“Writers — narrative writers — are people who perform tricks”: William Maxwell, from “The Writer as Illusionist,” a speech given at Smith College, March 4, 1955. Maxwell then reads and comments on some opening sentences, first Wuthering Heights, then “The Open Boat.” And then,
“Call Me Ishmael . . . .” A pair of eyes looking into your eyes. A face. A voice. You have entered into a personal relationship with a stranger, who will perhaps make demands on you, extraordinary personal demands; who will love you in a way that is upsetting and uncomfortable.I found this speech by chance this past weekend, while browsing in a Library of America volume. Crazy synchronicity: Maxwell’s sequence is the sequence of things in our household’s Summer Reading Club, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick followed Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady. For the first time ever, Elaine and I are reading the same book at the same time, same number of pages a day. It’s a great pleasure. We are now finishing Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, to be followed by Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend and Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada. We use two copies so that there’s no fighting. And we have side books: Elaine, Swann’s Way ; me, A Briefer History of Time . We have started as a Vacation Reading Club but plan to keep going come fall, meeting almost every day, after lunch, on the sofa. We should probably read some William Maxwell too. (I’ve read only So Long, See You Tomorrow.)
Here is another trick: “Thirty or forty years ago, in one of those gray towns along the Burlington railroad, which are so much grayer today than they were then, there was a house well known from Omaha to Denver for its hospitality and for a certain charm of atmosphere . . . .”
A door opens slowly in front of you, and you cannot see who is opening it but, like a sleepwalker, you have to go in.
Matt Thomas of Submitted for Your Perusal has let me know of a reference to Melville and Cather in a New York Times piece earlier this month. The Summer Reading Club must be in sync with a tiny fraction of the zeitgeist, or it with us.
All OCA Melville and Cather posts (Pinboard)