It has been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon

… They are in love, though. And later, when the kids are asleep and they go to bed, she says something to him that she said fifteen years ago when they first knew each other. She says “Kenny, you only think about one thing.” And he says , as he said back then, “Yeah, well, that’s so whenever you happen to think about it, then there’ll be two of us.”

And after they make love, they lie in their warm winter bed, their arms around each other, the room full of mysterious light. Anything can happen.

Garrison Keillor is a writer of genius. He has the genius, shared with many great artists and writers, of making everyday things special, ordinary things extraordinary. He writes about regular folks in an imaginary – but utterly real – small town in his native Minnesota. He calls it Lake Wobegon, mimicking the world view of the Norwegian Lutherans who originally settled in those parts. Who else would hit on the idea of calling the town’s Catholic church Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility? He pokes gentle (and I mean gentle) fun at his characters but, again like the greatest artists, never stops loving them.

These little self-contained stories – every one starts with the line It has been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my home town – originated as talks in a popular radio show presented by Keillor called (I admit I wince a bit at this) A Prairie Home Companion. He’s gathered them into books, the first of which were Lake Wobegon Days and Leaving Home. I discovered them in the mid-80s. The books are great but best of all are the recordings because he has a superb speaking voice – gentle manner, sly humour, immaculate English diction – perfect for this kind of thing. Recordings of the original books are only on cassette I think, but you can get some of the shows on CD.

Now, I have to declare an interest: I have two little links with Garrison Keillor. Back when I first read these books the venerable Sunday Times columnist Godfrey Smith put out a call on behalf of his friend Helge Rubinstein, who was compiling an anthology which was going to be called The Oxford Book of Marriage. While she could find plenty of literary descriptions of lovemaking, she couldn’t find any good writing describing lovemaking between married people (says a lot about writers, you think? I thought so too). Smith invited his readers to send in ideas. A couple of weeks later he said he was still waiting so I thought why not? I copied out the passage which is at the start of this post and sent it to him, commenting that it said little but evoked much.

Lo and behold, the following Sunday Smith printed the passage saying that, in the same post, he had received exactly the same text, hand written, from two readers with different names and addresses – one a man, the other a woman. Fishy, wasn’t it? Like a good journalist he declined to publish our names but speculated about whether to put us in touch with each other, and whether we would meet if he did. Nicely echoing Keillor’s words, he ended by saying “Anything could happen”.

A few years later, Garrison Keillor himself was in London and gave an early evening ‘platform talk’ at the National Theatre. I was in the middle of the Stalls, a few rows back and directly in front of him. It had been a long day at work, the lights went down, it was warm, his voice was hypnotic and, as often happens in those conditions, soon my head went down and … When I came round he was in the middle of an anecdote about how someone had fallen asleep during one of his talks.

I pray that I wasn’t snoring, the terribly English folk around me being too polite to tell me. I pray his anecdote wasn’t sparked by spotting me: he doesn’t speak to a set text and is liable to ad lib. If he had seen me, I pray he didn’t mind. But I suppose no one is likely to listen to my prayers. At least, not till I’ve done a few sessions’ penance in Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility.

 

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