Sunday, September 08, 2019

'Then You Spread It Out Like a Bright Cloth'

On one side, glib nihilism; on the other, shameless sentimentality. It’s a phony dichotomy, one beloved by many writers. Both sides represent a failure of imagination.   
In May 1970, William Maxwell writes to Eudora Welty about her new novel Losing Battles:

“It has the sweep of a 19th C novel—Middlemarch comes to mind. In its commitment to life it stands out today like a bird in the Arctic sky. It seemed to me as if you were saying, well, if that’s what you all want to do with life, if that’s what you think it is, fine, but here’s what I think it is—and then you spread it out like a bright cloth—like an Irish fairy shawl, with infinite care for the beauty and delicacy & color & gaiety of it.”

Last year when my boss, who hired me twice for the same job, retired after twenty-six years from Rice University, a group of us gave her a bur oak to plant on her farm. I gave her a mint-condition first edition of Losing Battles, the novel Guy Davenport called “transcendentally beautiful.”

In February 1983, Maxwell is writing again to Welty. In 1958 he had served as a judge in the National Book Award fiction category. In his account, he persuades his colleagues to give the prize to John Cheever for The Wapshot Chronicle. Another judge, Francis Steegmuller, at first lobbied for Malamud’s The Assistant, which Maxwell also admired. He writes to Welty:

“The other day I found a long, intelligent letter from Francis explaining – at the time – why The Assistant was a novel and The Wapshot Chronicle was not. The distinction didn’t interest me much, and doesn’t now, really. I feel a novel is a long piece of prose narrative with the breath of life in it.”

“Breath of life” was a favorite phrase of Maxwell’s  In 1997, in the new introduction to The Outermost Dream: Essays and Reviews (Graywolf Press), originally published by Knopf in 1989, Maxwell writes:

“[W]hen I read for my own enjoyment I cannot—or mostly do not—read authors whose way of writing doesn’t give me pleasure. But of course style is not in itself enough. One wants blowing through it at all times the breath, the pure astonishment of life.”

It’s a quality difficult to articulate and simple to perceive. Henry James’ fiction has it, as does Tolstoy’s and George Eliot’s. They convince us. We forget them and ourselves while reading.

[Both passages from Maxwell’s letters can be found in What There Is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell (ed. Suzanne Marrs, 2011).]

1 comment:

Cal Gough said...

I continue to enjoy your periodic quotations of William Maxwell, and reading What There Is to Say We Have Said was one of my favorite reading experiences.