Meanwhile There Are Letters – Eudora Welty and Ross MacDonald
This decade long correspondence began when Welty was sixty-one and Kenneth Millar (Ross MacDonald was his pseudonym) was fifty-five; it ended when Millar lapsed into dementia. It was an unlikely pairing: Welty was a Southern regional writer, very much in the literary sphere, and Millar was a crime novelist. But these two found a like soul in the other. So much so that this collection reads like a love fest (after only a few letters the word “love” appears in the closings, and is never thereafter absent). Here’s a sample of the tone from Welty: “. . . our spirits have traveled very near to each other and I believe sustained each other – This will go on, dear Ken – Our friendship blesses my life and I wish life could be longer for it.” Millar could be equally gushy. You soon know what to expect: praise of each other’s writing (way over-the-top, in my estimation), concern for the other’s health and happiness, and total agreement on all matters. A constant flow of this gets monotonous. The co-editors do some campaigning for a romantic attachment, but I didn’t buy into that (Welty never married; Millar’s wife of many years was a writer of popular mysteries). The two met only a few times, briefly, and the letters divulge very little of a personal nature. The editors add supplementary notes that depict grave difficulties in the Millar marriage (he never complains about Margaret to Welty). According to eyewitnesses (including Welty) when Ken’s Alzheimer’s incapacitated him, Margaret was uncaring and abusive. I think there’s a mystery in the dynamics of that marriage, and I’d like to know the wife’s version. Last note (which adds to the mystery). Welty kept all of Ken’s letters, but there were no copies of her letters to him – until a rare book dealer who had purchased Ken’s library and papers found them in the pool house of the Millar home (by then Margaret was deceased). Apparently Ken had hidden them there. . . .
Beast in View – Margaret Millar
Millar employs a pink herring, which is that Helen Clarvoe is being victimized by Evelyn Merrick, an old school friend. But Helen is obviously bonkers, and I (and probably every other reader) knew after the first chapter that she was suffering from a repression so deep that it manifested itself in a split personality. At the end, when this is revealed, the only one surprised is Helen. Despite there being no mystery to this mystery novel, it’s pervaded by a maliciousness that gives it an unsettling strength. As Evelyn, Helen engages in all manner of destructive activities. One is an offstage murder, but most of her attacks come via phone calls, and her main targets are her mother and brother, both of whom she despises. The mother is Millar’s strongest portrayal, but also notable is the homosexual brother (the abhorrence toward homosexuality is an interesting circa 1955 attitude). The weakest character is the fifty-something lawyer who attempts to unravel the “mystery.” When he expresses feelings of love for Helen it’s ludicrous; there’s not a scintilla of a reason provided for such an emotion to arise. Helen’s plight didn’t elicit any feelings of pity in me. Some people are so far gone that they cease to be human. They’re beasts.
When the Going Was Good - Evelyn Waugh
In his Introduction Waugh notes that “The following pages comprise all that I wish to preserve of the four travel books that I wrote between the years 1929 and 1935.” The last excerpt was written when he was thirty-two and employed as a war correspondent in Abyssinia (later renamed Ethiopia); the other four were done when he was in his mid to late twenties. This going off to remote and backward lands was a young man’s undertaking; as I read about the hardships Waugh endured I wondered what it was like when the going was bad. The impression that emerges on almost every page is one of chaos and squalor. Filthy accommodations, horrendous food, hordes of aggravating (or deadly) insects – and then there were the people with whom he was constantly struggling to accomplish any goal he had in mind. As I read the first four excerpts, I found that each page was interesting (and often amusing) but there was no context or continuity in experiences that could involve me, and the unflappable Waugh remained emotionally inaccessible. The final section, devoted to the war that was about to break out with Italy, had more of a sustained characterization and plot, but I found it to be less interesting (and the prose, which had been elegant, dropped down a notch). I think Waugh was tired of traveling. In the case of the previous books, he needed the money they brought in (the Brits love their travel books), but that was no longer true after Vile Bodies came out in 1930. One plus resulting from these exploits was that he used them in two of his novels: Black Mischief takes place in Africa, and the conclusion of A Handful of Dust in the Brazilian jungle. One could categorize the inexplicable people he encounters in Going as savages; but in his novels set entirely in England the savages are just sophisticated ones, and they’ll eat you alive.
Dear Theo – Vincent Van Gogh (letters edited by Irving and Jean Stone)
Irving Stone had written a fictionalized account of the life of Van Gogh – Lust for Life – which had been a best seller. Three years later he published this selection of letters that Van Gogh wrote to his brother. The word “selection” is important. In his Preface Stone recounts how he and his wife pruned down the 1670 pages of letters he had at his disposal to the 572 pages that make up this volume. The result of that pruning is far from a complete and accurate picture of Vincent, nor of his relationship with Theo. If you want to learn more about that issue, you can click on my essay, “Reading Other People’s Mail.” In this review I’ll address what Stone chose to give us, for what he selected was, no doubt, truly the words Vincent wrote – how could he have altered that? – so they do show a side to the man. I was surprised by what a very good writer Van Gogh was; he was able to express his emotions both forcefully and with restraint (an approach employed by the best novelists). He was quite intelligent and was a reader – Zola, Hugo, Dickens, etc. When painting became his consuming passion, it was a learn-as-you-go proposition; he could view his work critically, and he strived to get better; even at the end of his life he considered only a small number of his canvasses to be successes. He was opinionated as to what art should concern itself with; for him it was nature, humble subjects, and, above all, the transference of feeling. The majority of words in this book have to do with the technical side of painting, such as the treatment of colors. Van Gogh led a troubled existence, but he found deep pleasure in his love of natural beauty and in the act of creating art. Though these letters evoke sadness, they also have a radiance about them. This may have been what Stone was striving for.