The Author Behind the Mask

There are some who stand back a little from their characters, bemused and thoughtful, smiling indulgently perhaps or with a worried frown on their faces. In this group belongs one of my favorite Southern writers, Eudora Welty, with her light, comic touch, and the capacity to breathe magic and midsummer madness into otherwise plebian souls.

Every summer, heading to the North Shore of Lake Superior, I pack the spoken-word version of Welty’s Delta Wedding (1946). This sprawling, lively summer escapade reminds me of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Through the lowlands of the Yazoo delta flit children, black servants and conjure women, an occasional automobile filled with flappers, and the soon-to-be ghosts, heirs to the ancients immortalized in delicate china, awkward paintings, and memories of cavalry charges.

There’s a bird in the house; the smallest child whimpers in naptime sleep, a ruby pin falls from Laura’s hand into the delta waters and lies there slumbering into eternity. A fight breaks out among the hired black workers, the youngest scion has an affair with a wandering beauty, his wife, a village girl of no distinction, finally reappears after walking miles in the heat. Such gentle madness, such incipient change. And in the midst of it all, the mother, Ellen, from Virginia, pregnant she realizes with her seventh child, is almost eaten alive by this romping, maddening, loveable Mississippi clan. When she stands on the porch after the wedding, and pushes back her hair, we survey the late summer garden with her and begin the work of mulching and pruning, smiling bemused along with the author, hidden among the trees.

Other writers so fully identify with their creations that each swing of a scythe or nervous shuffle of papers, becomes immediate, haunting, almost unbearable. In Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which I’ve begun listening to for perhaps the third time, there is no comic distance, with the author standing apart. Instead, with each of the perhaps eight main characters Tolstoy penetrates into the reaches of their conflicted psyches as they throw clothes into a portmanteau or midjudge a race horse’s stride and come down breaking its back or determine to resist any outward sign of inward hurt. It’s clear that Tolstoy himself identifies most passionately with two of this cast, Anna herself and a large-scale farmer named Levin. But he doesn’t begin the saga with either. Instead we wake with Oblonsky, a spend-thrift official of beguiling charm, who has just been found out by his long-suffering and fading wife, Dolly. This drama of hurt and remorse could not be rendered more sympathetically, for the author knows and accepts each so fully that we wear their foibles on our sleeves.

Yet, there is a precision to this rendering that saves it from becoming maudlin or invasive. Tolstoy insists on the matters of daily life–from coffee being drunk, to Levin’s taking up a scythe and mowing with his peasants; from Karenin’s cracking his knuckles to Anna’s quicksilver changes of mood and tone in agonized rendezvous with lover Vronsky. We are inside each character so fully that we must do some of the work of assessment ourselves, listening and watching for minute shifts in behavior and sensibility, catching glimpses of them in relation to minor characters who will appear briefly, then depart, never to be seen again.

These works are my winter night music and summer evening shades. I’m sure they affect the fictions I work out for myself, but how exactly is hard to say. That process–of calling up out of thin air something substantial and moving–takes me a long time, as over and over I reread and tinker, occasionally flash forward, then for a long time, pause, uncertain how to proceed. Perhaps it’s subconscious, these mentors’ effect. A little recognition here, a little theft there. Mostly they help me enter the enormous waters of what’s possible in life and craft and not worry too much about being tossed overboard and drowned.

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