Monday, June 18, 2007

Archive(s) of the Day

I'm reading William Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow, a short, ruminative novel about a murder in the rural Midwest in the 1920s. Maxwell is a beautiful writer, the type, like another William (Trevor), whose sentences somehow seem both whittled and ornamental. Some people would sacrifice great things to be able to dance like Fred Astaire or paint like Rembrandt. I fantasize about writing like these guys. Here's a passage from So Long:
Roaming the courthouse square on a Saturday night, the tenant farmers and their families were unmistakable. You could see that they were not at ease in town and that they clung together for support. The women's clothes were not meant to be becoming but to wear well, to last them out. The back of the men's necks was a mahogany color, and deeply wrinkled. Their hands were large and looked swollen or misshapen and sometimes they were short a finger or two. The discontented hang of their shoulders is possibly something I imagined because I would not have liked not owning the land I farmed. Very likely they didn't either, but farming was in their blood and they wouldn't have cared to be selling real estate or adding up columns of figures in a bank.

On the seventh day they rested; that is to say, they put on their good clothes and hitched up the horse again and drove to some country church, where, sitting in straight-backed cushionless pews, they stared passively at the preacher, who paced up and down in front of them, thinking up new ways to convince them that they were steeped in sin.
Reading it has also put me in mind of a great passage about William Maxwell (and New York) by Edward Hirsch. I posted it as an archive last summer, but here it is again:
I can't reconcile myself to the fact that he is gone. The night before he passed away I stood on the sidewalk outside his apartment building and burst into tears. I was grieving in advance. I couldn't bear to be without him. I still can't. William Maxwell knew something about inconsolable grief. People hurried by on either side of me, but no one even glanced my way. It started to rain. The night opened its arms. New York City is a place where one can weep on the sidewalk in perfect privacy.


Blogger jenny said...

Have you read The Element of Lavishness yet? It's the 40-year coorespondence between Maxwell and Sylvia Townsend Warner, and it's just wonderful. Here's what he says when Warner praises his latest work: "You have a way of putting praises that makes it hard for me to walk afterward...Listing a little to the right or left, I levitate, in danger of cracking with happiness. When one has been pleased one's life as profoundly as I have been pleased by your work, one does terribly want to do a little pleasing in return." There's wonderful writing back and forth on both sides--I think they were each other's favorite audience.
(I've been reading here for just a short time, but the Maxwell brought me out of lurkerdom. Nice blog.)

1:58 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

I don't know the Element of Lavishness -- thanks for the tip. And thanks for reading. I hope you stick around.

8:31 AM  

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