In America, William Maxwell is something of a Grand Old Man. He has been president of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He has won the American Book Award and the PEN/Malamud Award. For forty years, as a fiction editor on the New Yorker, he advised and goaded Nabokov, Eudora Welty, John Cheever and John Updike. Now, at nearly ninety, Maxwell’s face has a prairie gauntness, as if hollowed out by exposure to those bracing talents. But in Britain his name is almost unknown.
He was born in 1908 in Lincoln, Illinois, the small town which would become his version of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesberg, Ohio: – a closed set to whose characters and ambience the writer can endlessly return, and his novels and stories rarely stray from the terrain of his own biography. His characters are at home where he has been at home. ‘Write what you know’ is the advice given to writers at the start of their careers and Maxwell has made a song of it.
Some of that personal history is recounted in Ancestors (1971), Maxwell’s idiosyncratic nod to the American mania for genealogy. He watches his own ancestors make their way from the Lowlands of Scotland to Ireland, to Pennsylvania, to Virginia, Kentucky and Illinois. He draws on the letters, portraits and photographs in his family’s possession, so that the book is in part a detailed inventory of his home. But he has also done the research of a social historian. He refers to Nathaniel Haynes’s History of the Disciples of Christ in Illinois (Cincinnati, 1915). And he may be the only 20th-century reader of The Biography of Elder Brown Warren Stone written by himself, with Additions and Reflections by Elder John Rogers (Cincinnati, 1847). He describes the way you could make out the shape of his uncle’s toes through the leather of his shoes. He evokes the prosperous farming community of Lincoln where, on hot August nights, people would sit out on the swings on their porches and mutter about ‘corn-growing weather’. We learn that he was brought up a strict Presbyterian and attended Sunday school every week.
Maxwell likes to blur the distinction between memoir and fiction. Ancestors reveals that his mother died during the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918, only three days after giving birth to another boy. In They Came like Swallows (1937), he describes the death of a mother during the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918. That loss is the presiding fact of his fiction. In a short story called ‘The Value of Money’ (1964), we are told that the childhood of Edward Gellert ‘was separated sharply from his adolescence by his mother’s death, which occurred when he was ten.’ In Maxwell’s novel The Folded Leaf (1945), the teenager Lymie Peters has already lost his mother. The narrator of So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980) tells us: ‘My younger brother was born on New Year’s Day, at the height of the influenza epidemic of 1918. My mother died two days later of double pneumonia.’ In ‘The Front and Back Parts of the House’ (1991), the narrator describes how ‘my brother and I struggled against the iron fact that my mother wasn’t there any more.’
The mother’s death is not the only event that echoes through Maxwell’s work. In another story, ‘The Holy Terror’ (1986), he writes: ‘I remembered that my mother’s only brother lost an arm in an automobile accident.’ In So Long, See You Tomorrow, Maxwell’s narrator says: ‘My mother’s only brother was in an automobile accident and lost his right arm.’ In a story called ‘A Game of Chess’ (1965), two brothers, Hugh and Amos, meet for dinner in Chicago. Amos, too, has lost an arm: ‘His left arm, ending in a gloved hand, hung motionless at his side. He had lost his arm as the result of an accident with a shotgun.’
He draws again and again on the same store of memories. Most of his characters have really existed. You imagine that they can still be seen in photographs propped on Lincoln mantelpieces or standing above their own, vague reflections on the lacquered lids of grand pianos. ‘The Man in the Moon’ (1984), ‘With Reference to an Incident at a Bridge’ (1984), ‘My Father’s Friends’ (1984), ‘The Holy Terror’ (1986), ‘The Front and Back Parts of the House’ (1991) – these stories are autobiographical essays, footnotes to the non-fiction of Ancestors. We are back in Lincoln, Illinois: Grandfather Blinn, Aunt Annette, Aunt Edith; Sunday school; porch swings. The narrator writes: ‘When my mother died during the influenza epidemic of 1918-19 ...’ We hear about his brother, Hap, a ‘natural athlete’ whose ‘left leg was amputated well above the knee’. That, too, is familiar. In They Came like Swallows, the older boy, Robert, is a natural athlete, but one of his legs has been amputated and he wears a false limb. And in So Long, See You Tomorrow, the narrator describes how, when his brother undressed at night, ‘he left his artificial leg leaning against a chair.’
In that novel Maxwell calls memory ‘a form of storytelling’. And in ‘The Front and the Back Parts of the House’, he drops the guise of narrator to address that question of form:
From time to time I have published fiction that had as a background a small town very much like Lincoln, or even Lincoln itself. The fact that I had not lived there since I was 14 years old sealed off my memories of it, and made of it a world I knew no longer existed, that seemed always available for storytelling.
Is this so exceptional? Aren’t all moments made available for fiction by the simple virtue of their passing? And how does the ‘storytelling’ to which Maxwell refers differ from the storytelling of diarists or auto-biographers or from that peculiar strain of personal essay that the New Yorker has nurtured and sustained?
Because the store of Maxwell’s memories is finite, reading him can be an eerie exercise in déjà vu. ‘What Every Boy Should Know’ (1954) concerns the early adolescence of Edward Gellert, whose mother, Mildred, ‘had tried leaving’ her husband. In ‘The Trojan Women’ (1952), a woman called Mildred Gellert is living alone in a lakeside cottage after deciding to leave her husband. Edward has a job as a paperboy. He cycles around Draperville delivering copies of the Evening Star. When, in ‘A Final Report’ (1963), we hear that the narrator’s aunt ‘never went out of her front door except to sweep the leaves off her front porch or to open the mailbox, or to pick up the Evening Star,’ we imagine that it was Edward, riding past on his new bicycle, who’d hurled the paper over her fence.
Maxwell recycles his longer fiction too. In a story called ‘The Gardens of Mont-Saint-Michel’ (1969), John and Dorothy Reynolds are driving to Mont-St-Michel with their daughter Alison and their niece Linda. They recall a previous visit:
Eighteen years ago, they had arrived in Pontorson from Cherbourg, by train, by a series of trains, at five o’clock in the afternoon. They had a reservation at a hotel in Mont-Saint-Michel, but they had got up at daybreak and were too tired to go on, so they spent the night here in what the Michelin described as an ‘hôtel simple, mais confortable’.
Harold and Barbara Rhodes make an identical journey in Maxwell’s 1961 novel The Chateau – Michelin now refers to the hotel as ‘simple mais assez confortable’.
The Chateau is typical of Maxwell’s writing in its almost pathological reluctance to have things occur. Harold and Barbara travel to France as part of the first wave of tourists to visit Europe after the war. Maxwell transcribes what they read in Michelin guides. Harold makes a note of their expenses in a small ‘financial diary’. What they see and do and say is recorded with the rigour of stenography. The couple meet a Canadian diplomat called Gagny who has ‘a taste for low company’ and enjoys browsing through pornographic postcards in seedy Parisian bars, and for a while he seems set to become the novel’s Gilbert Osmond, the North American made louche and decadent by prolonged exposure to Europe. But he disappears from the narrative. The owner of the chateau refers to a ‘drama’ that has resulted in the decline of the family, but this is also forgotten, explained only in the novel’s coda. Harold and Barbara meet a young French couple, Eugène and Alix de Boisgaillard, and you suspect that this encounter is to provide the crux of the story; that there will be some rearrangement of affections among the four, or some drama of the Old World and the New played out in the microcosm of their relationships. Not so. Harold and Barbara travel to Paris. Then they go to the Côte d’Azur and Italy. They go back to Paris. They leave for America. It is the music of what doesn’t happen.
Suspense is not Maxwell’s game. His idea of a shock is a bag lady finding a copy of Sartor Resartus in a Manhattan trash can. You think: Thomas Carlyle! On East End Avenue! Wild! Passages in All the Days and Nights suggest the earnest exposition of a local historian: ‘The business district of Draperville, Illinois (population 12,000) was built around a neo-Roman courthouse and the courthouse square. Adjoining the railroad station, in the centre of a small plot of ground, a bronze tablet marked the site of the Old Alton Depot where the first Latham County Volunteers entrained for the Civil War, and where the funeral train of Abraham Lincoln halted briefly at sunrise on 3 May 1865.’
Maxwell undoubtedly has insider status. The cover of the American paperback of The Chateau reproduces the praise of Elizabeth Bowen; the novel’s epigraph is taken from Elizabeth Bowen; it is dedicated to an ‘E.B.’ This new edition of All the Days and Nights quotes the praise of Eudora Welty, to whom one of the stories is dedicated. John Updike’s praise is also quoted, but then Maxwell was fiction editor of the New Yorker when Updike first began to publish stories there. And Maxwell’s work contains the sort of references that critics and other writers tend to enjoy. Carlyle in the trash can. An allusion to William Hazlitt A couple living on Park Avenue with a complete set of Hakluyt’s Voyages on their bookshelves. They Came like Swallows; The Folded Leaf: his titles are quotations from Yeats and Tennyson.
The late, short novel So Long, See You Tomorrow and several of the stories in All The Days and Nights are, however, a sparkling reproof to any such objections. The narrator of ‘The Thistles in Sweden’ (1976) remembers the apartment in which he lived with his wife Margaret in 1950: a threadbare rug; a white Meissen plate with small green grape leaves and a wide filigree border; an oil painting of a rock quarry in Maine; Swedish linen curtains printed with a motif of blue and grey thistles. There was a cat, Floribunda, on whom the couple bestowed the love of parents. They have no children. The narrator has been told he is too old to adopt. He says: ‘People with no children have perfectionism to fall back on.’ They sit by the carousel in Central Park, watching the children climb onto the horses: ‘the little boy in the plaid snowsuit ... the little girl with blue ribbons in her hair’. Finally, Margaret gets pregnant, but this is barely noticeable through the dense fabric of recollection. In a story like ‘A Sandstone Farmhouse’ (from The Afterlife, 1994), you can see how the memory of a home may amount to its natural history: something Updike learnt from Maxwell.
In ‘The Lily-White Boys’ (1986), Celia and Dan Coleman return home from a Christmas party to find their apartment has been burgled, and Dan watches as his wife tries on her old evening dresses: ‘She tried them on, one after another – the black taffeta with the bouffant skirt, the pale sea-green silk with matching silk fringe – all her favourite dresses that she had been too fond of to take to a thrift shop, and that had been languishing on the top shelf of her closet’ Objects in the house – the ‘material witnesses’ to the crime – start to have a conversation. The sofa says: ‘When I saw the pictures being ripped from the walls I was afraid. I thought I was going to go the same way.’ A seashell on the mantelpiece says: ‘It took a long time to make that star ruby.’ It is the same sense of proximate grace that gives Cheever’s stories their melancholy glow.
That mood is re-created in some of the ‘improvisations’ that make up the last quarter of All the Days and Nights. These stories, some of them two or three pages long, were ‘written for an occasion’ or were stories Maxwell told his wife in the dark before they slept. They owe something to the ‘tales’ of Washington Irving (the creator of Rip Van Winkle), though some, like the one about two moles who have a set of Spode china, are fables Aesop might have come up with if only he’d been to Harvard. Some resemble the speculative fictions of Borges. There is a country in which nobody grows old or dies, where ‘all arts flourished except history,’ and another country in which people are born wearing masks.
Sometimes the fabulist’s sweetness is cloying. An improvisation called ‘The fisherman who had nobody to go out in his boat with him’ begins: ‘Once upon a time there was a poor fisherman who had no one to go out in his boat with him.’ Another, called ‘The woman who never drew breath except to complain’, begins: ‘In a country near Finland dwelt a woman who never drew breath except to complain.’ Quaintness on that scale can inflict serious injury.
Some, however, are genuinely magical. In ‘The Sound of Waves’, a man is staying with his wife and children in a cottage by the sea. He watches sandpipers ‘skittering along the newly wetted, shining sand’. He swims in the big surf. Sitting up in bed, he sees ‘that there was a path of bright moonlight across the water, which the incoming waves passed through, and the moonlight made it seem as if you could actually see the earth’s curve.’ He listens to the sound of waves, amazed at the thought of ‘how many waves there are’ and the fact of their going on and on. You think of the end of Moby-Dick (‘and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it had rolled five thousand years ago’) and of Wallace Stevens’s ‘Fabliau of Florida’ (‘There will never be an end/To this droning of the surf’) and of the way Derek Walcott would later bring Omeros to a close, with Achille landing his catch of mackerel and hauling his boat onto the sand: ‘When he left the beach the sea was still going on.’
It is the late, short novel So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980) that finally vindicates Maxwell’s high American reputation and shows how vivid and powerful his kind of autobiographical fiction can be. The background is familiar. Lincoln, Illinois. A boy whose mother has died; whose brother has an artificial leg; whose uncle lost his arm in an automobile accident. Maxwell’s narrator (indistinguishable, as always, from Maxwell himself) recalls his childhood in Lincoln. He remembers his mother’s death and the impact it had on his father. The widower, told that ‘there was no cure but time,’ attends to the winding of all the clocks in the house, as if to accelerate their grudging motion. He remembers how, when he had earache, his rather would draw on his pipe and blow smoke into his ear, as if into a shell, to soothe the pain there. His father starts to build a house: he remembers how he used to pass from room to room through walls that were only conjecture, and how, with his friend Cletus Smith, he would walk along the bare rafters as if they were high-wires. He remembers the murder of Lloyd Wilson, a tenant farmer.
Wilson was shot by Clarence Smith, Cletus’s father, to punish him for his affair with Smith’s wife, Fern. The narrator remembers that he passed Cletus in a school corridor some time after this event and said nothing to him. He is haunted by his failure to speak to Cletus, to comfort him, and attempts to imagine himself into the tragic events as a gesture of atonement, a kind of retrospective compassion: ‘This memoir – if that’s the right name for it – is a roundabout, futile way of making amends.’ So what has been another of Maxwell’s exercises in recollection, with the usual reference to the archives of the county library and old editions of the Lincoln Courier-Herald, becomes something else: a fiction, an act of imagination intended to make good that omission of kindness.
The novel attempts the salvage of moments and people its narrator has not actually experienced: Cletus milking the cows, directing the teat so that milk squirts directly into the pink mouth of a cat; Clarence and Lloyd helping each other with the ploughing by moonlight, their friendship so habitual that when they mend a mowing machine ‘wrenches and pliers pass back and forth between them with as much familiarity as if they owned their four hands in common’; the character of a dog; the disintegration of two marriages; the attraction of Lloyd and Fern. Lloyd notices the nape of her neck in lamplight: ‘Looking at the soft blond hairs that had escaped from the comb, he thought of all those people who, because of their religion, had knelt down in great perturbation of mind and had their heads chopped off. His heart was flooded with love for her and he lost the thread of what Clarence was saying.’
That image of execution, prompted by the sight of Fern’s neck foreshadows an actual execution (Clarence’s murder of Lloyd), whose cause is the very flood of love to which Maxwell is referring. Similarly, the narrator recalls the day his stepmother dropped a bottle of iodine into the washstand: ‘She and I spent our first evening in the new house scrubbing at what looked like bloodstains on the shining white wall.’ Apart from anything else, the image indicates that the bloodshed in Cletus’s family is not sealed off from the rest of the community, that a tragedy for the narrator’s friend is a tragedy for him too. The narrator lost his mother – Cletus lost his father – Clarence commits suicide after he has killed Lloyd. Both boys lose their homes. The novel binds together their experiences in almost imperceptible ways. The narrator’s memory of earache will become, a hundred pages later, what Cletus feels after Clarence has cuffed him, leaving ‘his right ear roaring with pain’, and both ears are reminders of a mystery the novel never quite explains: the fact, mentioned in the first chapter, that ‘the murderer had cut off the dead man’s ear with a razor and carried it away with him.’ The narrator liked to watch work proceeding on his father’s house, and he remembers the carpenters’ hammering: ‘Pung, pung, kapung, kapung, kapung, kapung.’ Nearly a hundred pages later, when his parents have divorced and his father has been forced to give up the farm, Cletus is ‘aware of a distant hammering: Pung, pung, pung, kapung, kapung, kapung, kapung. Somebody must be building a new house.’
As in ‘The Thistles in Sweden’, the narrator recalls the objects in his home with reverence: ‘Victorian walnut sofas and chairs that my fingers had absently traced every knob and scroll of, mahogany tables, worn Oriental rugs, gilt mirrors, pictures, big square books full of photographs that I knew by heart.’ So, later, Cletus will regard the objects of his home: ‘An iron bedstead. A chair with a cane seat that had given way. A sheet-iron stove with one leg missing. A ten-gallon milk can with a hole in the bottom.’ Where Maxwell’s earlier work had seemed flattened by its reiterations, these echoes are part of the novel’s argument: they show how easily Cletus’s misfortune might have been the narrator’s, and vice versa, ‘life being, as Ortega y Gasset somewhere remarks, in itself and forever shipwreck’.
Here, the writing takes a Presbyterian pride in the absence of fuss and ornament, compared to which Updike’s confections of adjective and adverb seem a very Catholic excess. The style is as simple and plain as it was when Maxwell started out sixty years ago. It is as if he has never quite forgotten all those years at Sunday School. But the earlier novels pale beside So Long, See You Tomorrow: and their slow explorations of the unreliable truths of memoir, of the loss of a mother, of the meaning of ‘home’, seem little more than five-finger exercises, a sort of imaginative flexing in preparation for this concentration of wisdom and feeling.