Monday, June 7, 2021

Eudora Welty is difficult, Poul Anderson is easy

The hardest book I’ve read recently, and the easiest.  The hardest not in French, a separate category of difficulty.

Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding (1946) is one of the first novels I really dismantled, studying it piece by piece.  This complex novel likely informs the way I understand fiction in ways I do not even know, but it certainly taught me that finding the patterns behind the surface is worthwhile.  The better understood work of art becomes more beautiful.  At least this kind of art.

The Golden Apples (1949) is a relative of Delta Wedding, but linked short stories, all set in the same little Mississippi delta town; how hard can it be, I thought?  And then the difficulties of the book defeated me again and again.  Comical, sometimes – oh no, I was supposed to be keeping track of that!  So I’ll write this off this attempt as something of a failure, except that it is useful preparation for my next reading, when I will be braced and alert and properly equipped.

It was a bit of a relief to poke into the Welty scholarship – don’t be afraid to ask for help! – and see The Golden Apples routinely described as her most difficult book.  By difficult I mean: layered patterning; concealed multi-directional references (the title, is that Hesiod or Yeats? Both); original symbolism; overlapping time; lots of characters; deferred information.  Mostly the latter, really.  Every basic who / when / what question will  be answered, but I may have to hold onto it for ten or a hundred pages.

It’s all the usual Modernist stuff, employed with a high level of art and craft.  Here’s the last sentence:

They heard through falling rain the running of the horse and bear, the stroke of the leopard, the dragon’s crusty slither, and the glimmer and the trumpet of the swan.

Next time, I’ll know what all of that means.  Next time.

I have a box or two of fantasy paperbacks, mostly well-known books, that are causing me anxiety (keep, sell, give away?).  I just re-read one of them, Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade (1960), with real pleasure.   It is a book written on principles opposite of Welty’s.  It is an easy book.  I am supposed to get it – all of it – right away.  I re-read this kind of book to repeat but not deepen the pleasure.

Given what it is, though, Anderson’s book is good fun.  Extraterrestrial invaders make the mistake of landing in a medieval village.  Soon enough, three knights and their yeoman archers and sturdy peasants have conquered an interstellar empire.  It is all preposterous but also episodically, logically inexorable.  The narrative pleasure is watching Anderson move the stakes up, notch by notch, until he runs out.

The High Crusade is an example of the genre of human triumphalism, a descendent of Aristophanes’s Birds (414 BCE), where the Athenians conquer Olympus through sheer exuberance.  Like the Aristophanes play, Anderson’s novel has elements that critique imperialism, but they are all swept away by the energy of the upstarts.  Empires are overthrown and replaced by new empires.  The overthrowing is so enjoyable that the replacement is barely noticed.

There are three more Anderson novels in that box, and come to think of it Tau Zero (1970) is also a human triumphalist book.  Anderson rigs things so humans conquer the next universe, the one that comes after the heat death of our universe.

If you see me reading old fantasy novels, you will know I am rummaging in the box.  They should go, mostly.  Like I need my own copy of The Martian Chronicles.  Like that book is hard to find if I want it.


  1. "it certainly taught me that finding the patterns behind the surface is worthwhile" - Interesting that Welty was your source for this. I had to go back through my index because I couldn't remember if I'd read any Welty. Apparently not. A somewhat cynical take on English as a teaching / scholarly discipline is that it takes hold around the era of Modernism precisely because those books *need* explaining - or at any rate, are often inscrutable on first reading. They are good for close reading in ways that (for instance) a lot of genre fiction isn't (one reason for approaching genre fiction through more 'cultural studies' / social context lenses).

    Figuring out which books will be easy to find again is a good way to sort out the discards.

  2. It was a case of new skills and knowledge meeting the right book. And it is such a beautiful book. I need to read it again, too.

    I agree with your short history of the field of English. There are other, older branches, like philology, and newer ones like book history, but the "interpretation" side is historically Modernist.

    I was planning to include at least a bit of Anderson's prose. But I couldn't find anything I liked so much on its own. The prose is good. I am not complaining. There is some funny stuff where the medieval mentality meets science - well, science fiction. But the prose is pretty simple.

    It is true that any book that makes me too anxious, that I feel will vanish, I will keep. And on the other hand, I imaginatively share the pleasure of the young person who finds The Martian Chronicles and The High Crusade at the library book sale.