Sunday, March 16, 2014

Reading Other People’s Mail: Sylvia Townsend-Warner and William Maxwell

So there are two stories in today’s post. Here’s the first:

Ten years ago you did not have to have an account with Amazon to review books on the website. I reviewed 5 books in 2003 and then didn’t go to the site again until 2006 when I became a customer. So I have reviews under Stephanie Patterson from Lindenwold, NJ, and Stephanie Patterson of Collingswood, NJ. One of the books I reviewed when I lived in Lindenwold 10 years ago was The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell. (Michael Steinman is the editor). My review remains the only one on the site. In preparing to write this week’s blog I revisited that review (which I cannibalized shamelessly) and discovered that it was now credited to ‘annbender.” Who or what annbender is I know not but I’ve let Amazon know I’m displeased and they are looking into it. Though we’re talking about a handful of reviews I wrote 10 years ago and read by a handful of people, I am outraged to see my work credited to someone else.

Outrage aside, I want talk about these fabulous letters. Maxwell’s account of a New York City blackout (dated November 17th, 1965) may be the best piece of prose I’ve ever read. I’d quote from it but it is so seamless, it’s hard to cite one exquisite bit of description without wanting to just quote the whole letter. Cliched as it sounds, that letter is worth the price of the book.

Maxwell was Townsend-Warner’s editor at The New Yorker and many of the letters are about writing. When Maxwell has to reject one of her stories, he is very kind, telling her the stories are wonderful, “but not for The New Yorker.”

Maxwell is very good on domestic moments, saying to his daughter who laments that he is bald: “‘Would you trade me in for a daddy with more hair?’ ‘Yes’ she says, teaching me a lesson.”

And on his resuming piano lessons in middle age: "…And Mozart is sustaining though I cannot do it. I would rather not be able to do Mozart than any composer I can think of."

Townsend-Warner, who lived in England with her companion, Valentine Ackland, offers a number of home remedies for illness, my favorite being champagne for any ailment above the waist, brandy for anything below. And she writes with droll humor of her life in an English village: "Poor Niou (a 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 come again today to finish off properly. Niou understands everything awaited him in dreamy transports and practising his best and most amorous squint. The electrician came, Niou was waiting forhim on the windowsill. A paroxysm of stage-fright came over him, and he rushed into the garden and disappeared.

“He'll get over it in time; but just now he's terribly downcast."

In recent weeks, I’ve bought The Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and I’ve discovered that Maxwell was a letter writing fool and I’ve purchased What There is to Say We’ve Said which contains Maxwell’s correspondence with Eudora Welty and Getting It Down Right, his correspondence with Frank O’ Connor, a writer I think is underrated these days.

So you’ll excuse me while I put my nose in other people’s business.

Stephanie Patterson

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