“I have been told,” Eudora Welty writes in the introduction to the volume of her Collected Stories, “both in approval and in accusation, that I seem to love all my characters.” Never having read anything by Welty before, this very statement made me warm to her: for if a writer dislikes her characters, or even hates them, then she is unlikely, I think, to produce fiction worth reading. Or, at least, unlikely to produce fiction that I, for one, would want to read. For why should one waste one’s time, either as writer or as reader, on matter that one dislikes, or even on matter that one hates? Fiction that proclaims merely how depraved human beings all are seem to me merely embittered. Of course at the other extreme, one runs the risk of being merely sentimental; but given a choice between the embittered and the sentimental, I’ll take the latter.
Of course, there are different ways of “loving [one’s] characters”, and they need not all be sentimental. It may be argued that even Flannery O’Connor, who unremittingly presented humanity in its fallen, graceless state, loved her characters, but that her love was what we call a “tough love”: for all their severe moral and spiritual shortcomings,her characters are still creations of God, and as such worthy recipients of Divine Grace. But there is a coldness to Flannery O’Connor’s writing: she observes humans in a cold and objective light, and judges them severely, never encouraging in the reader sympathy or even empathy for any of them. The stories are certainly very impressive, and made on me a tremendous impact; but after spending so long with them, I found myself longing for a depiction of humanity that is less harsh in its judgement, that is more prepared to accept us even in our flawed and fallen state. Such a perspective is alien to O’Connor’s sensibilities, as acceptance of a fallen state renders superfluous the concept of Divine Grace; but to a writer such as Welty, not obviously tied to any religious ideology, acceptance of humans even in their fallen state can come more naturally. And no, it need not be sentimental.
Eudora Welty continues in her introductory essay:
What I do in writing of any character is to try to enter into the mind, heart, and skin of a human being who is not myself. Whether this happens to be a man or a woman, old or young, with skin black or white, the primary challenge lies in making the jump itself. It is the act of a writer’s imagination that I set most high.
Nowadays, the act of a writer’s imagination that is often set most high is the act of imagining worlds different from our own, but I am with Eudora Welty on this: it is the act of imagining this world – not other worlds, but this one – from the perspectives of other people that constitutes the supreme act of a writer’s imagination. It is this ability, more than any other, that confers upon great fiction its greatness.
The Golden Apples, published in 1949, and often reckoned to be Welty’s masterpiece, is a sequence of seven interlocking short stories, which, regarded as a whole, effectively forms a novel. This sort of novel in mosaic form is so rich in possibilities, one wonders why it isn’t done more often: the only other example I can think of off the top of my head is Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner, although, no doubt, there are more I cannot think of right now. Here, Welty uses the form to depict a community of people over several decades, with the various characters moving in and out of focus in the different stories, and shown from different perspectives. All but one of the stories take place in the fictional southern town of Morgana – a reference, I gather, to Fata Morgana, a type of mirage that takes its name from the enchantress Morgana la Fay in the Arthurian legends. There are many other references to mythology throughout: the Golden Apples of the title refer at different points to the golden apples of Atlanta in Greek mythology, and to the golden apples that provided eternal youth to the Norse gods, etc. etc. There are many references too to Celtic mythology, and to Yeats’ early poem The Wanderings of Aengus, in which Aengus searched for “the silver apples of the moon, and the golden apples of the sun”. I must admit, though, that, being relatively unfamiliar with many of these mythologies, these references did all too often pass me by: no doubt a better awareness of them on my part would have added greater resonance. But even without this added resonance, the mythological qualities of the work are apparent. In the first story, King MacLain walks out on his wife Snowdie. They meet again some time later, and Snowdie is left from the encounter pregnant: she later gives birth to twin boys, Ran and Eugene. King MacLain himself becomes a sort of mythological figure, appearing enigmatically at unexpected times, and giving rise to various stories told about him – some true, some partly true, some pure fantasy. Even without any identification with Wandering Aengus or with Zeus, King MacLain becomes a mythological figure. Only in the very last story, we see him as an old man, aware of his mortality and awaiting death like any other flesh-and-blood human: this view of him as a frail human should not be shocking: all flesh, after all, decays and dies; but it does, somehow, come as a shock to see this Zeus-like figure reduced to mere flesh and blood.
This seventh and last story in the sequence, “The Wanderers”, focuses on the transience of humanity, and on mortality: at the centre of it is the funeral Katie Rainey, who had been the narrator of the first story. After the funeral, in one of the most moving pieces of prose writing I have encountered, Katie’s daughter, Virgie, reflects on the past, and takes leave of her home town.
Virgie may or may not be one of the many illegitimate children of the mythical King MacLain. We had first encountered her in “July Recital”, the second story in the sequence: in this story, she was a rebellious teenager. She had been the favourite pupil of the rather fearsome Miss Eckhart, the piano teacher, but had turned her back on the culture Miss Eckhart had tried to impart. Miss Eckhart herself, we find, has known tragedy in her life: now, she is a lonely and somewhat demented old lady, and, after an unsuccessful attempt to set fire to the now empty house in which she had once lived and given lessons, she is destined for a psychiatric hospital. The attempted arson is witnessed by the boy Loch Morrison, as he lies supposedly ill in bed, and who does not clearly understand the significance of what he sees. Virgie, too, despite her obvious intelligence, does not understand the lonely passion of Miss Eckhart; but now, at the end of the final story, she looks back and comes to an understanding of sorts of the sheer sadness of life. She remembers in particular a picture Miss Eckhart had hung on the wall of Perseus slaying the Gorgon Medusa:
Miss Eckhart, whom Virgie had not, after all, hated – had come near to loving, for she had taken Miss Eckhart’s hate, and then her love, extracted them, the thorn and then the overflow – had hung the picture on the wall herself. She had absorbed the hero and the victim and then, stoutly, could sit down to the piano with all Beethoven ahead of her. With her hate, with her love, and with the small gnawing feelings that ate them, she offered Virgie her Beethoven. She offered, offered, offered – and when Virgie was young, in the strange wisdom of youth that is accepting of more than is given, she had accepted the Beethoven, as with the dragon’s blood. That was the gift that she had touched with her fingers that had drifted out of her.
Between King MacLain’s deserting his wife, and Virgie’s sad contemplation, there are five other stories, ranging in mood and content. Two of these stories centre around King MacLain’s twin sons. “The Whole World Knows” centres on Ran, whose wife, once his childhood sweetheart, is now openly unfaithful to him. He longs for a reconciliation that he knows is impossible, and begins an affair with a girl who resembles his wife a she used to be; and, in the presence of this girl, he attempts suicide. Afterwards, he has disturbing fantasies of murdering his wife. (In the final story, we learn in passing that the girl with whom he has this affair had herself committed suicide afterwards.) The other twin, Eugene, has left Morgana and settled in San Francisco: he is at the centre of possibly the most enigmatic story in this sequence – “Music from Spain”. His marriage, too, is in crisis: years earlier, their only child, a girl, had died, and the grief has now taken a form that is driving him apart from his wife. The story begins with husband suddenly, and for no apparent reason, striking his wife. He does not know why he does this; he would, indeed, have thought himself incapable of such an act, and is himself shocked by his action. That day, instead of going to work, he wanders aimlessly around the streets of San Francisco, accompanied by a Spanish musician with whom he cannot communicate, as neither can speak the other’s language. There seems to be a moment of near-revelation that afternoon on the beach, although what precisely is nearly revealed remains mysterious. In the final story, at Katie Rainey’s funeral, we see Eugene again, now split up from his wife, and back in his hometown: it does not surprise us. In both these stories involving the unhappy marriages of the MacLain twins, there is a figure, almost a godlike figure, it seems, who, perhaps like God himself, remains conspicuous by his absence: and that is the father of Ran and of Eugene, the mythical King MacLain. And when this God-like figure reappears in that sad final story, he is all too human.
These stories of lost love and of loneliness; of the exuberance and energy of youth, the disillusion of adulthood and of the sadness of old age; of the changes wrought by time and of the growing awareness of mortality; are all written in some of the most exquisite prose I have encountered. Indeed, much of it requires the sort of close reading one normally reserves for poetry. And throughout it all, there is apparent the author’s completely unsentimental love for her characters, a love that comes from “enter[ing] into the mind, heart, and skin” of other people: as Eudora Welty rightly says, the ability to do this is the highest act of a writer’s imagination. A single reading of a book as complex and as multi-layered as this is by no means enough: but it does give me an impression, at least, of the riches on offer, and I know I shall be returning to this quite extraordinary book.