A Circle of Quiet, by Madeleine L’Engle,
#1 in the 4 of her Croswicks Journals
Published in 1971, ★★★✫
I saw that my friend Anne White read and recommended this book, and when I saw it at the last book store sale, 6 months ago or so, for $1.00, I was excited. This book and Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Short Stories were the major hits that sale. Which reminds me that I truly have many exceptional great titles I need to read. This reminds me of a title that has mixed reviews among my friends and acquaintances, Howards End Is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home. I read from my shelves, but I keep buying books. My book spending is not problematic or out of control. If it were, I’d stop or slow it down to a reasonable pace. And I often go through my books, and pick those I’m not interested in anymore for some reason, and turn them in at that same local bookstore for credit. I truly pay very little for the books that interest me, I’m privileged to find them at very good prices. I also use the library for audios or Kindle books. Enough. Back to the book. It’s difficult to review it since it’s thoughts and anecdotes. This is just a short and informal record of my impressions.
I liked the book, its confidential tone. It was like sitting down for a coffee with Madeleine every time I opened it. In it, she shares as much as she can share about her home life, her relationship with her husband, -a theater actor-, with her children, friends, and community. Crosswicks, the name of this series of three books from which A Circle of Quiet is the first title, is the name of the place in NJ where she had a summer home.
What I appreciated the most in this book were her thoughts about art, writing, youth. How she speaks about science versus myth, how myth and fantasy relate to faith, and the mysterious. I found this two year old article of an English teacher who speaks of what L’Engle and C.S. Lewis meant to her. She talks about the whole Crosswicks series. One of them is devoted to her courting, marriage, and life with her husband, the actor Hugh Franklin. The article gave me a good insight of something I felt while reading this book and others similar to it, (such as The Life Giving Home, by the Clarksons), the problem with books that tell about our lives. I like Jeanette Walls’s approach to this issue in her novel The Great Castle. When I read it, knowing that it was based on her own life, I had to forget about that. It’s hyperbolic in some places, it wouldn’t work if we keep comparing it to reality. I agree then, that it’s easier to ‘write about ourselves through fiction’. Sometimes, as the article remarks, we find the fictionalized characters of an author to be very real, while the real people portrayed in the books appears fictional.
I’ve noticed that when talking to others about my past, or my family in Madrid, etc. During our vacation, my parents, siblings and I had a very intense talk. We all related how their parenting felt for each of us. While we have some common experiences, and there’s a degree of objectivity in any situation, but a book or memoir it’s not a compilation of facts, neither does fall one hundred percent into fiction. Probably, L’Engle did what I do when I talk to others about my extended family, I do focus on the positive, I place problems or bad experiences into a wider context, I find meaning. What I appreciate about books like this, it’s that the ideas, concepts, the world views the author presents, are nicely tangled up with personal anecdotes into a peculiar life narrative. Frankly, I’m not the one to check what’s mentioned in the book against facts or second opinions. But I warn you, many times the children of the author, or those around, don’t see the match between how a relative, or some events are told by the author, and the reality they lived.
After all, even the idea of realism in literature is a controversial one. Many authors speak eloquently about that. I never tire of reading Nabokov’s thoughts on what’s real in literature in his essay Good Readers and Good Writers, and this is something that, in return, reminds me of the polemic Dostoevsky versus Tolstoy, who’s the greatest? Even Borges declared there’s objective benchmarks to judge both their abilities. In that brainy and difficult to follow heated argument, I end up believing that while we can come up with an objective pattern, that pattern already favors one of the two. In one word, I still don’t believe one to be greatest for the simple reason that literature can never be detached from its readers. C.S. Lewis, in his An Experiment in Criticism, poses a different premise, -a different kind of question if you wish. L’Engle also speaks beautifully as to how we don’t live to answer questions, (Dorothy Sayers speaks to that in her The Mind of the Maker), maybe, she proposes, it’s more important to ask ourselves, “are we asking the right questions?”)
All of the sudden, instead of more typically reviewing A Circle of Quiet, I’m just disparaging about many books and a mix of ideas. But this is what good books provoke. They exhort you to make connections, to see themes that cut through many authors, (what does a writer do, how do we live, what’s real, what’s missing in our life), themes that occupy the mind of a reader.
A final word. This book is not brainy, it’s philosophical, but it’s also emotional. It’s, I would say, a clever conversation with a fellow life sojourner. Madeleine L’Engle writes about the beauty and the meaning in her life. Maybe she has something to tell YOU too.