Sunday, September 09, 2007

Madeleine L'Engle, 1919-2007

On Thursday, I read Dance in the Desert to Adriana for the first time. On Friday I came home and read the news that Madeleine L'Engle had died the day before. I was stunned. I have a shelf full of her books, and they aren't going anywhere, but it still feels as though I've lost a good friend.

I can remember approximately when I read each of her novels for the first time, beginning with Meet the Austins the summer before second grade, but I don't actually remember doing so. I don't remember what it was like to pick one up and read it cover to cover for the first time, not knowing what was going to happen next. Because now, after reading the books over and over for twenty years, I know exactly what will happen next, as if they are no longer stories authored by someone else, but my own memories. Now, I rarely start at the beginning (and go on till I come to the end and then stop); I can pick up any of her books from my shelf, open to any page, and read bits and pieces--the parts I like the best, the parts that suddenly have more meaning for me because of something going on in my own life, or the part that I happen to open to on that particular day.

I was in college when I started reading L'Engle's nonfiction. I made my way through the Crosswicks series, and some of her more religious books. I found that my ideas of Christianity and spirituality were very much in tune with hers, as though I'd been reading these books all along, which surprised me, but when I wondered aloud about this to a someone I knew, she pointed out that if I'd been reading L'Engle's fiction since I was seven years old, it wasn't at all astonishing to find that I had internalized a lot of the author's themes. She was right, and I continued to devour the books, finding reassurance in having those themes spelled out so clearly at a time when I quite needed some form of spirituality.

I love all Madeleine L'Engle's books, but the fiction is what has remained most important to me. A Ring of Endless Light is by far my favorite. I suppose that when I first read it, when I was ten, the dolphins in the story were what appealed to me most. I had a stuffed dolphin that my Grandma Ruth had bought for me at Marine World, and I named it Basil after the dolphin in the book. And it appealed to me because my own grandfather had just died (which is, I assume, why my mom had given me the book at that particular time) and I could relate to Vicky Austin watching her own grandfather die. But even as I got older, the book remained important to me. I thought that might change, that as I got further from Vicky Austin's not-quite-sixteen, I might not identify with her the same way, but that hasn't been the case at all. Maybe I still need it because the confused adolescent in me can find reassurance in the story, or maybe the story and its themes are more universal. Whatever it is, it's the book I turn to most often, sometimes for comfort, sometimes just because I want something familiar to read. I think I'm on my fourth copy of it, having worn several out in the past two decades.

Even though I love Light the most, A Wrinkle in Time is a close second. I can't imagine not knowing the story. Earlier this summer, Brian started his new job before our apartment became available, so we spent a few days in corporate housing down in Santa Clara, and we laughed at the rows of new, perfect, nearly identical condos on the same road. "I half-expect to see little boys all bouncing red balls in sync with one another," Brian said, surprising me with the reference. I will forever think of that neighborhood as Kamazotz because of that. At dinner this evening, the world of people with no eyes came up in the conversation. I often quote Mrs. Whatsit to the cat when she does something less than graceful, offering her liniment for her dignity as she stalks away. At a seminar in grad school we were asked if we knew the first line of our favorite book: "It was a dark and stormy night," I told the professor, getting a chuckle from her and some of the others in the class. I became good friends with a guy who knew exactly which book I meant. Brian and I go through periods of reading aloud to one another. A couple of years ago we tried to do that with Wrinkle, a book that Brian read as a child but not since then, but we only made it a few chapters in. Reading it out loud to Brian felt strange to me. Somehow it just didn't sound right. Or, more exactly, it didn't feel right; it's a book that millions of people have read, but reading it aloud I felt as though I were sharing a secret. I suppose that that's why I haven't seen the movie versions of Wrinkle or Light that were released in the past few years: even though I usually enjoy seeing the film adaptations of books, these are somehow too special to me.

I've been a bit sad this weekend, feeling that I've lost something. Even if Madeleine L'Engle herself wasn't a friend, all of her books certainly feel to me like old friends. I grew up with these characters, reading the books over and over again. The first time Brian and I went to New York, I insisted upon going to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where L'Engle was a writer-in-residence and librarian. Several of her novels are set around the cathedral, and I had to admit to Brian as we left that, not only did I expect to run into one of the fictional characters, but when I imagined that happening, I also thought that they would somehow recognize me. It was a silly thought, I know, but after reading the books so many times, it somehow seemed possible. And I thought that Madeleine might have understood.

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

I love A Wrinkle In Time too. For some reason, I never read any of her other books. Sounds like I have catching up to do!