Thursday, March 21, 2013

listening to madeleine

In the summer, between my years studying acting at CalArts, I worked in the desert. Extremely hot, dry work. Isolation. But the real enemy was boredom. Tedium. Brain-aridity. Madeleine L'Engle kept me alive: I believe I read through 23 of her books that summer, sitting beside a little stream in our condo complex at the parched ends of my work days, or in stretched lunch and coffee breaks in the more-or-less air conditioned trailer on the job site. 

I'll admit, that binge pretty much saturated me with L'Engle. I've read little since. It all seems overly familiar, even the books I didn't already read, back then in the California heat. It's not that the ideas are commonplace - it's that they became so much a part of me that summer, spiritual and imaginative water in a dry and weary land. They say we're, what, 98% water? Well, there was a time when that water was Madeleine L'Engle, and the whole way I think about life and art grew out of her words and stories.

Thinking back on that, I think I just might pick up this new book, which I learned about from IMAGE Update (below). Time for me to pay another visit to an old friend.  

In Listening for Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L’Engle in Many Voices, literary historian Leonard Marcus explores the complexity of public persona and personal history in the life of a writer beloved by generations of readers.

In the early 1960s, Madeleine L’Engle was rejected by dozens of publishers when shopping her now-famous novel A Wrinkle in Time; it was deemed too religious, or, in L’Engle’s words, “too different,” wrapping up quantum physics, time travel, and guardian angels dressed as witches into a coming-of-age story.

When Wrinkle, finally published, won the 1963 Newbery Award, Madeleine L’Engle embraced the public speaking circuit as a literary celebrity. Disparate listeners were either charmed or appalled by her Christian belief, her commitment to the Episcopal church, her theatrical flair, and her connection to readers. Some dismissed her as a person living in a fantasy, while she published 44 titles in 35 years, including novels, memoirs, volumes of poetry, musings on faith and the arts, and children’s titles. The chasm of differing perceptions widened when The New Yorker posted an unflattering profile of L’Engle a few years before her 2007 death.

In Listening for Madeleine, Leonard Marcus traces perceptions of L’Engle through a collection of interviews with those who knew her; through the voices of publishers, family members, and fellow writers, he explores his subject as matriarch, mentor, friend, and icon. Often, one interview contradicts the last; but rather than feeling like one of L’Engle’s formidable ping-pong matches, the back-and-forth forms its own story. Cousins who speak of family “L’Englearities” suggest an inheritance of eccentricity. Luci Shaw speaks of her lifelong closeness with L’Engle in the chapter simply titled “Friend.”

Instead of trying to sum L’Engle up, the book breathes mystery into the life of a writer who loved living in the public eye. In his closing interview, Marcus—who has remained mostly in the background until this point—discusses how biographers suffer a little when initial heroic impressions must accommodate new insights and shadows. Marcus’s work and the remembrances of friends shed an intimate light on Madeleine L’Engle the human being, who resists simple categorization.

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