Dreamers and Wanderers
April 9, 2008 § 2 Comments
Just finished: The Golden Apples, by Eudora Welty.
I could write on and on about this, and I hope I’ll have occasion to revisit it as I come across articles, reviews, and editions in the course of work and play. For now, one last post, on the last chapter/story, “The Wanderers.”
It might be my favorite, right up there with “Moon Lake.” It’s an elegiac story about the funeral of Katie Rainey, her burial by her daughter Virgie (the great piano player, the girl who dazzled Miss Eckhart and played the piano for the silent movies, indulging in improvisations to the annoyance of paying customers, now all grown up, but still a bit too much of an individual for Morgana).
The first section is this incredible re-entry to the mind of the elderly Miss Katie, with whom we started the book. She’s had a stroke, she gets confused. I have a bit of myth-identification-fatigue, but there seems an allusion back to Yeats’s “wandering Aengus,” who in Celtic mythology apparently had love-birds flying about his head: Katie “heard circling her ears like the swallows beginning, talk about lovers.” She mixes up her own self and her daughter, in the talk she hears in her house by the road. Katie’s death is one of the (many) masterful passages in this book, and it’s one of the greatest pages or so of writing in American literature that I’ve encountered. It’s this amazing celebration of fertility and womanhood and the culmination, maybe, of the Persephone life-in-death theme running through the whole work. It’d make a fantastic monologue; there are some recordings of Welty reading out there, but I don’t see any of this work.
She was thinking, Mistake. Never Virgie at all. It was me, the bride — with more than they guessed. Why, Virgie, go away, it was me.
She put her hand up and never knew what happened to it, her protest.
And that’s just the start. There’s so much more I could go into. Virgie takes a dip in the Big Black River at one point (the Big Black, the other body of water here: the Styx, maybe the Lethe, too).
In the middle of the river, whose downstream or upstream could not be told by a current, she lay on her stretched arm, not breathing, floating. Virgie had reached the point where in the next moment she might turn into something without feeling it shock her.
The story’s true climax comes after the funeral. My favorite paragraph in the whole book might be this one, of Virgie reminiscing about her return to town at the age of seventeen. It’s kind of a throwaway paragraph, but it gets something just right, and reminds me so much of a certain kind of eternal late afternoon in Nebraska summer (strange, for such a Southern book, but to some extent I suppose country places talk to each other):
For that journey, it was ripe afternoon, and all about her was that light in which the earth seems to come into its own, as if there would be no more days, only this day — when fields glow like deep pools and the expanding trees at their edges seem almost to open, like lilies, golden or dark. She had always loved that time of day, but now, alone, untouched now, she felt like dancing; knowing herself not really, in her essence, yet hurt; and thus happy. The chorus of crickets was as unprogressing and out of time as the twinkling of a star.
Just after that, when Virgie’s gone to bed, there’s a knock at the door. A strange old lady gives Virgie a “night-blooming cereus” flower, “naked, luminous, complicated.” The woman says the flower “won’t do the dead no good.” And she remembers Virgie playing the piano at the movie theater. And then she’s gone, and Virgie, terrified, throws the flower into the weeds.
So who’s this woman? At first I thought her the ghost of Katie. (Juba says she’s seen Katie’s ghost, the next day.) Then I thought her the ghost of Miss Eckhart. Now I just don’t know who she is. Right after this Virgie thinks of the river, the moon, the mist. It’s another perfect paragraph.
But so Virgie leaves town. She’s a quester, a wanderer. She remembers a picture in Miss Eckhart’s studio, of Perseus holding up Medusa’s head. Welty does fascinating things with this memory: Virgie remembers that the picture “sometimes blindly reflected the window by its darkness.” The picture, in other words, covered by glass, is dark enough that the light through the window appears in it. (Aside: this reminds me of the complicated play with windows in the poem “Pale Fire,” in the novel Pale Fire.) As well as itself echoing the myth of Perseus seeing Medusa in his brightly polished shield, it’s a wonderful chiaroscuro image in a story and a book full of them. And then there’s the fact that Virgie remembers the elaborate, bourgeois frame around it that was “Miss Eckhart’s pride,” and that “In that moment [the moment of her remembering?] Virgie had shorn it of its frame.” She chooses instead to remember simply the image of triumphant Perseus, his “vaunting.” This whole passage on Perseus and Medusa is really complicated, as Welty provides lays out a kind of mythological explication on Virgie’s behalf, and shows how the myth relates to her relationship to Miss Eckhart, to herself, to her talent. It’s a fascinating passage, it seems something near a statement of purpose for Welty (but I’m speaking out of turn here: I don’t know enough about her to say that, it may only reflect on Virgie, although it sure as hell doesn’t feel that way).