Saturday, May 28, 2011

Contrasting cultures - French and American (Books - The Chateau by William Maxwell)

It's been a couple of weeks since I have been able to either write here or make my usual rounds of friends in the blogosphere. I've been writing my last class paper. I'll now be writing papers for publication or (eventually) writing my dissertation, but the classwork is done! Yet, somehow in 15 minutes on the subway or 20 minutes before going to sleep, I managed to finish two books that had nothing to do with that paper, so I am looking forward to catching up with you here this weekend.

The Ragazzo and I will be going to France (and England) this summer. So I retrieved William Maxwell's The Chateau from my teetering TBR pile, not an easy task as it had worked its way down about a foot, and I finally read it. I remember our late book blogging friend Dewey telling me that she wasn't sure I would like The Chateau, but I cannot remember why. But I enjoyed both its pace, and Maxwell's focus on the inner lives of two Americans, Harold and Barbara Rhodes, as they travel in France in 1948, just after the war. Just a peek at the first description of Harold will give you an idea of the level of detail
Maxwell is interested in when it comes to character.
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. Her had failed to be like other people.
Along with Harold's physical appearance we get his lineage and a detail of his inner life that is probably one of his most guarded secrets. Maxwell unfurls Harold in three confident sentences, the words seemingly plunked down on the page like change on the counter.

And when Maxwell introduces us to M. Carrere, a wealthy, elderly visitor convalescing at the chateau, not only is the description's content appropriately different to this character's details, Maxwell's more distinguished diction matches what he is describing.
He was not like anybody they had every seen before. Though he seemed a kind man, there was an authority in his manner that kind men do not usually have. His face was long and equine. His eyes were set deep in his head. His hands were extraordinary. You could imagine him playing the cello or praying in the desert. When he smiled he looked like an expert old circus clown. He did not appear to want the attention of everybody when he spoke, and yet he invariably had it, Harold noticed. If he was aware of the dreary fact that there are few people who are not ready to take advantage of natural kindness in the eminent and the well-to-do, it did not bother him. The overlapping folds of his eyelids made his expression permanently humorous, and his judicious statements issued from a wide sensual, shocking red mouth.
Is there anything else you want to know?

While Maxwell's book is, on one level, the soap opera of guest and host relationships, and the chronicle of visits to pastry shops and castles, the whole while the story is really one of contrasting cultures - French and American. Interesting in light of the current drama around Strauss-Kahn, hmm? In this book, French and American culture meets in the context of immediate post-war deprivation following the violent liberation of France from the Germans by the Americans. As Harold and Barbara come to know their hosts and fellow guests, they face a mixture of embarrassed gratefulness, envy, and resentment and, despite the long months they spend and even some basic French, this creates of each person a mystery. Harold and Barbara cannot penetrate the inner lives and the motivations of their actions remains inscrutable. This is the real subject of The Chateau. It's neither a travel book, nor a plot driven novel per se, though both those elements exist.
After they had scrambled down the steep sandbank to the water's edge, they saw some hikers and cyclists waiting a hundred yards upstream, at the exact spot where Mme Vienot had said the ferry would come. She and Harold began to help Mme Straus-Muguet up the bank again. The two girls took off their shoes and waded into the water. The sound of their voices and their laughter made him turn and look back. Alix tucked the hem of her skirt under her belt. Then the two girls waded in deeper and deeper, with their dresses pulled up and their white thighs showing.

There are certain scenes that (far more than artifacts dug up out of the ground or prehistoric cave paintings, which have a confusing freshness and newness) serve to remind us of how old the human race is, and of the beautiful, touching sameness of most human occasions. Anything that is not anonymous is all a dream. And who we are, and whether our parents embraced life or were disappointed by it, and what will become of our children couldn't be less important. Nobody asks the name of the athlete tying his sandal on the curved side of the Greek vase or whether the lonely traveler on the Chinese scroll arrived at the inn before dark.
Maxwell's book is like a dance between the perspective of mystery, in which Harold and Barbara cannot seem to know the people they have met, no matter how hard they try, and the broader perspective Harold glimpses in the moment just excerpted, in which what they share as human beings looms far larger.

The last forty pages of The Chateau is an epilogue in which Maxwell breaks the stately, more old fashioned chronicle of events format and explains all the mysteries in a question/answer dialogue format that feels like a magazine article. I found the need for this key inexplicable. It almost ruined the book for me. I felt pandered to by its ironic tone. I had preferred the encounters of the story complete with their mysteries but, when I look back on the novel with two week's hindsight, that story is all I remember.

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