This is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.
I’m not sure if all editors make fine writers but William Maxwell’s prose exemplifies the elegant, clean, quietly understated style that I so admire. The same can be said of Diana Athill. Maxwell became fiction editor of The New Yorker in 1937, remaining there for forty years. He was the friend and editor of J D Salinger, Eudora Welty, Vladimir Nabokov and John Updike, and published six novels of his own my favourite of which is So Long, See You Tomorrow.
Set in small town Illinois, Maxwell’s novel is narrated by an elderly man looking back over fifty years to his painful adolescence and an incident that still torments him: his decision to ignore a friend in need. Isolated by his mother’s sudden death the narrator’s fleeting friendship with Cletus Smith comes to a sudden end when Cletus is caught up in a domestic tragedy which culminates in the murder of his mother’s lover and the suicide of his father. When the narrator moves to Chicago, he and Cletus pass each other in the corridor of their new school but each remains silent. Stricken with a remorse that haunts his adult life, the narrator constructs a vividly imagined story of the passion which tore two families apart, leaving Cletus in a solitary misery which echoes the narrator’s own.
Sadly, Maxwell was never so well known as the authors whose work he edited, many of whom praised his writing unreservedly. Although So Long, See You Tomorrow brought him a little more attention when it won the American Book Award, his work seems to have been largely under appreciated. He died in New York in 2000, aged 91, within eight days of his wife’s death. They had been married for fifty-five years.
What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?