In the late spring of 1933, Wright Morris, a student at Pomona College in California, hitchhiked to Chicago to take a job: "I was not without experience, of an artless sort, but I had yet to ride the rails, spend the night in a hoosegow or sit around the smoking fire in a hobo jungle, swapping yarns and the butts of cigarettes, all known to be indispensable in the education of an American writer."
After a summer of work, he had the stake for a Wanderjahr in Europe:
"My nest egg had grown to $360, which I figured would last me a year if I managed to live on a dollar a day. I had a new gabardine suit, a pair of crepe-soled shoes, a Schick razor with a year's supply of blades in the handle, an extra shirt, a change of socks, a Parker pen, a notebook, and a Modern Library edition of Thomas Mann's 'The Magic Mountain.' I had already read it, but it would seem a different book if I read it at sea, on a cattle boat."
Thus begins "Solo," the second volume of Morris' evocative, gently self-mocking autobiography; the first volume, "Will's Boy," was published in 1981. Since Morris has not announced his intentions, it is unclear whether further additions to the story are in the offing or whether he plans to leave his "deserving fool," as he is at the end of "Solo," on the edge of manhood; but whichever course he chooses to follow, he has already written, in these two memoirs, what may well be the best books of a very long and very distinguished literary career.
"Will's Boy" is the story of Morris' Middle Western boyhood as the only child of an amiable but rather aimless widower who shifted about in an uncertain progression from farm to city and back again; it ends with the young Morris, in an act of considerable courage and independence, finding his way to Pomona and beginning a new life. Now, in "Solo," he again seeks to flee his past in the American heartland--"Racing into the future, I saw it all vanish, and felt only relief"--but learns that it is, in fact, in this very past where he will find the key to his destiny.
He goes first to Vienna, but then is lured by a friend into the Austrian mountains, where--on his own magic mountain--he ends up spending a winter "out of this world" in a castle inhabited by a crew of beguiling eccentrics. It proves to be a crucial, invaluable period for him:
"From the big alcove window, the winter sky gray as drizzle, the barren trees black, the snow without glare, like chalk on a blackboard, the mill wheel locked fast in the pond ice, it seemed to me that time, as I used to live it, had stopped. That what I saw before me was a snippet of time, cut from a moving reel, a specimen with more of a past than a future, a crack in time's door that I had my eye to, where no bird flew, no snow fell, no child played on the pond ice and no dog barked. To be out of this world was to be out of time. One day I liked it. The next day I thought I might go nuts."
But he learns: about the rich variety of human character, about ways by which he can record images on the camera of his mind, about the permanence of his roots in America. Lying in his bedroom in the castle, he finds himself back at home: "Between sleeping and waking, I seemed to hear the faraway sound of ore boats honking on Lake Michigan." Like other Americans before and after him, he is taught by Europe that what he thinks of as "the losses" of his boyhood are his true heritage, that "in the old world I perceived, through the veil of my expectations, realities that predated American experience, but this did not explain my growing preference for the losses."
He goes to Italy and to France; he has adventures, including an inexplicable stay in an Italian jail; he moons over girls but gets nowhere with them; and he returns at last to America, where, "through no fault of my own, the time that had stopped had once more begun." His Wanderjahr is over and his apprenticeship as a writer is soon to begin. Now, a half-century later, he has taken this brief moment in a long life and made a jewel of a book out of it--a book as brief as the moment itself, and as lovely. CAPTION: Picture, Wright Morris; On the education of an American writer, Copyright (c) Lorn Victor