Monday, June 13, 2011

"If I keep on reading Hardy, it will come."

I've spent the past week head over heels in What There Is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell, which is looking likely to become the only letters collection I've ever read straight through. I've been, and will continue to be, drawing on it in my Twitter feed and over at the Annex; few writers are as dear to my heart as Maxwell, and the correspondence seems likely to turn me into a Welty fan, too.

There are many reasons to love these letters, and I'll get into a number of them in the coming weeks, but one of the chief reasons is the way the pair share their reading--and the fact that they're both perpetually reading a couple of my favorite authors. They talk continuously of Virginia Woolf, voraciously reading every new book about her and her coterie that appears; they're gone on Forster, whom I suspect it's time for me to revisit; and they both revel in the high tragedy of Thomas Hardy.

My favorite passage about Hardy thus far is this, from a letter sent by Maxwell on March 7, 1967:
I am so glad you are working. Able to. I think about working. This idea and that. But don't take off my hat and sit down to it, for some reason. I almost had an idea in France last summer, but it faded away like the Cheshire cat's smile. But I tell myself if I keep on reading Hardy, it will come. I have just finished Tess of the D-- ---. When Angel Clare found her in that seaside resort, living with Alec D'Urbeville, and she said, "Don't come near me," and "Too late, too late," and he went away, and she went upstairs to her bedroom and [threw] herself on the floor with her head on that chair, and said "O,O,O" and then "I can't bear it," it was she and I that couldn't bear it. I will never be the same. But what do you think they talked about for those five days, in that empty house that didn't belong to them? Brazil?
This hints at a crucial aspect of Hardy: either you vibrate to the tones he works in, are willing to go with what Anthony Powell calls his "at times clumsily expressed" account of life's grotesqueries and tragedies, or you see it all as overblown and ridiculously operatic. If you're in the former camp, Hardy's novels--Tess especially--can wrench you like little else, you can't bear it; if you're in the latter, your response is likely to take the form of, "Really? Really?"

Having taken great pleasure in reading and re-reading Hardy over the years, I am glad to be in the former camp, and, now, to know that I have such distinguished company as Maxwell and Welty.

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