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[565] The Château – William Maxwell


” Paris seemed to be withdrawing piecemeal from the world. At first it didn’t matter, except that it made the streets look shabby. But then suddenly it did matter. There were certain shops they had come to know and to enjoy using. And they could not leave Harold’s flannel trousers at the cleaners, though it was open this morning, because it would be closed by Monday. The fruit and vegetable store where they had gone everyday, for a melon or lettuce or tomatoes, closed without warning. ” (Ch.16, p.282)

Spontaneous and unpredictable, occasionally encumbering, The Château does not have a clear pot. The narrative is simplicity itself: Harold and Barbara Rhodes are young, well-to-do American couple who decide to take a four-month vacation in post-war Europe in 1948. Although their trips cover England, Germany, and Italy as well, The Château focuses on France, where they stay with Mme Vienot and her family in a château that takes in lodgers to make ends meet.

Feeling tired and bruised by their own series of setbacks, they hurried on up the stairs, conscious that the house was cold and there would not by any hot water to wash in and they would have to spend still another evening trying to understand people who could speak English but preferred to speak French. (Ch.8, p.148)

Most of the actions take place in the château, where they spend two uncomfortable weeks, with meager amenities, rationed commodity, but strict formality. The book relays, in day-to-day, almost excessively, prosaic details of meals, social gatherings, and other happenings in the mansion. They deliberate if they should depart early but only to change their mind upon the next warming on the part of their hostess. Obviously France is far from ready for receiving visitors. Travelers like the Rhodes receive food coupons upon having their passports inspected. They have traveled with four month’s supply of everything from coffee, cigarettes, to cold cream—commodity that would be scarce in post-war Europe. Means of transportation is limited. But they manage to travel extensively and see many sights.

He put himself in her shoes and decided that he would have been relieved for a minute or two, and then he would have begun to worry. He would have been afraid that they would find in Paris what they were looking for—they were tourists, after all—and not come back. (Ch.8, p.140)

So the entire book sees the Americans hitting one site of attraction after another, gradually becoming enmeshed in their host family’s doings. Account of their misunderstanding of the French is shrewd, poignant, and funny. Even in their bliss moments of attachment to France, they are reminded of their foreignness and awkwardness. Lurking in their mind is the question: “Do you think there was something going on that we didn’t know about?” (350) Maxwell captures the feelings of alienation in a traveler. There are social disappointments, the inadvertently offense given and the anxiety about being taken advantage of.

I don’t mind three-hundred pages of culture shock and social solecism (and all the wonderful descriptions of French sights) because Maxwell intersperses his subtle accounts of character with sharp observations about human nature. His writing is also supple and contemplative. But what trumps the whole reading experience is the indulgent, distracting, and clunky epilogue that aims to demystify the French’s “mystery.” Yes, the Rhodes are puzzled and hurt by the French refusal to warmth and charmed when it’s given unexpectedly. But they departed with a much lighter spirit and what transpired to a friendship with the host. The epilogue becomes a poor structure that answers questions not necessarily any answer.

402 pp. Vintage International. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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