William Maxwell is a writer so often named as underrated, that he can hardly be considered underrated at all. The reliable Harvill Press reissued most of his books in the UK in the 1990s, and I read four of his five available novels without remembering much about them, except that I can say each one must have been good enough to make me want to read the next. Recently, Jill Dawson on this blog recommended his novel So Long, See You Tomorrow, and Christopher Enzi added a comment recommending one of Maxwell’s stories; all of which made me decide to turn to the one Maxwell novel I haven’t read.
Maxwell (1908 – 2000) was in some ways an old fashioned writer, and the very title of The Château (1961) seems to confirm this: the circumflex which nobody would use now notifying us that the book comes from a time when that word was still thrillingly foreign. It is a book about (not always thrilling) foreignness, recounting in considerable detail an American couple’s four-month stay in France in 1948.
Maxwell is a superb writer. When an author can lob into an opening paragraph a line like –
the sea was calm, the lens of the sky was set at infinity
– without disrupting the flow of the prose, or can nail a character in a few sentences like so –
He was thin, flat-chested, narrow-faced, pale from lack of sleep, and tense in his movements. A whole generation of loud, confident, Middle-Western voices saying: Harold, sit up straight … Harold, hold your shoulders back … Harold, you need a haircut, you look like a violinist had had no effect whatever. Confidence had slipped through his fingers. He had failed to be like other people.
– then you know you’re in good hands. There is something very seductive about the simple assurance and aplomb with which he writes.
The Château is one of those books which I tiptoed through for the first hundred pages or so, terrified that it might stop being as good, and that the act of my reading it might ripple its pond in some way. Perhaps it did, because what I found was that Maxwell was bottomlessly readable when writing about Barbara and Harold Rhodes, but that their interactions with the French – and they go on for over 300 of the book’s 400 pages – made my eyes glaze over. I made a similar complaint about J.R. Ackerley’s Hindoo Holiday, so perhaps this shows some latent xenophobia on my part. But Maxwell does get his point across – “their isolation as tourists in a country they could look at but never really know” – and the French receive the Americans coolly, resentful at their expectations of plenty after the privations of wartime, and not as grateful for the Marshall plan as the Rhodeses expect.
Yet this is also a surprising book. Maxwell’s default style seems to be stately and understated, an old-fashioned omniscient narrator, but suddenly the narrator becomes not just omniscient but omnipotent, and enters the text himself and interacts with the reader. The last fifty pages of the book (“Some Explanations”) are made up of this sort of Q&A.
Is that all?
Yes, that’s all.
But what about the mysteries?
You mean the ‘drama’ that Mme. Viénot didn’t tell Harold Rhodes about?
And where M. Viénot was.
This extraordinary technique, maintaining his formal style, gives the impression of a book simultaneously ancient and modern.
William Maxwell was an editor at the New Yorker for 40 years, and helped shape the prose of some of the foremost US writers of the 20th century. Reading The Château, one sees elements of Updike’s descriptive ability, or of Cheever’s experimentation – and one wonders who influenced whom. The Château is not the book on which to judge him – it is in the second rank of his work, and typically the books people are recommended to begin with are The Folded Leaf and So Long, See You Tomorrow. Nonetheless, even though flawed by its excess of detail, it is a fascinating read and a singular work in a world of identikit fiction.
Eventually they crossed over into the middle of the street and moved from booth to booth, conscientiously examining pots and pans, pink rayon underwear, dress materials, sweaters, scarves, suspenders, aprons, packets of pins and needles, buttons, threads, women’s hats, men’s haberdashery, knitted bathing suits, toys, stationery, romantic and erotic novels, candy, shoes, fake jewelry, machine-made objets d’art, the dreadful dead-end of the Industrial Revolution, all so discouraging to the acquisitive eye that cannot keep from looking, so exhausting to the snobbish mind that, like a machine itself, rejects and rejects and rejects and rejects.