Monday, February 12, 2007

Wendell Berry, part three

Part one is here, and part two is here.

Loss is the primary driving force behind Berry’s newest look at Port William, the very brief Andy Catlett: Early Travels, which tells of two days in the life of 9-year-old Andy Catlett, who has over the years served as Berry’s stand-in in his fiction. As 1943 turns to 1944, Andy spends a day with each of his sets of grandparents, helping with farm chores, visiting with neighbor kids, and enjoying the freedom of a solitary walk to town. He reads the tales of King Arthur, eats his grandmother’s biscuits, and tears up when he can’t figure out what to say to a friend of the family whose nephew has been lost in the war. Mostly, though, he just enjoys the implicit freedom of a two-day pass to his grandparents’ houses, and we, through the eyes of an older, 70-something Andy, enjoy it with him.

Like kids do, Andy generally takes the people around him for granted. But as those of us who’ve read A Place on Earth realize, much of what Andy is telling us about will be gone soon, much of it with astonishing speed, and that perspective, represented by the older Andy, imbues the story with both sadness and a sense of forever-lost opportunity. “By now,” he says, “of all the people I have been remembering from those days in Port William, I alone am still alive. I am, as Maze Tickburn used to say, the onliest one.” The book is shot through with the lament, so pervasive as to almost be a refrain, “Why did I not ask them about it when I had the chance?” As much as anyone writing, Berry makes clear the tremendous cost of every single death: the world thus lost to us is unrecoverable, and the older the person who's died, the more precious and full was the world that has been lost.

But for all that, it is not a depressing book, or even a particularly sad one. Like Proust or Anthony Powell or any number of other authors, Berry has at least partially succeeded in his aim: he has stored up some of the flavor of those times, the reality of those people, so we all can know and understand them. Much is lost, but the beauty of what has been preserved, what has been shored up against loss, keeps the sadness in check--a component of memory, yes, but by no means its entirety. As Andy Catlett notes, late in the book:
We measure time by its deaths, yes, and by its births. For time is told also by life. As some depart, others come. The hand opened in farewell remains open in welcome. I, who once had grandparents and parents, now have children and grandchildren. Like the flowing river that is yet always present, time that is always going is always coming. And time that is told by death and birth is held and redeemed by love, which is always present. Time, then, is told by love’s losses, and by the coming of love, and by love continuing in gratitude for what is lost .It is folded and enfolded and unfolded forever and ever, the love by which the dead are alive and the unborn welcomed into the womb. The great question for the old and the dying, I think, is not if they have loved and been loved enough, but if they have been grateful enough for love received and given, however much. No one who has gratitude is the onliest one. Let us pray to be grateful to the last.

At an age when many people are retired—but when, for example, many of Berry’s characters, too infirm to work, continue to traipse out to the field each day simply to be around and feel a part of the work and companionship that for so many years defined them—Berry is continuing to put the finishing touches on his overall masterpiece. I look forward to him continuing to tell me more about the Port William Membership; I’m sure there are some stories there I haven’t heard yet, and I don’t want it to be for lack of asking.

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