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Monday, August 16, 2010

William Maxwell, novelist, editor, born 102 years ago

Today is the birthday of William Keepers Maxwell Jr. (1908–2000). Author of six novels and scores of short stories, he wrote his first story at 24 and continued to write and publish into his 91st year. A legendary editor at The New Yorker for more than forty years, Maxwell shaped the work and careers of writers who defined the literature of the second half of the twentieth century: Harold Brodkey, Mavis Gallant, Shirley Hazzard, Mary McCarthy, Vladimir Nabokov, J. D. Salinger, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Eudora Welty, and the three Johns—Cheever, O’Hara, and Updike. In two volumes The Library of America has collected all six of his novels, 27 of his stories, several essays, and 40 of what Maxwell called “improvisations,” or literary fairy tales.

Maxwell moved from small-town Illinois to New York City when he was 25, but much of his fiction recreates his childhood world: “I had no idea then," he later wrote, "that three-quarters of the material I would need for the rest of my writing life was already at my disposal. My father and mother. My brothers. The look of things. The Natural History of home . . . All there, waiting for me to learn my trade and recognize instinctively what would make a story.”

As volume editor Christopher Carduff put it in one of his two LOA interviews about Maxwell, “I think Maxwell, in reaction against Spoon River and Winesburg and Zenith, wanted to bring fiction-readers the good and surprising news that one could be born, raised, and buried in a town like Lincoln, Illinois, and yet be happy and fulfilled and receptive to the best that life has to offer.”

When he was ten Maxwell’s mother died from the influenza epidemic of 1918 and this traumatic event governs the action in two of his most acclaimed novels: They Came Like Swallows and So Long, See You Tomorrow. Recalling the experience of reading So Long, See You Tomorrow (and then wanting to read “every short story I could find”) Alice Munro wrote, “I thought: so this is how it should be done. I thought: If only I could go back and write again every single thing that I have written.”

In May 1945 Maxwell married Emily Gilman Noyes, a woman thirteen years his junior he had met eight months earlier when she interviewed for a job at The New Yorker. They deferred their honeymoon until 1948, and their four-month tour of Europe became the basis for Maxwell’s fifth novel, The Château:
I walked into our house on a country road forty miles north of New York City, put the suitcases down, and with my hat still on my head sat down to my typewriter and wrote a page of notes for a novel. I thumbtacked it to the bookcase behind me and didn’t look at it again. For the next ten years I lived in my own private France, which I tried painstakingly to make real to the reader. It was my way of not coming home.
Interweaving travelogue and history, The Château follows the adventures of a thinly disguised couple as they tour postwar France, much of the drama drawn from the Maxwells’ own late summer stay with a family in Blois. Their experiences frequently diverge from what the guidebooks promise:
He yawned. The guidebook slipped through his fingers and joined the pocket dictionary on the rug. After a minute or two he got up and stood at the window. The heavy shutters opened in, and the blackout paper was crinkled and torn and beginning to come loose. Three years after the liberation of France it was still there. No one in a burst of happiness and confidence in the future had ripped it off. Germans, he thought, standing where he stood now, with their elbows on the sill. Looking off toward the river that was there but could not be seen. Lathering their cheeks before the shaving stand . . . Did Mme Bonenfant and Mme Viénot eat with their unwelcome guests, or in the kitchen, or where?
Summing up Maxwell’s achievement in his review of the two Library of America volumes in The New Yorker, John Updike wrote:
He lived for art, its appreciation as well as its creation. In “Nearing Ninety,” he likened death to lying down for a pleasant afternoon nap and found “unbearable” only the thought that “when people are dead they don’t read books.” His shapely, lively, gently rigorous memoirs, out of the abundance of heartfelt writing he bestowed on posterity, are most like being with Bill in life, at lunch in midtown or at home in the East Eighties, as he intently listened, and listened, and then said, in his soft dry voice, exactly the right thing.
The LOA volumes include a detailed chronology written by Christopher Carduff which Updike singled out for praise: “[Carduff’s] twenty-nine pages labelled ‘Chronology’ approach the intimacy and interest of a full-length biography.”

Related LOA works: William Maxwell: Early Novels and Stories; William Maxwell: Later Novels and Stories

1 comment:

  1. Updkie's comments remind me of one of my favorite pieces of Maxwell's nonfiction, an excerpt from a letter he wrote to Sylvia Townsend Warner after the blackout of 1965 that the Times ran in its "The Lives They Lived Issue" after he died. I find myself thinking of the following passage regularly when I'm in an unexpectedly dark corner of a city:

    "Everywhere people were going about their business quietly in the dark. It was like another planet, where the sky, instead of being blue in the daytime, is black. I went into a corner bar, to get a pack of matches to light my way up eight flights of stairs, and found myself in a de la Tour. The bar was C-shaped, with the bartender inside the C, and in front of every man standing around it was a lighted candle, throwing the light up into his face from below, and a glass of beer. In all my life I have never seen a scene more beautiful."

    What a great, observant, humane writer he was.


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