I still didn't know sufficient about William Maxwell to see what was going on here and that had been partly intentional, it can be the joy and the puzzle of discovering a new (to me) writer. It's tempting to search out everything written about an author in these circumstances but I'm being measured, not going overboard and thus far I have gleaned the bare facts.
So I've gathered that William Maxwell was the fiction editor of The New Yorker from 1936 to 1976, and worked with 'literary greats such as J.D. Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov, John Cheever and Eudora Welty, amongst others.'
That John Updike thought William Maxwell had a voice that was
"one of the wisest and kindest in American fiction."
That much of his writing is autobiographical and that I'd sell a ferret (running out of cats) to read The Paris Review interview (Issue 85 Fall 1982), just a bit too expensive to buy online so I'm desperately hoping it will be in the next Canongate collection. Those interviews are unsurpassed, such a literary treasure trove, each one telling me so much that I want to know about a writer, with that well-placed and disarming question revealing so much more depth in those conversations.
I did track down an interview with Barbara Burkhardt author of William Maxwell - A Literary Life just for some more on William Maxwell's use of autobiography in his fiction because I'm starting to want to fill in some gaps,
'Maxwell’s mother died when he was ten years old, during the influenza epidemic of 1918 to 1919. He did not intend to keep returning to his mother’s death, yet it was the central fact of his life and work and kept resurfacing when he wrote fiction taken from some aspect of his own experience. He kept the material fresh by reconsidering it from different vantage points as he aged and by continually experimenting with different narrative techniques....'
And in the end I had to order the book, suddenly I know enough about William Maxwell to want to know it all... quite how did the death of his mother affect this boy of ten sufficiently for it to constantly surface in his fiction?
So Long, See You Tomorrow is narrated by a man in his fifties attempting to reconstruct events from his teenage years, a friendship whose loyalty is tested by the murder of Lloyd Wilson on his Illinois farm. It is a murder of passion committed by the friend's father and slowly but surely the evidence and the circumstances are revealed.
It was the nameless narrator's introduction of himself that had me barking up the wrong sequel tree.
All those details about the death of the mother in childbirth, the relentless and timeless pacing around that such a loss involves, the family shut off from each others' grief and each suffering their own version of this terrible loss and of little help to each other, the remote and distant older brother and all explained in William Maxwell's pitch perfect prose
'...I had inadvertently walked through a door that I shouldn't have gone through and couldn't get back to the place I hadn't meant to leave.'
Does a single sentence come any more perfect than that?
Am I right, was William Maxwell as gentle and as humble as he sounds?
Those observations of a child's world as an adult and with such perfect attention to the little details in They Came Like Swallows, now reshaped, reordered into a new and shifting perspective. This feels like William Maxwell gently manipulating the viewpoint to see what else might be revealed, not only to us but to himself.
Have you ever gone back to a place you knew well as a child?
It's size and shape is fixed in your child's mind's eye and invariably huge, and then you get there as an adult and find something comparatively reduced and slightly disappointing.
Why a picture of a Cornish beach you may ask, well my lasting memory of this child's eye distortion is Elephant Rock on Bossiney beach in Cornwall.
When I was six, it towered over me and the beach, when I went back for the first time in my thirties, it seemed almost like a miniature version of the one I thought I knew, far less imposing.
'...a small segment of the past, remote and yet in perfect focus, like something seen through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars.'
You see, William Maxwell pins it down perfectly.
Moment's like this are captured time and again in a book that will bear many readings whilst doubtless yielding new insights each time.
To my ears this was Bunny's adult voice and assuming as I did that premise I was instantly rewarded with so much, because when I turned the final page of They Came Like Swallows my greatest wish was to know how Bunny may have fared in later life.
So if not a sequel can it be termed a continuation?
An exploration in fiction of William Maxwell's life?
If all you Maxwell aficionados could please keep on straightening out my thinking about him I'd be very grateful, and I can only apologise if I'm carving up a beloved rare gem, into a rough diamond before your very eyes with all this tentative thinking out loud.
There are of course risks to be taken with the fallibility of memory and the narrator acknowledges this,
'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..'
'...what I thought happened was so different from what actually did happen that it might almost have been something made up out of whole cloth.'
But as Barbara Burkhardt suggests,
'By the time he published So
Long, See You Tomorrow in 1980, he said that all he wanted was to
say exactly what he meant “in the only exact way of saying it.” Working
so intently with other writers’ prose helped him to refine his own'
I'm currently reading Time Will Darken It and at snail's pace William Maxwell's 1966 short story collection , The Old Man at the Railroad Crossing & Other Tales whilst keeping Truman Capote's Paris Review interview observation on the art of the short story uppermost in my mind
'After reading it, can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? '
I think I know the answer...