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Valerie Martin and The Moviegoer

Patrick Samway, S.J. is the author of Walker Percy: A Life and the editor of Signposts in a Strange Land (a collection of essays by Percy) and A Thief of Peirce (correspondence between Percy and Peirce scholar Ken Ketner). We caught up with Fr. Samway in Chad, where he has been serving as priest for the past year, and he graciously agreed to contribute this piece and another one (which we’ll post in a few days) as part of our celebration of Walker Percy’s birthday and the 50th anniversary of The Moviegoer. Fr. Samway’s current projects include a book on Flannery O’Connor and a collection of the letters of John Berryman and Robert Giroux. In what follows, Fr. Samway explores the impact Percy had as an occasional college professor. After some general remarks, the discussion zeroes in on the novel Alexandra—by Percy’s former student Valerie Martin—and the evident influence The Moviegoer had on Martin’s creation of the character Claude.

Because of some innate sense of seeking both emotional balance and intellectual stimulation, and aided by the encouragement of family and friends, Walker Percy deliberately participated in activities that forced him to venture outside the seclusion of either his home in Covington, Louisiana—and for short periods of time, his three writing studios. For many years, he lunched with a small group of male friends on Wednesdays, while on the following day he lunched at Bechac’s with younger writers and artists of one sort or another. With wife “Bunt” he enjoyed book-discussion groups, and for a while they both were part of two separate groups.

Walker enjoyed teaching university students, though he had some reservations about his teaching capabilities. He taught for two semesters (fall of 1974 and winter of 1975) at Louisiana State University, where his students included novelist Elizabeth Nell Dubus (sister of Andre Dubus, père), literary critic Huey Guagliardo, and poets Wyatt Prunty and Leo Luke Marcello. He later taught for one semester at a local seminary in 1983. Refusing the post as writer-in-residence during his productive years at such prestigious institutions of higher learning as Yale, Stanford, Lehigh, Williams, and Indiana University, Walker also taught twice at Loyola University in New Orleans (fall of 1967 and fall of 1976). When he first taught at Loyola, The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman had been published, and he felt prepared to offer a seminar, one that he described as a medical-pathological, psychiatric, anthropological approach to modern fiction. Though he was busy writing Love in the Ruins, the composition of which was clearly influenced by the visit to the Trappist monk Thomas Merton that summer, Walker and his seven students read and discussed works by Dostoevsky, Sartre, Camus, Hemingway, Faulkner, Styron, Ellison, Robbe-Grille, Edward L. Wallant, and Flannery O’Connor.

By the time he met with his 12 students in his second round at Loyola, he was correcting the galleys of Lancelot and ostensibly pretending not to be excited about the possibility of having The Moviegoer made into a commercial film, though deep down, as he once told me, he saw the future income from this cinematic project as a way of paying for his daughters’ college educations. This time, with the encouragement of Dawson Gaillard of Loyola’s English Department, he taught a course on creative writing, knowing full well the limitations of such a course. Advertised locally, and thus inundated with approximately 150 manuscripts in various stages of progress, this course provided Walker with more work than he had anticipated, though he delighted in the later successes of his students. Walter Isaacson, a Harvard graduate and a former Rhodes Scholar at Pembroke College, then working in New Orleans as a reporter for The States-Item, eventually became the managing editor of Time magazine and a journalism professor at Columbia. W. Kenneth Holditch, retired Research Professor in the English Department at the University of New Orleans, distinguished himself as a critic of Southern literary works, particularly in the theatrical works of Tennessee Williams. Larry Gray, armed already with a doctorate in English from the University of Notre Dame when Walker first met him, wrote plays and taught for years at Southeastern Louisiana University at Hammond. His former colleague, Tim Gautreaux, and Valerie Martin, likewise a successful writer of fiction, are perhaps Walker’s two former students most recognized for their creative talents as writers of fiction.

Just a word about Valerie Martin, because I am a big fan of her fiction. Born in Missouri, she moved to New Orleans, when she was about three, attended high school there, and graduated from the University of New Orleans in 1970, followed by graduate work at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She later taught for six years at U.N.O., where she caught up with her former professor Ken Holditch. After finishing Set in Motion in 1975, which Walker had read piecemeal and for which he wrote a blurb, Martin enrolled in his class, after reading a notice about it in a local newspaper. (Walker later refused to give her a blurb for A Recent Martyr.) Her work-in-progress, a novel called Alexandra, did not particularly appeal to Walker, as she later told me. Martin, who never felt particularly close to Walker and, unlike some of Walker’s other students, never visited him at his home in Covington, believed that The Moviegoer was livelier and more mature than Love in the Ruins. Curiously, she was modeling, as she told me, the narrator of Alexandra, Claude, on Walker. Though, she was more taken with Walker’s characters than with his own personality, it is not difficult to see the resemblance between Claude and Percy’s Binx Bolling of The Moviegoer. In fact, Walker called her one day, and commented, somewhat questioningly about Claude: “I don’t know. This Claude guy. Kind of a loser,” which Martin heuristically interpreted to mean that Claude was “too affable.” “What I got mostly from his class and his fiction,” she told me, “were basic attitudes that would permeate my work.”

But more is at stake, I believe. Like Binx, 49-year-old Claude, whose life can be summed up by “penny-pinching, joyless tedium,” seeks the company of unmarried women, and in the case of Alexandra, a beautiful woman (and illegitimate orphan who earns her living tending bar in the French Quarter), he accompanies her to an island close off Covington, Louisiana, on the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain, due north of New Orleans. Walker lived then in Covington, a town mentioned by name in Martin’s novel. Alex’s pregnant friend, Diana, lives in isolated bliss, apart from the father of her child, whom she has dismissed. Though curiously attracted to Diana, Claude and Alex have moments of powerful and sustained sexual passion. Yet, at times, Claude questions whether or not Alex and Diana have a lesbian relationship.

The maze on Diana’s property becomes the novel’s central metaphor, and one is not sure whether Claude ever finds his way out. At the novel’s conclusion, as Alex has decided to return to New Orleans, she speaks with Binx’s emotional accent: “Alexandra. If I had known what you would cost me I never would have laid a hand on you. I thought I was acquainted with the dreariness of life, with my own dull prospects, but it was nothing to this. Anything would be easier to endure. But this tedium, this lifelessness, this utter sense of loss. What does it matter where I do, what I do, having somehow, through some oversight lost you. I’ve lost it all. I’m perfectly free, thanks to you, my sweet love, my cruel intolerant mistress. I hope the integrity is worth this price to you, but the truth is I care nothing for it.”

In fact Claude seems to extract little insight into his relationship with Alex, or Diana, for that matter, whose child he delivers on a boat, in a scene that has certain, though less cosmic, links with Faulkner’s story “Old Man,” in If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem. Martin’s description of childbirth constitutes the most original writing in this novel.

Like Percy’s Lancelot, Alexandra can be considered a confessional and mystery novel, whose unresolved subplot concerns a friend of Alex—a Claude-look-alike—who takes Diana to a motel on Airline Highway and binds her hands behind her back, with the intention of filming this incident. Alex, who just happens to be skilled at throwing knives, arrives in time to save Diana. It was later thought by Banjo, himself an obscure character who lives on Diana’s property, that Alex stabbed Alex’s friend—though Claude, and thus the reader, never knows for sure if such a man existed at all. It might be argued, I believe, that the death of a film buff might have been inspired by Walker’s novel. And contrary to the tenuous, but totally appropriate conclusion of The Moviegoer, which puts Binx and Kate in an asymptotical relationship that moves into an unseen future, Claude’s future seems highly unpredictable, almost as if his relationships with Alex and Diana—like Binx’s with his secretaries Sharon, Marcia, and Linda—existed in a social and emotional vacuum. Martin’s Claude is a more sexually involved Binx redivivus, without Kate’s psychologically fragile human magnetism that pulls Binx toward values that can ground his future life.

Like Nancy Lemann and Chris Wiltz, Sheila Bosworth considered herself one of Walker’s students, though she never took a class from him. But of the women who were in Walker’s classes, Valerie Martin stands out as the most accomplished writer of fiction. Walker’s students have continued to grow as fiction writers in directions proper to each, and each willingly has acknowledged a debt to a person they knew and admired. What he most gave them was an opportunity to be in his presence and allow them the freedom to grow in ways only they could perceive.

Patrick Samway, S.J.

Comments

  1. Jonathan Webb says:

    Thank you Father, it’s an honor to have you post on Korrektiv. We know you’re a busy man.

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