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“The Château” by William Maxwell
From Washington Irving to Henry James, from Hemingway’s “lost generation” to a legion of up-and-coming writers on the G.I. Bill, the experience of Europe, notably France, has been one of the archetypal landscapes of American literature. Alien and fascinating, civilized and mysterious, the “Old world” is a mirror whose puzzling reflections induce surprise, doubt, estrangement, frustration and spiritual growth in the children of the New.
A barely fictionalized account of an actual journey dating to months after the end of World War II (summer 1948), William Maxwell’s uncanny memoir The Château (1961) is a remarkable specimen of the genre at its deepest and most authentic. A young American couple is travelling to Europe on the husband’s modest but comfortable wages and stays for a few weeks (interspersed with brief forays into Paris, Salzburg and Italy) in a quaint “hôtel particulier” in the Loire region, surrounded by an enchanted countryside where the remnants of a glorious past (François I, Leonardo, the duke of Guise, Marie de Medicis) mingle with all too recent memories of the German occupation.
The main characters, ridiculous and fatuous as they sometimes appear to be, bear the scars of war and poverty with the dignity of Cornelian heroes, doing their best to “save face”. Mme Viénot, the enigmatic châtelaine, money-conscious and aloof but brave in her constant efforts to provide for her guests, in spite of the rationing - every day a battle for flour and butter. The stilted and oppressive inhabitants of the house: a former diplomat, a young Canadian attaché, a down-at-heel old noblewoman living in a world of pretension and embarrassing affectations, the unfathomable daughter of the landlady, gradually coming to the forefront of narration. The château, with its microcosm of mystery and innuendos, its intimations of past grandeur, its curious lack of comfort together with remnants of refinement and luxury and a constant sense of impending tragedy, makes for a powerful centre of attraction, a lure that none of the characters seems to be able to escape. No matter how far they run, they keep coming back.
This is about all there is in the way of plot. It is a study of people, their interactions, their whims, their thwarted expectations, their fits of generosity, their vulnerability and the never-ending trouble of making contact with other human beings. As Maxwell himself noted in his 1992 preface, the book contains “nothing more dramatic than hurt feelings caused by misapprehension and a failure to understand the language”. The result, a far cry from anything that would be called a “novel” by any conventional standards, is just a little short of 500 pages in paperback (about 360 in the wonderfully annotated Library of America edition). Though admittedly scant in the action department, however, it makes for a haunting read with an unusual “persistence” (in the sense this term is employed in the wine-tasting jargon), unimpaired by a shockingly anticlimactic finale that gives a lot of mysteries away.
The lifelikeness of situations, characters and observations, deceivingly simple and unassuming, is the product of countless refinements of style. You need to put the novel aside and open another – how curiously plain! how unexpectedly drab! – to realize how good Maxwell’s writing really is. His combination of airy prose and small touches of infinite precision helps bringing matters and situations to an almost unnaturally sharp focus. At the same time, Maxwell’s talent is surprisingly un-American. It is no coincidence that the names of E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf get thrown around a lot in the book: The Château was blessed in its cradle by unmistakably British fairies. Their names are To the lighthouse and A passage to India. Ironic enough for the main fiction editor of “The New Yorker”, the man who saw to print some of the best American short stories of the XX century.
Ironic, indeed. I came to Maxwell by a long detour, planning to read him in the context of a pilgrimage to half-forgotten masters like John Cheever and Richard Yates, the real founding fathers of the minimalistic short story as the likes of Raymond Carver (Yates’s student, incidentally) succeeded in popularizing it. I was expecting something in the vein of these men’s crystal-clear, compressed, elliptic and painfully intense writing, inhabited by sadness, tragic subtexts and omens of doom, the kind of literature the best authors of the ‘40s and ‘50s were publishing on Harold Ross’s rag. I was wrong. Maxwell’s later works are nowhere like the fiction he was editing for a living. The atmosphere is different, the literary coordinates are hardly the same, his “americannes” is tempered, gentler. It is a credit to his craft and honesty that his individual taste never rubbed off on the stories he handled for the “New Yorker”. This is not to say, all in all, that I rank The Château higher than such masterpieces as Revolutionary road (its exact contemporary, also from 1961) or Cheever’s best short fiction. The comparison hardly makes any sense, if it is not to mention in passing that the latter alternatives are closer to my heart.
Does Maxwell’s lesser known “novel” achieve true greatness? Possibly not, not in the absolute, but it is a hell of a minor work. The literary landscape of the 60s would be poorer without it. Some of its characters (pathetic Mme Staus-Muguet above all) are not easy to forget. It was a feat of genuineness and modesty on Maxwell’s part to refrain from equipping the château with a grim butler, waiting for the right opportunity to cut to a stormy exterior with a scream from the gables… What would have happened if Agatha Christie or one of her less talented minions had rewritten this?
A refreshing, healthy reminder of what serious and dedicated literature could and ought to be like.