Annie Dillard – The Maytrees

The Maytrees by Annie Dillard, published by Hesperus Press Limited 2007, 185 pages

Impenetrable in parts, lyrical in others, describing the love between Toby and Lou Maytrees in such a detached fashion that I never felt close to or really understood any of the characters, this book was not easy to read. I understood the words, but put in sentences and paragraphs there were pages where I felt that somehow the meaning had eluded me. I re-read sentences and pages but still came away feeling puzzled. Thinking back now after I’™ve finished reading this book once I’™ve got past the awkwardness of the parts that puzzled me and tried to analyse what it is about, I think that it’™s about love, and about ageing and dying. I was rather disappointed in this book, having read and enjoyed Pilgrim at Tinker Creek some years ago and reading the acclaim it received I expected it to be a fantastic book: the Washington Post quote on the back cover is ‘˜full of the kind of pleasures one looks for in fiction’™. I can’™t truthfully say that I found them.

The setting is beautiful, on the beach near Provincetown, Cape Cod in the 1940s. But this is no overdeveloped beach full of tourists; it’™s a wilderness of scrub and dunes jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean. After 14 years of marriage Maytree left both Lou, his son Petie and his dune shack for Deary Hightoe. Twenty years later he and Deary returned to Provincetown when Deary was dying. Lou then looks after both him and Deary. Deary starts out as a free spirit, sleeping in the dunes swaddled in a canvas sail, but living with Maytree in Maine she becomes weighed down with possessions and ‘œstuff’. The most moving part of the book for me is the description of Deary’™s death, which took place over eight weeks.

The characters seem unable to express their feelings or thoughts to each other. Maybe it’™s because Lou is such a self-sufficient personality; when Maytree left her, ‘œShe did not whine or voice grief or anger.’ Maybe it’™s because the book covers a period of over twenty years with little information about what has taken place during those years. There is love in there ‘“ love of the land, the sea and nature. Human love too in the form of agape, in Lou’™s selfless care of both Deary and Maytree.

Maytree ponders on the nature of love after Deary’™s death:

‘œOf course everyone had tended Deary. Was that tending love genetically or socially determined convention? The idea of love as irresistible passion died hard in Maytree long after he knew better. Was he ‘˜in love’™ with Deary all those years? No, but he never dreamed of shipping his iced-over oars. ‘¦ Still less was Lou in love with Deary. Nor was noble Pete. Then what guides will – reason? The darling of dead Greeks, that guarantor of the science he loved? Surely reason never trafficked in a man’™s love life. Science rinsed love’™s every scent from its hands. Maytree had been sensible of no particular sentiment except the natural wish to help Deary find comfort. That steady wish for her comfort on which he had acted for years and Lou and Pete had acted for eight weeks – was love?
Wishing and doing, within the realm of the possible, was willing; love was an act of will.’

(pages 160-161)

Love is not seen as a matter of emotion, but a ‘œwilful focus of attention’; it is not like ‘œlove’™s first feeling of cliff-jumping’. This is not a book about passion in the bodice-ripping, erotic sense. It’™s about lasting love: ‘œThe feeling of love is so crucial to our species it is excessive, like labor pain. Lasting love is an act of will.’ (pages 111-112)

Still I came away from the book feeling a cool detachment from it and not sorry that I’d finished it.

Sunday Salon – This Week’s Reading

I’m late coming to the Sunday Salon today, because just as I was finishing writing this post we had a power cut, which lasted nearly four hours and when it came back on I found that I hadn’t saved all of it! Last Sunday the heavy rain that had been forecast held off for our walk among the bluebells, in fact it was a warm sunny afternoon and there were still lots of bluebells in the woods. It’s been a mixed week weather wise – we’ve had sunshine and torrential rain, coming down like stair rods as my father used to say. But it has meant that everything in the garden is growing like mad. I love this time of year when the leaves are still small enough to see the branches. We have two small apple trees and a cherry tree which have now blossomed – promise of fruit later in the year.

On the reading front for some of the week I’ve been in the company of Dalziel and Pascoe, but mostly Pascoe as the book is The Death of Dalziel by Reginald Hill. Because I watched the BBC series before I read any Dalziel books in my mind I see Warren Clarke as Dalziel and Colin Buchanan as Pascoe. It’s a complicated plot with all the sub-plots intricately interwoven. The characters are so believable and the mystery so absorbing that I just had to read it through to the end. It was a while ago that I watched this on TV so, even though I knew what the outcome was I couldn’t remember the details. What I don’t remember from the TV are the episodes describing what is going on inside Dalziel as he lies in hospital unconscious (he was caught in the blast of a hugh Semtex explosion).

This is a nice example. Dalziel is

floating uneasily above Mid-Yorkshire. His unease derives not from his ability to defy gravity, which seems quite natural, but his fear that someone below might mistake him for a zeppelin and shoot him down.

Because he is Dalziel he breaks wind and his

… relief is huge and more than physical.
‘Dead men don’t fart!’ he cries triumphantly.
Dalziel breaks wind again, this time with such force he gets lift-off and accelerates into the bright blue yonder like a Cape Canaveral rocket. Soon the startled starling is nothing more than a distant mote, high above which an overweight, middle-aged detective superintendent at last realises the Peter Pan fantasy of his early childhood and laughs with sheer delight as he tumbles and soars between the scudding clouds of a Mid-Yorkshire sky.
In complete contrast I’m in the middle of The Maytrees by Annie Dillard. Some years ago I read and thoroughly enjoyed Pilgrim at Tinker Creek which won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1975. In that book I was fascinated by the detail and description of the natural world that Dillard saw at the Creek and I expected her novel would much in the same vein. But for me it is too sparsely written, too economical. The Maytrees is about a couple, Toby and Lou who marry and have a son Petie, living out their seemingly non-eventful lives at Provincetown on the tip of Cape Cod. After 14 years of marriage Maytree just ups and leaves with Deary Hightoe, which is as far as I have read. Part of me loves this book for the descriptions of the setting and characters, but part of me struggles with prose that seems so detached from emotion.
I always like to have more than one book on the go, so although I’m only progressing slowly with Les Miserables I’ve also started to read Our Longest Days, diary entries of people living during the Second World War. It’s fascinating reading about the war as it was experienced by the people left at home, enduring the bombing of Britain and the threat of invasion. I’m up to December 1940 – Herbert Brush, then aged 71 was living in London, described what he had done to make staying in the dugout more comfortable, with a paraffin stove, a curtain across the entrance and shields to keep the draught off the bunks on each side of the dugout:

It is quite a comfortable place now, when one gets used to the cramped space and the inability to turn over without falling off the bunk, for folk of my size.

It’s a touching account of the war years full of personal hopes and fears.

Finally I started to read John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids yesterday. So far I’m finding this an immensely satisfying book, easy to read, and full of suspense about a world where genetic variations are seen as Offences and Abominations that have to be rooted out and destroyed. Chillingly, when a baby is born it has to be inspected and if there is any deviation from what has been decided is normal, ie made in the image of God, even if there is the slightest blemish then it is taken away and never heard of again. My copy is an old second-hand Penguin book published in 1959 and I’m intrigued by the references on the cover to ‘what is unhappily known as – science fiction’, and again as writing that is ‘so unscientifically called Science Fiction‘. I must look up the history of sci-fi writing.