Monday 13 October 2008

William Maxwell

While I was away, I discovered - or began to discover - William Maxwell.
This is one of those American writers whose reputation seems not to have
crosssed the Atlantic. He was little more than a name to me - but as the
name was quite often mentioned on Patrick Kurp's incomparable blog, I was already on the lookout for his works when I spotted Time Will Darken It on the shelves of a charity shop (one of the best £1 purchases I ever made). It was the Harvill paperback edition - I don't think Maxwell is in print with any English publisher - and the front cover is embellished with a rather beautiful early 20th-century portrait photo of a young woman. Time Will Darken It is a novel (published 1948) set in a small town in Illinois in 1912. I was gripped from the first paragraph (I think anyone would be - it's a very expert opening), though unsure at first quite what kind of book I was reading. Maxwell works in wonderfully subtle and indirect ways, under a surface that appears to be spelling everything out - right down to pointing the lessons of the action in pithy authorial homilies. He creates a small-town world and a cast of characters, who gradually reveal
themselves, until the principals - including a four-year-old girl, drawn with astonishing insight - become intensely, almost unbearably real. Character is indeed destiny in the world of this novel, a world where no good deed goes unpunished. The action follows the working out of the consequences of a well-meant act of hospitality by the central character, a young lawyer, who, to repay their kindness to his late father, invites his
Southern relatives to stay (without having first cleared it with his wife).
What at first plays like a mild social comedy is in truth laying the foundations for a kind of tragedy, which builds with horrible inevitability towards what is not quite a Hardyesque hecatomb or the comprehensive bleakness of a Richard Yates ending, but is not far short, and no less affecting. Time Will Darken It has a slow cumulative power that leaves you - well, left me - gasping. I think it is something very like a masterpiece. I
certainly intend to read more - even if I have to buy it from the other side of the Atlantic.


  1. I have been in Boston a few weeks, accompanied by Maxwell's short story collection 'All the Days and Nights' as well as his novel 'The Folded Leaf'. Though my tastes usually stray towards obscure European fiction, I could not have asked for better travelling companions.

  2. Welcome back, Nige. You're a lucky man, having discovered Maxwell. And you started with his finest book. Let me also suggest So Long, See You Tomorrow, his final novel, published in 1980. He's really not all that well known in the U.S. The pleasures he offers are quiet and subtle, not to the taste of many. -- Patrick

  3. Thanks, Patrick - that confirms my hunch about the next title I should read. Meanwhile I've just got started on Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower, which seems extraordinarily good (and pleasingly short)...

  4. I finally read my first Maxwell (So Long, See You Tomorrow) last week and loved it. Mr. Kurp gets much of the credit for my taking the plunge at last. Which means that Time Will Darken It will be my next.

  5. I know him as a brilliant short story writer. Will have to try the novels if I ever -- ever again -- have time to read something of my own choosing.