Archive for the ‘William Maxwell’ Category

I am happy to see 2015 go.  I had a productive year but it was a tiring and sombre one.  With friends and family falling ill and passing away with alarming frequency, this was not a year for intensive reading.  Or, some months, any reading at all (I only managed to finish two books in September).  That said, hidden among the comfort reads and mindless fluff that typified my reading this year were some truly excellent books.  Most of which I unfortunately never got around to writing about.  It took fierce concentration to get the list down to ten but here they are:

Top Ten - 310. The Song Collector (2015) – Natasha Solomons
A lovely, gently-paced novel about love, aging, and music.

9. Knight Crusader (1954) – Ronald Welch
I read this historical children’s novel (the first in Welch’s Carey series, currently being reissued by Slightly Foxed) back in January and was so impressed I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.  Welch’s thoughtful character development and rich historical details compliment a rip roaring plot to delight readers of any age.

8. My History (2015) – Antonia Fraser
A breezy, charming memoir about Fraser’s early years.

Top Ten - 27. Iris Origo (2000) – Caroline Moorehead
I adored this biography of Origo, famous for her wartime diary (War in Val d’Orcia – which I’ve yet to read) and her garden at La Foce (which I’ve yet to see).  Moorehead does an incredible job of describing the richly complicated Florentine expat community Origio grew up in and her extraordinarily varied circle of acquaintances, as well as her personal achievements.  There was nothing simple or straightforward about Origio and Moorehead does full justice to her subject’s complex life.  When I visited the Val d’Orcia region of Tuscany in September, I was delighted to see for myself the landscapes Moorehead had described and which Origio knew so well.

6. Sofia Khan is Not Obliged (2015) – Ayisha Malik
An entirely unique comedy about the romantic and spiritual plights (often entwined) of a young British Muslim feminist.  It remains the only book that kept me up reading long past my bedtime this year and had me giggling even more often than Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling.

5. Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (1992) – Marcella Hazan
An unusual choice for this list but this is easily the book I’ve spent the most time with this year.  And what a book it is.  Hazan’s precise recipes are a joy to read and a delight to recreate.  Since buying this in Portland last February, I don’t think more than a week or two has gone by without me trying a new recipe from it.  I am devoted to the soup chapter, in thrall to the pasta sauces, and had a revelation over brisket when I made the beef roast with braised onions.  It has quickly become my most cherished cookbook.

Top Ten - 14. A Desperate Fortune (2015) – Susanna Kearsley
A thrilling historical novel with two equally thoughtful, appealing heroines.

3. Anthony Trollope (1992) – Victoria Glendinning
Glendinning’s thorough, affectionate, and very readable biography of Trollope gave me a new appreciation for the books of his I’ve already read and more impetus to read the others.  I was especially fascinated by her interest in his relationships with the women in his lives and how they influenced his female characters.

2. The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867) by Anthony Trollope
A funny, poignant, generous novel to end Trollope’s extraordinary Barsetshire series.

STW Letters1. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Letters (1982) edited by William Maxwell
An enchanting collection of letters spanning almost fifty years.  STW was a wonderful correspondent, filling her letters with richly-detailed annecdotes, self-deprecating humour, and the most delightful flights of whimsy.  I’ve yet to read a single one of her novels but, after reading this and the wonderful collection of her letters to William Maxwell (my favourite book of 2012), I can’t help but think of her as a close, dear friend.


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I always have fun making this list but, for the first time, it was easy as well as fun.  There was no struggling over what belong in each spot and no angst-ridden hours spent juggling the merits of one book over another in deciding which deserved to make the list.  These are, without a doubt, the ten best books I read in 2012.  They have stuck in my mind since I read them and I cannot go a day without recommending at least one of them to friends, family members, other bloggers or people I randomly meet on the street (like the woman I met at the coffeeshop on Friday.  Such are the dangers of engaging me in conversation).  Without further ado, here are ten best books I read in 2012:

Best Books of 2012 - Part 1

10. The Home-Maker (1924) – Dorothy Canfield Fisher
This is, quite rightly, one of the best-loved Persephone titles among readers.  It is a wonderfully thoughtful book about gender roles, societal pressure, and personal fulfillment and treats all of its characters – adult or child – with respect for the everyday struggles they face.

9. Two-Part Invention (1988) – Madeleine L’Engle
This book was heartbreaking, beautiful, and, above all, surprising.  It is a portrait of L’Engle’s forty year marriage written during her husband’s final illness but it is also a reflection on her faith and what religion meant in her life.  It is a highly emotional and intelligent book and I cried more tears over this than anything else I read this year.

8. The Siren Years (1974) – Charles Ritchie
No matter how many times I read this (and I have lost count at this point), it remains the best wartime diary I have ever come across.   Ritchie’s diplomatic and social connections in London exposed him to an extraordinary variety of people, from political leaders and petty bureaucrats to authors and exiled royalty.  The joy of Ritchie’s diaries comes from the meld of political details and domestic ones.  I find it just as interesting to hear about how the Canadian High Commission handled refugee claims as I do to discover what Ritchie saw on his walk through London each day on the way to work or what he talked about at lunch with Nancy Mitford.     Best Books of 2012 - Part 2

7. Leningrad (2011) – Anna Reid
I still get chills thinking about this book, which looks at what happened to those trapped in Leningrad while it was under siege during the Second World War.  It is uncomfortable and upsetting to read but so very well done.

6. The Headmistress (1944) – Angela Thirkell
Possibly the most perfectly-formed of Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels, The Headmistress focuses on the experiences of the Belton family during the Second World War.  Mrs Belton, the middle-aged mother of three, is one of Thirkell’s best heroines.  Her struggles to understand her adult children and to live with her constant fear for her sons broke my heart.

5. The Laskett (2003) – Roy Strong
A gardening tome that even non-gardeners would love, this book describes the evolution of Strong’s garden at his country home, The Laskett.  Though there are plenty of details about the garden’s layout and plant choices, what makes this book special are the stories Strong shares about the friends and experiences that influenced the garden’s formation.  This is a garden that clearly reflects both Strong and his wife’s personalities and experiences and it is a book that acts as a tribute to their delightfully unique lives.  Best Books of 2012 - Part 3

4. Good Evening, Mrs Craven (1999) – Mollie Panter-Downes
A wonderfully varied collection of short stories about life in England during the Second World War.  Panter-Downes’ domestic focus exactly suits my tastes as does her interest in the quiet disappointments and muted struggles faced by her characters.  There is nothing sensational about the events in these stories, making them both relatable and, to me, touching.

3. It’s Too Late Now (1939) –  A.A. Milne
2012 was the year of Milne and as much as I loved his plays, his pieces for Punch, his passionate plea for pacifism, and his light verse, it was his autobiography that gave me the most pleasure.  Looking back on the first fifty-odd years of his life, Milne joyously recalls the happy days of his childhood and, later, his determined pursuit of a writing career.  It has nothing in common with gossipy tell-alls and that is part of what I loved about it.  It is a fun book to read and I suspect Milne had even more fun writing it.

2. Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther (1907) – Elizabeth von Arnim
It has been a long time since I’ve fallen as hard for a fictional character as I did for Fräulein Rose-Marie Schmidt.  These letters, written to her erstwhile suitor Roger Anstruther, reveal a woman who is both romantic and practical, youthful and mature.  She is clever and funny and resilient and I want to be her almost as much as I want to befriend her. the-element-of-lavishness

1. The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell  (2001) – edited by Michael Steinman
I read this in January and, honestly, no other book I read this year came even close to eclipsing it in my affections.  I had never read anything by either Warner or Maxwell before and knew very little about either of them but that made no difference.  Through their letters, I got to know both of them intimately and to witness the wonderful warmth and depth of their friendship as it evolved over the decades.  While both were extraordinary writers, it is Warner’s letters I remember the best now, almost a year after I read them.  She wrote beautifully about the domestic details of her life and the letters written between the death of her partner Valentine and her own death are as good a record of aging and loss as I have ever read.

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Oh, this book.  When I saw Simon’s review of The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 edited by Michael Steinman I was intrigued.  I had never read anything by either Warner or Maxwell but I find it difficult to refuse any book of correspondence between well-educated, interesting people.  When I picked this up though, I had no idea just how deeply I would fall in love with it, with Warner, with Maxwell, and with their warm, affectionate relationship.

The letters begin in the late 1930s, when Maxwell takes over from Katharine S. White as Warner’s editor at The New Yorker.  Over the first decade or so, their letters slowly shift from strictly professional to something more friendly as they come to know one another better through the editing process and by reading one another’s works.  By the end of the 1940s, they are firm friends, sharing small personal details with one another, enough so that Maxwell feels comfortable in sending food and writing paper to his favourite author whose access to those items was restricted by rationing in England.  The early letters are full of mutual flattery, gracious thanks for whatever service one has done the other, and light-hearted quips, as in one of Maxwell’s cheerful notes:

I’m glad you think I am a good editor even though a still small voice tells me that there is no such thing for writers of quality and that they should be left strictly to their own devices.  I’m glad also that life in England is not as Spartan as the papers would lead us to believe.  I would have been perfectly miserable in Sparta, and I can’t help suspecting that the Spartans were also.  Otherwise they would have left the Athenians alone.  (13 June 1947)

But in the 1950s their letters deepen in understanding and sympathy, giving way to the lavishness of the title.  They become deeply entangled in one another’s work and domestic lives, with no detail too small, no thought too fleeting to be written down for the benefit of the other.  Seeing it evolve from a work relationship to a friendship to a deep love between not only them but also their families (encompassing Warner’s partner Valentine and Maxwell’s wife Emmy, and, later, Maxwell’s daughters Kate and Brookie) is incredibly moving.  I came to love them both and to love, more than anything, their love for one another.

They have such a deep respect for one another’s intelligence and work but, at the same time, there’s a wonderful sense of rivalry about some things between them.  Both gleefully share random facts they’ve come across, either in their extensive reading or in the course of daily life, in an almost child-like competition to amuse or amaze the other.  It’s very sweet.  Warner comes up with some particularly odd and wonderful tidbits:

The other day I said to a clergyman I met that though I always read in my bath, as all sensible people do, I disliked the moment when one has to decide whether to wash one’s hands or go on reading and respecting the binding.  He said that if I were to content myself with the burial and baptismal service, this problem would be overcome, as both of them are issued by some Church of England publishing house with waterproof bindings.  Did you know this? (11 April 1951)

Twenty-five years later, Maxwell is still trying to find something that will astonish her, but is now wise enough to recognize the futility of his task.  In his letter to her, you can see the intellectual curiosity that they shared, letting them glory over the most random bits of trivia, but, more than anything, you can see his touching affection and deep respect for Warner:

You remember the woman in Isak Dinesen’s story who sailed the seas looking for the perfect blue?  In somewhat the same way I search for an interesting fact for you that you do not already know.  When I find one that looks likely (viz: in Grove last night that as a small child Mozart had an ear so delicate and susceptible that he fainted away at the sound of a trumpet) and then shake my head; a musical fact that you are not conversant with? most unlikely.  And about Mozart, more unlikely still.  But someday I shall astonish you, as you astonish me every time I get a letter from you. (23 March 1977)

Maxwell’s letters tend to focus more of events – assassinations, elections, protests – things that no doubt would be of particular interest to students of American history.  And his perspective and experiences are fascinating but Warner counters with glimpses of domestic life (written in her Elizabeth Gaskell moods, she jokes) and writes such perfect vignettes that they become both more interesting and more enjoyable to read than Maxwell’s experiences of world events.  Maxwell shares plenty of his own trivial details, in his own wonderful style, but I loved Warner’s.  I was perfectly delighted by this simple story, and I don’t even like cats:

Pour Niou [their Siamese cat] has just had his first affair of the heart, and of course it was a tragedy.  As a rule he flies from strange men, cursing under his breath, and keeping very low to the ground.  Yesterday an electrician came; a grave mackintoshed man, but to Niou all that was romantic and lovely.  He gazed at him, he rubbed against him, he lay in an ecstasy on the tool-bag.  The electrician felt much the same, and gave him little washers to play with.  He said he would have to come again today to finish off properly.  Niou who understands everything awaited him in a dreamy transport and practising his best and most amorous squint.  The electrician came, Niou was waiting for him, and he rushed into the garden and disappeared.

He’ll get over it in time; but just now he’s dreadfully downcast.  (12 February 1952)

The letters during and following Valentine’s final illness really show what a close, familial relationship Warner and Maxwell had, that she could share the intimate, heart-breaking details of bereavement with him so unselfconsciously.  “One thinks one has foreseen every detail of heart-break.  I hadn’t,” Warner admits when writing to tell the Maxwells of Valentine’s death.  A month later, staying with old friends, the enormity of her loss is still overwhelming her when least expected and it is to Maxwell that she turns, trying to deal with her emotions by pouring them out to him:

With a heart as normal as a stone I went to spend this last weekend with friends in Berkshire because they wanted to change my air.  Their telephone rang.  It was a telephone on which Valentine had often rung me.  With an idiot intensity I thought, she will never telephone me again.  And for a moment the whole of my grief was comprised in that deprivation.  There is no armour against irrationality. (16 December 1969)

The letters during various illnesses or during the last decade of Warner’s life, after Valentine’s death, are full of questions about the other’s health, ideas for treatments, and, increasingly, the desire that they were neighbours so that the one could always be on hand to visit and nurse the other.  Separated by an ocean, most years the letters were the only way they had of keeping in touch and wonderful though they are, they don’t fulfill the longing both Warner and Maxwell had for the comfort of one another’s company.  How beautifully and how honestly they can communicate with one another after years of friendship, as in one of Warner’s letters to Maxwell in her last months:

I wish you could come in, and make a fuss of me.  It is one of the ironies of old age – that one longs to be made a fuss of, when one has built up a reputation that one doesn’t care for fuss.  I am grown very old, dear William.  I hobble about on two baddish legs, and cling to anything within reach.  And I have grown so small, I scarcely know myself.  And so slow.  But really I should congratulate myself that my wits are still about me.  When my mother was my age, she was senile.  And I am not that, and I can still see to read, & hear to talk; and if the weather were not so biting & blighting I might not feel so like a dead leaf (17 February 1978)

As a record of aging and loss, Warner’s letters in those final years are magnificent.  Frustrated, tired, and resigned, she has lost some of her wonderful energy and confidence but retained her intelligence and humour.  I love her best as an old woman, free of pride, betrayed by her body, longing to see William and Emmy one last time.

Both authors make frequent mention of books: what they’re reading, writing or reviewing.  Usually when I come across pages-worth of book mentions, I keep a detailed list, getting almost as much joy out of that as out of the book itself.  This reading experience was remarkable because I didn’t note down any titles; I was so focused on this book that I couldn’t spare a thought for any other.  It consumed me and surely this is the greatest proof of that.

The book is very intimate and I felt quite awed at being allowed to read such personal letters and witness the evolution of such a tender, honest relationship as existed between Warner and Maxwell (who I am desperately fighting the urge to call Sylvia and William as I write this, having grown so used to their first names).  I came to love and feel for them both and felt bereft when the letters finished in 1978 with Warner’s death.  Strangely, I don’t feel any particular need to read any of their short stories or novels.  I loved both of their writing styles but my interest is in them as people, not as authors.  Their personalities filtered through fiction would seem a sad, pathetic replacement for their real selves as revealed in these letters.

I honestly have no idea how any other book I read this year will manage to surpass the experience I had reading this.  It is exquisite and so, so precious.

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