Old favourites: Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard (1977)

It may not be Dillard’s most successful book, but it is surely her oddest

Annie Dillard writes in the panoramic, unembarrasable American high style of Emerson and Kerouac. Photograph: Richard Howard/The Life Images Collection/Getty

Annie Dillard writes in the panoramic, unembarrasable American high style of Emerson and Kerouac. Photograph: Richard Howard/The Life Images Collection/Getty

Many writers display an acute interest in human beings, but remarkably little interest in whatever it is that lies behind human beings and the world in which they manifest – that is, in metaphysics. Not so Annie Dillard. She tends to be described as a nature writer, though for her it is not nature but Creation. At her darkest, she comes near to echoing Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character in Lars von Triers’ panic attack of a film Antichrist, who declares that “Nature is the church of Satan”.

Holy the Firm may not be Dillard’s most successful book, but it is surely her oddest: a characteristically intemperate, indeed hysterical, act of communion with the Pacific coastal landscape of Puget Sound in Washington State, where Dillard lived alone for two years in a room as “plain as a skull”. Dillard’s religiousness is no meek adherence to the flock, but an appalled, ecstatic opening of the self to God’s radiant terror as expressed in the savage immensity of the natural world. She writes in the panoramic, unembarrasable American high style of Emerson and Kerouac. Some readers will have had enough after the first sentence: “Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time.”

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