I envision each work of fiction as existing on a continuum that runs between craft and art. On impulse, I bought The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard last summer. It was a case of bright shiny object syndrome: it had a “signed first edition” sticker on it.
The only Annie Dillard I’d previously read was The Writing Life and my encounter with it came at the worst possible time. It was about three years ago and I’d just started my first attempt at writing a novel. If I’m generous in my assessment, I’d say I was on a stepladder, attempting to climb onto the first part of the continuum. I’d always read quite a bit, but in those days, I wasn’t yet reading like a writer and I wasn’t nearly as selective about what I read as I am now.
I couldn’t have found a worse book to begin with. When I should have been reading the equivalent of a pop-up book to learn how to craft a novel, The Writing Life felt like Ulysses. I don’t have a copy of the book (although I’d like to re-read it now), so I can only relate my impressions that I was reading about the pain and difficulty of writing and the need to make the experience and the environment as unpleasant as possible. I knew at the time that what I was reading was over my head.
I say all this to explain why it took me so long to open up The Maytrees, a slim volume at 216 pages. Annie Dillard intimidated me.
The Maytrees is a masterpiece. Annie Dillard writes in what I can only describe as lyrical prose, nearing poetry. She is the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She’s best known for her narrative non-fiction, but she has also published poetry, essays, literary criticism, autobiography, and fiction. The Maytrees is her second novel.
This excerpt from the International Herald Tribune provides an excellent synopsis of The Maytrees:
Cape Codafter World War II, her compelling short novel chronicles the lives of Lou and Toby Maytree, bookish bohemians whose marriage seems charmed. Toby is a minor poet with the look of ‘a red-eyed night heron’; he ‘hauled lines of poetry like buried barbed wire with his bare hands.’ His beloved — whose sand-dune days with him are ‘played out before the backdrop of fixed stars’ — is the artistic Lou, a virgin who ‘lacked a woman's sense of doom.’ Of Lou's blissful months as a bride, Dillard writes, ‘She loved Maytree, his restlessness, his asceticism, his, especially, abdomen.’
Though the plot moves smartly, the Maytrees' internal journeys are the main attraction. As in her earlier works, Dillard, a naturalist whose terrain extends to metaphysics, is often looking at the cosmos when she appears to be writing about horseshoe crabs, seals or even feral children. Melding the Maytrees' silent musings about solitude or eternity with their conversations about the small miracle that is their son, Petie, or about the quirks of hognose snakes, she brings the whole together in a sleight of hand that at times has the power of a gut punch.
Standing on a dune, gazing at an infinity of stars, Maytree decides that his beloved has given him a clarity of vision that he never had: ‘Watching the sky now, and forever after, doubled his world. He felt he saw through Lou's eyes as an Aztec priest, having flayed an enemy, donned the skin. Or somewhat less so.’
That last scudding bit of course suggests that the Maytrees' marriage will be subject to the laws of nature. All around them their free-spirited friends are coupling and uncoupling, but instead of being salacious or sensational, Dillard's approach to their gamboling is cheerfully anthropological. (She even gives one clan the family name Bonobos, a species of chimpanzee famous for its sexual eclecticism.) Obsessed with matters of the heart, one musty socialite "wears many killing rings" and runs through ‘six husbands like a brochette.’ Another femme fatale sleeps in the dunes; divorced from a painter, a fisherman, an abstract artist and a baseball pitcher, she sweetly collects boyfriends like seashells or sand dollars.
And so it is adultery that ultimately divides this couple, not just Maytree's apparently left-field desire for another woman, but his decision that, after 14 years, he has done his duty as a monogamist. Lou remains on the
Capeand, surrounded by a community that, like an elephant herd, draws close when death or loss looms, devotes herself to Petie. Only when their son is grown does she see Maytree again; when he returns to her, it's to ask a favor that to some would be unimaginable. Not only does Dillard make his request seem entirely organic, but she allows Lou and Maytree to reclaim each other without sentimentality.”
I didn’t read anything about The Maytrees until after I’d finished it and the (few) criticisms of the work matched my impressions. At times, Dillard dredges up words and terms that are so obscure as to pull the reader out of the fictive dream she’s created, but I tend to feel the shortcoming here is mine and not hers. At other times the metaphors she uses are so abstract that the reader is left to wonder what she’s talking about.
Paragraphs like the following were the type that I read and then re-read, knowing I’d found a perfect sentiment, yet not always sure I’d understood it correctly:
“After they married she learned to feel their skin as double-sided. They felt a pause. Theirs was too much feeling to push through the crack that led down to the dim world of time and stuff. That world was gone. They held themselves alert only in those few million cells where they touched. She learned from those cells his awareness and his courtesy. Love so sprang at her, she honestly thought no one had ever looked into it. Where was it in literature? Someone would have written something. She must not have recognized it. Time to read everything again.”
Dillard says the first draft ran close to 1,400 pages and she cut and revised and trimmed it down to the final 216 pages. I wonder if some of the more puzzling sentences and paragraphs are the result of the reduction of a concept to its final essence, where the original meaning that was once there exists only as an impression.
The narrative follows the internal worlds of the characters and gives new perspective to ideas about love, marriage, friendship, children, life and death. When, after fourteen years of marriage, Maytree leaves Lou for their close friend, Deary, Lou analyzes what it means and learns to move forward:
“Within a month she figured that if she ceded that the world did not center on her, there was no injustice or betrayal. If she believed she was free and out of the tar pit, would she not thereby free herself from the tar pit? What was this to, say, losing Petie? Why take personal offense if two fall in love? She knew they reproached themselves. Maytree was party to fits of enthusiasm. Loving was Deary’s nature. What would any of this matter two hundred years hence? She had many decades more to live. Whether she lived them or not was her call.”
Maytree never quite gets over the shame of having left Lou, nor does he ever stop loving her, but he feels an obligation to stay with Deary, even after the initial passion fades:
“The lasting love he studied, not mere emotion, might be willful focus of attention. It might be a custody of reactions. He circled this view for years. Love as directed will did not sound like love’s first feeling of cliff-jumping. Call that period eighteen months or seven years – call it anything but infatuation! It must be acknowledged and accounted for. Recently science had nailed down its chemistry: adrenaline. Then what? He had loved Lou for years and years. On and off, mostly very much on. Those loving years, and their persistence, must also be credited. People used to die so young! Maybe lasting love is a rare evolutionary lagniappe. Anthropologists say almost every human culture on earth gives lip service, and lip service only, to monogamy. He was scrupulously loving in mind and body toward Deary in order to make reparations to the moral universe. He was grateful for the chance.”
I was fascinated with Lou and Maytree’s choice to live a life of the mind. Their choice to spend their days reading and his to write poetry necessitated a spare, eccentric lifestyle devoid of a car, insurance or a television. They spend much of their year on a beach shack without electricity or indoor plumbing. When members of their bohemian community die, they are wrapped in sailcloth and buried directly in the earth. The book made me ponder those things we now consider necessities. To most of us, it would be unthinkable to contract a terminal illness and not seek medicine, surgery, hospitalization and all medical means of preserving life. What if we just went home to die? As Lou re-establishes her life, without Maytree in it, she cuts out all that she finds surperfluous:
“The one-room ever-sparer dune shack was her chief dwelling from which only hurricane or frost exiled her. Over decades, she had reclaimed what she had forfeited of her own mind, if any. She took pains to keep outside the world’s acceleration. An
marketplace amazed Diogenes with ‘How many things there are in the world of which Diogenes hath no need!’ Lou 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 her days like a piñata. A hundred freedoms fell on her. She hitched free years to her lifespan like a kite tail. Everyone envied her the time she had, not noticing that they had equal time.” Athens
I loved this book. There was not a sentence or an idea I didn’t savor and I will read it again and perhaps again. The Maytrees is near-perfect.
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And for those who expressed love for the Christmas carol, O Holy Night, I've embedded this spine-tingling rendition by Aled Jones. Jones, from Wales was a sensation in the 70's and this video superimposes Aled Jones as a child with the adult Aled Jones. I had a hard time finding a version of this song that I liked, but this one brings tears to my eyes.