2 March 2017

Dreaming Leaps of Consciousness: Tessa Hadley on Eudora Welty

Posted by Tessa Hadley

EVENT: Tessa Hadley discusses Eudora Welty with Bernard Schwartz at the Bookshop on Monday 13 March; the event will also feature rare archival recordings of Welty reading her own stories. Below, Hadley describes what drew her to Welty’s work.

I read Faulkner first, in my thirties perhaps – he’s more or less Welty’s contemporary, and they’re both from Mississippi. I was drawn to his novels and I still am – their finding grandeur in poor lives without condescension; the sensual dense texture of the descriptions. But I also found them forbidding, monumental, morose.

Then I discovered Welty: her prose and her world had the same density and vivid life as Faulkner’s (it’s unmistakable that they’re breathing the same Southern air) and yet also a wit and lightness which made them slide more easily and naturally into my mind and senses, take up residence there. Awful things happen in her stories: yet her prose is just joyous, sentence by sentence. She and Faulkner are writing in that period of modernism when writers aren’t afraid that they have to be plain: they can work the words as hard as it takes, make all sorts of dreaming leaps of consciousness inside their sentences, in order to make the represented moment appear perfectly true on the page. The reader just has to keep up – will learn how.

I don't think a writer could get away with that indirection, those thought-leaps now – it wouldn’t sound right, we don’t live in the same era. Perhaps I like the stories in Welty’s collection The Golden Apples best of all – ‘June Recital’ and ‘Moon Lake’ and ‘The Wanderers’ – the boldest and most free and least stylised ones. And then I love that extraordinary late short novel, The Optimist’s Daughter, with its huge subject – the death of a father, a daughter’s displacement by the new wife and widow. It doesn’t put a foot wrong – like crossing a broad terrible river on small brilliant stepping stones, each placed perfectly, with seemingly no effort of planning or construction. Yet always the risk of the river is real - you might be carried away!

The Poetry Centre in New York has recordings of two readings Eudora Welty did there, one in the 1950s and one in the eighties. At the London Review Bookshop I'm going to be listening, along with Bernard Schwartz who runs the Poetry Centre, to Welty reading from her early story ‘The Wide Net’. We’ll be talking about Welty’s story and her writing, and about what happens when we hear her work read out loud, in her own voice.

Tessa Hadley’s ‘Bad Dreams and Other Stories’ was published by Jonathan Cape in January. She will speak about Eudora Welty at the Bookshop on Monday 13 March. Book tickets here.