Tuesday, September 01, 2009

`There Are Medicines'

Nige, lucky man, has again savored the pleasures of William Maxwell’s fiction; this time, his 1945 novel The Folded Leaf:

“…Maxwell's touch is gossamer light; this is no omniscient narrator crashing onto the scene, nor a puppetmaster peeping out from behind the curtain. All is of a piece, all is one creation. And what a creation! I cannot for the life of me understand why Maxwell is not regarded, at least on this side of the pond, as one of the 20th-century American greats.”

It’s the “gossamer” that cinches it – spun stuff subtle and beautiful, with a tensile strength exceeding steel. “Sensitivity,” rightly so, is not always judged a virtue in fiction. Too often it masks soft-headed self-regard, an author too eager to congratulate himself on his assumed virtue. Maxwell matches Henry James in sensitivity, insight, subtlety, nuance – and steeliness.

I’ve been reading Marianne Moore’s prose again and thought of Maxwell when she writes in her review of Elizabeth Bishop’s North & South (1946): “With poetry as with homiletics tentativeness can be more positive than positiveness.” And in her 1941 review of Louise Bogan’s Poems and New Poems, she writes:

“We need not be told that life is never going to be free from trouble and that there are no substitutes for the dead; but it is a fact as well as a mystery that weakness is power, that handicap is proficiency, that the scar is a credential, that indignation is no adversary for gratitude, or heroism for joy. There are medicines.”

Bogan suggested the novel’s title to Maxwell, taking it from Tennyson’s “The Lotos-Eaters,” and Maxwell dedicated his book to her.

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