The Château by William Maxwell


The beginning of this lovely print journey is the arrival of an ocean liner in Cherbourg; a young couple with an impossible amount of luggage struggle to make their way first to Mont St. Michel and eventually to a château some distance from Blois. We eventually learn these Americans have booked a stay in the château in advance but otherwise are unscheduled for a 4-month trip to Europe in the summer of 1948. The story of their time at the château and their time later in Paris is the subject of the book; though “story” isn’t quite the term. We see and hear what Harold and Barbara do and hear how they feel. They want to be a part of French life and though they speak the language, they are limited by their vocabulary.

The château is far from comfortable and they debate fleeing to Paris more than once, but they begin to have interesting conversations and to find themselves a part of a strange little community. They are often baffled by the interactions with others; someone who is outgoing and friendly on one occasion is not on another. They do not understand French social interactions and have questions about certain “mysteries” that no one answers. This continues when they are in Paris and they are often in a quandary about whether to accept an invitation, whether they have said the wrong thing, or why they feel slighted. They had some magical moments, like riding bicycles five miles to a party and riding home in the moonlight.

It is the beautiful writing that caused me to attach sticky notes on many pages. We come to know Harold and Barbara largely through their trip, but some of their background is relayed:

A commuter, standing on the station platform, with now the Times and now the Tribune under his arm, waiting for the 8:17 express. A liberal Democrat, believing idealistically in the cause of labor but knowing few laborers, and a member in good standing of the money-loving class he was born into, though, as it happens, money slips through his fingers. A spendthrift, with small sums, cautious with large ones. Who is he? Raskolnikov–that’s who he is.

Surely not? [this is the voice of us–the curious reader]

Yes. Also Mr. Micawber. And St. Francis. And Savonarola. He’s no one person, he’s an uncountable committee of people who meet and operate under the handy fiction of his name. The minutes of the last meeting are never read, because it’s still going on. The committee arrives at important conclusions which it cannot remember, and makes sensible decisions it cannot possibly keep.

And sometimes Harold and Barbara just see the sights:

Chartres was wonderful; it was one of the high points of their whole trip…. To their surprise, in the whole immense interior there was no one. The greatest architectural monument of the Middle Ages seemed to be there just for them. The church was as quiet as the thoughts it gave rise to. They stood and looked at the stained-glass prophets, at the two great rose windows, at the forest of stone pillars, at the dim, vaulted ceiling, at a little side altar with lighted candles on it. They felt in the presence of some vast act of understanding. When they spoke, it was in whispers. Their breathing, their heartbeat, seemed to be affected.

I read another of his books, So Long, See You Tomorrow a few years ago. I’m happy to know several more of his books await.

William Maxwell, The Château, Alfred A. Knopf, 1961, 402 pages. Available in the UVa and public libraries and through Amazon.

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