Balzac, William Maxwell and Jane Austen

Balzac, Domestic Peace cover

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), Domestic Peace and Other Stories. Penguin, 1958. Translated from the French by Marion Ayton Crawford. Don’t you just love those old Penguin Classics covers?

Most of these early stories were originally published 1830-32. The title story is the best, a nasty tale of aristocratic sexual predation in the pre-Revolutionary world of aristocratic ‘easy manners and moral laxness’. The Revolution and the Terror features in most of the other stories, too, with plots involving summary executions, cruelty, treachery and retribution.

‘Colonel Chabert’ also stands out. A Napoleonic officer reported dead at the battle of Eylau returns to life in Paris during the post-Revolutionary restoration to reclaim his old identity – and wife. She has remarried, and with callous cynicism refuses to acknowledge him. This well crafted story, much redacted and revised by Balzac, was filmed several times.

‘The Abbé Birotteau’ is more of a Trollopeian clerical comedy with a dark edge. Unlike Warden Harding, our Abbé’s innocence is no protection from the harshness of his world, or from the landlady he unwittingly upsets.

Mostly, though, the stories are rather dour and stodgy fare. The world Balzac depicts is dyspeptic.

Maxwell Chateau coverWilliam Maxwell (1908-2000) The Château (1961). Is this a travel book or a novel? At times I felt it was the former, as accounts of life in bomb-scarred France just after the war (1948) became just a little too detailed. A few too many new French acquaintances are introduced.

The young American Rhodes couple, touring Europe for four months, are charmingly flawed: desperate to be liked and accepted, to savour the culture and language of France, with which they’d ‘fallen in love’ – but never quite able to lose their essentially alien Americanness: “you don’t really understand one another,” reflects Harold on how difficult it is to be friends with somebody, “no matter how much you like them.” Is it ever really possible to know another person really well? (the narrator ponders near the end).

In ration-hit, austere postwar France Americans are seen as annoyingly rich.

Maxwell writes polished sentences – sometimes overpolished (why ‘it had commenced to sprinkle’, rather than ‘it had started to rain/drizzle’?) But here are some good aphorisms:

The poppy-infested fields through which they were now passing were by Renoir, and the distant blue hills by Cézanne. That the landscape of France had produced its painters seemed less likely than that the painters were somehow responsible for the landscape.

Hang on, though; is that as good as it seems at first sight? Or is it just superficially clever, ostentatious?

There’s a strange, not entirely congruent postmodern, reflexive element throughout (spectral narratorial questions, answered just as mysteriously), as here at p. 63, on the Rhodes as tourists; why go to Europe, asks this inquisitor, in italics:

it’s too soon after the war. Traveling will be much pleasanter and easier five years from now. The soldiers have not all gone home yet. People are poor and discouraged. Europe isn’t ready for tourists. Couldn’t they wait?

No, they couldn’t…they are unworldly, and inexperienced.

This feature is more pronounced in the ‘Explanations’ section at the end where that intrusive, teasing narrator enters into dialogue with an imagined reader who’s keen to fill the gaps in the narrative, which the narrator coyly sidesteps, or fills in as if completing a questionnaire. Very odd.

There’s a nasty racist exchange with an unreconstructed Frenchman about white America’s treatment of its African-Americans, topped with spectacular casualness by Barbara Rhodes (pp. 201-02).

So Long, See You Tomorrow is a much more successful Maxwell novel (1979-80).

Austen N Abbey cover

I dipped in to my old OWC edition from time to time to check the details

Jane Austen (1775-1817), Northanger AbbeyAfter eye surgery I wasn’t able to read much, so I listened to this as a LibriVox audio book. I hadn’t read it in years. It’s as delightful as I remembered.

There’s the usual Austen wit (and terrific, character-revealing dialogue) and crystalline perception. Yet this was first written probably as early as 1798-99; it wasn’t published until 1818 (along with Persuasion), after Jane Austen’s death.

Here’s Catherine Morland growing up into adolescence and womanhood after a rollicking tomboy childhood: her eyes ‘gained more animation, and her figure more consequence’:

To look almost pretty, is an acquisition of higher delight to a girl who has been looking plain the first fifteen years of her life, than a beauty from her cradle can ever receive.

Now that is how to do aphoristic prose while establishing character and narrative poise. The author also directly or indirectly refers, in metafictional touches that make Maxwell’s look rather awkward and mannered, to her task of presenting her heroine in a novel of sensibility, with the constraints of contemporary novelistic convention subtly subverted. Thus when the boorish Mr Thorpe claims never to read novels (Catherine had just asked him if he’d read her favourite, the hugely popular but ‘horrid’ Gothic Mystery of Udolpho), sniffing that they’re ‘so full of nonsense and stuff’, the reader is alerted to his duplicity (he’s too stupid to read anything), pomposity, shallow nature and lack of empathy with our enthusiastic ingénue heroine. Her innocence and unworldliness is quietly conveyed in such passages, along with her charm and lack of coquetry – she’s far more suitable heroine material, our narrator shows, than the superficially more glamorous but essentially monstrous Isabella (more on her coming up).

The first half of the novel gives a deceptively muted satirical critique of the society that gathers at the fashionable spa town of Bath (including the gloriously flirtatious, devious and selfishly catty ‘friend’ Isabella, who Catherine has to learn loves only herself despite her protestations of affection for her new bff – as I believe young people say).

Girls like Catherine, attending her first ball, are desperate to be danced and flirted with, vulnerable to odious frauds like Isabella, but clearly destined to find happiness with the upstanding chap she dotes on.

The Gothic satire section at his medieval abbey was less interesting than I recalled, and rather laboured.

Reading Jane Austen is an experience that’s perfect for a convalescent. Pity the range of readers on my free LibriVox version was so uneven.

 

Shipwrecked Lives: William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow

William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow (Vintage paperback, 2012; first published in two parts in the New Yorker in 1979, then in book form, 1980)

This novel has the same deceptively low-key style and tone as that recent word-of-mouth hit, Stoner. My first reaction was that this is as good, if not better – perhaps because it compresses so much intensity of feeling into just over 150 pages.

It’s a tale of elemental, doomed passion in rural Illinois in the 1920s. Two neighbouring tenant farmers are as close as brothers. Then one falls in love with the other’s wife, and an affair starts. When the betrayed husband finds out, he kills his former friend. The lives of both families had already started to unravel; after the murder, they implode.

That’s not a spoiler: the fatal gunshot rings out on the first page. Two pages later we find out who shot whom, and why. This is not a murder mystery; it’s about what drives a pair of men who love each other like a modern David and Jonathan to such extremities. Maxwell does this with penetrating insight and emotional integrity.

The structure is intriguing: the narrator, who was about ten when the murder happened, is a man looking back on these events fifty years later. He lived in the same small town as these farmers, and was a schoolmate of the murderer’s son. Both boys have seen the happiness of their young lives destroyed: the narrator, by the death of his mother in the 1918 flu epidemic, which also killed his brother, and caused his already emotionally distant father to become even colder towards him; Cletus Smith, the other boy, whose parents divorce as a result of the wife’s adultery. After the murder, worse follows.

They find consolation in each other, these boys. The narrator is a sensitive, unsporty bookworm, bullied at school, compounding his sadness at home. The two boys are drawn to play together, unconsciously forming another close bond of friendship like that of the two farmers, and at the end of each day’s mutually consoling company, say the farewells that give this book its title. A few years later, the narrator treats his friend badly, in a way that causes him to feel piercing guilt for the rest of his life.

William Maxwell, So Long, See You TomorrowIt’s an unusual genre – based on fact, with real place names and details that featured in Maxwell’s own life. The psychological development of the innocent narrator’s young self is what grips the attention, how he tries to make sense of what was so violently broken through no fault of his own (and the same applies for Cletus); strangely, the melodrama of the adultery, murder and suicide among the grown-ups forms the backdrop, the catalyst to the two boys’ descent into despair. A passing reference to a remark by Ortega y Gasset sums up this aspect of the novel: life is, the narrator recalls the philosopher remarking, ‘in itself and forever shipwreck’.

The lives of the women in this drama are also brilliantly and economically evoked. Even before the events that wreck all their lives, Clarence Smith, Cletus’ father, sees his wife as the woman who, ‘in the sight of God,’ owes him

love, honor and obedience. Other people, with nothing at stake, see that there is a look of sadness about her, as if she lives too much in the past or perhaps expects more of life than is reasonable.

There, obliquely and suggestively, is what explains the whole biblical-Shakespearean tragedy of this story, and its emotionally stifling rural social and cultural setting. She’s a prairie Emma Bovary.

It’s hard to find anything else brief enough to quote that might convey the Maxwell voice that makes of this material such an original and compelling narrative – it’s a slow-burning, low-voltage style with few literary embellishments or stand-out passages of ‘fine writing’. The effect is cumulative, unnoticed as you go along, like breathing.

There’s a section I’d marked in ch. 5 where there’s a description of a carriage drive in the countryside when the narrator was an even smaller boy; the landscape, says the narrator, is much the same once the town limits are passed:

Plowed fields or pasture, all the way to the horizon. There were trees for the cattle to stand under in the heat of the day, and the fields were separated from each other by Osage-orange hedgerows that were full of nesting birds.

The conversation in the front seat of the carriage was about what was growing on both sides of the road: corn, wheat, rye, oats, alfalfa. The women, blind to this green wealth, talked about sewing and ‘receipts’ – the word they used for recipes. I was of an age to appreciate anything that looked like something it wasn’t, and when we passed a cluster of mailboxes I would turn and look back. Long-legged wading birds is what they put me in mind of…

It’s the prose equivalent of a Japanese watercolour: much more is intimated at than is overtly represented. Metaphor, it’s implied, is for the immature mind.

A few pages later the narrator explains what he’s about. As he no longer knows where his boyhood friend Cletus is, the only possibility of ‘making some connection with him’ is through ‘trying to reconstruct the testimony he was never called upon to give.’

If any part of the following mixture of truth and fiction strikes the reader as unconvincing, he has my permission to disregard it. I would be content to stick to the facts if there were any.

I found it impossible to disregard what follows. The attempt to rediscover the doomed innocence of those boys (and adults) is reminiscent of Le Grand Meaulnes, with some of the elegiac quality (without the baroque style) of Proust.

There’s a heartbreaking account of Cletus’ loyal, loving dog and her sad fate – another vividly realised, unsentimentally portrayed aspect of this family drama. Some good cats, too, sitting in the cow barn in a row, waiting ‘with their mouths wide open for somebody to squirt milk down their throats.’