On William Maxwell

Over the years I have been a great fan of William Trevor, so to discover another writer whose work I love every bit as much is a great piece of good news.  The only mystery is why it has taken me so long to come to the writing of William Maxwell, but, as the saying goes, better late than never.

I stumbled upon the first two slender Maxwell volumes in a cut price book store. They Came Like Swallows and So Long, See You Tomorrow had been reprinted by Vintage. I knew at once that I would never tire of Maxwell’s elegantly turned sentences, and his ability to combine surface restraint with an underlying wiring of pain. As I slowly turned the pages even the knowledge that we have shared a publisher, albeit on different continents at different times, became cause for joy and pride.  This tenuous connection aside, I am simply filled with awe for his writing.

The two novels are each remarkable in their own ways.  As soon as I had read them I investigated his back catalogue.  Thrilled to find it was still obtainable, I ordered it all,  along with a biography, and looked forward to the slow infusion of his life’s work into consciousness.


Swallows was written when Maxwell was twenty-seven, and So Long when he was in his seventies. Both books circle around the same autobiographical material – the death of the author’s mother  in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918.

The loss of his mother was the motivating force in at least four of Maxwell’s novels. By the time he was interviewed for the Paris Review in 1982 he remarked that he had said all he had to say about her death.

When I discovered that Maxwell had loved Colette’s writing, it came as no surprise. No doubt he found in it some of the qualities I relish in his, the ability to use words as scalpels, cutting away the dross and exposing the essence of things; a sense that what is written about is not just a topic but matters deeply to the writer.

Maxwell loved Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, finding himself within its pages in the character of the boy, James Ramsay, sitting at his mother’s feet cutting pictures from a magazine.  In reading Woolf this past couple of weeks, that image of mother and child sitting quietly together seemed more intense than ever, magnified for me by William Maxwell.

A long time editor at the New Yorker, there were periods when William Maxwell concentrated on the work of other writers rather than his own. One of them, Maeve Brennan, has been another favourite of mine, and I should have picked up  on Maxwell’s books from Brennan’s biography (Homesick At The New Yorker) because she always seemed to be writing or receiving letters from  him.

So I have come to the novels of William Maxwell late, but fortunately not too late.  I’ve bought second copies of some so that I can lend them out to friends.  So Long, See You Tomorrow, at only 153 pages, is a miracle of brevity and a triumph of style.  Its use of an omniscient narrator never distances the reader, and even when the narrative momentarily dips into the head of a farm dog, disbelief is not suspended. Indeed, having read Virginia Woolf, who often moved into non-human points of view, it does not even seem that radical.

The one thing I’m sorry about is that Maxwell did not use his preferred title for this novel, which was The Palace at Four AM.  It’s taken from a surrealist sculpture by Alberto Giacometti, and a colleague at the New Yorker, who had used it for a play he wrote, pressured Maxwell into abandoning what would have been the perfect title for his book. Needless to say, the play is lost to memory, while Maxwell’s novel survives in spite of its far less resonant title.

According to Giacometti, The Palace at 4 a.m. relates to “a period of six months passed in the presence of a woman who, concentrating all life in herself, transported my every moment into a state of enchantment. We constructed a fantastical palace in the night—a very fragile palace of matches. At the least false movement a whole section would collapse. We always began it again.”

The woman in question is often identified as one of Giacometti’s lovers, known only by her first name, Denise. In the summer of 1933 Giacometti told André Breton, that he was incapable of making anything that did not have something to do with her.

 Maxwell saw the sculpture in the Museum of Modern Art, and he quotes from Giacometti’s statement in the novel.  But rather than a lover, it is the figure of his mother Maxwell is evoking, as he and and another boy play in the partially constructed house Maxwell’s father built after his wife’s death.  Looking at Giacometti’s sculpture, it is easy to see how, more than half a century later, it spoke to William Maxwell and became embedded in this beautiful book.

This entry was published on April 2, 2013 at 1:28 pm. It’s filed under Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

5 thoughts on “On William Maxwell

  1. Enjoyable piece! I am a fan of Maxwell too. There is a wonderful book – ‘The Happiness of getting it down right’ – which features the letters between Maxwell and Frank O’Connor when Maxwell was working as editor at The New Yorker. Full of lots of gems for writers!

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