On William Maxwell

Several times over the past few years of blogging, I’ve mentioned one of my all-time favourite books, The Chateau, by William Maxwell. I adored this book when I first read it, which must be all of five or six years ago now. I remembered it as being a story in which not a great deal really happened, but the way it was written, so perceptive, so accurate about human relationships, so bittersweet, so real, made it an experience of utter richness. I remember very clearly that I didn’t want it to end. Now I’ve never been much of a one for rereading, partly because there are so many books out there deserving of my attention, and partly because I fear that literary love affairs may be like holiday romances, dependent to some extent on the moment in time and the circumstances under which the partners come together. I like to preserve the joy and innocence of a wonderful read that might not survive transplantation to a different mental climate. But a few weeks ago I broke my habit with The Chateau and found, to my great relief, that it was every bit as marvelous as the most rose-tinted of my memories.

The story takes place in 1948, when a young American couple, Harold and Barbara Rhodes, cross the Atlantic for a four-month holiday on the continent. It is the first time since the war that the barriers to international travel have finally lifted, and they are eager to experience European culture, and to forget, as far as they are able, the sorrow of their childlessness. They arrive in France full of optimism, hope and curiosity, primed, in other words, to fall in love with a new land, and they promptly do so. France is everything they had hoped it would be – how could it fail them when they are so determined to overlook its failures? And in this frame of mind they head off to the Loire valley and a two-week sojourn at the Chateau Beaumesnil, to stay in the heart of a French family and to put flesh and bones, literally, into the fantasy of enchantment they are enjoying. Inevitably things don’t work out quite that way. Open, generous, effusive, the Americans are not prepared for the bunker mentality of the post-Occupation French, nor for their canny, parsimonious peasant ideology. One of the best of the exquisitely-drawn characters in this narrative is the lady of the house, Madame Viénot, whose husband has disappeared due to a ‘drame’ that no one will tell them about, and whose professional hospitality seems flawed enough to hint at all kinds of hidden discontents. Is she out to cheat Harold and Barbara, who only wish to love her, or does she simply not like Americans? The dilemma extends to the circle of people staying at the Chateau at the same time, particularly Mme Viénot’s niece, Alix and her husband, Eugène. Alix is charming, but does not seem to wish to spend as much time with the Americans as they do with her. Eugène is the soul of caprice, displaying every indication of mutual enchantment with them, and then suddenly turning cold and indifferent. What are Barbara and Harold to make of their new-found friends and how are they to interpret their behaviour?

What makes this novel is William Maxwell’s kind, wise, compassionate voice. He produces a story that never loses touch with the deep sweetness of humanity, whilst all the time exploring its flaws. Harold and Barbara are magnificent characters in their vivid reality; sensitive both by nature, and rendered all the more so by the vulnerability of being strangers in a strange land, their natural goodness cloaked by their grammatical errors in French. Their main mistake is to expect the people around them not just to like them, but to be like them, to display the same easy American manners, the same loving indulgence, despite the aching resentments of the war, the grinding poverty of life in Europe, and the inequalities in their situations as hosts and guests. The story of Harold and Barbara is in so many ways the story of all human relationships, all tentative, fresh friendships, but magnified and emphasized by the differences in culture and language. There is, I think, a timeless quality to the narrative that Maxwell is quite aware of enhancing. The frustrations and desires that send people out on journeys of self-renewal, the odd, shadowy transactions they blindly commit with one another, and their abiding search for what is beautiful and moving are facets of human life that never change, that keep us journeying and committing and searching with chequered success. In some ways, the outcome doesn’t matter so much, Maxwell seems to be saying; it is the human attitudes that contain the significance and the touching tenderness. There’s a lovely scene in which Barbara and Harold and some of the others from Beaumesnil set out to visit another chateau, and have trouble finding the spot where the ferry (an unreliable and slightly alarming vessel) will land to pick them up. The day is hot and Barbara and Alix end up wading out into the stream, their skirts tucked up into their belts. This prompts the narrator to comment directly to the reader (as he quite often does):

There are certain scenes that (far more than artifacts dug up out of the ground or prehistoric cave paintings, which have a confusing freshness and newness) serve to remind us of how old the human race is, and of the beautiful, touching sameness of most human occasions. Anything that is not anonymous is all a dream. And who we are, and whether our parents embraced life or were disappointed by it, and what will become of our children couldn’t be less important. Nobody asks the name of the athlete tying his sandal on he curved side of the Greek vase or whether the lonely traveler on the Chinese scroll arrived at the inn before dark.

The Chateau is a novel that brings together both sides from this gorgeous quotation – the timeless attitudes and the private, detailed, individual stories and sensations that lead the characters into them. And it binds them together in Maxwell’s stunningly elegant prose. There’s also an experimental dimension to this novel, of the gentlest kind, as the narrator will sometimes head off into flights of fancy, or occasionally, as in the short second part of the novel (which you could read as an extended coda) enters into a dialogue with a faceless ‘reader’ of the story to discuss what has happened. You might think it would jar, but it doesn’t at all. Instead it fits perfectly into the structure of a narrative that knows experience is almost all we need from life, but not quite. There will always be a part that longs for the commentary, the analysis, the answers. When I finished the book for the second time, I felt that all of life, and all of literature, that is of value lay between its covers. It is a glorious, life-enhancing book and it remains firmly fixed in my pantheon of all-time greats.

14 thoughts on “On William Maxwell

  1. I read this a year or so ago and absolutely loved it, as I loved several of Maxwell’s other novels, perhaps most of all Time Will Darken It. A really important writer. Thanks for this.

  2. It’s an exquisite book, to which you have done wonderful justice here. I loved the agonies the two Americans have, not sure if or how they are offending people just as they are desperate not to do so. It’s superb, insightful social commentary, and I loved it too.

  3. This prompts the narrator to comment directly to the reader (as he quite often does)

    Maxwell’s aside that you quote above remind me of how George Eliot interweaves similarly compassionate commentary into her novels. It is one of my favourite features of her writing. A contrary effect is achieved, however, by A.S. Byatt in Still Life when the narrator discusses in an aside the inspiration for the novel. At high points of the drama, I think the reader doesn’t want to be reminded that the novel-world isn’t real!

  4. I have never heard of William Maxwell before, but by the sound of it, I am missing out! How wonderful though to be able to re-read a favorite book and discover that your love for it can only grow and deepen.

  5. High praise indeed from a most reliable source. Of course, there’s a price to be paid for such a recommendation – in this case, 6.99 from amazon.co.uk.

  6. I have a copy of this book on my shelves, all because of your earlier recommendation, so I’m thrilled to hear that a second reading has lived up to the first. I don’t know when I’ll get to the book, but I’m very glad to have it nearby for when I’m ready — I’m sure it will be a treat!

  7. I remember being horrified that my online book store didn’t have this but I see that Lokesh has tracked it down at amazon.co.uk. I really liked this review and will have to agree with gentle reader that it goes to the top of the to-be-ordered list.

  8. Harriet – I remember your Maxwell phase! There are a couple of his I have still to read, and I’m looking forward to them. Reading your posts reminded me how much I admired his work. Charlotte – I really like the way you describe the ‘agonies’ of the Americans there – that’s so true! So glad you love this, too. Harvestbird – that’s a very good point. It has to be a completely different narrative voice to make that kind of literary meta-commentary work, and it always risks being a tad dull or disruptive. I don’t know much about Eliot – I am sadly deficient in 19th century English classics and should catch up! Gentle Reader – thank you! I would love to know what you make of this. Stefanie – I think you would like Maxwell, I really do. And I’m so happy to know I can return to him – I expect a third read to take place now! Smithereens – I’d love to know what you think of this from a French perspective. The representation had a very genuine feel to me, but I’d be most interested to hear what a native makes of it. Lokesh – lol! Isn’t it a shame that the best things in life aren’t always free? For the rest, there’s amazon… Dorothy – I am so delighted to have recommended something already on your shelves! So happy to be aligned with your projects! Pete – ah now I’d also be very keen to know what you make of it. I’m sure there are all kinds of psychological angles that could be pursued here with relation to empathy, as the novel suggests that empathy can be severely derailed by the language barrier. Would love to know what you make of all that.

  9. I have not read any Maxwell but your review here makes me very curious – I’ve added him to my wishlist. Would you recommend any of his other novels as well? I think he has quite a few – it’s always surprising to me when I realize just how many wonderful writers there are out there and how many of them I’ve yet to have the pleasure of experiencing!

  10. Verbivore – I’ve also read Time Will Darken It, which was also very good. A darker novel, I recall, but every bit as beautiful stylistically. I have a couple of his short novellas to read (had plans for them all year but never quite got there), one of which is called They Came Like Swallows, and was highly recommended by other readers when I picked it up. Coming across wonderful authors I’ve never read is, I find, justification for existence.

  11. I’ve been meaning to read William Maxwell for some time now, so am glad to hear The Chateau stood up to re-reading. I recently bought All the Days and Nights, which is his collected stories, on the strength of Alice Munro’s reccomendation in her Paris Review interview. She said:

    “You use up your childhood, unless you’re able, like William Maxwell, to keep going back and finding wonderful new levels in it.” and later “He’s dealing with a subject that potentially is so banal and makes it brilliant.”

  12. This is my next Maxwell to read! It’s amazing that, when I read an author for the first time, I discover they’ve been mentioned all over the place before. I don’t seem to remember authors’ names unless I’ve already read them, so I’ve seen his name dozens of times without it registering…

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