Friday, 1 December 2017

Eudora Welty, The Optimist's Daughter

I read Eudora Welty's The Optimist's Daughter once, and then, pleased with its spare, close focus, and haunted by an idea of home, I started again almost immediately. A few pages into the second reading I found a couple of sentences that brought a strange mix of comfort—the detail, the bottomless familiar—and disquiet that this novel, like all Eudora Welty's writing, arises out of a rootedness of which I have no notion. Laurel, and her father, and his new young wife, and the doctor, are in a hospital in New Orleans, which is out of town for all of them.
Laurel looked for a moment into the experienced face, so guileless. The Mississippi country that lay behind him was all in it.
The Mississippi country that lay behind his face also lay behind Eudora Welty. The country that lies behind my face, experienced but not guileless, behind my words, is a murky, jangling, evasive, uncomfortable, mostly northern European terrain, focused for the past forty years on a patch of ground in County Cork, way over west from anything that would pass for a place of origin, a patch that now holds all my underpopulated culture, though full of tree-planting and gardening.

Eudora Welty was a gardener too. Species names, as well as familiars, like the rose known as Miss Becky's Climber, confirm her sense of belonging.

Some forty pages in, Laurel's father dies, and the doctor treating him, who's from 'up home' too, says to Laurel, ' there's nobody from home with you. Would you care to put up with us for the rest of the night?' When, after her father's death, she accompanies his body 'up home', the friends who gather around her are the six bridesmaids, as she still calls them, years after her marriage, years into her widowhood, and a cast of local characters who all knew her and her family's history. She has even remembered to bring clothes appropriate to a little garden work among the irises. The only stranger is her father's second wife, the selfish young Texan, Wanda Fay, and a chimney swift that flies through the house from room to room.

We readers are all stabbed by different words, different expressions, with pleasure, with pain, with longing or with regret. We read to remember home or to realise that we don't know what or where it is.

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