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[727] So Long, See You Tomorrow – William Maxwell

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” What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory—meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion—is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. ” (III, p.27)

It’s 1921 in a small farm town in Illinois called Lincoln. The anonymous narrator, then a 10-year-old boy, plays on the scaffolding of a new house, which belongs to his father,a widower who is building a new home after his second wedding. In Cletus Smith he finds friendship that satisfies his yearning. Playing in the sketelal building they bond with the tacit, unquestioning camaraderie of kids sharing a game. Cletus Smith is a welcoming distraction for the narrator, who in inconsolable grief and loneliness clings to the memory of his dead mother.

There is a limit, surely, to what one can demand of one’s adolescent self. And to go on feeling guilty about something that happened so long ago is hardly reasonable. I do feel guilty, even so. A little. And always will, perhaps, whenever I think about him. (IX, p.135)

The tenuous friendship comes to an abrupt end after a murder of which the perpetrator is Cletus’s father. Clarence Smith has shot and mutilated a tenant farmer named Llyod Wilson. Two weeks later deputies drag Clarence’s body from the bottom of a nearby gravel pit, where he fell after shooting himself in the head. Cletus’s mother had been having an affair with Wilson, but in a divorce proceeding the judge grants her a decree of divorce against Clarence, on the grounds of extreme and repeated cruelty.

As an older man, the narrator reflects on the blows of grief, incomprehension, confusion, reproach, and violence sustained by his then 13-year-old friend. In the face of such tremendous deprivation—of family, of normal life befit a child, of stability, what is to become of a boy? The inquiry leads him to re-examine his childhood, to imagine the betrayal and infidelity that precipitated the murder-suicide and Cletus’s life amid it all.

The bulk of So Long, See You Tomorrow is a juxtaposition of experience and recollection, abound with visceral childhood memories excavated by an adult consciousness. Instead of a suspenseful linear plot with reconstructed events leading to the murder, the narrator finds himself revisiting the same subject from different angles, trying to fill in the emotional terrain that vanished at the margins of his boyish incomprehension. The book is contemplative and quiet; the cumulative effect is a delicate rendering of ineffable loss.

135 pp. Harvill Press UK. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

William Maxwell

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Another great find from Bangkok is William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, a slim novel that was published in two parts in The New Yorker in 1976. The autobiographical novel tells the story of a young boy growing up in the rural town of Lincoln, Illinois, whose mother dies of influenza and whose father remarries. The boy, who narrates the novel, forms a brief friendship with a young neighbor named Cletus Smith, the son of a murderer.

The book seems to be an ordinary tale of a murder in a small town in the early part of the century. It is told from the point of view of a man, now in his sixties, who is looking back on his friendship with the son of a murdered man. Simplicity itself.

“I never felt sophisticated,” the erudite and elderly Midwesterner explained to NPR’s Terry Gross in 1995. His modesty is certainly one reason why William Maxwell remains a connoisseur’s writer, never achieving the wider recognition he deserves. Yet Maxwell’s career was situated at the epicenter of American literature and letters: On staff at the New Yorker from 1936 to 1975, he was the editor of J.D. Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov, Eudora Welty, Frank O’Connor, John Cheever, and many other luminaries.

[565] The Château – William Maxwell

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” 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]