Friday, 26 March 2010

The Joys of Madeleine L'Engle

When Madeleine L'Engle died nearly three years ago, a little something shriveled up inside me. It was just a little dream, a fantasy of some day meeting this woman whose books stood out like hand-holds on the steep and slippery rock-face of Life: starting with (but of course) A Wrinkle in Time when I was ten or so, to the various "Chronos" and "Kairos" books throughout my adolescence, to the Crosswicks Journals that I returned to time and again during young adulthood, to the more overtly religious essays, dotted here and there with her adult novels.

It probably would have been a disastrous or at least disappointing meeting. Although I responded to the seeking and agnostic nature of her religious views, there was enough in her writings to tell me that she might have found my Unitarian Universalist (and quasi-Quaker) views dismissible. Still, I've been married for several years to a committed liberal Anglican; maybe Madeleine L'Engle and I could have found much common ground. I'll never know.

I've been thinking of Madeleine L'Engle a lot this week. I thought I'd read just about everything that she had published, so I was astonished to see a book entitled The Joys of Love turn up on a search for something else entirely (which is usually how things work for me).

The Joys of Love was published last year by L'Engle's granddaughters. This is a very early novel, based on a short story she wrote in 1942 at about the age of 24. She reworked the story into a novel in the early fifties and re-set it in 1946, which was the year she met her husband the actor Hugh Franklin.

As I'd read pretty nearly everything she wrote, including such nascent novels as The Small Rain and And Both Were Young, I was braced for a rather dated and slightly awkward book. L'Engle really hit her stride as an author in the early sixties, and The Joys of Love, being such an early work, only gives a hint of the skilled story-teller that L'Engle later became. At this stage, she was a very good descriptive writer; her scene-setting is an effective time machine, taking me back to a New England summer sixty years gone. However, although her granddaughter Léna Roy said in the introduction that L'Engle's dramatic training gave her "a keen knack for dialogue", this book is a poor example. Even as a lifetime fan, I found myself groaning inwardly (and sometimes out loud) at the painfully artificial conversations these characters have.

Eventually I caught myself wondering if I'd somehow outgrown her other books to which I haven't turned in some time. This morning, having finished The Joys of Love, I seized half a dozen or so of my favourite L'Engle books, blew the dust off them and flipped through them. (Younger daughter is still on March Break, so there was no matutinal rush for the bus.)

You know what? They were as good as I remembered. I looked at The Young Unicorns, one of my favourites when I was about twelve. The gang-members that figure in the plot are a little "West Side Story", but the characters are whole and believable. I skimmed The Wind in the Door, the sequel to A Wrinkle in Time and still found relevance in the themes of "naming" and the need to slow down to put down roots and grow. Finally, in A Circle of Quiet, I browsed where I had underlined and bookmarked this non-fictional work about L'Engle's own meditations on art, faith and life. This was a book that I used to re-read whenever I was feeling lost and homesick. Today, I found this: We, as adults, often fall into perversity in other areas of discovery: i.e., some modern (and not so modern) art in all forms, where the artist is concentrating more on himself than on his painting or music or story. I would venture a guess that an artist concentrating wholly unself-consciously, wholly thrown into his work, is incapable of producing pornography. All perversion is self-gratification.

I think there's a key here to the problem with The Joys of Love, not that I'm suggesting for a moment that it was pornographic. It was, however, self-conscious, in the way something by a very young artist is. And for a blogger, this message about self-involvement and self-gratification may be very timely indeed...

I'm grateful for stumbling across The Joys of Love. It's not a fabulous novel; it's a green and naïve novel. It is however, a novel of promise, and it has led me back to the later, greater works of Madeleine L'Engle.

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