Friday, August 20, 2010

"We are all vaudeville magicians."

In the past week I've read two novels by William Maxwell and a handful of his short stories as well. His voice is very humane, very alert and sensitized to the emotional dangers of ordinary life. He is a kind of troubled elegist, adamantly honoring the past even as he admits that his memory of it is ultimately misleading.

There is religion in Maxwell's story, but no God to speak of. Still, he has a deep-seated understanding of sin and its consequences. You get the sense of a gentle agnostic, plagued by troubling memories (see, for one vivid example, his short story, With Reference to an Incident at a Bridge).

In one of his short stories he says something like this:
"When it comes to self-deception, we are all vaudeville magicians."
I love that. I love the way it places us on both sides of our own magic act. The performer and the audience. Picture a second-rate vaudevillian in a small-town theater in Illinois, circa 1910, with his down-at-his-heals elegance, his traveling chest of gimncrack stage props, his somewhat shoddy sleight-of-hand trickery. Then picture the wide-eyed boy in the front row, eager to be fooled, to be misled, and thereby to be awed. Now picture both of these individuals as one, and both as yourself. That is Maxwell's wolrdview.

The novels I've read are They Came Like Swallows, and So Long, See You Tomorrow. The short stories can be found in his collection, All the Days and Nights. Go down to your local library and give William Maxwell a try.

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