Wednesday 21 April 2010

'they always turned their faces to the wall'

Bright Centre Of Heaven

by William Maxwell

When I was a blogging newbie back in 2007 I wrote a post on William Maxwell, a writer I felt was due some recognition and praise; a quiet unassuming man of letters who not only edited the New Yorker for many years, helping to shape the prose of some of America's foremost writers (Welty, Nabokov, Updike and Cheever amongst others) but also wrote stories and novels of his own, all of which I had read apart from one that eluded me. Maxwell's first novel had been out of print for more than 70 years when the Library Of America printed it in 2008 as part of their two-volume collection of his works. Up until that point a first edition might pop up every now and then but with a price tag running into hundreds of dollars it was always beyond my grasp. There was also Maxwell's own attitude to the book to consider, he had resisted attempts to see it reprinted, embarrassed perhaps at this early effort but I'm so glad to have finally got the opportunity to read it. It may not be his best work, and there are many ways in which it feels like a writer trying things out, finding a style, but Maxwell was always a writer who underneath the conventional feel of his prose was making exciting little leaps in viewpoint and structure and this book is no exception. As Kevin pointed out in his perceptive review the book is like a writing exercise based on one question: 'Can an author create a piece of fiction, with numerous characters, who share only one trait — each is totally self-preoccupied and virtually uninterested in the people around him or her?'

Mrs. West, a widow, has been forced by the Great Depression to open her farmhouse in rural Wisconsin to guests. I'll encourage you to read Kevin's post as he summarises very neatly the many different people who are staying there but her son Thorn also gives a brief rundown as well as showing his twin feelings of protectiveness and embarrassment. His mother is forever scrutinised by the neighbours having become 'chief source of gossip for the whole countryside'. When Thorn is questioned by one of them about their guests he feels the need to 'protect her in his father's absence'.

He turned away slightly, that he might conceal from the neighbours the Negro reformer who was coming that afternoon, and the crazy woman who practiced on the first floor of the Tower, the man without a job who lived on the second, and the woman who painted oranges and oil-cans on the third. He turned away that he might conceal from the neighbours his love.

One of the guests, Paul, an ex-teacher searching for a new direction in life is slightly less charitable.

It seemed to Paul that a really high class insane asylum must not be so very different from this. Not so out-of-the-way, perhaps, and without the pleasant landscape. But the inmates could not be much farther from sober sanity than most of the people here. Doubtless in a nuthouse there was less going on, and the inmates were probably allowed to retire from time to time and be free of interruption in their padded cells.
Like a roving camera Maxwell chooses to focus on each of the characters individually, allowing him to develop them fully but also to highlight the isolation of each of them. Again, like a young writer demonstrating their ability to render different voices, his characters are highly individual and memorable. Nigel, a young actress (her name coming as a result of her father really wanting a boy, although - 'Even if your father did have his heart set on a boy, there was still no reason why he should pick out such a strange name to name it.') lives on an almost fantastical plane, Aunt Amelia, who subsists only on cottage cheese and weak tea, floats about like a ghostly presence, whilst her ward, bumptious Bascombe, bumbles about talking amiably mad nonsense. Each has an internal monologue so strong it is a wonder that they manage to keep them so hidden from those they live, eat and socialise with. Maxwell adds some fuel to these characters with two set-pieces, one a group walk and picnic which reads like a rather brilliant self-contained short combining the best of Chekhov and Austen, and the other the arrival of Jefferson Carter, the 'Negro reformer' mentioned earlier, bringing the issue of race to 1930's rural Wisconsin with unsurprisingly explosive results.

Whilst you could criticise the novel for its disparity, you have to acknowledge that for the most part it actually works. Maxwell also displays several moments of the effortlessly evocative prose that fill his later work, particularly when creating landscape and environment.

The tufted marsh grass swayed softly to the north. The crickets sang and sang, like dry fiddles. In the shallows the water caught bright bits of sunlight, held them for a second, and gave them up again to the bright air. Solemnly, like a procession, the current swept by the pier, bearing on its surface pieces of water-weed, sticks, fragments of leaves, white specks, air bubbles. And these in turn clung to the knees of the willow that had waded out into the water and knelt down there, the way cattle do.

He also has a heartbreaking way of depicting love, as with his description of a canoe ride taken by Thorn. But there is also his depiction of familial love. Mrs. West, who for most of the book has been a figure of fun, suddenly becomes a lonely figure worthy of our sympathy as she goes about the house at night pulling covers over her grown-up sons, realising just how isolated she is even within such a crowded household.

Thorn too, was half-uncovered, but he lay on his side and perfectly straight, like a young tree. As she bent over him he stirred slightly in his sleep and turned his face to the wall.
Mrs. West sighed and made her way back to her own room. It seemed to her that in a way Thorn was no different from all the people of Meadowland, each one so extraordinary, and each one living within himself, so alone. When she came and looked at them, they always turned their faces to the wall.


dovegreyreader 21 April 2010 at 18:09  

I'll cut and paste this here from Facebook, William, my 8am Ipod skills not up to leaving a comment here with that tiny keyboard!
Thanks for this. I'm a recent discoverer of Maxwell and this piece has given me wonderful insights . I've been reading Time Will Darken It for weeks now, it almost seems impolite to rush a Maxwell!

Anonymous,  21 April 2010 at 18:52  

The review brings back fond memories, Will -- thanks for the kind words and the link. I intend to return to Maxwell (some of the short stories and one or two of the later novels) in a month or so. He is the kind of author that I want to spread the reading experience out over several years.

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