Besides, a writer’s frequent probing of mortality is no reliable predictor of self-destruction. Much of what we know about death we owe to Dante, Shakespeare and Beckett ...
grant me sleep nightly, grace soften my dreams;
achieve in me patience till the thing be done,
a careful view of my achievement come.
“Make me from time to time the gift of the shoulder.
When all hurt nerves whine shut away the whiskey.
Empty my heart toward Thee.
Let me pace without fear the common path of death.”
The Pure Merits of His Skill'
To read, the deck of cards, the tabletop,
A book and crushed in its pages the withered
Violet, monument to an afternoon
Undoubtedly unforgettable, now forgotten,
The mirror in the west where a red sunrise
Blazes its illusion. How many things,
Files, doorsills, atlases, wine glasses, nails,
Serve us like slaves who never say a word,
Blind and so mysteriously reserved.
They will endure beyond our vanishing;
And they will never know that we have gone.”
`He Had a Way with Words'
`And You Must Read Me'
“Before I am ready to call it quits I would like to reread every book I have ever deeply enjoyed, beginning with Jane Austen and Isaac Babel and Sybille Bedford’s The Sudden View and going through shelf after shelf of the bookcases, until I arrive at the autobiographies of William Butler Yeats.”
That’s from William Maxwell’s essay “Nearing 90,” one of the saddest and most beautiful pieces of writing I know. I first read it in The New York Times Magazine in 1997, in a hotel room in Chicago. It was Sunday morning and I was killing time before my flight back to New York. In such a setting, who expects to be lastingly moved by something published in a newspaper? The only similar circumstance I can imagine is reading, unawares, the obituary of a loved one. Of course, Maxwell was, by all accounts, a loveable man, and certainly a loveable writer, and he died on July 31, 2000, three weeks short of his 92nd birthday. We know from Annabel Davis-Goff and Shirley Hazzard that the last book he read, or had read to him, was War and Peace.
Friends and colleagues, including Larry Woiwode, have described Maxwell’s emotional transparency, the ease with which he wept, yet he was no crybaby or depressive, and ranks among the least histrionic of writers. Both capacities – expressiveness and understatement – may be traced to the death of his mother when he was 10 years old. Hazzard, whose work Maxwell edited at The New Yorker, described her friend like this:
“The human encounter came always fresh to Maxwell. Singularity was intrinsic to his own nature and to his sense of other lives. He knew the world deeply, yet remained accessible to it, detached from the contemporary trend toward exposition and pronouncement. That he kept faith with the wound of his early knowledge helped him, I think, to become a happy man.”
The most heartbreaking part of Maxwell’s essay is the perfectly modulated conclusion. The wording is natural and plain-spoken. A Midwestern Prospero drowns his books, or resigns himself to their drowning:
“`Are you writing?’' people ask -- out of politeness, undoubtedly. And I say, `Nothing very much.’ The truth but not the whole truth -- which is that I seem to have lost touch with the place that stories and novels come from. I have no idea why. I still like making sentences.
“Every now and then, in my waking moments, and especially when I am in the country, I stand and look hard at everything.”
Have five words ever sounded sadder?
“I still like making sentences.”