The big event in State College this week was the 55th annual book sale by the Penn State chapter of the American Association of University Women. It has been an annual event for our family since the 1970s, when the sale was held in the HUB ballroom on campus. Even when we lived in Maryland, we came back for the sale, which has since moved to the Snider Agricultural Arena on the edge of campus, past the football stadium.
This year, my prized find was My Mother’s Music, Paul West’s memoir of growing up in England. Paul was my mentor as I worked on my baccalaureate and master’s in English in the late sixties and early seventies. He introduced me to the magical realism of Garcia-Marquez and Cortazar, Malcolm Lowry’s mix of autobiography and symbolism, and other modern writers who helped me understand what the magic of writing fiction was all about.
In My Mother’s Music, Paul tells of life with his mother in the 1930s and during World War II. Trained as a classical pianist, Mildred West had given up pursuing a musical career in favor of marriage and raising two children in Derbyshire, giving piano lessons and playing for her own satisfaction. But as he describes it, Mildred gave Paul a gift by equating words to music. He writes, “I was finally forgiven for not having made my boyhood’s music with her, not at the piano anyway; but we certainly succumbed together to the music of words.”
Paul attributes his own very personal style to his mother’s idea of “all art aspiring to the condition of music.” His distinctive style made him a star in his own right. Paul became known internationally for his playful use of language to build a world that resonated with layers of meaning when seen simultaneously from different perspectives. As he wrote in the memoir, “A lost analogy is two universes wounded.”
Paul and his wife Diane Ackerman, herself a Penn State grad who has become internationally respected nature writer (most recently, The Human Age), eventually left Penn State for Ithaca, New York. A few years back he suffered a stroke. She wrote about it in 100 Names for Love, a powerful memoir of their life together and his recovery of the creative process after the stroke. Paul died this past October. I will miss him, but am glad to have his words—his own music—to keep me company.