A while back, I wrote here about William Maxwell’s Time Will Darken It. Since then, I’ve read more of his work, and have just finished The Chateau – a novel that could hardly be more different from Time Will Darken It, or, come to that, from any of the others – his novels have little in common apart from their extraordinary subtle artistry and their links to phases of Maxwell’s own life.
With The Chateau (available for 1p here) the biographical link (though you don’t need to know it) is to the author’s travels in postwar France. Ostensibly it’s a simple linear story about a married couple who spend a four-month holiday (those were the days!) in France in 1948. Against the backdrop of a war-scarred, impoverished, uneasy France, the couple, Harold and Barbara Rhodes, discover – mostly through their stay at a chateau which has been reduced to taking in paying guests – that France is not only different but difficult, that its people are not easy to know but are disturbingly easy to offend. Just as they seem to be learning the ropes, to be forming genuine cordial friendships, something will happen to pull the rug from under them. And yet all the time they are making headway, gathering a kind of substitute family around them (the Rhodeses are childless, a fact that gives a nagging undertow to the story) and learning to understand at least some of what is going on around them.
In other hands, the material of The Chateau would make a nice social comedy cum travelogue, but in Maxwell’s it never feels like either – there are always undercurrents, troubling intercessions by an omniscient narrator, flights of fantasy, swoops in and out of the mental world of the Rhodeses. The narrative, elegant, observant and intelligent, proceeds from A to B – arrival to departure – and stops, leaving many mysteries in the air.
Then, for the last 50-odd pages of the book, comes Part II: Some Explanations. This consists of a dialogue between a notional reader and that omniscient narrator, beginning Is that all? Yes, that’s all… But it isn’t, and what follows does much more than merely explain. This final section is brave – bravura – stuff, and has a remarkable effect, as if this final stirring of the narrative plot thickens the mixture to that magical point when everything gels, and the novel becomes a richly satisfying whole.
I doubt that anyone but Maxwell could have pulled this off, but he does, and finishing The Chateau feels like a leave-taking from people one has come to know and, in the case of Harold and Barbara at least, almost to love.