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Sunday, 25 September 2011

Saturday was a leisurely day. In the morning I spent a full hour up by the ranch listening to soccer commentary from home and even received a half-time text from a friend who was at the game I was listening to. Modern life, eh? I love it. In the afternoon I wrote, and in the evening I went out and sat on a hilltop to watch the sun highlight the yellowing leaves and the pink of the bunch-grass.

I haven’t yet said much about what I found in the Sandoz archive. I should point out that I spent a week looking at Mari’s papers in the archive at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln some years ago, and have a pile of photo-copied correspondence, mostly about her efforts to get Old Jules and her other early works published, which was a heroic endeavour. This week at Chadron, I suppose was looking more for clues about her character and personality. I knew, for example, that she was known to have a passing interest in aspects of spiritualism. What I came across seemed little more than the superstitions of  a woman who was desperate to be reassured that she was going to make it, sometime – and that, having made the breakthrough, she would continue to succeed. Anybody who has lived for years without the security of a regular income will recognise that nagging worry. There were wish-lists, generally to do with her attempts to sell a story or finish a book, each letter in a title or a publisher’s name being accorded a number relating to its place in the alphabet to see whether they added up to a propitious number.

There was also this letter from a graphologist.

I am reminded of the lists I used to keep, and still have in my journals, of projects on the blocks, and work doing the rounds of publishers. I once listed 31 separate ‘live’ projects, and wondered why I was making no money. Editors would say helpful things like ‘don’t spread yourself so thin’, while I went slowly crazy wondering which horse I was supposed to be backing. I also remember wondering, time and again, why the breaks always seemed to come from some unexpected place where I hadn’t even thought to look.

But it does seem that her anxiety drove her to seek portents in the turning of cards, as seen in this scrap of paper (one of several) on which she notes that it was “improbable” that Harpers would take Foal of Heaven: she had only drawn “2 aces in first 13 cards”.

However, these anxieties were mostly in abeyance in her later, ‘harvest’ years, when a much more joyous – although no less diligent and focussed – persona shone through, as seen in this photo of her at a book signing in the 1950s.

She had always been a fun-lover, as this 1971 recollection from an old acquaintance, Tom Quinn, testifies:

 If there was a secret to Mari’s success it was just that diligence and determination that saw her through the toughest years, her twenties and early thirties, and her willingness to shut out the world when she needed to – even if it meant pinning a very blunt note on her door to keep visitors away.

(Sorry - I've no idea why it's rotated, and cannot fix it.) One has to be careful not to read too much into the papers a person leaves behind, but sometimes there are definite clues there as to his or her character. When Mari was suffering from cancer she wrote this note, which appears to be a blank, as if she planned to send copies to a number of people in reply to their enquiries and so cut short the tedious business of explaining her circumstances to everyone individually:

I now have a little over a week to finish my writing and get tidied up here. And of course the weather has decided to put on its very best face, just to make the departure all the harder. Two weeks from now all my Nebraska materials will be stowed away in my office at home and I’ll have resumed my ghost-writing work. I have to produce 50,000 words – good ones – by the end of January. But I still have every hope of completing a book-length manuscript before I leave her. Some time over the next few days, however, I need to try and call on Caroline, and I am determined to get across to Alliance and visit the one Sandoz site I have yet to see, Old Jules’ grave.  It’s going to be a busy time.

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