Lila/Marilynne Robinson: what is beautiful writing?

Sunday, October 18, 2015

"Beautifully written." In blurbs, on blogs, in reviews, we encounter the words. But what, I often wonder, do they mean? I've seen "beautifully written" engraved upon the syncopation of relentless noun-verb passages, "beautifully written" decreed upon textbook-quality texts, "beautifully written" applied to a bondage of cliches, "beautifully written" attached to stories that run thin, no soul, all plot.

"Beautifully written." Beholder's words. Confusing words. Too easy words?


But this morning, having finally completed Lila, of the Marilynne Robinson Gilead trilogy, I am going to use the words. I am going to suggest that they represent, among other things, an author's ability to manage the precarious balance of beleaguered/valued life, the tumble of senses, sensations, thoughts that assault us as human beings and that might be/can be set down delicately on the page. Beautifully written, to me, is depth. It is sentences that erupt from no prescription. It is the absence of short cuts. It is people and scene in addition to plot. It is color. It is the urge to embed a story with ideas.

One example, from Lila, the story of a vagabond girl who marries an old minister and speaks little of the past that haunts her. He has the courage of patience. She discovers the courage of trust. She carries his child now, she believes herself uneducated, she thinks and is like this:

... how could the world go on the way it did when there were so many people living the same and worse? Poor was nothing, tired and hungry were nothing. But people only trying to get by, and no respect for them at all, even the wind soiling them. No matter how proud and hard they were, the wind making their faces run with tears. That was existence, and why didn't it roar and wrench itself apart like the storm it must be, if so much of existence is all that bitterness and fear? Even now, thinking of the man who called himself her husband, what if he turned away from her? It would be nothing. What if the child was no child? There would be an evening and a morning. The quiet of the world was terrible to her, like mockery. She had hoped to put an end to these thoughts, but they returned to her, and she returned to them.

Beautifully written. Words from a novel that urge truth into our lives. Couplings of ideas, sentences that want to be read out loud, and returned to. Beautifully written. When I say that phrase, this is what I mean.

And you?


Marni Goltsman said...

Beth: I have yet to read anything of yours that would not qualify as "beautifully written." I am not a prolific commenter (I'm more of an observer by nature), but let me take this opportunity to thank you for this blog so that I can get my daily-or-so dose.

Beth Kephart said...

Marni, you are extraordinarily kind. Thank you.

sgaissert said...

I love your definition. When something is beautifully written, I want to say it out loud, share it with people I love, and keep it forever.

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