“. . . it fascinated me as a snake would a bird
– a silly little bird.”
–Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
I’m not at risk of spoiling a reading of William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow by summarising this story. A man looks back on the pivotal moment of his life–the death of his mother– his father’s remarriage and the loss of his family home; intertwined into what I understand to be autobiographical fiction, Maxwell tells a parallel story, of another boy, whose father murdered his wife’s lover (also his best friend) before killing himself.
Writing of his mother’s death the narrator says,”Other children could have borne it, have borne it. My older brother did, somehow I couldn’t.” I was perhaps fortunate that I was barely eighteen month’s old when my mother died, as I hadn’t sufficient opportunity to become accustomed to her presence. As such I feel that I have borne it well, though not without my share of what are now a well-documented set of both early and late reactions. My father was less resilient. His emotional response left me with little protection, which I naturally failed to comprehend until many years later. This disastrous double-bill was intensified when we were made exiles from my beloved childhood home.
None of this is written to induce sympathy. These are events that shaped my early years, mostly, I like to think, now integrated. It is to say that I distrust myself when reading writers like Maxwell, who write forms of autobiography close enough to my life to make me, in Nabokov’s understanding, a bad reader. It is all too easy to identify.
For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Joseph Conrad and William Maxwell, all writers whose mothers died during their childhood, the sense of things passing becomes an obsession that suffuses their fiction with melancholy. The narrator in So Long, See You Tomorrow is also haunted throughout life by an incident, a guilty regret that is the driving impulse behind the story’s creation.
Maxwell writes extraordinarily well from a technical perspective, presenting viewpoints of multiple characters including a dog, which normally falls apart but in this case works fine. His delicate, muted story allows us to see through the eyes of a poignantly wounded child, from the viewpoint of the adult he becomes, one that has not been able to escape his childhood demons, but without ever quite veering into outright nostalgia or mawkishness.
If you should feel inclined to explore William Maxwell’s work, and I shall definitely read much more of his fiction, my introduction came from the excellent Backlisted podcast.