Literary wizardry: Church hosts novelist Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson

Distinguished visiting authors tend to arrive in Charlottesville via the UVA’s Creative Writing Program, The Miller Center, or the Virginia Festival of the Book, often with great fanfare, so you can imagine our surprise to learn of renowned novelist Marilynne Robinson’s upcoming visit from a Westminster Presbyterian Church flier posted at a local gym.

Robinson has written only three novels in the last 30 years, but all of them have been hailed as masterpieces. Housekeeping, her first novel, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and Time Magazine called it one of the 100 best novels of the 20th Century. Hardened literary critics greeted the novel like love-struck teenagers.

“"Here's a first novel that sounds as if the author has been treasuring it up all her life," wrote Anatole Broyard in the New York Times. "You can feel in the book a gathering voluptuous release of confidence, a delighted surprise at the unexpected capacities of language, a close, careful fondness for people that we thought only saints felt."

Bryan Appleyard, writing for the Sunday Times in a September 2008 piece on Robinson, boldly called her “the world’s best writer of prose.”

“Now let me be clear - I’m not saying that you’re actually dead if you haven’t read Marilynne Robinson,” Appleyard writes, “ but I honestly couldn’t say you’re fully alive.”

Her second novel, Gilhead, would win the Pulitzer, as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award, and her most recent novel, Home (Robinson appears to be fond of one-word titles), won the 2008 Los Angeles Times Book Prizes, Britain’s 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction, and was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for Fiction.

Robinson’s visit is part of Westminster’s third annual Lectures in Contemporary Theology series, and will be held in the Sanctuary on Saturday, April 17 at 10am and 7:30pm. Robinson will give two talks that day: “Education and the Human Spirit” and “The Human Spirit and the Good Society.” In addition, she's scheduled to give a reading during the 11am service on Sunday.

Although more widely known as a fiction writer, Robinson is also a devout Christian who penned a volume of theological essays called Death of Adam, which explore, generally speaking, the relationship between the “mind and the cosmos” and contemporary definitions of reality, which she finds to be generally “wrong.” In other words, she’s a big thinker, meaning of life and all that, which made Westminster pastor James Baker think she’d be an engaging speaker.

“I thought she would be a good candidate for expanding the reach of our lectures series,” says Baker, “and perhaps bend our minds a bit.”

Baker says they extended an invitation, and as luck would have it, Robinson has a brother who teaches in the UVA Art Department.

“I hear she’s a bit of an introvert and a recluse,” says Baker. “We’ve only dealt with her assistant. It’s been like knocking on the door of the Emerald City, and trusting that we’ll really get to meet the wizard.”