Saturday, July 20, 2013

The smell of hope: falling in and out of love with Madeleine L'Engle

When I was ten years old, I fell in love—twice. First it was with my fifth grade teacher at Indian Hills Middle School in Cincinnati, a woman named Nancy Browning, who was the first person ever to tell me, “One day you will be a writer.”

Mrs. Browning introduced me to my second love—Madeleine L’Engle, the writer who more than any other inspired me to weave stories of my own. But this summer I fell out of love with L’Engle—and was surprised at what a profound loss that was.

Let me tell you the story, and fair warning—L’Engle fans may get angry with me before it’s done. Though as she once said in an interview, there is a “smell of hope” at the end.

Back in fifth grade, it wasn’t L’Engle’s most famous work, the Newbery Medal-winning A Wrinkle in Time, that captured my heart, it was another book called The Arm of the Starfish. To a young girl growing up in the Midwest, that book was intoxicating. It transported me into a world where teenagers were sophisticated and urbane, speaking several languages, drinking coffee, and getting on jets by themselves to fly to Lisbon and Madrid. That’s what I remember—that and the extraordinarily loving, erudite, and over-achieving family of Calvin and Meg O’Keefe. He was a marine biologist working on a remote island off the coast of Portugal; and since I wanted to be a astronomer at that point, the scientific aspect of the book enthralled me.

Having read Starfish, I wanted more. That’s the way I’ve always been: when I find a writer I love, I read everything he or she has ever written. That’s how I discovered that Meg O’Keefe was far more than the stunningly beautiful yet self-effacing mother of seven [yes, seven!] kids in Starfish—she was the awkward, ugly-duckling Meg Murry of A Wrinkle in Time. Wrinkle became my favorite book of my entire childhood, but I always kept a special place in my heart for Starfish, and later for the cozy family drama, Meet the Austins.

I grew up, and in the way of things I left L’Engle’s books behind. Though I must have talked about her a lot, because my college roommate made a point of stopping in a bookstore in Chicago one day when she saw that L’Engle was there, and sent me a signed copy of Wrinkle.

To this day, that autographed Dell Yearling paperback is still one of my greatest treasures.

L’Engle was an important part of my childhood, and in a variation of the six-degrees-of-separation game, she is part of my identity as a writer as well. My editor, Stephen Roxburgh, was L’Engle’s editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux for sixteen years. I had no idea of that when I sent him the manuscript for my first novel, Cheshire Moon. He let that fact slip over the phone when he called to offer me a contract. I raced to the library afterwards, and found that L’Engle had dedicated one of the books in her Time Quintet, Many Waters, to Stephen. The mere two degrees of separation from her—from a woman who in a significant way felt like a literary mother to me—meant so much. I felt as if Madeleine herself was anointing me, sealing my worthiness as a writer with a vicarious benediction.

 But even then I was unaware of all the many books she had written since Starfish and Wrinkle. L’Engle was a prolific writer, both for children and adults, in fiction and non-fiction. I did stumble across some of the novels she wrote for adults, and found them dated and a bit off-putting, to be honest. That was okay, I rationalized. Those books weren’t the reason I loved her.

I liked her non-fiction better: the memoirs she wrote collectively called the Crosswick journals. They gave me the same warm, cozy feeling as had Meet the Austins—a feeling that it was possible to find meaning, purpose, and even an island of serenity when adulthood wasn’t the perfect idyll you had imagined it would be as a child.

Then for some reason this summer I was filled with an explosion of nostalgia. Maybe it was my father’s death in February, sparking a need to go back in my memories and relive the happy moments of my childhood. Whatever the cause, I found myself wanting to re-read Wrinkle, Starfish, and Meet the Austins. I wanted to try some of the many other children’s books L’Engle had written as well. Chronos and Kairos, she called them: books set in quotidian time, and books set in a kind of timelessness that is as close as humans can come to eternity. There are five books about the Murrys in the Time Quintet, four books about the O’Keefes, and seven or more books about the Austins, many of which intersect. L’Engle’s galaxy of characters have a way of popping up in books where you least expect them.

I sat down with A Wrinkle In Time first. “It was a dark and stormy night,” it begins, in a sly literary joke. And I settled in happily with Meg under the quilt in her noisy attic bedroom, waiting for Charles Wallace and Fortinbras the Labrador; for hot cocoa made over a Bunsen burner by her scientist-mother; and of course for Mrs Who, Mrs Which, and Mrs Whatsit to blow in on a gust of wind, quoting literature and speaking in two dozens languages. This was going to be good, I thought.

Only it wasn’t.

As I turned the pages of each chapter, I kept asking myself what had gone wrong. Did some literary gremlin sneak in when I wasn’t looking and substitute another writer’s words for L’Engle’s? I couldn’t find the luminosity that I remembered being there as a girl. Now the book seemed clunky and awkward, as if L’Engle were a novice trying too hard to be literary and deep and meaningful.

Starting to panic a little, I read the sequel, A Wind in the Door. I started to breathe easier when I read the first four chapters; they seemed more fluid and lyrical, just like the L’Engle I remembered. But then I slammed up against that same sense of falseness. The way L’Engle was writing about her characters and plot events didn’t seem authentic or organic to me. OK, I thought. After years of writing and editing and teaching, I had just gotten jaded.

A bit more desperate now, I kept trying. I re-read Arm of the Starfish and Meet the Austins, and sadly I had the same negative reaction. Though I did find things in both books that I enjoyed, I kept stumbling over one thing: a disturbing sense of artificiality, almost pretentiousness. Neither her characters nor her plots seemed at all realistic to me, not even within the story world she was weaving. I gave it one more try, with the second book in the O’Keefe family series, Dragons in the Waters—and it was awful, one of the worst books I have ever read.

That was it. I was done. And I was heart-broken. What had happened? What had changed—L’Engle, or me?

Perhaps, as L’Engle herself writes in her books, I had lost my willingness to believe, and so I had lost the fundamental ability to appreciate the special kind of truth with which fiction writers work.

Except I knew that I had not lost that belief. I am a fiction writer, too, and I know deep in my bones what L’Engle meant about truth, how it differs from fact, and where it is to be found. I write fantasy, and I read fantasy, and I am still able to get deliriously and ecstatically lost in such books by other authors. The fault wasn’t in me.

But I’m not sure the fault was in L’Engle either; in fact, I’m not sure fault is the appropriate word to use here at all. I think the wrenching sense of disillusionment I was experiencing with L’Engle as a writer may be a natural process: a kind of literary growing up. All children have to grow away from their parents, to a certain extent, as they claim their identity as adults. I think perhaps that is what has happened with me and Madeleine. I have grown away, both as a reader and a writer. I don’t shape my books the way she shaped hers, and that’s fine. It doesn’t make her wrong and me right, or me right and her wrong. It just is.

From what I’ve read about L’Engle, both in her own nonfiction works and in articles and books about her, theme was deeply important to her. She dismissed J.K. Rowling’s Potter books with a sniff. “"It's a nice story but there's nothing underneath it."

L’Engle was dead wrong about that, in my view; there is a great deal beneath the Potter books. In fact, Rowling mines many of the same thematic veins as does L’Engle: friends and family, good and evil, love and sacrifice. It’s just that Rowling does so in a less obvious way, whereas L’Engle wears her thematic heart right out there on her sleeve.

And that I think is the problem I am having with L’Engle’s books now as an adult. Every writer had something they are burning to say; that’s not the issue. But with L’Engle, it’s too obvious what her burning issues are. I think theme should appear to readers to arise almost indirectly from a book. If the book is working—if the writer has allowed the characters to take on lives of their own and act like independent people, not puppets; and if the writer is allowing the plot to arise out of the interaction between characters and the situation in which she has set them—then readers will be able to tease out for themselves what the theme is.

That is almost the exact opposite of how L’Engle wrote. She can be quite preachy, especially about love, faith, and belief. Somehow I didn't see that as a child, but today, it’s all too obvious when I sit down with one of her novels what her thematic goals are. And in case I missed that, she feels free to let some of her characters deliver sermonettes about it. And a novel should never be a sermon.

On top of that didactism, her child characters all seem almost preternaturally mature to me: intelligent, highly-educated, with sophisticated tastes in music and books, and with psychological and spiritual insights well beyond their years. And I’m not just talking about the prodigy Charles Wallace in Wrinkle either: all her young characters in all her books seem this way to me, like idealized and shrunken adults. I grew up in the Midwest and have spent most of my adult life in the rural South, so maybe I’m missing something. Are kids in New York and Connecticut, where L’Engle lived, like this? Do they listen to Brahms and Bach and Schubert? Can they hold their own in discussions about higher order math and physics with Nobel laureates?

So last month I closed the door on L’Engle, and in some way on my childhood as well. No more, I thought. I wasn’t reading any more of her books.

I felt empty.

Then I happened upon two things: an infamous 2004 New Yorker profile of L’Engle by Yale English professor Cynthia Zarin, and an unusual biography of L’Engle by the literary critic Leonard S. Marcus, Listening for Madeleine. The latter is not a traditional biography; rather, it is an anthology of brief recollections about Madeleine from fifty people who knew her—including my own Stephen Roxburgh. That alone was enough to get me to read the Marcus book, which I just finished yesterday.

And though neither the profile nor the biography are always flattering to L’Engle, I came away from them with a profound sense of relief. L’Engle had a lonely childhood, and her adult life was like everybody else’s—a mix of joys and burdens, triumphs and sorrows. Her family both adored her and were exasperated with her. Her children and grandchildren said that for Madeleine, truth was always what she decided it would be, regardless of the facts. Her fiction was based too closely on their real lives for the family’s comfort, and her non-fiction was so heavily fictionalized that they didn’t even recognize what she was writing about. She remained in denial about the alcoholism of her father and son, even when it killed them both. Apparently her marriage wasn’t as close as she said either. Her ex-son-in-law, an Episcopal priest, said the "invention" part of the title of her memoir about her marriage,Two-Part Invention, was ironically apt.

Many of L’Engle’s friends and fans were upset by these revelations, feeling that they undeservedly tarnished her image. For me, however, it had the opposite effect. It was paradoxically liberating. Discovering that my childhood idol had feet of clay, just the like rest of us, didn’t diminish my respect for her one whit. Rather, it renewed the love I had lost. I’m not sure I understand fully why this is so, but I think it helped me to stop expecting perfection—either from her, or from her books. There are no masterpieces. I don’t care who your literary idols are—from classical writers such as Shakespeare and Austen to contemporary bestsellers such as Rowling or John Green. You can find flaws in every book, even those by the masters. But this doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy their books, nor does it mean that you can’t find deep meaning and beauty—and yes, even truth in them.

I should have known that. My books are certainly imperfect, and as a writing instructor and book editor, I’ve read enough manuscripts to know that nobody else’s books are perfect either. They can’t be; that’s an unrealistic expectation. What matters is not the perfection of the book—much less of its author—but the story. Does it have heart? Does it grip you? If so, then it is a success.

When I step back now and look at L’Engle’s body of work, what I can’t believe I missed before is how hard she worked at trying to create through her books the world she wanted to live in—a world where families were always large and close-knit, where mothers were always beautiful and brilliant and still had endless time for their brood of children, where people burst into hymns and quoted Frost and Shakespeare and obscure Orthodox saints while they were scraping carrots,  where tesseracts and mitochondria and cherubim and unicorns were dinner table conversation, where deep lasting friendships were forged and sustained over cosmic struggles of love and evil. L’Engle’s life work as a writer was not just to invent that within the pages of a book; I believe she was in a very real sense trying to incarnate that, to bring it to life within the ordinary, day-to-day world of Chronos.

Maybe my story has a happy ending after all. As children always do, I had grown up and discovered that the writer I idolized was just a human being: neither magician nor saint nor sage, but still worthy of admiration and respect nonetheless. Perhaps now I can relax and slip under the quilt again with Meg in her drafty garret, and follow her and Charles Wallace from Connecticut to Camazotz with a new kind of joy.


Vijaya said...

What a beautiful love story, Nancy. For it is that. I discovered MLE as a grown up and have enjoyed only some of her books. Wrinkle is probably my favorite. But the authors of my childhood -- Enid Blyton, Charles Dickens, Lloyd C. Douglas, AJ Cronin, Thomas Hardy, CS Lewis -- I have grown to love even more as I read them as an adult. Not one has disappointed me.

Judy Nill said...

What an excellent post. Thank you! I too have been in the grip of L'Engle nostalgia, and I have been trying to put my finger on what it is about her that both fascinates and alienates. I too find her personal struggles and her idealizations more endearing than her idealizations. At the same time I realize that the idealizations are what drew me in the first place. Madeleine will always hold a special place in my heart. Always.

Nancy Butts said...

Judy, thank you! You've made me feel so much less like some kind of curmudgeonly misfit in my adult response to L'Engle. I think, like you, I've come to terms with that tangled fascination/alienation by deciding to embrace her for who she was, in all her glorious complexity. I'll continue to cherish what I've always loved about her books, and let the rest slide.

Judy Nill said...

She certainly was complex. Sorry about that nonsense sentence "...and her idealizations more endearing than her idealizations." Not sure what I was trying to say, but thank you for your gracious response.