Mr. Maxwell

A year or so ago a friend turned me on to Sarah Waters, and I was totally taken in by her fiction. She’s contemporary, so I read her with the conscious anticipation of what’s next, knowing — figuring — that no matter if I devour everything she’s written thus far, there’s always going to be something else, at some point, new. I read The Night Watch, Fingersmith, and The Little Stranger. She has two previous novels I haven’t read yet, so in addition to any imagined future works, the excitement lingers.

It’s different with someone who is discovered after they have died. Their work may not be finished making its way through the world; who knows at what point it will resurface on someone’s desk, as it has done mine, or in someone’s imagination. But no matter the possible influence or trajectory, the work itself is done. With the author gone, it becomes another kind of reading experience. The sense of anticipation is different. That’s how I feel about William Maxwell’s work — unlike Eudora Welty, I had never even heard of him before I read What There Is to Say We Have Said. I spent parts of the summer rereading Welty’s fiction — several of her short stories and much of her longer work, including The Ponder Heart and The Optimist’s Daughter, and I remain halfway through reading, for the first time, Losing Battles, which, like her when she wrote it, I’ll finish one day. But Maxwell is an unknown. Or was, until I recently finished The Château (1961), the end of which I would file under the category of things I wish I’d written myself but didn’t:

Harold and Barbara Rhodes are departing Paris. Their peculiar friend, Mme Strauss, has come to see them off. “They leaned down and touched her hands, as the train began to move. For reasons that there was now no chance of their knowing, she clung to them, calling good-by. When she could no longer find them among the other heads and waving arms they could see her, still waving her crumpled handkerchief, old, forsaken, left in her own sad city, where the people she knew did not know her, and her stories were not believed even when they were true.”

What a glorious ending, I thought. Just like the rest of the book, so exquisite and complex even in its simplicity. Except it wasn’t the end. Apparently Maxwell couldn’t leave it there. I’m certain he had his reasons, though to me they are as mysterious and bizarre as some of Mme Strauss’s behavior. (I would love to know what his editor thought, or his reading friends. Did no one object?) But who knows. It went on, for another forty something pages, an odd dialogue between two people who are never identified, never explained, in which most all of the loose ends are tied up. A neat little bow on a book that didn’t need one. It was beautiful, its economic prose giving us just what we needed for there to be a solid, moving story with questions, everywhere questions, an imitation of life, a window into post-war France where everyone was still shell shocked, where certain foods were still rationed or altogether unavailable, and where Americans were still heros. There was beautiful language in the post script, but it was tedious, unnecessary; it felt more like an unfortunate growth than an epilogue, and it took away more than it added.

And yet, I loved the book, and am looking forward to reading more of his books very soon. There are a couple sitting on my desk now, waiting: They Came Like Swallows (1937) and So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980, winner of the Howells Medal and the National Book Award for Fiction). In the category of gifts that keep on giving, I now count What There Is To Say We Have Said. I didn’t want it to end, and this is my attempt, as Maxwell said in one of his letters, to take the wish for the fact.

The rest of Maxwell’s fiction awaits, books that, as Donna Tartt writes, “exude a quiet calm and charm which is peculiarly their own; almost no other author of the twentieth century presents such passionate emotional depth married to such sublety [sic] and artfulness of expression, such exquisite renderings of the texture of life.” I’ve stumbled upon one of the most delightful volumes of essays I have read in a while — a tribute called A William Maxwell Portrait: Memories and Appreciations. In her essay, “Mr. Maxwell,” Tartt remembers an evening she spent with Maxwell, “One wanted to pour out one’s very heart to him, so that my overriding memory of the evening is of trying to restrain myself from doing just that.”

I discovered from these essays that, in the last year of his life, he reread War and Peace. He read it aloud to Emmy, his wife. As his eyesight waned and he became too frail to hold the heavy book, Annabel Davis-Goff came by and read it to them. She recounts these memories in her essay, “Reading War and Peace to William Maxwell.” They finished the book two days before Emmy died, and ten days before Bill did. Although it makes me sad to think about them in that room, both deteriorating and succumbing together, the image also makes me smile. From the very little I know about them and their marriage, but from everything that I am learning, it seems fitting. I also feel overwhelmed with wonder about something that I have never thought about before: what would I want the last novel I ever [re]read to be? What a weighty thing to consider. I wonder if he just knew, whether he could see time and tell it was short, and so reached out his hand like it were the most natural thing in the world, and grabbed hold of War and Peace? Were there other options to consider? Did he waver? As I’ve said, I know very little about this man, but somehow I doubt that he did. Somehow I imagine he felt sure. (From Shirley Hazzard’s essay, “Bill Maxwell said that he did not fear death but that he would miss reading novels.”)

I love what Michael Collier says about his experience corresponding with Maxwell. “I was to learn,” Collier writes, “that what one should live for more than anything else are small moments of overwhelming astonishment.” Similarly, in Richard Bausch’s tribute entitled “Grace,” he talks about striking up a correspondence with Maxwell. “His letters to me were always brief, but filled with details and lovely phrases about what he liked, what he was at present appreciating about the life around him, and the reading he was doing …”

… details and lovely phrases about what he liked, what he was at present appreciating about the life around him …

These are the details that make life interesting, that make it special, that inspire creativity, these small moments, these lovely phrases, these experiences that stand out sometimes for no apparent reason, and latch hold. That is Maxwell for me, in this moment. But it’s not so much about the experiences, the turns of phrase, the moments in and of themselves, as it is about what we do with them, how we observe them, what we learn from them, how we choose to acknowledge and remember them. From these short essays I have met a man who offers a template for a creative, compassionate, observant, kind, active life — a man who exhibits generosity toward and engagement with the minor details, patiently observed.

These are my minor details, here on this blog, the lovely phrases that I am appreciating at present, the small moments of overwhelming astonishment.

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8 Responses to Mr. Maxwell

  1. Keri Cole says:

    Randa, you are a wonder. You make me want to be more thoughtful.

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  3. Just finishing ‘The Chateau’ and it does make me wonder how much of it is autobiographical. Still figuring out how I feel about it, as they ventured to places I have some knowledge of and found their attitudes dismissive, I wonder if my reading of this is affected by the fact that I have lived in France for 6 years so almost can’t be neutral. It is a novel, but it ranks alongside other similar books of people travelling through a country and the clash of cultures, they didn’t really enjoy themselves as much as enjoy the idea of France and what it meant to them and I found I couldn’t sympathise with them as characters (the couple).

    I’m looking forward to reading ‘They Came Like Swallows’ to know Maxwell better rather than his channeled perceptions of France and the French.

    Love your review and discussion, its given me something more to consider.

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