Friday, September 28, 2012

Conversations with William Maxwell

I've little time tonight, but I do want to share at least a couple of bits from Conversations with William Maxwell (2012), if for on other reason than to try to help spread the word of the book's existence to Maxwell fans who, like me, may have missed it when it was published in the spring.

It's clearly a book that I'll be reading and referring to for a long time; what I have to offer tonight are the merest quick gleanings, a browser's miscellany. Like this exchange with the book's editor (and Maxwell's biographer, Barbara Burkhardt, from 1991, which follows as discussion of the presence of a commenting narrative voice in The Folded Leaf:
Burkhardt: Why did you move away from this type of storyteller in your later works and increasingly use first person?

Maxwell: When I was younger I tried to use the first person and couldn't. The result was inevitably loquacious and without form. I think I learned how not to be loquacious, how to construct a self that would pass with the reader, from reading E. B. White, who is so candid, but so, so disarming. If I had done So Long in the third person I wouldn't have been as close to the painful center of the book, or been able to be a witness as well as an actor.
It shouldn't surprise me, I suppose, that Maxwell drew lessons from White; writers take their models where they find them. And the two do share a commitment to precision, clarity, and sentence-by-sentence quality--but White's lightness of touch, his self-deprecation, the conversational tone of even his most obviously worked over lines nonetheless seem far from Maxwell's seriousness, melancholy, and stateliness.

The best bit I've come across thus far is from an "All Things Considered" interview conducted in 1995, soon after the publication of Maxwell's marvelous All the Days and Nights: Collected Stories. In response to host Linda Wertheimer's statement, "You also write a fair amount about age," Maxwell replies,
I do think being an old man is the most interesting thing that's ever happened to me because of all sorts of strange experiences, the opening up of memory, which I expected, and of the enjoyment of life being progressively greater instead of diminished by age. That was a surprise. And memory is the most remarkable part of all because you live in the past, you live in the present, and you, like everyone, live in the future. Only when you're old, they pass so easily into each other without any effort at all so that the past is quite as real as the present, and the future is, of course, problematical and that's interesting.
Such a satisfying answer, and a heartening one to those of us on our perpetual way, god willing, to being old. That's the goal, isn't it: to hold on to your past while never losing your engagement with the present and your sense of a future.

Maxwell follows that answer with a description of an incident that, for me, raised goose bumps:
I've also had one amazing experience in the night in the dark in bed. I suddenly was able to remember in detail the house I grew up in and left when I was twelve years old. And I went form room to room seeing things that I hadn't remembered for seventy years and more. And being able to look as if I were actually there, as if the house was actually there, I saw that level of the bookcase, I saw pictures, I saw empty rooms, I saw furniture, and could look at it as long as I wanted to. It was as if some shutter had slipped back in my mind and I had absolute, total memory of the past.
Maxwell's description of the experience makes it seem truly uncanny, and it feels as if it ought to carry a hint of dread, of the perils of trespassing, but it doesn't--in fact, his verdict on it is that it was "a marvelous experience," and that it made him believe "that everything is fair, absolutely everything." I suspect that William James might have classed it as a religious experience.

That seems a good way to glide into the haunted precincts of October, with its annual serving of stories of ghosts and ghouls. The coming week may see spotty blogging, but trust me: soon after the spirits will make their presence felt. As the haints put it: have a good weekend--I'll see you on the other side.

1 comment:

  1. I'm a Maxwell fan and didn't hear about this book's publication; thanks for posting about it!

    I've never quite figured out why Maxwell isn't as popular as he should be. He's so kind, sad, and realistic, and he writes so well about the past, about memory, and about life outside the city. The New Yorker sometimes gets taken to task for a sort of sophisticated urban parochialism, but Maxwell does such wonderful work on the Midwest and its towns. The one friend I convinced to read Maxwell reported to me that she was unable to pry herself from the book for a whole weekend.