On a summer evening in Illinois in 1912, a widow and her two unmarried daughters leave a dinner party at their neighbors’ house and prepare to walk home when another dinner guest, a gentleman from Mississippi, offers to escort the ladies. The widow replies, “`No, you mustn’t come with us, Mr. Potter. We left a light burning and we’re not afraid.’” The oddly solicitous and chatty narrator takes over:
“The light could not protect Mrs. Beach and her daughters from death by violence, or old age, or from the terrible hold they had on one another, but at least it would enable them to enter their own house without being afraid of the dark, and it is the dark most people fear, anyway – not being murdered or robbed.”
It’s an old-fashioned, scoffed-at notion that fiction can teach us something about life, just as we hope life can teach us something about life, at least if we’re paying attention. It wouldn’t have seemed old-fashioned to our great-grandparents and most of their forbears, assuming they could read, and did. Literature was assumed to be, among other things, “equipment for living,” as Kenneth Burke put it.
The passage above comes early in William Maxwell’s fourth novel, Time Will Darken It (1948), in which the narrator comments broadly and obliquely on the narrative. He’s cousin to George Eliot’s narrator in Middlemarch, but quieter, less discursive. The effect is not dictatorial but amiable, in the manner of a friend who wishes to encourage and console without appearing pushy. Among the guests at the dinner party is an old man whose longueurs are indulged by all. The narrator writes:
“Ten years before, he had been an imposing representative of the world sensitive little boys are afraid of – the loud, ample, bald-headed, cigar-smoking, cigar-smelling men. And then suddenly, before anyone realized what was happening, Mr. Ellis’ hair had turned white and with it his bushy eyebrows and the long black hairs growing out of his nose and ears. He was now a little old man with a tired mind and the violent emotions of second childhood. He discovered the plate in front of him and made a futile effort to cut his fried chicken.”
Such passages seem almost like interpolated tales, stories within stories that neither hasten nor impede the larger narrative but add another layer of resonance. The narrator is the least vicious of gossips. In less exquisite hands he might have come off as bossy or distressingly folksy. Like a storyteller in some oral culture, he’s the keeper of history who reminds us that nothing is without precedent, nothing is new under the Illinois sun. He permits us to see changes accelerated as in a time-lapse film, as Mr. Ellis ages before our eyes. The narrator describes with delicate wit the role of historian in a small Midwestern town:
“Of the literary arts, the one most practiced in Draperville was history. It was informal, and there was no reason to write it down since nothing was ever forgotten. The child born too soon after the wedding ceremony might learn to walk and to ride a bicycle; he might go to school and graduate into long pants, marry, move to Seattle, and do well for himself in the lumber business; but whenever his or his mother’s name was mentioned, it was followed inexorably by some smiling reference to the date of his birth.”
In 2004, the year of his death, Anthony Hecht published a lovely essay on Time Will Darken It (in A William Maxwell Portrait). He too takes special notice of the narrator, relishing Maxwell’s wry assistant and stand-in:
“… [the novel] employs an authorial voice of piercing wisdom, gentle irony, and thoughtful comment that sounds, time to time, like the voice of Chekhov.”
The comparison, for once, is not far-fetched. Every fiction writer, in particular of short stories, eventually gets compared to Chekhov, usually to ridiculous purpose. The sadness and muted comedy of Maxwell's best work, its devotion to what he called "the fragility of happiness," owes much to Chekhov and his other Russian masters, Turgenev and Tolstoy. Maxwell and Chekhov remind us of what Whitney Balliett wrote about Pee Wee Russell:
"His blues were an examination of the proposition that there must be a way to make sadness bearable and beautiful."