Many writers feel a close bond with Madeleine L’Engle. I’ve written here before about my connections, beginning with reading A Wind in the Door in second grade and startling my biochemist mother by asking her to show me a picture of mitochondria. In third grade, I read A Wrinkle in Time, and in fourth grade, a classmate and I spent several recess periods trying to build a model of a tesseract. In sixth grade, I wanted to be an astrophysicist like Mr. Murry, and in tenth grade a marine biologist like Adam Eddington. Around that time, I heard L’Engle speak at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, and she signed my battered old copy of A Wrinkle in Time and asked me what my name meant.
Like many people, I grew up with her books, reading the Time Quartet in elementary school and growing into her young adult novels. I rediscovered L’Engle in college and read almost all of her works then, discovering her adult novels, nonfiction, and older novels for the first time. I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I grew up, but her books helped me see who I wanted to be. Part of the time I felt like Vicky, as all the writing-inclined do, but I felt just as strongly pulled toward Polly of the impossible name (Polyhymnia is not such a far cry from Anindita), with her love of languages and theatre and travel.
When I went to graduate school immediately after college, I spent half of the next few years abroad. I’d take four books with me on every trip to carry comfort and home as best I could: L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light and A House Like a Lotus, Louise Gluck’s Vita Nova, and my undergrad adviser, Frank Bidart’s, Desire. These books kept me wondering and offered companionship and wisdom, as I worked my way through all of the Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon books and read Harry Potter in Spanish or Portuguese to learn the local languages. When I left MIT to study writing, I joked that instead of being a Madeleine L’Engle character, I’d discovered I wanted to be L’Engle herself, to invent and inhabit all of these worlds instead of choosing one.
While I don’t reread L’Engle with the same fervor now as before (someone once said that her ideas transcend her writing, and that stripped some of the magic for me), I do pick up new material, like having a cup of tea and a chat with an old friend — the conversation picks up where it left off, or it wanders, but it doesn’t matter because you know each other so well, even if you haven’t spoken in years.
I’ve been reading Listening for Madeleine, and I’m struck by how honest and generous this book is. It takes a beloved hero and shows her flaws without judging her for them and transforms Madeleine from an easily recognizable adolescent Meg or Vicky into a figure like Max from A House Like a Lotus — larger than life, flawed, but still lovable and full of love. It turns out that Madeleine L’Engle was, in fact, a Madeleine L’Engle character.
Social media researchers describe posting a Facebook or Twitter update, or even writing a blog post, as a performative act. We portray a certain version of ourselves in public, usually positive, and we develop our own rules about what’s acceptable to say and share, even if we don’t do this fully consciously. There’s nothing wrong with this sort of performance, which we do on a smaller scale every day by crafting our stories for individual audiences, recounting the same incident differently to a mother than to a girlfriend, but our social media interactions spotlight the act of writing as performance given the amalgamation of our audiences and feedback in the form of Likes and Retweets. Listening for Madeleine shows how L’Engle crafted her public persona through both her fiction and nonfiction and how she appropriated private moments in the process, altering personal history (often with negative consequences in her own family) for what she considered to be a larger truth.
I highly recommend it for L’Engle completists and publishing nerds. The book comprises 51 interviews with family members, church friends, and publishing colleagues, among others. The material is too specific and self-referential for a casual reader and is better suited to fans, biographers, and writers. One of the interviewees describes L’Engle as someone who preferred both/and to either/or, and this is where the book truly succeeds. People remember her differently, often in contradictory terms. Rather than explain these differences, Leonard Marcus lets them coexist. Each subject, after all, has a story to perform, and L’Engle is their character as much as they were hers.