By Olga Khotiashova
The golden rule of software engineering says that perfect code must be simple; it shyly omits though that one must be a professional to understand and appreciate such code. When I, a non-native English speaker, began reading The Maytrees by Annie Dillard, I was struck by a feeling, keen and simple like a death sentence: When will I understand American literature – NEVER. The crash of one more childish illusion. Then what made me keep reading? It was definitely not an urge to master unconventional grammar or sophisticated vocabulary. So what?
Nature. In one of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, Crows, an art student steps into Van Gogh’s painting and wanders there, somewhere between a dream and reality. He even meets the master himself and talks to him. Something similar happens when you read The Maytrees. Cape Cod is one of the protagonists of the novel. It lives and breathes, you can feel its dry sand and smell its salty grass. Its bohemian inhabitants are the part of the landscape. Even their names – Deary Hightoe, Reevadare Weaver – sound like the names of exotic plants. And they are always in love.
Love. For centuries, writers and poets have been coming up with the definitions of love, none of them comprehensive. Annie Dillard explores the subject thoroughly disposing of everything but pure love. She distills it into a dried and odorless substance if there is any substance at all. It is probably more like a vacuum: the beloved are held together like the Magdeburg hemispheres in von Guericke experiment while the air is sucked out from inside of them. The construction is rather fragile, though. As John Banville wrote, “Love, as we call it, has a fickle tendency to transfer itself, by a heartless, sidewise shift, from one bright object to a brighter, in the most inappropriate of circumstances.”
Whatever love may be, Annie Dillard meticulously collects and sorts out its tokens: a twig, a feather, a seashell—and attaches them to the landscape by means of poetry.
Poetry. What else but poetry would you call those gnomic remarks both moving and undecipherable scattered over the novel? They are an inseparable component of the novel which weaves love, one of a few things distinguishing a human being from other creatures, into the Nature. If it were possible to distill pure poetry from the novel it might sound in tune with this Poem by Frank O’Hara:
Light clarity avocado salad in the morning
after all the terrible things I do how amazing it is
to find forgiveness and love, not even forgiveness
since what is done is done and forgiveness isn’t love
and love is love nothing can ever go wrong
though things can get irritating boring and dispensable
(in the imagination) but not really for love
though block away you feel distant the mere presence
changes everything like a chemical dropped on a paper
and all thoughts disappear in a strange quiet excitement
I am sure of nothing but this, intensified by breathing.
A piece of modern art composed of different materials is usually called an installation. In The Maytrees, nature and love connected by means of poetry make up an installation in the realm of which the whole story unfolds. The story itself is simple: 216 pages including prologue, three parts and epilogue. Three events: separation, loss and death, as Annie Dillard puts it in the prologue, happen one in each of the parts. Prologue and epilogue are all about love.
We cannot control love, we cannot even define it. It is beyond our power to start the flame of love and there is no harness to hold it. The only thing we can do is to keep the little flame on against all odds and be grateful. That is what I thought when I finished reading The Maytrees. Did I get it right? How much did I miss? I had a reliable tool to figure it out—translation. So I randomly picked a three-page chapter from somewhere in the middle and tried to translate it into my native Russian. The process went on surprisingly smoothly. Even so-called coded messages transformed into something moving if not completely meaningful. And the most reassuring was that the overall impression had not changed, it had become more strong and clear. I have almost learned the piece by heart and still recite it sometimes mixing English and Russian sentences and having unchanging pleasure and excitement.
I deliberately did not include any quotations in this review. It seemed impossible to tear out a piece without damaging the whole installation. The novel is like a book-length—life-length?— poem, it is everything but banal or sentimental, and with each new reading it gets better as real poetry always does.