[*This post brought to you by the sweet, laid-back strains of Faultlines, Karine Polwart's first solo album; perfect accompaniment to Annie Dillard's prose, I assure you, and highly recommended.]
I like the size of Hesperus Press hardbacks. Doesn't everyone? They're so deliciously compact, and with neat angles to the spine, like a nurse's bedtucks. I particularly like them when they drop, unsolicited and therefore surprising, through my letter box. Is there a better feeling than that? Coming home to an unexpected parcel after a long day, and finding a book inside it? I'm almost glad that it is a rare occurance - I'd hate for it to become so frequent as to loose its decadent flavour.
I'd never heard of Annie Dillard until Hesperus seduced me with a copy of her carefully-formed second novel, The Maytrees, and I approached it with some trepidation (despite the recommendation from Marilynne Robinson on the dustjacket, an author I like just a little). I'm not sure why I hesitated; I won't be lingering on the threshold of Dillard's work in the future. I'll be plunging straight in.
The Maytrees is a novel profoundly concerned with flow: of time and tide, as well as of language and of love. Sited in the weirdly beautiful landscape of Cape Cod - 'that exposed and mineral sandspit', shaped like the prow of a ship setting out to sea, or like a finger hooked to draw the ocean in - and set in the middle half of the twentieth century, it tells the story of the passionate marriage of Toby Maytree and Lou Bigelow, its forging, breaking and final mending. At the same time, it endeavours to explore the extent of human love, in its many forms, projecting and figuring the Maytrees as archetypal figures with whom we share the essentials of existence. It is at once intimate, detailed, specific, while also amorphous, philosophic and mythic.
It begins with a prologue, obscurantist in style, but beguiling nevertheless, in which everything - the novel's middle and end included - is revealed:
The Maytrees were young long ago. They lived on what still seems antiquity's very surface... [Their] lives played out before the backdrop of fixed stars. The way of the world could be slight, then and now, but rarely, among individuals, vicious. The slow heavens marked the hours. They lived often outside. They drew every breath from a wad of air just then crossing from saltwater to saltwater. Their sandspit was a naked strand between two immensities, both given to special effects.
We meet Toby Maytree, who grew up in Provincetown and spent most of his life there, living in a rough shack on the bare sands of the Cape; we learn that he was a poet 'of the forties and fifties and sixties', that he wrote four book-length works and published three collections of lyrics; that he read to the point of saturation. We catch tantalising glimpses of his wife, Lou, who 'rarely spoke' and 'painted a bit on canvas and linen now lost', and who 'throughout her life was ironic and strict with her thoughts', driven crazy by Toby, or felicity, or solicitude. All her life she found dignity overrated: 'She rolled down sand dunes.' We learn that they had one child, Pete; we learn that Lou spent the last years of her life alone. The remaining 176 pages proves a meditation on these relatively ordinary things.
It sounds pedestrian, I know, but it isn't. This is partly because Dillard knows the strength of words, writing with the deliberate cadence of free-form poetry, and partly because she knows the power of detail. She paints the relationship between Toby and Lou in vignettes that suggest the ubiquity of the experience of lovers: from that first awkward beginning when she resents him for interrupting her reading Bleak House ('Men always chased her and she always glared'), to the moment when love arrives and the delirious passion of the years that follow:
She shipwrecked on the sheets. She surfaced like a dynamited bass. She opened her eyes and discovered where on their bed she had fetched up. She lay spread as a film and as fragile. Linked lights wavered on the wall.
(I had a moment of particular pleasure while reading a passage in which Toby and Lou read together, interrupting each other to the point of distraction, eager to share the revelations of their own text and simultaneously as desirous to be undisturbed by the other. Esther and I do this *all the time*; it is like we can't help ourselves.)
Of the two it is Lou that turns out to be the strongest, and most interesting - the enigma is always the draw. When, after fourteen years of fulfilling marriage, Toby embarks on an affair with a family friend and, driven primarily by lust, decides to leave the Cape, it is Lou who grows to fill the novel's pages. In her grief she has an eyeview that sweeps everything back to bareness, so that working through her abandonment becomes a literal climb - everyday she mounts the steps of the Pilgrim Monument, 'in her camel's hair coat and red earmuffs' (it is touchs like this that make the novel so, so special, I think) - and her life alone becomes simply that, a solitude in which she is purely herself. While Toby is with his mistress (who, admittedly, is fascinating in her own right), turning away from the simple life to build a property business in Maine, she is renouncing everything that might tie her to the contemporary:
Lou hoped scandalously to live her own life... had long since cut out fashion and all radio but the Red Sox. In the past few years she had let go her ties to people she did not like, to ironing, to dining out in town, and to buying things not necessary and that themselves needed care. She ignored whatever did not interest her. With those blows she opened up her days like a pinata. A hundred freedoms fell on her.
And it comes as no surprise that when the world begins to fall apart, when age creeps up on Toby and brings him back home to the Cape to die, it is Lou who still stands like the calm at the eye of the storm. She makes herself a kind of legend in the town, carrying her own water from the well until the day she dies, alone and poised as always, her hair 'brushed and braided...and wound in coils on her head. She had dressed in a lace-bodied nightgown and thoughtfully crossed her arms.' She is spell-bindingly poignant and as the novel progresses, and she more and more becomes its raison d'etre, it is difficult to hold on to any of the other characters for long. If The Maytrees has a flaw, it is that we are asked to love Lou a little too much, perhaps at the expense of her husband and her son.
Dillard is undoubtedly a gifted stylist, and her credentials as a nature writer are made plain. Landscape, the sky and the sea are almost as essential to the novel as love is, and provide an awe-inspiring stage. The Cape, of course, is a specifically liminal space, a sliver of land between two seas, always shifting because it is sand, and crowned by an infinite sky. At night the darkness at the Maytrees' shack is so complete, that the sky is a pin-wheel of stars, and sky-gazing becomes a necessary of life:
The first thing Lou and Mayree learned about skywatching was to lie down. Once they settled down on the beach at sunset Lou saw terns nock their spines to bowstrings between their crossbow wings. At the last second the terns looked, cocked one wing and smacked. A bluefish boil blackened the water. If she looked away, the bluefish sounded like popping corn. Geography laid their position bare. Overhead clouds cracked the last light like crude.
I am not a great follower of nature writing (although I would like to be) but it is difficult to resist the world that Dillard paints, so elemental and closely observed. I will certainly be tracking down a copy of her seminal piece Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
Finally, there is the way The Maytrees meditates on the act of reading itself. Toby and Lou are intense readers, he for 'the facts', she for 'the transport', and they both continually turn their lives back to books. Literary references creep in all over the place, even overt quotes and Toby keeps a journal of his readings on love and marriage. It turns out that The Maytrees is about reading love: the Maytrees' readings of it for themselves, Dillard's readings of it and our readings of both. To an extent it is also about the possibility of reading it. Is it possible? Probably not, but what is important, I think, is that Dillard comes close. Her novel is sweet and sweeping, a portrait of both the specific and the general. Her prose has a sure touch that is also delicate, smooth but edgy, swift but unhurried. How often are there novels like that? It is certainly in my top 10 reads of this year, and I will be returning to it as soon as time allows.