Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Charles Baxter's strange, beautiful, moving novel The Feast of Love (2000) is full of passages worth quoting: unusual and striking images, perceptive thoughts. I've used some of them recently over at the Annex, and to take us into Thanksgiving--and what will probably be a subsequent week of at best spotty blogging--I thought I'd share a couple of lines that give a sense of the novel's abundance of heart. They are written in the voice of an old professor of philosophy, a specialist in Kierkegaard, and they come late in the book, when he's wrestling with grief over his estrangement from his son:
Every night I take up my watch by the front window. I have my lamp and my book. I listen to Schubert on the phonograph. Next to my family, Schubert is the love of my life; if he were to return to earth, he could come to my house and take any of the objects here he wanted.
I spend a lot of time thinking about--and feeling thankful for--what I owe to my cultural heroes, writers and musicians and artists, but I've never thought of it quite that way. But I like it, the idea of opening the door to an admired revenant and saying, "Here, what's mine is yours. Take, and be welcome." Our household gods could be shared.

After the surprise appearance at his door not of Schubert, but of one of the book's other characters, the professor goes on to think to himself,
I think of a poem I had to memorize in college: "Love makes those young whom age doth chill,/And whom he finds young, keeps young still." Something like that.

The unexpected is always upon us. Of all the gifts arrayed before me, this one thought, at this moment of my life, is the most precious.
On my way home tonight, with Baxter and gratitude and generosity on the brain, I happened to turn to a piece Baxter wroter for A William Maxwell Portrait, a collection of memories of a writer for whose work I feel immense gratitude. Baxter's account of Maxwell is perceptive and gentle and convincing; its best moment is this scene, which is so vivid and inviting it makes me ache with that longing that accompanies good history writing--oh, to have been there.
As the afternoon went on, the light began to fail, and by evening the apartment was almost completely in darkness. We were still talking, even though we could hardly see each other. Maxwell did not seem to want to turn on any of the lights. He said he loved the darkening and the departure of the light from the room because it made the objects in it more lively, and when his wife came home, flipping on the switch as she came in, I saw his face again, rapt with attention. He told his wife that it was as if he and I had gone for a walk in the woods.
Elsewhere, Baxter draws from Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow a line that seems suitable to send us to the Thanksgiving table, that "generosity might be the greatest pleasure there is."

Happy Thanksgiving, folks. Enjoy your families.


  1. Baxter on Maxwell? Two favorites of mine, and I had not known about this. On the wish list it goes -- something else to be thankful for. Thank you for this and all the other good recommendations, Levi, and I hope this finds you full of turkey and pie and ever-accumulating reasons for gratitude.

  2. Lisa,
    The book of Maxwell memories is really good. Norton seems to have really raised the hardcover price in recent years, to a point where it's borderline absurd, but if that makes you balk, do look around--there seem to be plenty of used copies out there, and it's worth seeking out.

    Happy Thanksgiving to you!