The author of "The Sunken Cathedral" chooses five novels that reflect on the past.
"They Came Like Swallows" by William Maxwell (1937)
Maxwell’s early novel is one of those masterworks passed among writers like Tyndale’s gospels. The story orbits around Elizabeth Morison, adored mother to 8-year-old Bunny, an imaginative boy afraid of his own shadow, and his older brother, Robert. Her husband, James, also worships Elizabeth, although he appears far less enthralled by his sons. He doles out discipline and recites from the evening newspaper accounts of the Spanish influenza ravishing the country: “By the calm way that his father crossed one knee over the other it was clear that he was concerned with the epidemic for the same reason he was interested in floods in China, what happened in Congress.” In other words, not much at all, or with a kind of insular curiosity. But the epidemic will, in an instant, wrench this small-town portrait. And though the book takes place over the waning months of 1918, its depiction of the long reach of grief and the insistence of memory has always felt timeless to me.
"One Writer’s Beginnings" by Eudora Welty (1984)
‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” Faulkner famously wrote. In this three-act memoir, Faulkner’s fellow Southerner Eudora Welty confirms that the past can be more present than the present. (A framed note from Faulkner hung near Welty’s desk. “You’re doing all right,” it read.) Here is Welty speaking plainly about “how to follow, how to connect, find in the thick of the tangle what clear line persists. The strands are all there: to the memory nothing is ever really lost.” Certainly not to Welty, who renders her Southern childhood with deft strokes: her mother’s roses and the way she sang to her children; her father’s clocks and obsession with train schedules; the family’s yearly drives to relatives in Ohio and West Virginia. “Crossing a river, crossing a county line, crossing a state line—especially crossing the line you couldn’t see but knew was there, between the South and the North—you could draw a breath and feel the difference.” She lived a long and wholly examined life in the house her father built, with her mother, for much of it, in the next room or downstairs fussing in the kitchen. “As you have seen,” she writes at the close of her memoir, “I am a writer who came from a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.”
"Pitch Dark" by Renata Adler (1983)
Renata Adler’s second novel is a slippery narrative of such urgency that we sense the ticking off of seconds to the detonation ahead. We try to keep pace with her narrator, Kate Ennis—journalist, intellectual, philosopher, humorist, thief, liar—as she chronicles, tears apart and then reconstructs the circumstances of her life, in particular her eight-year love affair with a married man. Her backward glance is more a piercing stare, brutal in its assessment: “We had been adamant about how our lives would be, not like the stereotype daughters of left-wing parents, not like the fallen woman in all of letters.” She tries to make meaning—“Did I throw the most important thing perhaps, by accident, away?” But it’s a moot point. Questions about the past have no answers, or, rather, they have an infinite number of possible answers. As Kate acknowledges: “For a woman, it is always, don’t you see, Scheherazade.”
"Lucy Gayheart" by Willa Cather (1935)
Lucy Gayheart may be the best Willa Cather novel you’ve never heard of. Its eponymous young heroine is wistfully introduced in the first sentence as someone the townspeople of Haverford on the Platte still speak of—“not . . . a great deal, to be sure; life goes on and we live in the present.” Or do we? It is 1902, and Lucy has left the flat Nebraska landscape for the heights of big-city Chicago. Hired as a piano accompanist to the brooding baritone Clement Sebastian, Gayheart soon learns—naturally, in Sebastian’s arms—that a life devoted to art and emotion is the only kind worth living. When hometown sweetheart Harry Gordon, a self-centered banker’s boy, travels to Chicago, he believes that he has only to ask Lucy which month she prefers to marry to make her his bride. But she refuses, disconsolate in his company. “That happiness she had so lately found, where was it?” Her passionate, impulsive rejection sets her demise into motion, although the memory of her smolders in Harry Gordon’s heart long after she’s gone. “Years ago he used to fight against reflection. But now he sometimes felt a melancholy pleasure in looking back.” The townspeople look back too, wondering at the mystery of Lucy Gayheart, a girl they thought they knew.
"A Month in the Country" by J.L. Carr (1980)
J.L. Carr’s short novel is so transporting that to read it as you should, in one uninterrupted sitting, is to be swept away to the remote Yorkshire village of Oxgodby at the start of another dry summer. Tom Birkin, a veteran of the Great War and survivor of Passchendaele—and still suffering from shell shock—comes to the quirky village prepared to restore a medieval mural at the local church. He has been hired by the Rev. J.G. Keach with funds bequeathed by a wealthy parishioner. What Birkin is unprepared for is the Botticellian beauty of Keach’s wife, Alice, and the kinship he feels for the anonymous, long-gone mural-painter. The brief sojourn irrevocably alters Birkin. “We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours forever,” he recalls. With his narrative, he restores his experience in Oxgodby as carefully as he once did the centuries-old masterpiece: “There had once been a gray wall, and now there were shapes and colors.”
About Kate Walbert
Kate Walbert was born in New York City and raised in Georgia, Texas, Japan and Pennsylvania, among other places. She is the author of A Short History of Women, chosen by The New York Times Book Review as one of the ten best books of 2009 and a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize, Our Kind, a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction in 2004, The Gardens of Kyoto, winner of the 2002 Connecticut Book Award in Fiction in 2002, and Where She Went, a collection of linked stories and New York Times notable book. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fiction fellowship, a Connecticut Commission on the Arts fiction fellowship, and a Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Fellowship at the New York Public Library. Her short fiction has been published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize stories.
From 1990 to 2005, she lectured in fiction writing at Yale University. She currently lives in New York City with her family. Her most recent book is The Sunken Cathedral.
This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal's Five Best column and is reprinted here with their permission and the permssion of the author.