William Maxwell: The Château

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.

Oh, that.

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.


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  2. Since I dislike both Cheever and Updike I am doubting this book would be for me. I was reading recently on another blog that the lack of foreign books translated into English is one reason that American writing, in general, is so bad. I have very few American writers I love and turn to again and again and most of those wrote before WWII. I have oodles of British writers I love and over the last 25 years have been finding more wonderful writers like Murakami, Ishiguro, Saramago and Zafon. Why can’t Americans write as well? I hope they continue to translate more European and Asian writers for those of us who like really good literature.

  3. Hi JohnSelf,
    I have not yet worked my way through to Maxwell’s novels – they are in the tbr piles (soon to rent premises of their own) – but I do recommend the short stories. I began reading as a result of seeing a paean of praise for Maxwell in an old interview with Alice Munro, and anything that’s good enough for Alice is … etc, etc. and was! You are in for a treat.

    Candy. Have not yet read any Cheevor (also in the tbr piles) but the Maxwell I’ve devoured (and then reread properly) so far, is in a different universe to the Updike ‘Rabbit’ stuff I forced myself through years ago; although I admit I was a different person then. And: “Murakami … and Zafon” … in the same sentence?

  4. Oh my. Candy, when I hear anyone say that Americans can’t write, I almost always have to take a long, long walk to calm down. William Maxwell writes with such grace and plain-spoken sensibility that I can’t imagine you being unable to enjoy him. I have only read So Long, See You Tomorrow, but his quiet, powerful portrayal of such an integral part of American life, the unsung lives of small town inhabitants and their timeless struggles, fills that imaginative niche for me in a way distinct from other novelists. Thanks, Mr. Self, for such a thoughtful review of The Château.

  5. I was reading recently on another blog that the lack of foreign books translated into English is one reason that American writing, in general, is so bad.

    Strange. You go on to say that you find that there are so many great British writers. Do you see any inconsistency in this?

  6. Yes Blah it appears that English writers are better than American writers or, at the least, that there are far more really good British writers at the moment than Americans. Do give me a list of Americans.

    Elizabeth maybe I will give him a try. I am not saying there are no good American writers but there are not nearly as many as there are British. Being half British maybe I am prejudiced but Scott Fitzgerald remains the cream of American writing for me and I can’t find anyone to compare. When I do find an American writer I like I am very happy. I can get their books a lot more easily than foreign ones.

  7. Thanks for the comments everyone. CaroleJ, I have read all Maxwell’s novels now (except for Bright Center of Heaven, an early one which I think is only available in the first volume of the Library of America edition of his works) so I think the stories must inevitably come soon! Annoyingly, I can’t find my copy at home so I may have to order another one.

    Elizabeth T, I agree with what you say. As for the Americans, I have mixed feelings on Updike. Without wishing to speak ill of the recently dead, I think his books varied wildly in quality (though not necessarily in style), though I do rate Rabbit at Rest highly – then again, that might have been relief at the end of a very long four book series. Candy, I’d recommend Roth except I know you don’t like him! What about Cynthia Ozick? Have you read The Shawl?

    As to literature in translation, I don’t consider myself to have any natural affinity for it, but I have found myself reading more (I think about a third of the books I’ve read this year have been foreign fiction), and finding certainly that many of the more interesting books I read are in translation. Just to show that there’s no accounting for tastes, I have never had much fondness for Murakami, and Zafon I did enjoy but as a great romp rather than as something to cherish in memory forever (I don’t plan to read his new one). Saramago I have never read, though I have Blindness on my shelves. Ishiguro, covering the British contingent, I certainly think highly of, and indeed am looking forward to reading his new collection Nocturnes very soon, and will be writing about it here next month.

  8. I was crazy about So Long, See You Tomorrow and bought this one. It is sitting on my TBR pile and I’ll probably get to it this summer. If anything, I’m glad you have readjusted my expectations slightly that way I might be surprised but I won’t be disappointed.

  9. John, by the way I have tried to find your review of The White Tiger. Did you do one? I just finished it and absolutely hated it and was wondering what your reactions were.

  10. Candy:

    My point was simply that you attributed the lack of good American writers to the lack of translations of literature in English. Yet you find there are many good British writers. If the lack of good American writers is a result of the lack of of translations, as you hypothesize, it doesn’t seem to have inhibited the development of good British writers in your view. And yet American and British writers both work in English. It seems inconsistent.

    It also seems odd that three of the four writers you list have all been translated into English!

    As for recommendations, it is difficult to give any without knowing how a person’s individual tastes run. But here are some American fiction writers of the 20th Century that I have enjoyed reading:

    Sherwood Anderson
    John Dos Passos
    Nathanael West
    Saul Bellow
    James Agee
    Flannery O’Conner
    Joseph Heller
    Paul Bowles
    Phillip Roth
    Joan Didion
    James Salter

  11. Aside from Roth and Bowles I agree with you. I just don’t like Roth. Bowles I just don’t get. But most of those writers are not still writing. I do like James Salter and wish he would get cracking on something new.

    I see what you mean and yes it does seem contradictory. I think though that a lot more translations are published in Britain than here. Quite frequently I have to get books from AmazonUK or the Book Depository because they don’t show up here till years later. Maybe that is what they mean.

    I think the real problem is that European educational systems are far superior to those in the U.S.

  12. We in the USA definitely don’t read as many books in translation as we should, and until we do, there won’t be a great availability of titles in translation. I do think, however, that most of the titles for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize are available here. If more people bought them and read them, we’d get more. Off the top of my head, though, I can think of two excellent American resources for literature in translation: The Dalkey Archive and NYRB Classics. Both publish many works in translation that are unavailable anywhere else (as well as many American works that might be great but get little attention); they just are not stocked heavily (if at all) in big stores. It is available, if you’re looking.

    Also, I’ll add Marilynne Robinson, Jhumpa Lahiri, Annie Dillard, Paul Auster, and Tim O’Brien to the list of great American writers, and all are still writing.

    My gripe about the current state of American literature isn’t that it doesn’t exist; it’s that it is overshadowed in bookstores and bookclubs and most booktalk by pseudo-literature: all that pretentious look-at-me writing going on that can sustain scrutiny for only a few months or a year at best, the kind of writing where it eventually turns out that the hype was mostly about the hype. But Britain has that too; just look at last year’s Booker longlist! And from what I’ve seen of popular culture in other countries, we are not alone in our problems.

  13. Trevor you are definitely right about last year’s Booker longlist. I think the main point that was being made in the original comment was that American writers are so insular. Maybe we read the translated works but perhaps they do not. Among the Booker longlist last year was at least one book set in America but written by an Irishman. That shows a much greater grasp of American style and culture than most of our writers can show about the rest of the world. Anyway I think I am sick of this discussion.

    Can any of you tell me what you thought about The White Tiger which I absolutely abhorred. It’s probably me but I thought The Secret Scripture was far superior.

  14. Candy, I wrote about The White Tiger here. If you want to find an old review, just go to the author index on the right hand column and select the author by surname. Or search for the author or title in the search box. Like you, I hated the book – well, that’s a little strong; I didn’t like it, but I think my opinion has galvanized since then, perhaps as an (unreasonable) reaction to the success and praise that it’s had.

    I agree with Trevor that Dalkey Archive and NYRB Classics are terrific resources for literature in translation. And I second the votes by Trevor for Paul Auster, who I think is always worth reading, even when the books aren’t entirely successful. And he’s still writing! As for blah’s nominations, I really must get around to Sherwood Anderson…

  15. Thanks John. I read the review and I noticed I commented that I wasn’t going to read it. The only reason I did is because it won.

    Paul Auster. I have his books around here somewhere but haven’t gotten to them.

  16. I think you’re right when you put this novel in ‘the second rank of his work’ John. I found it felt pleasantly old-fashioned and written with the quiet assurance of a great writer but it failed to engage me in the same way that The Folded Leaf or So Long, See You Tomorrow did. The latter of those two has a similar moment of surprising modernism when you realise at one point that the dog has taken over the narration.

    Like you I have read all of his novels apart from his first which until the Library of America edition was incredibly hard to find (and prohibitively expensive if you did). My only worry is that it’s a campus comedy and he effectively disowned it!

  17. As a US person who has read a lot of US, Canadian, Australian, Irish and English novels as well as translations, I must give my 2 cents’ worth. First, I think England has a much stronger tradition of literature than the US does (Just look at all the wonderful book blogs from the British Isles, that I’ve become addicted to.). Very few recent US writers approach the caliber of Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth Taylor, Graham Greene, Sybille Bedford, Barbara Pym, or Ian MacEwan. I agree with John that Cynthia Ozick is an outstanding US writer. Here are a few other recent US writers that I look for their books : Siri Hustvedt (some great, some not-so-great), Nelson Algren, Russell Banks, E.L. Doctorow, Louise Eldrich, Jonathan Franzen, Edward P. Jones, Colson Whitehead, Richard Price. I usually like T Coragresan Boyle, but found his latest, The Women, very lame. I’m looking forward to reading the new books by Arthur Phillips and Jayne Ann Phillips. From the early 20th century, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather are two world-class writers.

  18. Oh, a very interesting selection, Tony. How did I forget about Richard Price? Candy, I think you should read him. I’ve only read one of his books, the latest – see sidebar for review – but I consider myself an avid fan already.

  19. John-Thank you for reviewing “The Chateau” and starting this great discussion. Maxwell is one of my favorites and I see others have added to the list. May I also suggest Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty?

  20. Thanks for bringing this writer to my attention – I’ve never heard of him before.

    For myself, I feel that there are so many good foreign writers in translation these days that I seem be concentrating on them. I greatly appreciate the European perspective, whereas I find some American writers almost seem to write in a different language and need translating themselves. I am reading David Guterson’s new one at the moment and find it almost incomprehensible at times – perhaps I don’t watch enough films or American tv series.

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