Review: Annie Dillard’s ‘The Maytrees’

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.

Annie Dillard

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.

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15 Comments

Filed under Dillard—Saint Annie, fiction, poetry, REVIEW

15 responses to “Review: Annie Dillard’s ‘The Maytrees’

  1. That’s an outstanding review. I’ve not read fiction in ages, but I sure love Dillard, so this is it.

  2. I love the way you approached the poetic soul of this radically distilled novel, Olga. I read the book twice and found it almost unbearably beautiful. It was before I started the blog, and I have only written about it, around it, because as you imply, a review is almost impossible. She cut 1,000 pages to 200. It is a simple but remarkable love story, the kind my mother would have noted, captured, and told me. You are so right about it all being about love, the mystery of which is embedded in Dillard’s tale of a couple. I love your line about love: “The only thing we can do is to keep the little flame on against all odds and be grateful.”

    • Olga Khotiashova

      Thank you, Richard, for the leads your blog gives to my reading and the opportunity to introduce my reviews to your circle.

  3. What a beautiful review!
    It’s interesting that you are reading the book as an installation. It makes me think of space in a different way than I usually do when it comes to novels.
    I am very fond of Dillard’s essayistic works, but have yet to read The Maytrees (I think I have been afraid of it not standing up to the essays…).

    • Olga Khotiashova

      I actually was reading The Maytrees as a book-length poem. The image of installation came later when I tried to analyze what I was driven by. As for the essay/novel problem, I love Pilgrim at Tinker Creek but I could not resist the beauty and wholeness of The Maytrees.

  4. I too loved this review. So much love in it, and so much effort. I think the fact that you are using your second language, Olga, gives you a unique perspective on the novel. I hope this review finds its way to Dillard herself. She will recognize the perspicacity and the perserverance. Dillard has long been one of my favorites writers, but I have not read this one yet. i will.

    • Olga Khotiashova

      Thank you, Shirley. Overall, reading in second language raises unexpected perspectives like the desire not to miss a thing or the temptation to translate. It is both challenging and thrilling, and the effort definitely pays off.

  5. I am convinced, Richard, that we have the same library. And what an amazing review by Olga this was. So incredibly thoughtful.

  6. A fantastic review and it made me want to read her novel.
    I loved your poem you cited. It reminded me of Wait by Galway Kinell.
    I didn’t know that you spoke russian and could translate it but I always find that other languages often know how to capture the intimacy of our soul in a way that English doesn’t always.
    Best, Nancy

    • Olga Khotiashova

      Thank you for the hint to Galway Kinell’s poems. Wait is lovely. My 2010 summer reading was all about American poetry – the summer of wonderful discoveries. You’ve just added a line into my list of poets.

    • Olga Khotiashova

      Just to clarify: the poem I cited in the review is the original poem by Frank O’Hara.

  7. I copied for keeping the beautiful quote about not being able to control, define, or harness love (hacked up here, sorry). I loved reading this review for all the qualities others have commented on. I read The Maytrees when it first came out and remember not expecting to like it and then loving it. And now I can’t remember much about it, alas. Olga’s review makes me want to reread it. Dillard has made such a contribution to American literature. Her memoir An American Childhood is terrific, and unusual for a memoir in that nothing bad happens! It’s about a child’s coming into consciousness of self and world, and her essay on the writing of it, “To Fashion a Text,” in William Zinsser’s Inventing the Truth: the Art and Craft of Memoir is written with her usual verve and intelligence.

    • Olga Khotiashova

      Your comment is an award and encouragement for further reading and writing. Thank you, Paulette.

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