23 January 2011

Reynolds Price (1933-2011)

Well, maybe some time ago that would have been the headline, but not today. But there's still a problem with the 'Southern' ghetto tag, and the function of the word 'gay' too is still often not a mere identifier, but an emblem of stigmatization, or reduction at best.

To typecast Reynolds Price - a writer of many underrated novels, and a number essays - as merely 'Southen' or 'gay' would be to cram him into a straitjacket that he refused to conform to, to reduce his works to the regional and homosexual, when they are clearly universal and polysexual.

Price writes about the continuation of genetic elements from generation to generation, and of the individual either attempting to overcome the negative inheritance, or simply succumbing to it. He was a great writer, but essentially a realist, even in some ways a naturalist, at a time when others were gaining fame for their experimentation. His voice was largely drowned, but his time will come again.

Reynolds Price was born in Macon, North Carolina and taught for 50 years at Duke University, Durham, N.C. Rather depressingly, he is called 'a voice of the South' in his New York Times obituary. No, he was the voice of everyone, of all races, and his work bears that out.


Fr Petroc said...

I have two books by Reynolds Price and both have been and still are of enormous help to me. His 'Three Gospels' and 'A Serious Way of Wondering,'have much strengthened my faith in God and in our Lord. I hadn't realized that he had died until yesterday. I thank God for him, and I'm sure that many like me have been much influenced by him.

Dr Tony Shaw said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dr Tony Shaw said...

Thanks for the post. You may be interested in the Reynolds Price books I've commented on elsewhere in this blog, which you can best find by keying 'Reynolds' into the Blogger symbol to the top left of my homepage.


Fr Petroc said...

I'm reading Ardent Spirits at present and what a superb autobiography it is.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

I must read Ardent Spirits. So far the only non-fiction I've read is Feasting the Heart (his collection of NPR essays), but if you come across it, Susan Ketchin's 30-page interview with Reynolds Price in The Christ-Haunted Landscape: Faith and Doubt in Southern Fiction (which of course takes its main title from Flannery O'Connor's comment) is very interesting.

Fr Petroc said...

Ardent Spirits is a beautiful book in many ways. The remembering of his student days is both moving and vivid. His experiences have evoked tender recollections of my own special friendships as an undergraduate. The descriptions of his visits to Italy, and Rome in particular, strike many chords for me. Thanks for the information in your most recent reply.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Edmund White writes a very good, long review of this in the New York Review of Books, although only the first paragraphs are online. And, of course, this period is fictionalized in The Source of Light

Fr Petroc said...

Thanks for the info re' Edmund White. I've read a number of Edmund White's books.I shall 'Google' his review.

Fr Petroc said...

The great struggle in my own life has been to reconcile my sexual orientation with a conservative understanding of the Gospel. The book "A Serious Way of Wondering," by Reynolds Price has been a revelation. He has helped me to see our Lord with renewed vision and understanding.

Now reading this most recent book 'Ardent Spirits' I realize how much I have in common with the author and can echo many of his experiences; although in ways peculiar to my own personality.

Certain books turn us on and trigger an inner response that is both liberating and creative.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Yes, books change lives. Some really great ones are capable of changing us deeply, but all - let's say serious for want of a better word - literature changes us in some way, no matter how great or small a way that may be. Sometimes, just a sentence as even a phrase will strike me hard, and I'll remember it.

Obviously I'm not talking about the kind of books that are written just to make lots of money, but those whose author feels the need to write. Reynolds Price was never particularly open about being gay, but never concealed it either as far as I know: anyway, it's written all over his fiction, although its probably only in The Promise of Rest that he deals more directly with the issue.

It can't have been easy being gay in the American South (maybe apart from Key West?), but the only other gay Southern writers who immediately spring to mind are the obvious Tennessee Williams and Capote, and they probably didn't handle it too well wherever they were at a particular time. But Reynolds Price kept himself together, of course.

It's such a pity he came just at the wrong time in a literary sense, when everyone was so concerned with postmodernism that what he was saying came on as old-fashioned: as a result, he's ghettoized, treated as just a non-Southern Gothic Southerner, which is so reductive. (I also regret the vitual disappearance from the Southern literature canon of Madison Jones, but that's another matter.)

The fact remains, though, that Reynolds Price - a great writer, period - is not too well known in the U.S even, and virtually unheard of in the U.K. Looking at the French BNF catalog, it suggests just three books of his have been translated into French. There's something wrong.

Fr Petroc said...

Kafka made a most illuminating comment about books.

If the book we are reading does not wake us up with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it?
Good God, we would be happy if we had no books, and such books as make us happy we could,if need be, write ourselves. But what we much have are those books which come upon us like ill fortune and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be like an ice axe to break the sea frozen inside us.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Certainly Kafka's books can have a very strong effect, although I think they emphasize the psychical strangeness of the world more than anything else. In the end I think he's too reductive: more often than not, books don't have such a powerful effect as a whole but only in part. I find books are more about moments that we pick up in our memory and carry with us through life.

Reynolds Price's first journey into the world of letters - his first sentence - has a hammer effect:

'Just with his body and from inside like a snake, leaning that black motorcycle side to side, cutting in and out of the slow line of cars to get there first, staring due-north through goggles towards Mount Moriah and switching coon tails in everybody's face was Wesley Beavers, and laid against his back like sleep, spraddle-legged on the sheepskin seat behind him was Rosacoke Mustian who was maybe his girl and who had given up looking into the wind and trying to nod at every sad car in the line, and when he even speeded up and passed the truck (lent for the afternoon my Mr. Isaac Alston and driven by Sammy his man, hauling one pine box and one black boy dressed in all he could borrow, set up in a ladder-back chair with flowers banked round him and a foot on the box to steady it) - when he even passed that, Rosacoke said once into his back "Don't" and rested in humiliation, not thinking but with her hands on his hips for dear life and her white blouse blown out behind her like a banner in defeat.'

But I don't think he continued with this power thoughout the novel: the opening sentence is still just a moment, and the book as a whole doesn't maintain the impact, although it continues the central idea of conquest. It reminds me of Thom Gunn's 'On the Move', where instead of female surrender you have the natural world yielding to the masculine will.

On the other hand, I also love Annie Dillard's descriptions of the natural world in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, but she doesn't use a hammer or an ice axe, and doesn't need one: it's more insidious, like a warm infusion, a potion she's using to melt rather than break our ice.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

While I'm on the subject, this is a link to a small piece about Annie Dillard. I really must get round to writing a few words about her - Pilgrim is amazing: http://hubcap.clemson.edu/~sparks/dillard/bio.htm