Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

So Long, See You Tomorrow – William Maxwell

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on February 23, 2011

Life is, in itself and forever, shipwreck —  Jose Ortega Y Gasset

If there is one generalisation that one can make of American literature it is that nine out of ten times the concerns that are dealt with in it are unfailingly and narrowly American. Maybe it is this relentless inward focus that endows American literature with power, depth and greatness that makes it attractive and secures itself a unique place in world literature. This thought struck me while I was reading William Maxwell’s wonderfully written short novel “So Long, See You Tomorrow

Set in 1920s in small town Lincon in Iowa, the book deals with the gradual but complete destruction and falling apart of two close families on account of infidelity and the entire episode being recalled to memory by the narrator after approximately five decades and who as a boy, is close to one of the children in the affected family. Through brilliant brush strokes of haunting, mature, serene and wonderfully balanced prose, Maxwell unravels the sad and harrowing destinies of the Wilson and Smith families and in the process tells a moving tale of ruin with pastoral America as the backdrop. At another level this is also a personal story of the narrator’s growing up which is drenched in a deep sense of loss of relationships and longing for the usualness associated with a routine life. In telling the story as a first person memory recall, Maxwell makes an extremely important point on the unreliability of memory in portraying truth for at one place the narrator says

What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory – meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion – is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually  in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about past we lie with every breath we draw

Personally, I think this aspect of fallibility of memory has serious implications for the veracity associated with swathes of autobiographical writing and its ability to depict the truth of an individuals’ past accurately

There is an endearing refinedness to Maxwell’s prose which is attributable to the deep observations and thoughts that he so brilliantly outlines. Consider the following two observations:

I don’t know what she looked like. Most farm women of her age were reduced by hard work and frequent child bearing to a common denominator of plainness… I fancy that this was true of Llyod Wilson’s wife and that it was not true of Cletuse’s mother, but there is no warrant for my thinking this, and the simple truth is that though so much is made of the woman’s beauty in love stories, passion does not require it. Plato’s idea that lovers were originally one person, the two parts having become separated and desiring to be joined, is as good an explanation as any for what cannot in the mind of an outsider ever be convincingly accounted for“…………….. or………….

What Clarence Smith sees as he helps his wife into the front seat of the buggy after church is a woman who in the sight of God is his lawfully wedded wife and 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

In the context of the overall novel, insights like these and many others illuminate the motives and mental makeup of the key characters extremely well and impart a grandness and weight to the narrative flow

In an interview given to Paris Review magazine, Maxwell admits to struggling while writing this novel especially with the mechanics of intertwining two parallel stories i.e. of the narrator and his growing up in the twenties of America and the fortunes of the Wilson and Smith families. The object which helped Maxwell link these two independent trajectories is the sculpture “Palace at 4 a.m” (on display in the Museum of Modern). In the novel a similar house is built by the narrator’s father and it is while playing in this semi finished construction that the narrator meets Cletus Smith whose family is involved in the tragedy. Maxwell uses this association between two young  boys as pivot to ascribe legitimacy for the narrator pry into the lives of the Wilsons and the Smiths and tell the readers the sad happenings. To me, this strange ability of a physical object to trigger a link between two different narrative threads to produce a deeply moving and powerful tale is proof of something divine about the craft of writing. Maxwell also explains that he wanted to ensure that the first-person narrator had to be a character and not just a narrative device and he succeeds wonderfully well on this front

 Overall, “So Long, See You Tomorrow” is a wonderful, deep, disturbing and extremely satisfying read. It will be one of the finest books that I have read – ever

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