Thursday, December 20, 2007

Relatives and revelations

With Christmas looming, I'll be away from the blog for a few days. It seems right, as we gather our families around us, to leave you with William Maxwell, that master of writing about the histories, irrevocable if not unrecoverable, of American families. His stately, elegiac biography of his own family, Ancestors (1971) includes a scene that simply and movingly captures the distances between family members and generations--distances that we so often learn, too late, could have been bridged, had we only allowed ourselves to make the effort.

Maxwell presents that gap as it arises during a dinner between his young self, in his late twenties and recently transplanted to New York, and his uncle from Cincinnati, who is nearing forty and living a seemingly unremarkable Midwestern life, with wife and children and a brokerage business.
I was living in Greenwich Village, and he came east on a business trip and took me to dinner at an expensive restaurant on lower Fifth Avenue. We were beautifully at cross purposes all evening. I thought he had called me out of a sense of duty, whereas in fact it was because something--that I was a misfit introverted child, that he was fond of my mother and father, that I represented the younger brother he wished he had had--made him interested in me. All I know for sure, and I wish I had known it on that occasion, is that he was immensely pleased and proud of me because I had published a couple of novels.

I can see us now so clearly, in that lime-green hotel dining room--his face across the table from me, and his double-breasted dark-blue pin-stripe suit, and his courteous manner of speaking, and his habit of lighting one cigarette from another--that it almost seems possible to live the evening over again the way it ought to have gone.

At first, in our efforts to life the relationship to where it seemed to belong, we were not quite natural with each other. As people go, we weren't much alike, but it wasn't true either that we had nothing in common. He was named for my father and so was I. Max spent the early part of his childhood and I spent all of mine in a small town in the dead center of Illinois. We both went to high school in Chicago. My father felt that Max had failed in his responsibilities to his mother, but we could hardly talk about that. When other relatives got around to speaking of my writing, it was to point out kindly that there were novels which did sell--historical novels with lots of action in them, and plot. And that were afterwards bought by the movies for a considerable amount of money. It was not a conversation I wanted to repeat with Max. I had been in Cincinnati once, overnight, and hadn't called him. So we couldn't talk about Cincinnati. I had never met his wife and daughter. And I didn't own an stocks and bonds. Meeting my eyes over the top of his menu, he urged me to have turtle soup with him. I don't think I did. I can't remember what I had. But when his soup came, he summoned the headwater grandly and demanded a glass of sherry to put in it, and I wondered how he knew that this was what you were supposed to do.

As we ate, he asked one question after another. I have done it myself so many times since with somebody who was younger and not very talkative. It is the only thing you can do. He asked about my job, and about what it was like living in New York, and I saw how attentively he listened to everything I said. He was like an imaginary older brother--interested, affectionate, perceptive, and more securely situated in a world of his own making. I liked him very much, but I went on answering his questions with a single statement that obliged him to think up some new question--instead of saying to him, "I was living in a rooming house on Lexington Avenue and I had diner with somebody from the office one night who said there was a vacant apartment in the building where he lived, so I went home with him and the door was unlocked but there weren't any light bulbs, and I took it because I liked the way it felt in the dark. The rent is thirty-five dollars a month. You go past an iron gate into a courtyard with gas streetlamps. It was built during the Civil War, I think. Anyway, it's very old. And my apartment is on the third floor, looking out on a different courtyard, with trees in it. Ailanthus tree. I like having something green to look at. Technically it's a room and a half. The half is a bedroom just big enough for a single bed, and I never sleep there because it's too like lying in a coffin. I sleep on a studio couch in the living room. The fireplace works. And once when I had done something I was terribly ashamed of, I went and put my forehead on the mantelpiece. It was just the right height."
In order to give you a sense of the prose and of the regret underlying Maxwell's memories, I've had to quote at greater length than fair use guidelines would countenance. I wish I could keep going, as the mesmerizing parade of images continues for pages; by themselves, those pages are a sufficient reason for you to hurry out and pick up a copy of Ancestors. Maxwell lets his imagined self keep talking, offering not confessions but scattered, impressionistic gifts of his actual life, a life that in reality he casually assumed his uncle wouldn't--or maybe even couldn't--understand. Had he but thought to attempt that openness, he wonders, might it have even led to a similar revelation of hidden personality on the part of his uncle? What portion of life's losses and lonelinesses can be laid at the feet of just such unnecessary, unconsidered reticence?

It's a strain that runs through Maxwell's work, that lament for the chance not taken, the word not spoken. In a brief four-page story, “The Room Outside” (1998), that my friend Joe (who recently wrote about an unexpected encounter with Maxwell's enduring presence) dropped on my desk the other day, there's a moment when Maxwell's regret turns into self-lacerating anguish; an account of a wintry afternoon spent with friends is interrupted by a parenthetical cry:
(Why did I never see them again when I liked them so much? How could I have been so stupid as to leave everything, including friendships, to chance?)
This holiday season, as we come together with relatives strange and familiar, perhaps we should let Maxwell be our guide: Ask. Answer. Reveal. Remember. Listen. Listen. Listen.

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