Friday, October 31, 2008

Maxwell's Debut

I've recently started reading the two-volume collection of the work of William Maxwell, the New Yorker editor and writer, and I find reading him is a bit like drinking a fine wine that you sip slowly -- so slowly that you may decide drinking fine wine is not your thing.

This is no doubt an unfair judgment, as it is based on his 1934 first novel, Bright Center of Heaven, which I am certain Maxwell would not wish to be remembered by. It's a very precious kind of book -- precious in this case meaning "Affectedly dainty or overrefined" -- where precious little happens. It's set at the boardinghouse of a writer's colony, where the story (such as it is) roams from person to person to person, peering into the innermost thoughts of each. All have secrets, of course, some of which relate to others in the colony, some not, none very interesting. Half way through I found myself going "OK, we've met the gang -- is there a story here?" There is, slightly; written under the likely influence of Joyce and Woolf, the novel takes place in a single day, which supposedly sums up an entire life, and on this day there will be a black visitor, who will test the liberal or tolerant attitudes of the other residents. This leads to a dinner table confrontation that is somewhat dramatic, but not much.

Maxwell was 26 when he wrote the novel, and there's something fearful and hesitant about it, with it's distended character portraits and many ambitious and ungainly metaphors, as if he was a little too overly-concerned about his public debut. It's careful, crafted, prosaic and suffocating -- at the same time, I find myself looking forward to living through Maxwell's bright future.

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