By William Maxwell
Vintage | $12.95
WILLIAM Maxwell was an unusual figure in the literary landscape of the twentieth century, a man who managed to pursue a successful career as a novelist, essayist and writer of short stories while being equally successful – some might say even more successful – in helping to build the careers of other writers. During his long tenure as an editor at the New Yorker, from the mid thirties to the mid seventies, the reputations of those whose work he fostered – John Updike, John Cheever, Mary McCarthy, Eudora Welty and many more – often came to outstrip his own, while he remained, as far as his own literary standing was concerned, rather boxed in by compliments of the “best writer you probably haven’t heard of” variety. Maxwell died in 2000. In 2008, much of his work, including all six novels, appeared in a two-volume Library of America edition. Now, in 2012, the novels are reappearing as Vintage Classics, signs that his reputation, as an exemplar rather than as an editor and enabler, is very much on an upward curve.
In an interview published in the Paris Review in 2005, Shirley Hazzard – another whose writing career Maxwell fostered – recalled their first meeting. It was in New York, some forty-five years earlier, shortly after Maxwell had accepted a story of hers for publication. “When I saw him, I knew that ‘everything’ – whatever that is – would be all right.” Hazzard is speaking of Maxwell’s subsequent impact on her life as a friend and mentor and of his positive influence on her work, but she could equally be describing something more abstract, the impact of his fiction on the reader. It is not that he glosses over things or pretties them up or makes them generally more rosy – everything is never all right in that sense. But his novels do carry with them a quality of acceptance, a recognition that connections between people sometimes work and sometimes don’t, that lives can be thrown completely off track by small events, and that other events, equally small, can provide some compensation for the inevitable tragedies and disappointments.
Like much of Maxwell’s fiction, The Château, first published in 1961, is based on events from his own life, in this case an extended visit he and his wife made to France in 1948, when tourism was only just beginning to revive after the war. Harold and Barbara Rhodes are in love with the idea of France well before they embark on their trip, and although that love is tested it remains essentially intact when the time comes for them to return home. In place of a plot, we follow their itinerary, at the beginning of which is a fortnight at the Château Beaumesnil, where Madame Viénot, in reduced circumstances as the result of some unspecified family “drama,” is obliged to take in paying guests. The novel is essentially the story of Harold and Barbara’s attempts to connect with foreignness; their serviceable but limited French means that to a large extent they must rely on their own instincts and on the kindness of strangers. Indeed “kindness” is a word that recurs throughout the novel, almost as a refrain, an acknowledgement of how differently we can view the world according to whether or not it treats us with consideration.
Maxwell captures the heightened senses of the traveller, the way that intense sympathies can form in an instant only to fade away just as quickly, or else be disrupted by circumstances and by the need to move on. Travel is the accumulation of experiences, and Harold is an accumulator. “He tries to attach people to him,” to make them a part of his life. For Harold, “the landscape must have figures in it.” But then, in a kind of proviso that is characteristic of his style, Maxwell goes on to define the limitations of this approach in a way that strikes a reader today as having a particularly contemporary edge. “It never seems to occur to him,” he notes in an admonitory tone, “that there is a limit to the number of close friendships anyone can decently and faithfully accommodate.” There are too many potential experiences and relationships for one life to cope with, and most of them must be left out.
Harold and Barbara’s itinerary, which by and large they stick to, takes them on to Austria and Switzerland and Italy and the south of France, and then back to Paris where they reconnect with the friends – though they remain unsure whether “friends” is the right word – they made at the Château Beaumesnil. Yet within the overarching structure of this itinerary all is fluid and unresolved. Madame Viénot’s son-in-law Eugène, who at first seems so warm and even affectionate towards Harold and Barbara, suddenly and inexplicably turns cold, and we are left to infer the reasons from a complex set of hints about his personality, his upbringing, and an underlying resentment towards the visiting Americans, whose country has not been invaded and whose expectations of life have not been dashed.
Maxwell is acutely aware of how a combination of chance and obligation governs almost everything we do. We have “dozens of lives to choose from,” says Harold confidently to a young Frenchman who has just explained that his own life will be an exact replica of his father’s and his grandfather’s. “Pick another,” he tells him. But it isn’t as easy as that. In a brief but moving passage, Maxwell describes a meeting between Harold and Barbara and a young Danish man who is taking the opportunity to see Europe before he has to return home to his medical studies. He is “as talented and idealistic and tactful and congenial a friend as they were ever likely to have” but after only a few hours in his company their itineraries take them in different directions. They copy down the young man’s address in Copenhagen but a letter they send to that address is never answered, and they never see or hear from him again. We do indeed have the possibility of dozens of lives, Maxwell seems to be saying, but very few of those possibilities are within our control.
The foreign world in which Harold and Barbara find themselves has something of the quality of a photograph; a photograph “with figures in it.” This world provides the viewer, as photographs often do, with the illusion of being able to step into the frame, of being able to cross boundaries of language and culture and make contact at some deeper and more instinctive level. France, like a photograph, draws the couple in while at the same time shutting them out, reminding them that they come from another world. In their desire to understand the people they meet – not just the subtleties of the language they speak, but what motivates them and what accounts for their quirks of behaviour – Harold and Barbara keep coming up against mysteries they cannot solve.
In a final chapter, to which Maxwell gives the half-mocking title “Some Explanations,” certain of these mysteries are revealed, including that of the “drama” behind Madame Viénot’s need to take in paying guests. But these explanations are not satisfying, not for Harold and Barbara and not for us as readers. “When you explain away a mystery, all you do is make room for another.” What remains with the couple, long after they have returned home and forgotten much of their foreign itinerary, are not explanations but certain experiences – “with a French family, and the château” – which they didn’t really understand at the time and don’t really understand now, but which have become part of them. •
Richard Johnstone is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Technology Sydney. His paperback reviews appear monthly in Inside Story.