Bright Center of Heaven, by William Maxwell
Can editors write?
That is not a rhetorical question. As someone who spent more than 25 years in the newspaper business, most of them in editor roles, I can assure you that a lot of very good editors are not very good writers (that’s part of the reason they became editors, I would presume).
And then there are those who can.
William Maxwell was fiction editor of The New Yorker from 1936 to 1975. The writers he worked with include Nabokov, Updike, O’Connor, Gallant, Singer, Welty, Munro — and I have hardly started (oh, did I mention Salinger?). After his death in 2000, a number of them contributed to A William Maxwell Portrait: Memories and Appreciations. While he is well known in writing and academic circles, many serious readers don’t know his work. I certainly did not until some authorly references to the two-volume Libarary of America collection of his work published in 2008 (the centenary of his birth) came to my attention. Even then, it sat on the shelf for several months until an interview with Jayne Anne Phillips on theMookseandtheGripes, citing him as an author of influence, brought him back to mind. I took Vol. 1, the early novels and short stories, off the shelf and am I ever glad I did. This review is the first of two from that volume, dealing with his first novel, Bright Center of Heaven (1934). I will post on his second and much better known, They Came Like Swallows (1937), tomorrow — I still have a number of stories and two more novels to go before I even start Vol. II.
In my opinion, Bright Center of Heaven may qualify as the best, least-read, novel in the American canon (that doesn’t really make sense but I am sure you get my drift). The original press run of 1,000 sold out, a second press-run languished and the book was out of print for more than 70 years until the 2008 Library of America edition pictured in this review. Maxell himself, like many authors on their first works, was not that keen on it — I think it is a wonderful piece. It will get undue attention in this post, since They Came Like Swallows, the other novel to be reviewed, has had a more illustrous hisory. Suffice to say, they are both exceptional pieces of work.
I can understand why both Maxwell and the publishing industry overlooked this novel. In one sense, it is a writing exercise based on a tricky presumption: Can an author create a piece of fiction, with numerous characters, who share only one trait — each is totally self-preoccupied and virtually uninterested in the people around him or her? By my count, there are 11 of these characters in this novel and each of them is developed. Set on an isolated farm/retreat in Wisconsin, the only memories they have of the bigger, outside world are those that feed their particular preoccupation. To this reader’s mind, given my recent reading, this novel is a fascinating prequel to Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn where the author creates a totally passive character, surrounded by people who want to help her.
I won’t attempt to background all those characters, but here are just a few. The farm is owned by the widow, Susan West — it is the start of the Great Depression and she is taking in boarders to make ends meet but her cheerful and hopelessly unbusinesslike approach to guest selection means that most of the farm residents are not paying guests. Susan at breakfast:
As Mrs. West sipped her orange juice, her eyes wandered to the patches of yellow sunlight between the trees and along the fringe of the wood which began just outside the window. The wood was cool and deep and much too quiet. She listened a moment until she heard the reassuring strife of the red-winged blackbirds down in the marsh, and knew that the world was no better and no worse that it had been the day before; that it was, indeed, very much the same.
One of the non-paying boarders is Aunt Amelia, a hypochondriac who has lived on cottage cheese and “very weak tea” for the past three years. Here is her entrance to the book — and the breakfast room:
In another part of the house a door closed. The kitchen door swayed, passing along the information to Mrs. West, who was helping herself to the toast, that Aunt Amelia was coming; that she was crossing the living room; that in a second she would stop on the threshold of the dining room to fasten the breastplate and make sure the helmet of her invulnerable gloom.
Mrs. West has two sons, Trevor aged 18 and Whitey 15, and they too get fully developed. Aunt Amelia is a guardian to Bascomb, who does deserve an excerpt:
Bascomb beamed his gratitude upon her (Mrs. West). “I woke up in a Victorian mood,” he explained, sliding into the place left vacant by Whitey, and picking up crumbs of toast. “I lay there looking at the chamber pot, and the the pitcher and the bowl on the washstand. They all had pink roses on them.” His voice was high and rather unpleasantly nasal. Mrs. West wondered vaguely why it was that Amelia should prefer this strange creature — whose madness was amiable, to be sure, but none the less mad — to her own angels. “Then I got to thinking of the Queen,” Bascomb was saying — “and all of the chamber pots, water-pitchers, wash-bowls, and shaving-mugs in Windsor Palace, each with pink roses on it.”
To this family, add the paying boarders. Nigel, a young actress (her father really, really wanted a son, hence her name) who is tranfixed by thinking she is pregnant by Paul, a former college teacher who quit seven months ago and is still searching for his future (farmer, fruit shop co-owner and writer are all possibilities); Josefa, a not-very talented pianist, who is preparing for a fall concert with the Boston Symphony and Cynthia, an artist hard at work at exploring the relationship on canvas between a pair of oranges (not quite spherical) and an oil can in a painting that does seem to presage Andy Warhol. Throw in a cook who wants to go back to Bavaria to her ailing mother and a farmhand with a bad knee and you have the entire crew. All, I might say, in 166 pages in this edition.
What is so charming about this book is that none of these characters are selfish in the judgmental sense, they are just so pre-occupied with their particuar dilemma that they can’t engage with each other on any significant level. A summary from Paul, the ex-teacher:
It seemed to Paul that a really high-class insane asylum must not be so very different from this. Not so out-of-the-way, perhaps, and without the pleasant landscape. But the inmates could not be much farther from sober sanity than most of the people here. Doubtless in a nuthouse there was less going on, and the inmates were probably allowed to retire from time to time and be free from interruption in their padded cells.
I have gone on at too great length with this bunch, but for a reason. In my life — and I suspect yours — I have run into a version of every one of these characters and the frustration that knowing them produces. In conclusion, I can only hint at the unifying event that pulls this all together: Mrs. West, in her cheerful wisdom, has offered refuge to a black activist (remember, this is the mid-1930s) and his arrival makes this exercise a very real book. Jefferson Carter introduces the real world to the Wisconsin farm asylum and self pre-occupation finds itself threatened — it would be a spoiler to say which wins.
William Maxwell went on to write some very well-regarded novels, one of which I will write about tomorrow. For me, it is wonderful to have discovered him. I know many readers find historical collections such as this Library of America version daunting — in this case, they have brought a very talented writer back to attention. I look forward to reading the rest of his work.