William Scott Williams

Fiction by William Scott Williams

Archive for essentialism

William Maxwell – Essentialism in The Château

There is a certain precision to be found in William Maxwell’s prose that is breathtaking and arguably without equal. Maxwell, however, may be best known for using atypical points-of-view to distill an experience down to its barest essence. Essentialism can be a loaded term, especially in academic circles, but I am using it here to highlight Maxwell’s aperture for experience, which he opens as wide as possible to take in every aspect of a moment in time. Essentialism in this case equals universalism.

Maxwell’s essentialism is evidenced in the following, heart-breakingly beautiful passage from The Château:

“In the first luminous quarter-hour of daylight, the Place Pierre-Joseph Redouté in the 16th arrondissement of Paris was given over to philosophical and mathematical speculation. The swallows skimming the wet rooftops said: What are numbers? The sky, growing paler, said: What is being when being becomes morning? What is “five,” asked the birds, apart from “five” swallows?”

The Château is, of course, Maxwell’s endearing novel of a young American couple abroad in post-war France. It is early morning in Paris and Maxwell begins with as wide a lens as possible to capture the moment before Barbara and Harold Rhodes awaken. He continues:

“The French painter and lithographer who belonged in the center of the Place and who from his tireless study of natural forms might have been able to answer those questions was unfortunately not there any more; he had been melted down and made into bullets by the Germans.”

Here is war’s destruction rendered completely in one terse independent clause. It is just after daylight and the couple is still not awake, and yet:

“The huge block of rough granite that was substituting for him said: Matter is energy not in motion, and the swallows said: Very well, try this, then, why don’t you… and this…

Here is action without depiction; a painterly vision of swallows diving in the post-dawn light.

“Though proof was easy and the argument had long ago grown tiresome, the granite refrained. But it could not resist some slight demonstration, and so it gave off concentric circles of green grass, scarlet salvia, curbing and cobblestone.”

The solidity of matter again as a refrain, and even the pissoir has its say: “Everything that happens, in spite of the best efforts of the police, is determined by the space co-ordinates x, y, and z, and the time co-ordinate t.”

The lovers toss and turn and dream. Harold gropes for Barbara who evades him in her sleep. The sun rises. The rain has stopped. And then:

“Crowded to the extreme edge of the bed by his half-waking and half sleeping lust, she turns.
‘Are you awake?’ he says softly.
‘We’re back in Paris.’
‘So I see.’”

Here is a moment so exquisitely rendered that it almost defies interpretation. The timelessness of the moment is palpable in its simplicity. These passages are beautiful because they are simple and tender and also because they are universal.

The following passage from earlier in The Château highlights Maxwell’s method and needs no commentary, only a short preface.

Barbara Rhodes and Alix (a girlfriend) are swimming in a river. Harold turns to see the girls wading deeper into the water, their white thighs exposed.

“There are certain scenes that (far more than artifacts dug up out of the ground or prehistoric cave paintings, which have a confusing freshness and newness) serve to remind us of how old the human race is, and of the beautiful, touching sameness of most human occasions. Anything that is not anonymous is all a dream. And who we are, and whether our parents embraced life or were disappointed by it, and what will be come of our children couldn’t be less important. Nobody asks the name of the Greek vase or whether the lonely traveler on the Chinese scroll arrived at the inn before dark.”