I've been writing a lot lately about feminist musicologist Susan McClary and her ideas about the need for an alternative narrative practice. McClary goes in search of a mode of storytelling that does not dwell in a land of perpetual desire, of constant striving for a climax or resolution which, once achieved, spells the end of the story (the so-called "phallic" or "heroic" narrative arc), but that instead stresses pleasure over desire, that glories in what McClary calls a "voluptuous 'being-in-time' quality" - an examination of what we have and who we are, rather than what I want and who I would rather be. Understandably, when I've written about this in the past certain people have commented thusly: "That's a cool idea, but what would a "non-phallic" novel look like?" Well now, my friends, I can tell you: for a heartbreakingly beautiful example of prose that savors its own moment, its voluptuous being-in-time, look no further than Eudora Welty's Delta Wedding.
The plot of Delta Wedding is so simple it's basically contained in the title: Welty gives us subtle, lush, yet endlessly dynamic portrait of a large family in the Mississippi Delta, preparing for the wedding of their second daughter as the bustle of life goes on around the group and its individual members. The Fairchild clan is always in motion: "there's always so much - so much happening here!" cries an aunt delightedly, and Welty excels at capturing the lovingly oppressive whirl of the packed plantation house, bursting at the seams with arrivals, departures, personal legends and their aftermaths, cross-currents of conversation, momentary crises and unlooked-for delights. Yet many characters realize, or feel, at different moments, that for all the whirling bustle of the Fairchild life, there is a way in which their constant state of iridescent change is itself an unchanging landscape
Robbie put her hand up to her head a minute as she danced, against the whirl. Dabney was dancing before her, by herself, eyes shining on them all...Indeed the Fairchilds took you in circles, whirling delightedly about, she thought, stirring up confusions, hopefully working themselves up. But they did not really want anything they got - and nothing, really, nothing really so very much, happened! But the next moment Miss Primrose and Miss Jim Allen arrived with so much authority and ado that she almost had to believe in them.
Throughout this novel, Welty plays with the tension between the changing and unchanging, the momentary and the perennial. In describing the Delta twilight, she writes, "It was not yet dark - it would never get dark." A baby is about to be born who will carry the name of his dead war-hero uncle, long remembered by the family. And at the close of the book, one of the youngest children tells her cousin "My secret is...I've seen it all afore. It's all happened afore." Welty situates her narrative at a day of transition - a wedding, after which Dabney Fairchild will leave her parents' home. Change: and yet, Dabney and her new husband Troy will still live in a house owned by the Fairchild family, only a short ride away. This seeming change is just another step in the process of perpetuating the close Fairchild family ties into another generation. The clan as a whole functions as its own character, and yet individuals walk their own paths within it - sometimes honoring the status quo, sometimes rebelling against it; sometimes craving the attention of the Fairchilds, and sometimes longing to escape. Even Dabney's marriage is conceived as a kind of rebellion - she is marrying "beneath her" as a gesture of independence, to the dismay of much of her family. But at the same time, many of her other family members have also married out of their class, including the favorite son, Uncle George, on whom everyone fawns. So Dabney is simultaneously challenging the family structure, and yet fitting in perfectly with it; moving away from it, and yet forming its next branch. Delta Wedding catches her at that exhilarating, headstrong moment of youth when her passionate resolutions have yet to be tested or compromised:
The eagerness with which she was now going to Marmion, entering her real life there with Troy, told her enough - all the cotton in the world was not worth one moment of life! It made her know that nothing could ever defy her enough to make her leave it. How sweet life was, and how well she could hold it, pluck it, eat it, lay her cheek to it - oh, no one else knew. The juice of life and the hot, delighting taste and the fragrance and warmth to the cheek, the mouth....
"I will never give up anything!" Dabney thought, bending forward and laying her head against the soft neck. "Never! Never! For I am happy, and to give up nothing will prove it. I will never give up anything, never give up Troy - or to Troy!" She thought smilingly of Troy, coming slowly, this was the last day, slowly plodding and figuring, sprung all over with red-gold hairs.
Like Virginia Woolf (of whom Welty strongly reminds me), Welty astounds with her ability to communicate the unexpected yet crucial importance of certain crystallized moments in time - the tiny catalysts that prompt a blaze of emotion or insight out of all proportion to the initial tiny spark - and the deep, quiet pools of reflection that unfurl within her characters at the oddest moments - while picking up a piece of cake at a rehearsal dinner, or waiting for the photographer to get everyone posed in a line.
"Not for me, not for me," she murmured, stunned at the sight of George at that moment offering the loaded [cake] plate to her. It seemed to Shelley all at once as if the whole room should protest, as if alarm and protest should be the nature of the body. Life was too easy - too easily holy, too easily not. It could change in a moment. Life was not ever inviolate. Dabney, poor sister and bride, shed tears this morning (though belatedly) because she had broken the Fairchild night light the aunts had given her; it seemed so unavoidable to Dabney, that was why she cried, as if she had felt it was part of her being married that this cherished little bit of other peoples' lives should be shattered now. Dabney at the moment cutting a lemon for the aunts' tea brought the tears to Shelley's eyes...
One of the things I most treasure about both Woolf and Welty is the subtle and perceptive ways they both portray human communication. A lot of modern, and modernist, writing focuses on the ways in which our standard modes of communication fall short: a husband and wife are unable to say "I love you"; a supposed mourner feels nothing at his mother's funeral; two lovers make wildly erroneous assumptions about one another's feelings; a gulf grows between a father and mother because they cannot discuss their dead baby. Welty and Woolf explore these truths as well, but they also portray the flip side: the fact that, just as communication often fails when we try for it directly, so too it often succeeds in unexpected and unlooked-for ways: the glance of empathy that connects two sisters across a room full of family; the way the minds of two old friends can flow easily in and out of each others' thoughts; the unexpected welcome of an errant daughter-in-law by a family expected to reject or punish her; a favorite uncle's genuine compassion when his niece steals his pipe in order to give it back to him as a present; the self-sacrifice of two maiden aunts, giving their most precious possession to a headstrong young bride. Welty seems to argue, here, that although we can none of us predict or wholly understand ourselves or others, and although our attempts at connection will seldom work as we intend, there are still moments of true, loving communion available to us in the world, and they will come to us unexpectedly, as gifts.
It seemed to Ellen at moments that George regarded them, and regarded things - just things, in the outside world - with a passion which held him so still that it resembled indifference. Perhaps it was indifference - as though they, having given him this astonishing feeling, might for a time float away and he not care. It was not love or passion itself that stirred him, necessarily, she felt - for instance, Dabney's marriage seemed not to have affected him greatly, or Robbie's anguish. But little Ranny, a flower, a horse running, a color, a terrible story listened to in the store in Fairchilds, or a common song, and yes, shock, physical danger, as Robbie had discovered, roused something in him that was immense contemplation, motionless pity, indifference...Then, he would come forward all smiles as if in greeting - come out of his intensity and give some child a spank or a present. Ellen had always felt this about George and now there was something of surprising kinship in the feeling ... In the midst of the room's commotion he stood by the mantel as if at rest.
(Delta Wedding was my fifth book for the Decades '09 Challenge, representing the 1940s.)