Friday, 9 October 2009

Splendid young things in a young world


Kevin
told me two things a while back: one, that I must read Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio; and two, that he'd cut me if I didn't love it. Well, I've read it. Also, I've mostly loved it, although not with complete abandon. Now, I'm going into the bookish equivalent of the witness protection program.

Seriously, I think Winesburg, Ohio is a very special book, and not in that super slow but really sweet and likes to hug a lot kind of way. It's a set of interlocking stories about small-town Ohio at the beginning of the 20th century; one character, George Willard, features in every story, generally as the unwitting but curious listener of the other characters' tales.

The writing of Winesburg, Ohio is really amazing, in a quiet, lonely sort of way. It's really a book that is to be savoured and the good bits (of which there is an abundance) re-read repeatedly. I could quote about half the book if I wanted to give you a sense of such moments, but here's a paragraph from "Departure", one of my favourite stories in the collection:
In the darkness, they played like two splendid young things in a young world. Once, running swiftly forward, Helen tripped George and he fell. He squirmed and shouted. Shaking with laughter, he rolled down the hill. Helen ran after him. For just a moment she stopped in the darkness. There is no way of knowing what woman's thoughts went through her mind but, when the bottom of the hill was reached and she came up to the boy, she took his arm and walked beside him in a dignified silence. For some reason they could not have explained they had both got from their silent evening together what they needed. Man or boy, woman or girl, they had for a moment taken hold of the thing that makes the mature life of men and women in the modern world possible. (p. 200)
Just lovely. But my favourite story, by far, was "Hands" which tells the story of a former teacher exiled to Winesburg after being wrongly accused of molesting his male students. This story is worth reading both on its own and as part of the larger narrative of Winesburg, Ohio. It's one of the most perfect short stories I've ever read. And I've read a lot of Frank O'Connor, so that's saying a lot.

What I love about this book is how beautiful Anderson makes his characters seem in their fragility, and naivety, and desperation. It is not a happy book, yet its characters have these unbelievable moments of transcendent, almost divine clarity.

My only disappointment with this book is that I didn't find the stories to be consistently breath-taking; "Hands" and "Departure" stand out as exceptional but I feel a book like this relies on every tale being equally compelling, even as they address very different individuals suffering their very different and private pains. And I will admit that even as I continued to be struck by those deceptively simple but just gorgeous passages that appear everywhere in the book, there were some stories in the middle to end that I already can't quite distinguish in my memory.

So, for me, this isn't a perfect, earth-jangling kind of book. But it's a damned fine book, a unique book, a book that I am incredibly pleased to have read. And you should read it too. Or Kevin will find you.

3 comments:

heidenkind said...

Didn't Jimmy Stewart play a character named George Willard once?

verbivore said...

I have this book on my shelf and have been meaning to read it forever, I am glad to hear you liked it and will certainly nudge it a bit higher in the TBR stack.

Colleen said...

heidenkind: I don't know! I watch approximately 4 films per year and they tend to be deep and thoughtful offerings like Zombieland.

verbivore: I'm sure you'll enjoy it!