Oh, William Maxwell. Where have you been all my life? They Came Like Swallows is sublime; possibly even more so than So Long, See You Tomorrow. I was fighting back the tears as I finished it on the train, my throat constricting in that horribly painful way it does when you’re desperately trying not to cry. Set in smalltown Illinois amidst the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic, it is the tale of the Morison family; Bunny, a sensitive, gentle 8 year old; Robert, his determined teenage brother, permanently marked by the accident that tore off his leg as a child; their father, James, a distant, though affectionate, figure of authority; and Elizabeth, their adored, beautiful, loving and perceptive mother, who all the family depend upon for their sense of selves.
It is a quiet book, made up of the nothings that construct our everyday lives, and filled with the long afternoons, dappled sunshine and petty frustrations of childhood. Maxwell allows us to enter the minds of Bunny and Robert, misunderstanding and misunderstood, finding peace and comfort only in the presence of their mother, who effortlessly knows their needs. We also view Elizabeth from the eyes of her husband, James, whose love, unspoken, is deeply felt; and through her flighty, lively sister Irene, beloved by her nephews and brother in law, and hiding a secret torment of her own. James’ dependence on and love of Elizabeth is incredibly touching, and Elizabeth’s gentle reign over her home, family and friends reminded me very much of Virginia Woolf’s ethereal Mrs Ramsay.
In the background of this elegiac tale is tragedy, perpetually fraying at the edges of an otherwise happy family portrait. The Spanish Influenza is a menace, as is the threat of Elizabeth’s impending confinement. Elizabeth’s central position as the security and beauty in so many other people’s lives is the fault line running through the novel; we know instinctively that she will come to harm, and as the events gently, softly, exquisitely, meander to the inevitable conclusion, Maxwell draws us so close to her and to those who love her that the feeling of devastation is overwhelming.
Maxwell’s skill as a writer is phenomenal. In the description of a gesture, in the trembling of a feather atop a hat, he tells us everything we need to know about a character. His portrayals of the hyperbolic emotions of children, of the deep and often irrational fears and insecurities that crowd out their happiness, and of the looks and gestures that pass between lovers whose knowledge of each other’s souls eliminates the need for words, are masterful. It is effortless, absorbing, unbearably real. I couldn’t bear to turn the pages towards the end, knowing what must come. Knowing it is autobiographical made it even worse; the crushing grief felt by the characters was felt by me, too; my eyes pricking, my throat tightening, I closed the novel with trembling hands, distraught at what had passed in front of my eyes. Restrained, sparse, but incredibly powerful, Maxwell’s prose is amongst the finest I have ever read.
Simon posted yesterday about reading phases, and how infrequently he now explores one author in depth at a time compared to his reading habits as a child. I am exactly the same; I rarely allow myself the indulgence of immersing myself in an author’s work in one gulp now, whereas I often would go on author binges as a child and teenager. However, Maxwell begs to be read, to be wallowed in. His prose is awash with beauty. It’s a feast for the mind. I am going to throw the pressures of the TBR pile to the wind and instead gather up everything of Maxwell’s that I can find and allow myself the luxury of his world, for as long as possible. I hope some of you will join me.