01 March 2001

Rainstorms of Words

Robert Frost once made the observation that the act of writing is like drawing a bath in the cozy bathroom upstairs; talking about writing is like opening the spigot in the backyard and letting it gutter away.

Letter writing is another thing altogether, a writer's custom that has escaped too many writers today, except perhaps in terse, glib spits of e-mail. There's a lovely gift of language and love on every page of "The Element of Lavishness," a collection of a forty-year correspondence between New Yorker magazine editor and short story writer William Maxwell and British writer Sylvia Townsend Warner. Their mutual admiration never becomes fulsome, but it has a hothouse quality, an articulate fruitfulness, that every writer should covet and will likely never know.

Maxwell edited more than 100 of Warner's short stories at the New Yorker, and she said that she wrote many of them merely to amuse "Dear William." They met only three times in their long lives--Maxwell raised a family, Warner had her companion and many cats--yet their letters brim and sparkle with adoration. The collection's title springs from this observation by Maxwell: "The personal correspondence of writers feeds on leftover energy. There is also the element of lavishness, of enjoying the fact that they are throwing away one of their better efforts, for the chances of any given letter's surviving is fifty-fifty, at most. And there is the element of confidence--of the relaxed backhand stroke that can place the ball anywhere that it please the writer to have it go."

It is an extravagance without specific expectation, satisfying merely by providing rainstorms of words to one's removed correspondent. Some of the letters deal with editorial matters, but most have been chosen to display how they each nourished distant gardens. (They both are excellent chroniclers of weather as well.) There is a magnificent passage where Maxwell describes the 1965 New York blackout, "Both strange and lovely." "The morning after... I felt the strongest urge to sit down and write you all about it and then I remembered how you had had years of such darkness during the war, and was ashamed of my own excitement." Fortunately, he wrote instead. His voice is remarkable and assured throughout, but his deft letter on the falling of night over Manhattan is one of the best. Who knows how much thought, who knows how many drafts? (I think he must have done it in a single typewritten spree.) A sentence: "And suddenly it happened. It was rapid but not instantaneous. It was exactly like the closing of an eyelid." Precise, simple, an unexpected image that is telling and true. Prose as lyric.

After one year's Christmas with his small girls, Maxwell writes, "This morning the living room is filled with half played-with toys. You remember the look of something half-played with?... For the nine thousandth time, I wish we lived near one another, for the propagation and sharing of pleasures, in this life."

The epistolary muse offers its own bond. As Warner wrote of pleasure to Maxwell, "Never mislay a pleasure. I might die in the night, so I will write to William now." She also admires the love he displays for his family. "You write so beautifully about your daughters and I would like to think you would write more than in letters. It should be recorded at the time, for when a girl child reaches puberty, she gives herself a shake and all that kitten-fluff and kitten airs are gone, gone! Mine is a ruthless sex." Childhood is a constant in their correspondence. Upon meeting a friend of Warner's, Maxwell writes, "Laurie Lee turned up, as you prophesied, and I was enchanted with him. I felt that we had played together as children."

But for pleasure in words and in encouraging the words of another writer, let us read a cable Maxwell sent upon receiving a story of hers, as her editor and first reader. "I PERSONALLY THINK YOU HAVE HAD THE MOST BEAUTIFUL LIFE ANYBODY EVER HAD." How many months of long toil can be brightened by such a generous, cognizant gesture? (Bunches.) Of Virginia Woolf's diaries, Warner wrote, "The entrancing thing of the book [is] its picture of a writer experiencing writing. When you read how she craved for flattery and commendation you will understand how gratefully I lick up yours."

Editor Michael Steinman does well to take this extract as an epigraph for this tender book: "If you had not loved to please, you would never, I think, have evolved that prose style that has given me an unbroken line of pleasure extending back for thirty years. When I was looking for the first time through 'The Osaka Woodcuts,' [my daughter's] godfather said, 'How did you get your love of Oriental art?' and I said rapturously, 'I got it second hand,' without thinking, but surely that is how all pleasure is got--from the rubbing off of somebody else's pleasure in something. From eye to eye and skin to skin. A cousin of love-making."

The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner & William Maxwell 1938-1978
Edited by Michael Steinman
Counterpoint, 356 pages, $27.50

[Newcity, 1 March 2001]