Friday, October 10, 2008
At the turning
At this time of year, the layered arrangement of the limbs of the untrammeled maple becomes ever more clear. I have been reading William Maxwell and would like to quote him. William Maxwell is a favorite writer of mine. He is the author of many novels, the earliest of which was published in 1938. He was also the fiction editor at the New Yorker for forty years. This is what Howard Moss says about him on the back cover of The Outermost Dream, a collection of his work from which the excerpt below is taken, “As for life in general, one need merely read him. The least flashy of writers, a writer’s writer, he is controlled and reserved, and yet magical at the same time. He has been a master of fiction for almost fifty years.”
“I was never asked to deal with a work of fiction [to review it for the New Yorker] and if I had been I would have said no. Too much of a busman’s holiday. Also, after you have said whether it does or does not have the breath of life, what standards are you going to invoke when confronted with a thing that, like a caterpillar, consumes whatever is at hand? A long narrative requires impersonation, hallucinating when you don’t know the answer, turning water into wine, making a silk purse out of a string of colored scarves and extracting a white rabbit from a sow’s ear, knowing how and when to hold the carrot in front of the donkey’s nose, and sublime confidence. “The house was full of that poetic atmosphere of dullness and silence which always accompanies the presence of an engaged couple.” That sort of thing will keep any reader from escaping out the side door. But diaries, memoirs, published correspondence, biography and autobiography—which are what I was asked to consider—do not spring from prestidigitation or require a long apprenticeship. They tell what happened—what people said and did and wore and ate and hoped for and were afraid of, and in detail after often unimaginable detail they refresh our idea of existence and hold oblivion at arm’s length. Looked at broadly, what happened always has meaning, pattern, form, and authenticity. One can classify, analyze, arrange in the order of importance, and judge any or all of these things, or one can simply stand back and view the whole with wonder."
from the introductory note to The Outermost Dream; essays and reviews.