Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Maxwell, Melville, Cather

“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.

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.
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.)

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.

Related reading
All OCA Melville and Cather posts (Pinboard)

comments: 2

stefan said...

My comment comes too late, Michael, but I often fall behind and so I'm reading last month's Harper's now, and I came across something in Caleb Crain's interesting essay, "Counter Culture: Fighting for Literature in an Age of Algorithms," that made me think of you and Elaine reading together. The writer is Keats and the context is a trip that his brother took to American and the letters they exchanged while George was away. I'll quote the short paragraph, so it's first Crain and then Keats:

"Measuring by the delay in their messages, Keats and his brother's family were farther from each other than it may be possible for people today to be. The poet suggested an unconventional way of bridging the distance: 'I shall read a passage of Shakespeare every Sunday at ten o'clock,' he proposed. 'You read one at the same time, and we shall be as near each other as blind bodies can be in the same room.'"

As you might guess, Crain makes a lot of hay with the last part of that passage.

Michael Leddy said...

That’s beautiful, Stefan. I will have to seek out the magazine.

Elaine just mentioned that Robert and Clara Schumann when apart would play the same Chopin piece at the same time.