Sunday 9 September 2007

William Maxwell

William Maxwell was born in Lincoln, Illinois in 1908 and died in 2000 in New York City where he had lived since the mid 1930's. For forty years he was an editor at The New Yorker where he worked with, amongst others, Eudora Welty, Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike and John Cheever. He wrote six novels, a memoir, two children's books, several story collections as well as essays reviews and letters. He was honoured with many awards including the American Book Award for his final novel So Long, See You Tomorrow. What he also left behind with those who knew or worked with him was the memory of a man who was honourable, generous and also that deceptively simple sounding adjective; good.

I first began reading Maxwell when my father mentioned he was reading a fantastic novel called Time Will Darken It. I got the impression that this novel had spoken directly to him about marriage and its difficulties. In an effort to understand better what he was thinking or going through I bought a copy myself. The title of the novel comes from Francisco Pacheco's 17th century textbook on painting. He advises mixing a bright tint when applying colour, 'It must not be dark; on the contrary, it must be rather on the light side because time will darken it...' and tells the story of Austin King a man whose comfortable life is left damaged after he invites his Southern relatives to stay. It is a wonderful book filled with Maxwell's trademarks; a brilliant observation of family and small town life, characters with their own distinct trajectories and a slowly building emotional punch which hits you hard.

I went on to read much more of his and found that here was a writer who not only knew how to write but was also able to bring into play his skills as an editor. Nowhere is this more obvious than with his final novel So Long, See You Tomorrow. A slim book at 135 pages it contains so much. A man remembers how fifty years ago his friendship with another boy was shattered by a murder in their rural community in Illinois. Richard Ford was left daunted by how it made 'greatness seem simple' and Michael Ondaatje described it as 'one of the great books of our age'. I would urge anyone to read it now. It joins that elite group of small novels which seem perfect (and also one of the few books in history to successfully write, albeit briefly, from the viewpoint of a dog!) .

His other great novel The Folded Leaf also tells the story of two friends; Lymie 'thin and pigeon chested' and Spud the natural athlete who is everything Lymie wants to be. It brilliantly charts their changing relationship as they move from school to college, from boyhood to maturity. But all of Maxwell's writing is rewarding. The stories are charming and profound, the essays insightful and I even have a copy of his children's book The Heavenly Tenants which sounds like a good bedtime read for when that time of life is upon me. He even encouraged me to read War and Peace when I learnt that he had had the book read to him just before he died. For a better idea of that story and the man himself I would recommend A William Maxwell Portrait. If what we leave behind us is in the memories of those we touch, this book shows beautifully why William Maxwell deserves to be appreciated by a new generation.


Stewart 15 September 2007 at 17:50  

Well that settles it. I do need to get Maxwell onto my shelves as soon as possible.

John Self 23 October 2007 at 08:50  

Fascinating to read this. I have most of Maxwell's novels and have even read several of them, but can't remember a damn thing about them, or even whether I liked them all that much. I reckon on your listing, revisiting So Long, See You Tomorrow would be wise to begin with.

The Chateau is the other biggie, I think, and I also have his collected stories, All the Days and Nights.

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