"On Love: Stegner, Munro and Maxwell"

Tom Hespe; February 2018

 

I come from a long line of voracious readers. Those for whom summer holidays require a pile of books, siesta spots and, for me at least, ready access to the ocean. Cicadas and sunburn, champagne and mozzies all steadily buzz us into that equilibrium where one loses track of the days and navigates by novel.

 

Last summer it was Guiseppe Di Lampesuda’s one and only book. Set during the Risorgimento “The Leopard” took the Sicilian author twenty-five years rumination and a few months furious writing to complete. Released posthumously (after two serious rejections)  “Il Gattopardo” went on to become the greatest selling novel in Italian history and for good reason: the writing is sensual, generous, nostalgic and utterly Italian.

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This year was different. I chose the book for its cover, nothing more.  A sweet black and white photo taken at a time before the pill and after the bomb.  It shows two pairs of young lovers picnicking and canoodling in the woods; a self consciously youthful American homage to Henri Cartier-Bressons “Borde de Manrne” perhaps?

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I’ll admit I had never heard of the novel or its author but once finished was not at all surprised to learn that it is one of my mother's most cherished books, and if you knew her you would know what that means! Before I owned Grand Days my mother’s shelves had been my most dependable library and we are both pleased I can now return the favour.

 

Though I will not repeat it here the first line immediately reeled me in and by page 5 I had decided that this would be the book I would read to my father.  Nick’s illness was such that, as he wrote: “My life is quieter and smaller than it was. And I have less capacity to contribute to other causes and groups. But I am positive and happy. My family are very supportive and a vital resource.”

 

Smaller indeed it was, literally.  So I read to him, hoping to take us both outdoors.

 

“Dew has soaked everything. I could wash my hands in the ferns, and when I pick a leaf off a maple branch I get a shower on my head and shoulders. Through the hardwoods along the foot of the hill, through the belt of cedars where the ground is swampy with springs, through the spruce and balsam of the steep pitch, I go alertly, feasting my eyes. I see coon tracks, an adult and two young, in the mud, and maturing grasses bent like croquet wickets with wet, and orange spotted Amanitas, at this season flattened or even concave and holding water, and miniature forests of club moss and ground pine and ground cedar. There are brown caves of shelter, mouse and hare country, under the wide skirts of spruce”

 

The enchanted Vermont scenery seems-as they’d say up there-“something else” but, as the back cover reads, Wallace Stegner’s “Crossing to Safety” “is a beautiful and deeply moving exploration of the struggle of four people to come to terms with the trials and tragedies of everyday life.” Relationships, friendships, time and place.  Continuity, change and the inevitability of death.  To be able to tackle these profound subjects (and really what else is there for us mere mortals?) with such a tender touch was a revelation for me and, I suppose, most timely. 

 

“Human lives seldom conform to the conventions of fiction. Checkov says that it is in the beginnings and endings of stories we are most tempted to lie……Drama demands the reversal of expectation, but in such a away that the first surprise is followed by an immediate recognition of inevitability. And inevitability takes careful pin-setting. Since this story is about friendship, drama expects friendships to be overturned. Something, the novelist in me whispers, is going to break up our cozy foursome…..Well too bad for drama. Nothing of the sort is going to happen. Something less orthodoxly dramatic is”  

 

Crossing to Safety really is one of those perfect novels. Written by a master at the height of his powers and wisdom at an age where perhaps life is “quieter and smaller than before” it brims with an honesty and joy that is rare. To my mind at least, the storyteller, (and in this case thus the author) is a diligent, grounded and gentle soul. A man with an eye for detail and a sweetness and generous capacity for love and wonder that has swept him though his whole life.

 

We didn’t get very far; not even the first chapter. Nick’s fatigue soon took over that afternoon and over the next week I greedily polished the book off alone. In a week he was gone.

 

A few weeks later. The world was the same but utterly different. Still summer, still holidays, this time Kangaroo Valley.  Alice Munro’s “The Progress of Love” was the book I picked up next.  Another author whose work I had somehow managed to avoid. Sometimes it’s good to wait.

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Raymond Carver made a big impact on me in my teens and early twenties. His sparse short stories are so illuminating and tender with an underlying pathos and coolness. They have the clarity of black and white photographs. Munro mines a similar vein- smalltown and suburban North American everyday life-but her touch is defter, deeper, less self-conscious with a lovely vividness and warmth. I’ve convinced myself it’s Canadian trait.

 

The language is direct and to the point but manages to be effortlessly evocative. There is a steady sense of momentum to her writing; each story is a perfectly crafted little universe populated by characters fascinating in their simple human frailty and beauty. 

 

 I got a call from work, and it was my father. This was not long after I was divorced and started in the real-estate office. Both of my boys were in school. It was a hot enough day in September.

               My father was so polite, even in the family. He took time to ask me how I was. Country manners. Even if somebody phones up to tell you your house is burning down they ask first how you are.

              “I’m fine,” I said. “How are you?”

              “Not so good, I guess,” said my father, in his old way--apologetic but self-respecting: “ I think your mother’s gone.”

              I knew that “gone” meant “dead”. I knew that. But for a moment or so I saw my mother in her black straw hat setting off down the lane. The word “gone” seemed full of nothing but a deep relief and sense of excitement-the excitement you feel when a door closes and your house sinks back to normal and you let yourself loose into all the free space around you.

 

The theme of love flowed through the following book which, like the previous two, began with the subject of death. William Maxwell’s mother died in the post WW1 flu epidemic when he was just ten years old and we are told this event had a profound impact on his life. Death, loss, memory and love are the recurring themes in his writing.  “So long, see you tomorrow” is a short novel set during the 1920’s in rural Illinois. Images of adultery and murder, farmers named Clarence and Cletus, hogs turkeys and chickens all belie the gentle touch that Maxwell reveals though his storytelling.

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What we, or at any rate I, refer to confidently as memory-meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixitive and thereby rescued from oblivion-is really a form of storytelling……Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.

 

Despite the darkness of the narrative there is an underlying beauty and simplicity at work here too. Death is the framework through which Maxwell explores the universal experiences of love, loss, grief, family and friendship.

 

For readers the best books are like people. They become part of your life; milestones and reference points along the way. We may only spend a day or two with them but they are with us always. I am thankful these three books came into my life when they did and I am grateful for the wisdom contained within and, for a time at least, Stegner, Munro and Maxwell will be as one in my memory.