Tuesday, January 15, 2008

`The Fragility of Happiness'

I’ve recommended several novels to my boss, as well as the travel books of Patrick Leigh Fermor, and thus far my job is not in jeopardy. She has enjoyed Offshore, by Penelope Fitzgerald; Loving, by Henry Green; and Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson. On her own she found, with my endorsement, John Updike’s Of the Farm and Stanley Elkin’s Mrs. Ted Bliss. Last week, on a whim, I suggested one of my favorite works of fiction, So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980), by William Maxwell, a quiet, heartbreaking American master.

The Library of America has just published his Early Novels and Stories, which includes Bright Center of Heaven, They Came Like Swallows, The Folded Leaf, Time Will Darken It (his other undoubted masterpiece) and a selection of stories. Let’s count this as a down payment on redemption after the LoA’s publication in recent years of such trash as Paul Bowles, H.P. Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick. Fourteen months ago I suggested Maxwell’s induction into the same club as Henry James and Willa Cather. The LoA imprimatur coincides nicely with the centenary of Maxwell’s birth, in Lincoln, Ill., on Aug. 16, 1908. He died in 2000, two weeks short of his 92nd birthday. In the fall, the LoA will publish Later Novels and Stories.

In an interview, the editor of the LoA’s Maxwell volumes, Christopher Carduff, rightly identifies the novelist’s principle concern as “the fragility of happiness.” It’s a theme he shares with the writer he most resembles, Anton Chekhov (with a dollop of Washington Square-era Henry James). Carduff confirms this:

“He admired and emulated the Joyce of `The Dead’ but, as an artist and technician, had no use for the Joyce of Ulysses or Finnegans Wake. He also had no use for Pound or Stein or Faulkner. He did love Virginia Woolf, but not for her `modernism.’ He loved her for the same reasons that he loved Chekhov and Turgenev, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Elizabeth Bowen, and Bonnard and Vuillard: because she rendered, with great fidelity and artistry, the texture of middle-class family life, and the interactions, both large and small, between men, women, and children within a family. Maxwell wasn’t so much a great modernist as he was a great domestic realist, perhaps the greatest American fiction has yet produced.”

These are grand claims readers can substantiate by reading the novels and stories. I remember discovering Maxwell on my own in the nineteen-seventies and wondering why he wasn’t better known and widely acknowledged as our Chekhov. At the time, I knew no one who had read his work or even recognized his name. Maxwell was for 40 years a fiction editor of The New Yorker, and in that capacity he edited, among others, Cheever, Nabokov, J.F. Powers, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Peter Taylor, Updike and Welty. One of his favorites was Frank O’Connor, the pen name of the Irish story writer Michael O’Donovan. In 1996, Knopf published a volume of the Maxwell-O’Connor letters, The Happiness of Getting it Down Right. The title comes from an essay Maxwell wrote about O’Connor after his death in 1966:

“He did not go in for being an important writer, though he was one; or an important anything. Writing was what mattered to him. The fascination of it. The difficulties. The happiness of getting it down right.”

Obviously, this is Maxwell’s modestly oblique self-revelation. The letters also confirm the Chekhov connection. In 1964, Maxwell wrote to O’Connor’s wife, Harriet, when the couple lived in Dublin, trying to locate Chekhov’s stories as they had been translated by Constance Garnett:

“Does Michael ever haunt second hand book shops? Are there any to haunt? There virtually aren’t any here, any more. And I have been trying to complete my Chekhov. Will youse [sic] keep your eyes open for Vol. IV (The Party, etc.); V (The Wife, etc.); VII (The Bishop, etc.); X (The Horse Stealers); and XII (The Cook’s Wedding, etc.)?”

The postscript to The Happiness of Getting It Down Right includes letters Maxwell and O’Connor’s widow exchanged after the Irish writer’s death. The widow, it seems, gave Maxwell her husband’s Chekhov collections, and his expression of gratitude can make you weep:

“I have been looking at, reading, and thinking about Michael’s volumes of Chekhov. So lived with – turned down corners, turned down sides of the page, coffee stains, whiskey stains, and perhaps tears. It is almost as if you had given me his bathrobe and slippers. I know I don’t deserve to have them, but I will try to deserve to have them.”

Between 1983 and 1987, Ecco Press issued, in 15 paperback volumes, Garnett’s translations of Chekhov’s stories. Each came with a blurb on the back cover, amounting to a miniature essay by a contemporary writer, including Welty, Richard Howard, and Cynthia Ozick. Maxwell supplied the blurb for Vol. X, The Horse-Stealers, one of the volumes he asked O’Connor to scout for:

“It seems to be part of the human condition that a wall of glass separates one life from another. For Chekhov it did not exist. Though no Church has seen fit to canonize him, he was nevertheless a saint. The greatest of his stories are, no matter how many times reread, always an experience that strikes deep into the soul and produces an alteration there. The reader who has lived through `Ward No. 6’ knows forever after that his own sanity is provisional. As for those masterpieces, `The Lady with the Dog,’ `The Horse-Stealers,’ `Sleepy,’ `Gooseberries,’ `About Love,’ `In the Ravine,’ – where else do you see so clearly the difference between light and dark, or how dark darkness can be.”


Anonymous said...

I agree about Maxwell: he is well liked here in the UK too. My point: i think his best book was The Chateau which you do not mention.

Anonymous said...

The Chateau and So Long, See You Tomorrow will be published in the second part of The Library of America's centennial Maxwell edition, WILLIAM MAXWELL: LATER NOVELS AND STORIES, to be released in September.