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.

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2017

This time last year I posted some well-intentioned reading ideas for 2016. I conformed to pattern and failed almost entirely to fulfil my intentions. This is symptomatic of a good year’s reading. Distractions came in the form of writers like Max Frisch, Anna Kavan, Rachel Cusk and Jorge Semprún, all of whom insisted on my attention, and will continue to do so as I explore their oeuvre.

I read some fine books by some first-class writers that I hadn’t read before, and very much hope to read more of: Adrian Nathan West, Amy Liptrot, Lara Pawson, Arno Schmidt, Maggie Nelson and Ali Smith.

Late in the year I discovered the Backlisted podcast. I rarely bother with podcasts but this one should be on the radar of anyone who enjoys this blog. After listening to an episode on William Maxwell, I’m now reading, slowly and with pencil in hand, So Long, See You Tomorrow. I’ll struggle to write objectively about the story. It is in a sense too close to me. Maxwell’s mother died when he was young, as mine did, and he has an exile’s sensibility. Both make the story terribly moving. But that aside, Maxwell writes with the subtly and elegance of a chemical reaction. I shall start 2017 with Maxwell’s work, both this and other novels and short stories, perhaps also dipping into his essays and memoir.

All intentions have a corresponding possibility of fulfilment, more likely if specific books are embarrassing by their presence. A stack of Open Letter and Fitzcarraldo Editions sit within easy reach of my reading chair, part of an intention to read more broadly next year and to spend more time than normal with contemporary books–contemporary by my criteria being books less than ten years old. To this end, I am now subscribed to Deep Vellum, Open Letter, And Other Stories and Fitzcarraldo Editions, all small presses publishing intriguing writers.

My favourite publisher Seagull Books have books forthcoming that will demand attention, including newly translated work by Tomas Espedal, Christa Woolf and Max Frisch. I’m also looking forward to new books by Catherine Lacey, Claudio Magris, Kate Zambreno, Jessa Crispin and Yiyun Li.

The fault and glimpse of newness often leads me astray so expect distractions. If the year ahead holds surprises as great as Rachel Cusk, William Maxwell and Jorge Semprún I’ll be a fortunate reader.

Thanks for reading along in 2016 and for taking time to discuss books with me here, in person and on Twitter. I love little more than to discuss books so more conversation please!