Saturday, August 11, 2012

`And Changeless Art'

A reader suggested I try Literary Life: A Second Memoir (2009) by Larry McMurtry, the Texas writer whose novels I’ve never read though I’ve seen some of the movies based on them. He assured me that McMurtry, who attended Stanford University, writes about Yvor Winters, and so he does, fleetingly: 

“Later I read Yvor Winters’s criticism, and his poetry, and found both good. I didn’t then learn of his complicated friendship with Hart Crane. It was to Winters, I believe, that Crane sent the first draft of The Bridge, which is a little like Eliot showing a draft of The Wasteland [sic] to Ezra Pound.” 

The entire memoir is like that – breezy and distracted, more like hot air than finished prose. McMurtry goes on to mention Winters’ widow, Janet Lewis (1899-1998), and rightly describes her as “underrated, both as a novelist and a poet”: 

“I enjoyed my little time with Janet Lewis very much, and believe still that she was one of the great women of American letters. Her brilliant novella The Wife of Martin Guerre is one of the finest of American short fiction [the choice of preposition is McMurtry’s]. When I spoke of it she said that when she wrote it she had been trying to write formula fiction for Redbook, to bring in a little money, and was having trouble with plots. Her husband gave her an old law book he had found—a book on evidence—out of which she got not only Martin Guerre but two other engaging historical novels, The Trial of Soren Quist and The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron. 

McMurtry’s assessment is sketchy but accurate. Lewis’ novels are almost the only fiction that has entered my regular rereading rotation in several decades, and every few days I return to her poems. In 1998, McMurtry published an appreciation of Lewis in The New York Review of Books. He concludes his remembrance in the memoir: 

“Janet Lewis died a few months after my visit. I had heard somewhere that Nabokov was a friend and even sometimes helped her wash up after dinner. When I asked about this she smiled and said, `I wouldn’t be surprised if he did.’” 

Next Friday, Aug. 17, we’ll remember Lewis on her 113th birthday. Here is a poem she wrote after the death of a friend and fellow novelist. The dedication to “For Elizabeth Madox Roberts” reads “Who died March 13, 1941”: 

“From the confusion of estranging years,
The imperfections of the changing heart,
This hour leaves only tears;
Tears, and my earliest love, Elizabeth, and changeless art.”


George said...

As you say, the book is breezy and distracted. So is Booked, his memoir of life in the used and rare book trade, but it repays the time spent reading it.

D. G. Myers said...

I hated the book: