On courage and long-lived writers

‘I believed that if I set my mind to it, maybe I wouldn’t be published, but I would write a great piece of music, or do something about becoming a real friend. Yes, I would do something wonderful’. Vale Maya Angelou (4 April 1928–28 May 2014), whose wisdom—whose music in poetry and prose—cannot but continue to be real friends to the reader, and unstintingly generous to the reader, as she said, ‘who hears … going behind what I seem to say’. Without question her work and legacy will continue to do something wonderful in this lopsided world.

On hearing of her death, I reached for a well-thumbed copy of Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews. First published in 1988, this collection was revised for a 1998 edition that includes an interview with Angelou recorded in New York City in 1990 before a devoted audience. Focused on her autobiographical books (five by 1990), the interview—or rather Angelou’s responses—emphasise the theme of courage. She identifies courage as ‘the most important of all the virtues. Without that virtue you can’t practice any other virtue with consistency’. The interviewer was George Plimpton, co-founder of the Paris Review with Harold L. Humes and Peter Matthiesson.

Angelou’s seventh volume of autobiography, Me & Mom & Me was published in 2013, just before her eighty-fifth birthday. I think of courage; I think also of the challenges of bringing consistency to writing over a long lifetime. In her interview with Plimpton, Angelou praises sharpness of language and ‘get[ting] it to sing’. Doubtless it’s impossible to craft sentence after sentence such that each new work will prove as penetrating and resonant as the last. But consistency can be in the practice of writing during many, many years: in devotion to diligence; acceptance of the always undiminished responsibility of wrestling alone with the language, its exactitude, and all the possible forms and turns a particular story might take until eventually, eventually, it is written.

There’s something of the formal interview in John Updike’s final essay, ‘The Writer in Winter’ (2008). As though for the benefit of young writers, he reflects on being ‘a grey-haired scribe’, a writer continuing to write in old age—and concludes with the stark admission, ‘among those diminishing neurons there lurks the irrational hope that the last book might be the best’. Surely that hope lurks also in the minds of any reader who has admired, or loved, or perhaps simply pondered the work of a living writer? So it has felt doubly sad, somehow, to read mixed reviews of Peter Matthiesson’s final book, In Paradise (2014), a novel, he noted, that he ‘couldn’t walk away from’ writing, even as ‘it was a very odd book and a very difficult book for me to do’. Matthiesson acknowledged this in a long interview for The New York Times recorded at his home in Sagaponack village: he died two days after the interview was published, and three before the release of In Paradise.

Jeff Himmelman, Matthiesson’s interviewer, observes that the author ‘wants you to feel’ cold and damp throughout reading In Paradise. Physically, and in an enlivening sense, this is how I felt when engrossed in Matthiesson’s gem of a book The Snow Leopard (1979) for the first time, during a heatwave this past Australian summer. Pico Iyer has described The Snow Leopard as a ‘tough-minded classic’ both for its translucent prose and its stark allegory. An autobiographical account of journeying deep into the Himalayan land of Dolpo during the autumn of 1973, it’s a work of spiritual enquiry, ecstatic in places, while relentlessly unsentimental. Despite the extraordinary success of Matthiesson’s nonfiction, however, the author defined himself as a writer of fiction ‘from the start’—a view that, by all accounts, it took courage to sustain and live out against the views of others. Vale Peter Matthiesson (22 May 1927–5 April 2014). When he was interviewed for the Paris Review, in 1999, he declared, ‘I am energized by fiction. Deep in a novel, one scarcely knows what may surface next, let alone where it comes from. In abandoning oneself to the free creation of something never beheld on earth, one feels almost delirious with a strange joy’. Here’s to the somethings that come from that.