Thursday January 27th, 2011

Reynolds Price, 1933-2011

PRICE, REYNOLDSReynolds Price died last week at 77. Of his many, many works, I’ve only read The Surface of Earth and The Source of Light, the first two books in a trilogy about the fictional Mayfield family. The New York Times obit said the trilogy “confounded critics.” I read them a long time ago — I remember them being highly stylized (and maybe maudlin), but also affecting.

At the news of his death, the Paris Review linked to the magazine’s 1991 interview with Price, conducted by Frederick Busch. It has several almost aphoristic winners, like: “The root problem is that cities are the least permanent things in our civilization. Any pebble on the outskirts of town stands a far better chance of lasting than New York City does.” And: “The chief harm in charging people for writing degrees is of course the lie you’re all but bound to tell — that each one’s a possible Conrad or Brontë — when most of them can’t even tell a good joke, much less the stories of this huge country.”

I was especially moved by this longer description of his relationship with his parents:

They were almost too lovable, which is something I’ve heard very few people say about their parents. I think both my brother and I, who were their only children to survive infancy, have all our lives been handicapped by the fact that we seldom meet human beings as loyal, affectionate, or continuously amusing as our parents were. They were both grand talkers, and my father also had a thoroughly first-class verbal and gestural wit. He was a great comedian — and I’m thinking of Charlie Chaplin when I say that — though he never had a moment’s training nor a moment’s professional opportunity to exhibit it. Among all his friends, he was absolutely everybody’s favorite person to see. By the time I was born in 1933, he was a very serious alcoholic — I don’t guess there are any unserious alcoholics — but he made a deal with God when I was born. My mother and I were both in danger during her labor — I was one of the last American bourgeois children born at home — and my father vowed to God that if mother and I survived he would stop drinking. We survived, and he did. It took him a couple of years, but he did.