Monday, 31 August 2009
William Maxwell: Gasping Again
I recently finished another William Maxwell - The Folded Leaf, which dates from 1945 (the title comes from an early Tennyson poem quoted as the epigraph: 'Lo, in the middle of the wood, The folded leaf is woo'd from out the bud...' and is peculiarly apt to a novel about adolescence - and one that ends, as this does, in a kind of enchanted wood that represents the reopened life, full of possibilities, of one of the two lead characters). Once again I'm left gasping by the masterly subtlety of Maxwell's art, by how completely he inhabits his characters - especially the two boys whose intense friendship, or rather love, is at the centre of the novel. Among other things, The Folded Leaf is an astonishingly accurate portrayal of the sturm und drang of adolescence, the exalted heights, the crushing depths, the fantasies, passions, daydreams and delusions. It's also, perhaps more surprisingly, very good on the physical delight of fighting - the favourite pursuit of the energetically physical, inarticulate, popular Spud Latham, who befriends the cerebral, pigeon-chested, unhappy Lymie Peters, and sparks in him a fierce, passionate love. The novel, set in the 1920s, essentially traces the course of that love - which is intensely physical and yet not sexual - as the boys grow, go to college and, when a girl appears on the scene, are driven apart and into... Well, to say much more would be to give away the plot. Suffice to say that events reach a terrible climax - almost unbearable after the reader has spent so long in the skin of Lymie and Spud and in their world (as ever, Maxwell is expert at touching in the telling detail). The ending, when it came, I found quite breathtaking - as I said, it left me gasping. And I still don't know how on earth Maxwell does it - he has this gift for creating what seems an entirely free-standing world ('very much lived and very much seen,' as Edmund Wilson puts it) but he is never far away, slipping into the action at frequent intervals, often appearing merely to digress - but all is, in the end, to the point, and Maxwell's touch is gossamer light; this is no omniscient narrator crashing onto the scene, nor a puppetmaster peeping out from behind the curtain. All is of a piece, all is one creation. And what a creation! I cannot for the life of me understand why Maxwell is not regarded, at least on this side of the pond, as one of the 20th-century American greats.