I want to cry a little bit, because I just spent two hours writing a post on So Long, See You Tomorrow, which disappeared when I tried to add a picture. Sometimes I hate Blogger… Well, I’m going to give it another go, but if my enthusiasm wanes a little, you’ll know why…
It has ended up being quite neat, though, that I’m blogging about a novella by William Maxwell – following on from other reviews in this vein this week. I fell in love with Maxwell when I read They Came Like Swallows (thanks Karen!), bought up a few of his books, read half of The Chateau, and… stopped. Not sure why. But Rachel’s review of So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980) catapaulted it up my tbr pile, and while I didn’t love it quite as much as They Came Like Swallows, it’s not far off.
I love books which centralise the memory of long-distant, momentous events – especially if uncertainty, anxiety or guilt bring these recollections to the fore. That makes me sound a bit sadistic, doesn’t it? But examples like Ian McEwan’s Atonement and, even better, Jens Christian Grondahl’s Virginia (reviewed here) show how this can create a structure of dual narratives, looking forwards and backwards, memories and regrets influencing the telling of past and present. Guilt is perhaps the most powerful of emotions, especially when nothing can be done to appease or rectify.
The novella opens with a murder, told in Maxwell’s deceptively simple manner:
One winter morning shortly before daybreak, three men loading gravel there heard what sounded like a pistol shot. Or, they agreed, it could have been a car backfiring. Within a few seconds it had grown light. No one came to the pit through the field that lay alongside it, and they didn’t see anyone walking on the road. The sound was not a car backfiring; a tenant farmer named Lloyd Wilson had just been shot and killed, and what they heard was the gun that killed him.
Lloyd Wilson and the murderer, Clarence Smith, had once been best friends. Living on neighbouring farms, their families had grown alongside each other, and Maxwell builds up this dynamic between neighbours and friends in a believable, simple manner – until circumstances change and the friendship is gradually unwoven, with the tragic results already revealed to the reader at the outset. The narrator’s guilty remembrances stem from failing to support his best friend, Cletus Smith, while his life fell apart. This guilt colours the narrator’s presentation of the past, and is a net from which he has not been able to escape. The novel moves between past and present, developing each narrative line, and demonstrating the far-flung influence of long ago events – in a way which flows beautifully, never forced, quietly showing Maxwell’s novelistic expertise.
The narrator’s own life was not easy. Crippling shy and suffering from the early loss of his mother, the narrator feels that he has disappointed his father, and is out of kilter with the sort of boy he is expected to be. Maxwell touches gently on the father’s grief, in an example of his understated but powerful style:
His sadness was of the kind that is patient and without hope. He continued to sleep in the bed he and my mother had shared, and tried to act in a way she would have wanted him to, and I suspect that as time passed he was less and less sure what that was.
Many lesser novelists would have spent several pages dissecting the narrator’s father’s emotions, but Maxwell’s talent is that he does not need to do so – he encapsulates everything we need to read in two short sentences. It is this approach which exemplifies Maxwell’s brilliance, but also how easily he could be underestimated.
The father does remarry, and the family is moved to a new home. I love portrayals of houses in literature, and the scenes of their new home being built make for some great sections – the narrator compares the building site to Alberto Giacometti’s sculpture ‘The Palace at 4am’. There is no picture of the sculpture in the book, it is only described verbally, but I went and tracked down an image. In its curious form, seemingly incomplete and distorted, it reflects not only a building site but the structures of memory:
For, despite the murder and the family tensions, the true subject of So Long, See You Tomorrow is memory and the fallibility of memory. Not so much that facts may be altered, but the distortion of remembered emotions and responses; superimposing later feelings over old ones, and the overlap between past and present:
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. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.
A murder mystery usually has a fairly straightforward structure – clues must be laid, of course, and herrings must be red, but the masters have laid out the pattern. By removing the mystery of whodunnit, Maxwell explores the much more human, fascinating dynamics of how circumstances and personalities led to murder – and how the aftermath continues for decades and decades. To construct a narrative through the abstract themes of grief, regret, love, pain, and guilt, Maxwell sets himself a much more difficult task – and achieves it. I’m excited eventually to read more of Maxwell, and it was worth having to write this post twice to tell you how good this little book is…