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…