Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Precise, deeply felt and very American (So Long, See you Tomorrow by William Maxwell)

Eleven humans and one dog rang in 2008 at our house (sans the ball on tv). I brought in the new year thinking what nice friends we have (though our gathering included far from an exhaustive list). We were cleaning up and then winding down until 3:30 am so I did the unprecedented for 2008 (I supposed nearly everything is unprecendented for 2008) and slept until 10:30! I followed it by a totally uncharacteristic day of doing almost nothing (partly due to a sore throat which is still with me, darn it). Finishing up the smoked salmon and the champagne for brunch, drinking pots and pots of tea, hanging out with our good friend (know here as The Harpsichordist) who stayed over after the party, watched old episodes of the very bad TV adaptation of The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries from the 1970s (did the 70s do anything right?), and reading William Maxwell's So Long, See you Tomorrow. I hope this book is an indication of the quality of my reading experiences for 2008. Maxwell's writing is neat and clean, like crisp white sheets with neatly tucked corners. This trim novel is the memory of an older man looking back on a boyhood friendship. A tragedy forever alters the lives of the two boys and his memory is tinged with regret because, at a chance encounter a few years, later he fails to speak to his friend. The simplicity and elegance of the writing remind me of another American writer who I admire - Horton Foote - a playwright. If you're unfamiliar with him his play The Habitation of Dragons is unmatched. Here are three excerpts from Maxwell's novel:
I seem to remember that I went to the new house one winter day and saw snow descending through the attic to the upstairs bedrooms. It could also be that I never did any such thing, for I am fairly certain that in a snapshot album I have lost track of there was a picture of the house taken in the circumstances I have just described, and it is possible that I am remembering that rather than an actual experience. What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory - meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion - is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.

Before the stairway was in, there was a gaping hole in the center of the house and you had to use the carpenters' rickety ladder to get to the second floor. One day I looked down through this hole and saw Cletus Smith standing on a pile of lumber looking at me. I suppose I said, "Come on up." Anyway, he did. We stood looking out at the unlit streetlamp, through a square opening that was some day, going to be a window, and then we climbed up another ladder and walked along horizontal two-by-sixes with our arms outstretched, teetering like circus acrobats on the high wire. We could have fallen all the way through to the basement and broken an arm or a leg but we didn't.


As Aunt Jenny is drawn toward the farm, so the hired man, Victor Jensen, feels the pull of town. Bright and early on the morning of Decoration Day he gets dressed up fit to kill and starts off down the highway. The same thing happens on the Fourth of July and Labor Day. Though they know what he is heading for, they do not make any effort to stop him. It is his reward for not belonging to anybody and not having anybody who belongs to him. He isn't home by milking time, and they know then that he won't come home at all. In the morning when they go to his room in the barn his bed has not been slept in. Various neighbors report that they have seen him in town - during the parade, or on the courthouse square, or at the band concert, reeling. Two days later, a buggy drives up the lane an stops. Cletus comes to the door and Lloyd Wilson says, "I passed Victor on the road just now. He was headed in this direction and I tried to get him climb in with me but he wouldn't. I thought you'd like to know." Cletus and his father go out looking for the hired man and find him lying in a ditch a quarter of a mile from home, and put him to bed in his room in the barn. Except for the stench of alcohol on his breath and the dried vomit on his clothes, it is like undressing a child. The next day he is up in time to help with the chores. He is deathly pale and his hands shake. Nobody mentions his absence and he is not apologetic - just withdrawn. As if he had answered a summons and is in no way responsible for what followed.


Searching for a clue to her feelings, he was alert to the quality of her voice when she spoke to her children or Clarence. He knew when she was depressed. He knew also that like most married people she and Clarence quarreled sometimes. Did he imagine it or was it ture that they got on better with each other and were more cheerful when he was around?

If he did what he knew he ought to do, which was not go there any more, Clarence would wonder why. So would she. The idea that she would think of him at all pleased him. All day long he thought about her. The cows sensed that he hardly knew what he was doing and turned their heads as far as their stanchions would permit and looked at him gravely.

He sighed, and then a moment later sighed again - deep sighs that seemed to come from as far down as they could come. To have escaped from that deadness, from the feeling that all he had to look forward to was more of the same...

I find the writing exquisite because it is precise, using as many words as it takes to clearly describe a thing, but spare when it can be. Yet it is not stinting on imagination or emotion, just not effusive. I'm going to add Maxwell's The Chateau to my 2008 list.


herschelian said...

I discovered William Maxwell's writing a few years ago, completely by chance. and think he is one of America's great writers, and so little known.
The Chateau is my favourite of all his works, you are in for a real treat. It is simply brilliant writing. Rural France is so wonderfully evoked, and the clever way he points up how differently Americans and Europeans see the world is absolutely masterful.
I also loved 'They Came Like Swallows'. Dear me, just writing this has made me want to re-read them all!

Ted said...

H - Thanks for your visit. I'm very excited to read more Maxwell and I'm glad to hear some of the other works do not disappoint.

Sherrie said...

If you are close to New York City on July 31, you may want to visit a free literary event about Maxwell.