38. The Element of Lavishness : Sylvia Townsend Warner & William Maxwell
I have had a very good reading year – so many wonderful books which have blown me away. It’s going to be tricky, compiling a list of my top ten at the end of the year – indeed, making lists of my all-time favourite books is getting harder than ever – but I’m pretty certain this volume will be featuring on 2011’s best reads (coming up soon). And it’s nabbing place 38 on the books I think you should read, but might not have heard about. Which means there are only twelve more that I can add – ooo! Thrilling, no?
I still have so many novels and stories by Warner and Maxwell to read – it seems crazy that I’ve only read two novels by Warner and two-and-a-bit by Maxwell, since I still consider them amongst my favourite writers. But even with these stockpiles still to read, I was delighted to discover that they were correspondents. It seemed too good to be true – that two authors I love should have collaborated on a book in this way, especially since Maxwell lived in the US, and Warner in England, and they met only two or three times. (Most, perhaps all, of my quotations here are from Warner, but that is because I read the book whilst researching a chapter on Warner – Maxwell is equally wonderful a letter-writer. Almost.)
The title Element of Lavishness comes from a letter in which Maxwell writes to Warner that:
The personal correspondence of writers feeds on left-over energy. There is also the element of lavishness, of enjoying the fact that they are throwing away one of their better efforts, for the chances of any given letter’s surviving is fifty-fifty, at most.
I love the ethos here: even if they don’t know whether or not their letters will be read more than once, fleetingly, it’s almost as though they can’t help writing to the best of their ability. Evidently a lot of the Warner/Maxwell correspondence did survive, and it certainly reflects their talents. While I love them both as novelists, I think The Element of Lavishess is the best thing I have read by either of them. It’s quite possible that this post will descend (ascend?) into a myriad of quotations – so beautiful are the sentences these authors penned so casually.
They wrote between 1938 and Warner’s death forty years later, but only really became friends in the early 1950s, where the letters veer from the strictly practical to the lavishness of the title. The relationship between Warner and Maxwell began professionally – Maxwell edited The New Yorker, to which Warner started contributing stories. He loved them (I have shelves full of them, unread) and gradually this exchange became a friendship that encompassed not only work and writing but every conceivable facet of their lives.
Warner and Maxwell remained each other’s most fervent fans, and happy to express it. Novels and stories were read and praised, always carefully and thoughtfully; Warner embarked on her successful Kingdoms of Elfin series expressly to please Maxwell – and yet, throughout, Maxwell maintained his role as New Yorker editor. He praised and praised – but would also, occasionally, turn down submitted stories. How strong a friendship must be to survive this! How brave of Maxwell, and how gracious of Warner! And how beautifully Maxwell himself phrases his response to Warner’s appreciation:
Naturally they did not solely get to know one another, but became as intimately involved in each other’s families. Warner’s partner Valentine; Maxwell’s wife Emmy and his two children. They often ask after these people, of course – but, more than this, they grew to understand and love these background figures to their correspondence. I love this quick note of Warner’s:
I am thankful that Emmy is back. In her absence you do not spell as well as at other times. Does she know that? It is a delightful tribute, she should wear it in a brooch.
Maxwell helped Warner through Valentine’s illness and death, acting as a necessarily far-flung support – and the exchange of touching, thoughtful, perceptive letters became all the more vital. For Warner, in her final years, to all intents and purposes widowed, the correspondence was a weapon against loneliness. Those little observances and stories she might have told Valentine across breakfast became the anecdotes she wove into her letters. This was possibly my favourite letter – indeed, I immediately wrote it down and sent it off to my own correspondent, Barbara-from-Ludlow:
All this time I was picking & cursing strawberries. I had an enormous crop, & my principles are of a niggardly kind that can’t let fool go to waste. But I got one pure pleasure out of this. I was picking & cursing and searching who I could give the next lot to when I saw a paddle rise above the garden wall. And looking down, there were two boys in a canoe. So without explanation, I commanded them to keep about, & hurried (to Valentine’s workroom) for the shrimping net, and filled it with strawberries and lowered it down to them. They were silent and acceptant; & it was all very Tennysonian, & I realised that when they are old men they will remember those strawberries.
(This was written in 1972. Let us assume the boys were twenty years old, at the most – so they are now no more than sixty. Where are they? Do they remember? I believe I, at least, will remember this quirky, moving scene for many eyars.)
Here, in letters, where Warner is not constrained by the novelistic strictures of plot and character and can instead turn her attention to anything and everything, Warner is at her most perceptive – and at her most deliciously playful. She never writes a dull letter, and here are just a couple of examples from the notes I made:
One of the emotions of old age is amazement that one was alive so long ago. I suppose that is why so many people write autobiographies. They are trying to convince themselves that they really were.
They are so lovable, so warm! I want to quote to you endlessly – I want to tell you how Maxwell has ‘a defective sense of rancour […] the first thing I know I am beaming at someone I suddenly remember I shouldn’t even be speaking to’; how, when Warner and Valentine had a servant, ‘we used to count the hours till her half-days & evenings out when we would rush into the kitchen and read her novels and magazines: […] such a grateful change from Dostoevsky.’ But I shan’t – because I think you should just go and buy it yourself. If you’re even remotely fond of Warner or Maxwell, you’ll love this. Even if you’ve not read a word by either, or don’t even recognise they’re name, I would recommend this collection to you – anybody with any interest in friendship, literature, letters, perception… this book will delight.
Perhaps I should end with an excerpt from Warner, one of their early letters, which leaves me wondering quite how she would respond to my adulation:
But no reviewers ever understand one’s books; and if they praise them, they understand them even less. Praising reviewers are like those shopwomen who thrust a hat on one’s head, a hat that is like the opening of the Judgement scroll in which all one’s sins are briefly and dispassionately entered, and then stand back and say that it is exactly the hat that Modom needs to bring out her face. I have never yet had a praising review that did not send me slinking and howling under my breath to kneel in some dark corner and pray that the Horn would sound for me and the Worms come for me, that very same night. The horn doesn’t and the worms don’t, and somehow one recovers one’s natural powers of oblivion, and goes on writing.