William Maxwell is an exceptionally good writer; I think that would be difficult to dispute. Famously he was an editor of the New Yorker (editing, amongst many things, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s short stories – leading to the miracle of wonderfulness that is their collected letters), and it is those skills which he carries over into his fiction writing. A close eye to detail, an observing nature, and a delicate precision in his prose that makes reading his novels a lengthy exercise in perception and patience.
All of which means that I have to be in the right mood to read Maxwell. When I am, nothing is more glorious. I can luxuriate in his sentences and his precise (that word again) cataloguing of human emotion. If I’m not in the right mood, it wearies me – it requires proper attention, and sometimes I am not a good enough reader to give it. This, incidentally, is how I feel about many of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, too – and, like A Game of Hide and Seek (for instance), I started, shelved, continued, shelved, repeat as needed, and eventually finished Time Will Darken It (1948). It took the best part of four months, but it was worth doing it like this – had I rushed it, I would have resented it. As it is, I think it was wonderful. (Thank you, Barbara, for giving it to me back in 2009!)
The focus of the novel is on Austin King and his family in Draperville, as his cousin’s family come to visit, and the aftermath they leave behind them. There are broken hearts, accidents, threats, arguments – but these make up a patchwork which portrays a community, rather than being of utmost importance themselves. And the highlight of this community is Austin King himself. He is a very Maxwellian character – patient, kind, uncertain, and never entirely able. He lives in the shadow of his great (late) father, having taken on his partnership in a law firm; he lives his wife Martha who seems cold and distant, but is really (as Maxwell scrapes away the layers) confused and unhappy. And then he lives with his boisterous cousin Mr Potter, his chatty wife, caddish son, and besotted daughter.
One part of King’s life which is largely satisfactory is his relationship with his daughter Abbey, or Ab. Many Maxwellian characters are good fathers, and even though I am not a father of any variety, I love reading his portraits of these relationships – which always remind me of Maxwell’s lovely relationship with his own daughters, as shown through his letters. He is always a sensitive writer, but perhaps most of all when it comes to Ab.
The world (including Draperville) is not a nice place, and the innocent and the young have to take their chances. They cannot be watched over, twenty-four hours a day. At what moment, from what hiding place, the idea of evil will strike, there is no telling. And when it does, the result is not always disastrous. Children have their own incalculable strength and weakness, and this, for all their seeming helplessness, will determine the pattern of their lives. Even when you suspect why they fall downstairs, you cannot be sure. You have no way of knowing whether their fright is permanent or can be healed by putting butter on the large lump that comes out on their forehead after a fall.
There are some many characters and events that I can’t begin to list them all, so I’ll just quote one incident I thought rather lovely. Here Miss Ewing – Austin’s aging legal secretary – is talking to him about his father:
“I’ll never forget how good your father was to me when I first came to work here. I was just a girl and I didn’t know anything about law or office work. He used to get impatient and lose his temper and shout at other people, but with me he was always so considerate. He was more like a friend than an employer.”
Austin nodded sympathetically. What she said was not strictly true and Miss Ewing must know that it was not true. His father had often lost his temper at Miss Ewing. Her high-handed manner with people that she considered unimportant, and her old-mad ways had annoyed Judge King so that he had, a number of times, been on the point of firing her. He couldn’t fire her because she was indispensable to the firm, and what they had between them was more like marriage than like friendship. But there is always a kind of truth in those fictions which people create in order to describe something too complicated and too subtle to fit into any conventional pattern.
Maxwell often does this, and does it so well – a specific event will lead into generalised maxim, but one with such heart and such insight that all my wariness of generalisations is washed away.
The only times this approach doesn’t work very well (in my opinion) is when Maxwell gets too homiletic for too long. There is the odd chapter which might as well be the third act of an Ibsen play, and sometimes he forgets to give us enough of the specifics before he gets onto the reflections. But they are small flaws in a novel which is extraordinarily insightful and complex. No character’s action or reaction is careless or implausible – sometimes they are extreme, but only where extremity is believable. He is truly an astonishing writer – I just wish I were always as capable and adept a reader.
Oh, and the cartoon… a while ago I said I’d start doing pun covers, as a bit of silliness, and promptly forgot all about it. Well… they’re back!
Others who got Stuck into this Book:
“This is probably one of the best books I’ve ever read; beautiful, maddening and thought provoking” – Rachel, Book Snob
“The greatness of Maxwell’s writing is that he looks deep inside each character, and he looks with humanity, without judgement, indeed with what I can only call love.” – Harriet, Harriet Devine’s Blog
“I liked the way the town and its characters came to life, as a sepia-tinted photograph does. There is an old-fashioned, autumnal feel to this novel.” – Sarah, Semi-fictional