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Thursday, March 15, 2012

EUDORA WELTY'S THE OPTIMIST'S DAUGHTER--AND A GREAT TRAVEL READ

Call me a book snob, but after a few contemporary novels, I must return to finer writing—literature—this time to Eudora Welty’s 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Optimist’s Daughter.  It is poetry in prose, a melody of words finely tuned, and that is what draws me time and again to the great writers.  I crave more than a story; I want the art.  Here is a tight, spare novel dealing with a woman’s confrontation with death as she returns home to be with her dying father and to attend his funeral.  The events lead her to examine the complexities of life, her past, and her family, and then to look ahead to her future.  To move on, she must, as we all must, make some kind of peace with the past.

“But the guilt of outliving those you love is justly to be borne, she thought.  Outliving is something we do to them.  The fantasies of dying could be no stranger than the fantasies of living.  Surviving is perhaps the strangest fantasy of them all.”

What happens to me when I read lines as these is that I must stop and really consider what she is saying as well as how it applies to me personally.  Welty draws me in, will draw you in, gently but unemotionally, and she will charge you to take note and to think about the truths she has to share.

This reaction is what makes this such a wonderful book for traveling.  Imagine sitting on a beach or by a pool or on a balcony somewhere.  You are reading, You come to a line like this, and you allow your book/Kindle/Nook to fall against your chest.  You smile slightly and slowly ruminate on a great author's words.  Nice.

Amazingly, I remain aloof from these characters.  I get to know them, but at a distance, a fly on the wall, so to speak, observing their reactions and idiosyncrasies without being emotionally involved with them.  It is a queer feeling, that distance, but it allows my mind to work with the parallel figures in my own life.

As in all great books, the theme is universal, and while Welty’s perspective is always seen through a Southern prism, what she says about communication or the lack thereof, needs to be taken to the heart.  What is life?  How do we define it?  How to we really understand our lives in the context of our family and friends? 

“For her life, any life, she had to believe, was nothing but the continuity of love.”

One last quotation to illustrate the beauty of this novel:

“Memory lived not in initial possession [of an object] but in the freed hands, pardoned and freed, and in the heart that can empty but fill again, in the patterns restored by dreams.”

If you are not familiar with her, you will find Eudora Welty high on the list of great American writers, a regionalist in the manner of William Faulkner, and a womawith an inherent ability to craft the perfect sentence.



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