Friday, 11 January 2013

What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty & William Maxwell

The third Reading Presently book was a really lovely surprise gift from Heather, who reads my blog (but doesn't, I'm pretty sure, have one herself.)  She saw how much I'd loved the letters of William Maxwell and Sylvia Townsend Warner, and decided (quite rightly) that I should also have the opportunity to read William Maxwell's letters to another doyenne of the printed word - Eudora Welty.

Although no collection of letters is likely to compare to The Element of Lavishness in my mind, this is still a really wonderful book.  The dynamics are a little different - both are on the same side of the Atlantic (Maxwell can write to Welty 'And warm though the British are, one needs to have them explained to one, and everything is through the looking glass') ; both go more or less through the same stages of their careers - with Warner, Maxwell was always the young enthusiast, even when he was essentially her boss.  Here is more a meeting of equals, sharing some literary friends (especially Elizabeth Bowen) and loving and respecting each other without the need to impress (which brought out the very finest of Maxwell's writing, to Warner.)

It was a delight to 'meet' Maxwell's wife and children again, and to see the girls grow up once more - and fascinating to see how this is framed a little differently in the different books.  For her part, Welty's relationship with her homeland (Jackson, Mississippi) is really interesting - a definitely conflicted relationship, cross with the attitudes of her neighbourhood, but loving home.  It's pretty rare that 'place' makes an impact on me, let alone somebody's engagement with their individual city, but this was certainly one of those occasions.

Just as Warner's letters stood out more for me in The Element of Lavishness, it was Maxwell's turn to take the foreground in What There Is To Say We Have Said (which is a lovely title, incidentally - a quotation from the penultimate letter Maxwell sent.)  So I jotted down a few Maxwell excerpts, but nothing from Welty - who, though wonderful, turned out to be less quoteworthy.  I love this from Maxwell, about wishing for a Virginia Woolf audiobook:
What wouldn't you give for a recording of her reading "To the Lighthouse," on one side and "The Waves" on the other.  It's enough to unsettle my reason, just having imagined it.  I'll try not think about it any more.
I mostly love how impassioned (and funny) he is - and I'm probably going to be peppering my conversation with 'it's enough to unsettle my reason'.  It rivals that immortal line from the TV adaptation of Cranford: "Put not another dainty to your lips, for you will choke when you hear what I have to say!"  (Note to Self: I must watch Cranford again...)

Maxwell is, of course, a great novelist on his own account - but I think one of his most significant contributions to literature is his panache as an appreciator.  Even when he was turning down Warner's stories for the New Yorker, he managed to do so with admiration dripping from every penstroke of the rejection.  He so perfectly (and honestly) identifies what the author was hoping would be praised, and describes the raptures of an avid reader.  Here is his beautiful response to Eudora Welty's The Golden Apples:
At one point I was aware that I was holding my breath, a thing I don't ever remember doing before,  while reading, and what I was holding my breath for is lest I might disturb something in nature, a leaf that was about to move, a bird, a wasp, a blade of grass caught between other blades of grass and about to set itself free.  And then farther on I said to myself, this writing is corrective, meaning of course for myself and all other writers, and almost at the end I said reverently This is how one feels in the presence of a work of art, and finally, in the last paragraph, when the face came through, there was nothing to say.  You had gone as far as there is to go and then taken one step further.
Which author would not thrill to this letter?  Can a better response be imagined?  There is never any sense, in his praise to Welty or Warner, that he is exaggerating or being sycophantic - he simply expresses the joy he feels, unabashed, and the women he writes to are sensible enough to accept his praise without undue modesty.  Welty returns compliments on Maxwell's writing more than Warner ever did - c.f. again the youthful admirer / fond sage dynamic which was going on there.

If this collection does not match up to The Element of Lavishness, it is because it does not have the magic of Warner's letter writing.  But to criticise it for that would be like criticising chocolate cake because it wasn't double chocolate cake.  This is a wonderful, decades-long account of a friendship between literary greats - and is equally marvellous for both the literary interest and the testament (if I may) of friendship.  Thank you, Heather, I'm so grateful for this joy of a book  it, and they, will stay with me for a while.  Now, did William Maxwell write to anyone else...


24 comments:

  1. What a thoughtful gift. I have had this on my TBR list since finishing The Element of Lavishness, knowing it could never measure up to that book but still eager to read it. I am so happy to hear that Maxwell's letters are as beautiful and engaging as ever. And to your comment "I think one of his most significant contributions to literature is his panache as an appreciator", I can only respond with a loud and enthusiastic YES!

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    1. Wasn't it lovely of Heather? A complete surprise too.
      I thought you might agree with that statement, Claire! What a wonder he was, for that. And an underrated skill appreciation is. You probably won't love this as much as Lavishness, but I reckon you'd love it anyway.

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  2. I've had that book on my wish list for a while and I'm so glad to hear it meets expectations. Thankyou, Simon.

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    1. Thanks, Karen! It's a great one to read slowly and gradually.

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  3. Sounds like an interesting read, I read some Eudora Welty last year I'll have to put that on my wishlist

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    1. Oo, you will - reading this inspired me to get The Optimist's Daughter. I have read The Ponder Heart, but don't remember anything about it.

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  4. Interesting review, though as I have not read either novelist I am not sure what good it would be as a read for me. Does that make sense? Though I have just got my first book by Eudora Welty so I may change my mind, though she doesn't sound like she is riveting in this book.

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    1. Sometimes reading an author's letters or biography is fine without having read their output - I definitely loved Sheila Kaye-Smith's autobiography without having read anything else by her, and I would recommend the Warner/Maxwell letters to anyone - but I do think this one might be better once you've read at least something by these authors. Which you are soon to do!

      I hope she didn't come across as dull in this review - I just felt more familiar with Maxwell, I think.

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  5. I've not come across Maxwell before but I love that quote and he sounds like he had an interesting address book. I wonder how many other letter collections he pops up in... :)

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    1. I know! He was editor of the New Yorker, so seemed to know everyone.

      You'd love his fiction, I think - They Came Like Swallows is superb.

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  6. I love Eudora Welty, and I'm fascinated with that sense of place so many Southern writers either discuss outright or weave into their work. This sounds like a great read!

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    1. In which case, you'd love this Tiffany! I definitely get more of a sense of place from Southern writers than others in America - even though I know just as little about Southern geography as I do about anywhere in the US. One day I'll go!

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  7. I love William Maxwell. Just imagining how wonderful it would be to get letters from him.

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    1. Oh, wouldn't it just! But letters from Warner would be even more delicious.

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  8. I really wish you wouldn't keep writing about these books that I have to go and put on my wishlist..... :)

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    1. Haha! Mea culpa. Except I'm not at all sorry...

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  9. Oh dear, Simon...two more for my list. Isn't it lovely that we have the privilege of reading private letters from so many writers.

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    1. I know! If I sit and think about it, I feel a little guilty about reading their letters... but I get over it (!) Actually, Maxwell was big in helping others' posthumous letters be published, and donated his in various places, so I don't imagine he'd mind.

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  10. Good, good review. I must read both collection of letters.

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    1. Thanks so much! You'd love 'em :)
      (and it amuses me that your comment is just below Belle's!)

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  11. While I really enjoy reading epistolary novels (see Possession, Bridget Jones, The Egyptologist for a few examples), I have never been tempted to read anyone’s real collected letters. Until now… : ) This sound a bit like a book about books/reading, which is probably my favorite non-fiction category.

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    1. It is the best non-fiction category, isn't it? It's a wonderful treat to read letters from people who weren't just literary heavyweights themselves, but knew so many other authors too.

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  12. You are now, I realize, reading books that were given you. But, if you haven't read it already, you might want to put _The Habit of Being_ on your TBR list. It is a collection of letters by Flannery O'Connor. I've read only one of the short stories that made her name (it made my mouth drop open, and I keep meaning to read more, but I love novels better than stories, so...), but it doesn't matter. The letters are meaty and smart and funny.

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  13. I read this one a year ago, and while I liked it, I did find the letters of William Maxwell and Frank O'Connor more amusing and personable. I really should look up Element of Lavishness.

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