The Chateau by William Maxwell

CHATEAU

Every time I read one of William Maxwell’s books, I find myself in awe of how utterly beautiful his writing is. He always manages to find just the most perfect combination of words to express a thought or experience, suffusing my mind with the senses and emotions of that moment in time and enabling me to feel as if I were that character, and this story my life. He weaves an entire living, breathing world on the page; not much of one for event and incident, he is a master of making the everyday and unremarkable utterly absorbing. So much of what happens in Maxwell’s novels is internal, and it is these fleeting thoughts, these uncomfortable silences, these covert glances, that make his stories so full of tension and emotional intensity. He is an utter realist, and when I read his writing, I find that he so often puts into words my own feelings and experiences in a way that speaks to me with a profundity my own words could never hope to express.

The Chateau, his longest novel, was just the most wonderful reading experience. It is the story of Harold and Barbara Rhodes, a young American couple who travel to Europe for an extended holiday in the late 1940s. After a complicated journey through a French countryside that is pockmarked with the craters of destruction left behind by the war, they arrive in Paris and are enchanted. Their childish joy in the beauty and novelty of what they find is enchanting, and reminded me of the continual delighted astonishment I felt during my first visit to Paris. It is clear that France is not what it was, but Harold and Barbara fall in love with the French people, their culture, their food, their language, their architecture – and they are keen to see and experience as much as possible. The story really gets going when they arrive at the eponymous chateau in the countryside, where they have booked to stay for two weeks. The owner, Mme Vienot, is a charming but guarded woman, forced to open her family home to guests after having fallen on unspecified hard times, and it is the interaction with Mme Vienot and their fellow guests at the chateau that forms the narrative impetus of the novel. Each character is fascinating in their own way, and has depths of capriciousness, eccentricity and secrecy that perplex Harold and Barbara, who only want to like and be liked, but the vagaries of human personality make this a far more complex aim than they had at first anticipated. They have never met people like this before, never had to struggle to make themselves understood. Is it a case of culture clash, or have Barbara and Harold realised an essential truth about humanity that American society has never been able to teach them?

Amidst the long, lazy days of a trip several months long, the Rhodes’ come to understand more about themselves and the world around them through the people they interact with, and the quiet dramas of their navigation through French society and attempts to befriend those they meet are beautifully evoked. Post war France is so poetically, hauntingly drawn, and I longed to be there, lying on the sun-dappled lawn of a chateau shimmering against the deep blue of a summer sky. Maxwell creates a rich, sensitive and beautiful canvas that explores, through its characters and their reactions to what they experience, what it is to be human – the joys, the disappointments, the loves, the losses – and though for some, who enjoy a plot driven novel, it might appear that nothing happens, for me, this book contains all of the action that makes up a life, and I found it brilliant and surprisingly moving. I particularly liked the theme of searching for something that runs throughout the novel – the Rhodes’ visit has been inspired by a childhood trip of Barbara’s, and they spend their entire holiday looking for a chateau Barbara remembers but can’t recall the name or location of. They never find it, and this sense of incompleteness, the idea of something never fully realised or grasped, is the undercurrent of the text, raising complex questions about the reasoning behind our actions, and whether any of us is truly knowable, and perfect understanding between people ever possible to find. If you’ve never read any William Maxwell, you are missing out enormously. I cannot recommend him highly enough!

17 comments

  1. I’m a huge fan of William Maxwell too. Thanks for this great review of a wonderful novel, which I read some years ago now. You’ve made me long to re-read it, especially since I now live in rural France (in fact just a few miles from the first town they stay in when they arrive).

    1. Thanks Harriet – I’m glad you enjoyed it! I wish I lived in rural France…you should definitely re-read it! Especially as all the action happens locally to you – you could do a The Chateau tour!

  2. Read that book a few years ago and loved it.

    Am reading now “Sworn virgin ” by Elvira Dones which I highly recommend .

  3. I gave you Elizabeth Bowen and you gave me William Maxwell, for which I will be eternally grateful. My copy of The Chateau arrived last month, and a good thing too because your reviews are very persuasive!

    1. I am so glad you love William Maxwell so much, Darlene! You’re going to adore The Chateau. And I will be eternally grateful for your gift of Elizabeth Bowen – she transformed my reading life!

  4. This was the first William Maxwell I read & I adored it. His novels just exude humanity and kindness. He’s one of those rare authors who seem to have an infinite sympathy for their characters — and by extension for human nature — even at their least attractive. I’d love to know what you thought of the end section ‘Some Explanations’ where he leaves realism behind & moves into a more postmodern mode. I can remember being so surprised — but fairly happily so — at this unexpected shift.

    1. Yes, you’re exactly right – I feel like only a truly good person could have written people the way he does. I didn’t love the end section, actually – I thought it misjudged. I could have done without it. I wanted to make my own mind up about the characters’ reasons for being as they were rather than having it all spelled out for me. It didn’t ruin the book in the slightest but I just thought it was a bit of an odd and unfitting way to end.

  5. I haven’t read Maxwell, but I wonder if he’s anything like one of my favorites, Henry James. At least in terms of the theme of this book–innocent, open Americans being baffled by the darker, more secretive nature of Europeans–I could see there might be a connection to much of James’s work.

    1. I don’t think he’s anything like Henry James in terms of writing style but certainly in subject matter when it comes to this book in particular, yes, I can see a link. I think The Chateau might be his only book set outside of America, and apparently it’s quite autobiographical and reflects his own experience of being an American abroad, which is quite interesting.

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