William Scott Williams

Fiction by William Scott Williams

Archive for Time

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.”


Light and Space with Julian Bell

Julian Bell is a master of light and space.

In “Skylit Room,” a shaft of light descends from a skylight and dominates the canvas. Time passes as four men sit against three walls in stiff, ladder-back chairs, waiting to begin a spiritual exercise. Of course we cannot see the light move across the room in real-time but we know that it does. Time as a concept we know a priori is immobile, yet it continues to pass. We sense in “Skylit Room” a still frame from a motion picture.

“Shooters Hill” captures motion as well as light. We are in medias res. At the bend at the top of a hill, commuter traffic mixes with pedestrians. Multiple gazes cross paths and again we have the sense of a very fluid moment captured forever in time. On the left and closest to us, a young man stares hard at the woman to the right of center. There could be recognition here or there could be something more significant, more sinister. Perhaps, the moment before an illicit touch or even a grasp.

In “Bathroom in Bow,” a woman soaks in a tub in a sunlit bathroom, surrounded by the ordinariness of daily life: towels, clothes, a boom box, a bathroom scale. The lid to the toilet is up. Natural light cascades into the room and there is a square of bright sunlight reflecting off the polished tiled floor. Outside there is a courtyard. The mirror above the fireplace shows the neighbor’s flat at a hundred and forty degree angle from the center of the composition. We see the light first certainly because it is in the middle of the frame, but the theme of the painting is the woman who occupies the tub, and all of the space around her, including the out of doors. She is the center of the story.

Present in all of these paintings are the play of light and motion as well as the “consumption of space” by human beings. The commingling of these two in my mind constitutes a parallel to fiction. I am thinking here of Forster’s premise regarding plot versus story: when the queen dies of a broken heart you know you are on to something.

In the best example of this argument, “Light of Dawn Palermo,” based on Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel “The Leopard,” firmly captures the moment and the story at the breaking light of day. On the left, a long soiree in a golden ballroom is finally breaking up. A woman sleeps in her finery leaning against the wall. A man in coat and tails is still holding forth in front of the last of the diehards. On the right a bohemian, probably the dishwasher, perhaps himself a painter, drinks from a bottle, while over his shoulder dawn breaks over the city. The door in the center of the composition is the bridge between night and morning, between recreation and work, between old regime and new.

Each of these paintings share with Cézanne’s stills that the viewer is almost seeing around corners, around dimensions, around and through time. But this latter piece most directly highlights a conjunction of themes whereby fiction intersects with painting to preserve a human moment in time and space. Bell is both a writer and a painter and in an interview with Bell in The Tamarind, from April 2010, Giovanni Biglino, follows this thread:

GB: Looking at your paintings, it appears that light is a major preoccupation in your work. How do you approach light?

JB: The most difficult question first! In fact, when I’m at work painting, the thought of ‘light’ as such never enters my head. There are just different pigments which I put on the canvas to make the figures and the environment in my image look the way they need to look – that’s how I approach it – and some of those combinations of pigments happen to be lighter, some darker. (I wonder if this is the kind of Cezanne meant when he said ‘For the painter, there is no such thing as light.’) And yet of course when I stand back and look at what I’ve done, what stays in the mind is the light. I realize that I’m typically drawn to scenes where low-angled sunlight jangles against strong artificial light, and for that very reason I try to break my own habit, avoid my own clichés – do scenes where the light is very muted; where it’s all artificial; or where it’s high in the sky and purely natural. One canvas just has sunlight falling from a window in the ceiling into a room where four men sit with their eyes closed. And thinking of that, the best way I can express my sense of how this theme operates in painting is to get paradoxical and to say that light is natural metaphysics. It is a physical load of pigment with certain optical properties, and equally it is nothing less than understanding and grace.


Human beings, the interaction with the crowd and the surroundings, the human figure – these also appear to be important in your work

JB: Yes, that is what I am mostly thinking about when I’m making the pictures – rather than ‘light’, per se. My general theme is how human beings occupy environments, occupy different types of space. Or I could turn that upside down by saying, what concerns me is that a rectangular picture has got to have something in it, something that’s not simply coextensive with it, and that entity is generally going to be an analogue for myself or things of a similar nature, i.e. a figure, one way or another. Many of the present collection of pictures have become crowd-filled, as you say. Partly because I had the use of a big studio and thought I’d take the chance to try painting some big canvases – but more deeply because the artist I’ve always looked up to most is Brueghel, and I’ve always longed to imitate his panoramic sociological approach to humanity.

(cf. Giovanni Biglino, “Conversation With Julian Bell, http://thetamarind.eu/en/2010/04/19/english-conversation-with-julian-bell/; April 2010, Accessed August 2010)

Memoryhouse, Twinsister, Cat’s Cradle

Sunday evening, Memoryhouse and Twinsister played at The Cat’s Cradle. Denise Nouvion and Evan Abeele’s dream-, chill-, ambient-, choose-your-own-adjective-pop, was backgrounded with superimposed stills from 1960s home life.

Twinsister infused Talking Heads riffs and Velvet Underground drone with their own special mix of color and wash (their best piece was probably “I Want a House”).

The vintage clothing, the old-is-new compositions, the Ektachrome slides, all made me think that the desire to transcend time is the product of a shaken collective unconsciousness.

When I stepped out into the night–into the empty warm parking lot, with the smell of hot asphalt, with Andrea Estella’s voice still ringing out against the sound of the cicadas and the clicking of the stoplights changing red to green–I had stepped back twenty years.


QSL Cards, Vacuum Tubes, and Vinyl-to-Digital: Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

The Arcade Fire, A Thriving Throwback – Jon Pareles –  The New York Times


“All of us had powerful experiences of pop music that was meaningful and had something real about it,” said Win Butler, 30. “We definitely didn’t choose to be in the position that we’re in, but I really think it’s come about in a pretty direct way, as close as something can get to people just responding to the music and it getting bigger. I think it’s important, if you’re going to do it, to do it for real.”


“I’ve been moved by albums a lot more than I’ve been moved by singles, and we’re an album band,” Mr. Butler said. “I’m not going to stop making albums because of some fad of digital distribution. The idea that you just have to make bad cheap stuff and sell it cheaply because the format changes, to me, is crazy. It’s more important than ever to me to have the artwork and the recording be as great as they can be.”


Read More: The Arcade Fire, A Thriving Throwback – Jon Pareles –  The New York Times

Time Travel at 45-r.p.m.

Back in the Groove: Jazz Reissues on Vinyl – Fred Kaplan – The New York Times


“On standard-speed LPs, however, some grooves, especially those representing very quiet sounds, are so tiny and so tightly curved that no cartridge can track them perfectly. As a result fine details — the full shimmer of a cymbal, the vibrating wood of a bass, the sense of real people playing in a real space — get a little bit smeared.

But the grooves on a 45-r.p.m. LP are spread out more widely. Their undulations are much less sharp, so they’re easier to navigate. “The cartridge ferrets out a lot more low-level detail within the groove’s walls,” Mr. Hobson said. “It connects you a little more closely to the live music. We’re trying to do time traveling here.””


Read More: Back in the Groove: Jazz Reissues on Vinyl – Fred Kaplan – The New York Times