King James Version. 

The Fall of Man, by Cornelis van Haarlem, 1592

A truly surprising omission is any substantial discussion of the act of creation itself, or much consideration of the narrative of Adam and Eve. The first two chapters of Genesis are only exclusively discussed over nine pages. Some interesting lines of thought are briefly teased out, but then we’re suddenly on to the Flood, with the creation of all reality disappearing in the rearview mirror. 

Despite Robinson’s “awe” at Genesis’s opening chapters, she seems in a great hurry to move on from them. This seems odd, not only because it is the most metaphysically rich part of Genesis, but because it is the most poetic. In her spirit of Midwestern simplicity, a single elegant touch of the poetic is applied, respectably enough, and that sufficient nod to aesthetics out of the way, we move on to the practical business of unrolling steady, narrative prose. 

Having praised the opening words of Genesis as “a masterpiece of compression” and reassured readers that the account in Job of the morning stars singing together, though it sounds “not strictly monotheistic”, is no threat to the Godhead, who can manifest his joy how he wishes, Robinson then dives into what she clearly prefers — exhaustively picking away at the intricacies of human relationships, for which Genesis provides plenty of material.

It’s a reading that drags us heavily back down to earth and into the tangle of obligations that comes with it. We have little sense of the dream-like astonishment of the angelic floating over events, or a supernatural destiny being prepared in the wanderings and agonies of mankind subjected to exile, death and Deluge. It is all morally uplifting in a dry kind of way, but it’s hard to imagine it inspiring the sort of faith for which people die. 

I worry I’m arriving at my own prejudices again — I don’t get Marilynne Robinson. The relentless focus on the small scale of human relations, shorn of rich poetic allegory and the breaking of the text into essayistic fragments that slowly parse argument and observation, only leave me groaning. 

Far from bringing Genesis to life, Robinson’s book resurrects, for me, the worst, mind-numbing sort of Bible education, in which Hebrew characters are begetting, killing, chastising, praising or fleeing one another so that they form a single amorphous soup. Perhaps lovers of Gilead will adore this. But it’s not for me.

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