The 1p Book Review: William Maxwell – The Chateau

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.

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About Author Profile: Nige

Cravat-Wearer of the Year Nige, who, like Mr Kenneth Horne, prefers to remain anonymous, is a founder blogger of The Dabbler and has been a co-blogger on the Bryan Appleyard Thought Experiments blog. He is the sole blogger on Nigeness, and (for now) a wholly owned subsidiary of NigeCorp. His principal aim is to share various of life's pleasures.

2 thoughts on “The 1p Book Review: William Maxwell – The Chateau

    October 14, 2010 at 15:04

    I’ve recently read good things about Maxwell elsewhere too. There seems to be a move afoot to resurrect his standing as one of the 20th century’s better writers

    October 14, 2010 at 16:48

    High time too, Worm. He’s much bigger in America – where I believe So Long, See You Tomorrow is a schoolroom staple – than he is over here. I’d never heard of him (except vaguely as an editor) until I kept coming across the name on Patrick Kurp’s great Anecdotal Evidence blog.

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