In extremis

For those of us familiar with the writing of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Annie Dillard, The Abundance (Canongate) is a reminder of how good her writing is – how vibrant, wrenching, cheeky and exhausting. For those unfamiliar, this may be a welcoming antechamber to a mansion where metaphysics, natural history and memoir clash, spark and play off each other. She if often described as a nature writer (though, also, she is novelist, memoirist, philosopher and historian, mostly in unorthodox fashion) but is a nature writer in extremis. She says a writer, like a tennis player, plays the edges.

This book is more tasting platter than abundance; the selections of her writing here taken out of context are like jewels fallen from a necklace, but they are jewels none-the-less. As Geoff Dyer says in his introduction to the collection, Dillard is slightly crazy (she says in her memoir American Childhood that as an adolescent she was labelled a ‘live wire’), and unflinching in her observations of the world, whether they be of bugs or Christian worship. This observation doesn’t come naturally, it must be cultured. In a passage in her prize-winning first book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, (here excerpted as ‘Seeing’) she describes the process of forcing herself to look properly at what nature lays out in front of us. Her eyes are peeled, her enthusiasm peaks, her imagination is in fifth gear.

She also loves jokes. Her memoir contains a long passage about how her parents joked and talked about jokes often, how they explained their structure to Dillard and her sisters, how they constructed elaborate practical jokes, how running gags would fill entire weekends. Her writing displays a deep understanding of timing. A particular page might dip and soar and make profound observations before bumping down with a closing quip which lets the reader know that the preceding paragraphs are to be taken with both gravity and levity.

She comes at Christianity from an oblique angle, but come she must, because part of her curiosity at the world is wonder at its, and our, existence. It is heartening to follow her example in being able to find the mysterious and forbidding ultimately enlightening. But when she describes C S Lewis’s writings on pain as ‘serenely worded, logical sounding’ she is not being complimentary. She prefers the wildness and wonder of Job.

 

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