William Maxwell: So Long, See You Tomorrow

“. . . 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.

10 thoughts on “William Maxwell: So Long, See You Tomorrow

  1. all this reading and living piles on layers of thoughts and stuff and whether those layers serve as protection or distrust or distance probably doesn’t matter (or maybe it does in other senses). it looks like one of those books that on the surface might say something obvious and this distrust you speak of is a very natural response, but then the most important stuff goes on indirectly and while reading astute insights about oneself/life/the world/etc can catch one unawares like those reflections on vulnerability and how stuff affects one (or not)… …so: if one might distrusts oneself to identify with the story, i think one safely can trust those indirect insights… it is all good all the same…
    thanks for also tweeting me stuff ever so often and happy new year.

  2. There’s always the danger of a too close connection to a book clouding our judgement; but I’ve heard so much good said about Maxwell’s writing that I’m sure this book deserves your praise. I have one of his books on my shelves which I really should pick up soon.

  3. I feel like I have known this book for a long time – though only from glances in bookshops, I’ve never read it – and have a particular affection for its title. I really should get to know it properly.
    One of the reasons I read is to ‘find myself’ in books, though I agree, too great a similarity can make you a less critical reader – though the experience itself may be more rewarding.

    • Such a good title. Sometimes a story gets too close. This is undoubtedly a good thing, but it does make me question what I eventually write about it here.

  4. I’ve only read ‘They Came Like Swallows’ which was a few years ago but I remember it being beautiful and moving and, from what I recall, also tells one story from a few different perspectives. I haven’t read anything else of his since though but maybe I’ll change that this year.

  5. Pingback: Kate Zambreno: Book of Mutter | Time's Flow Stemmed

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