Saturday, April 4, 2015
Moralistic Mendelson - Part II
I want to consider some comments about William Maxwell that Edward Mendelson makes in his “Magus: William Maxwell,” included in his new essay collection Moral Agents. Maxwell was a longtime New Yorker fiction editor and author of, among other works, the novella So Long, See You Tomorrow, which originally appeared in The New Yorker (October 1 & 8, 1979). In his essay, Mendelson says,
“Saintly” is a word that recurs in everything written about Maxwell and his work. But in the same way that his friends ignored the primitive, amoral magic that governs the realistic-looking world of his fiction, they ignored his contempt for any ethical understanding of life – any way of thinking in which actions have consequences, and events are the outcome of human choice, not of arbitrary, impersonal forces.
That first sentence isn’t true. There’s at least one piece on Maxwell’s work in which “saintly” doesn’t occur, namely, John Updike’s great review-essay, "Imperishable Maxwell" (The New Yorker, September 8, 2008; in Updike’s Higher Gossip, 2011).
Mendelson appears intent on setting Maxwell up as a “saint” in order to show he really wasn’t. His talk of Maxwell’s “contempt for any ethical understanding of life – any way of thinking in which actions have consequences, and events are the outcome of human choice, not of arbitrary, impersonal forces” is low snark. Maxwell was a moralist to the core. It’s just that his morality, unlike Mendelson’s, wasn’t judgmental. Alec Wilkinson, in his My Mentor (2002), says,
His friends often felt that no matter what they did, he was unlikely to view their behavior judgmentally. It is not that he was without opinions concerning right conduct, or that his moral standards were elastic; it is that once he regarded someone as a friend, he was likely to consider his or her actions sympathetically, as a response to the complications of life or as understandable within the context. He was aware that people don’t always act in their best interests, and often make choices that appear to work against them. [My emphasis]
What irks Mendelson is Maxwell’s lack of plot. He says, “All of Maxwell’s novels have a story but no plot.” He defines plot as “the means by which fiction portrays the consequences of actions.” He further says,
Maxwell succumbed to an error common among writers who organize their work for the finest possible rhythms and textures: the error of thinking of plot as mechanical and therefore trivial. As he explained to John Updike: “Plot, shmot.”
But I think Mendelson misinterprets what Maxwell meant by “plot.” Maxwell took his plots from life. As Alec Wilkinson says in My Mentor,
Somewhat subversively, he [Maxwell] believed that the patterns of ordinary life, acutely observed, provide more drama and structure and emotional resonance than purely imagined events are likely to.
I agree. Most novels’ plots seem artificial – “cumbersome caravans of plot and scene and ‘conflict,’ ” James Wood calls them ("Reality Testing," The New Yorker, October 31, 2011). It’s why I find Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow so appealing. It reads like a painstaking attempt to be as true to life as possible. Where there is fabrication, it’s admitted. At one point in the story, Maxwell says,
If any part of the following mixture of truth and fiction strikes the reader as unconvincing, he has my permission to disregard it. I would be content to stick to the facts if there were any.
Tastes differ, and Mendelson is welcome to his dogged quest for “moral content.” As for me, I’m with Maxwell: “Looked at broadly, what happened always has meaning, pattern, form, and authenticity. One can classify, analyze, arrange in the order of importance, and judge any or all of these things, or one can simply stand back and view the whole with wonder” (from the Author’s Note of Maxwell's superb 1989 essay collection The Outermost Dream).