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Friday, 17 March 2017

Book review - Time will darken it

William Maxwell’s Time Will Darken It (1948) is a quite haunting tragedy of manners and relationships. Set in the small town of Draperville, Illinois in 1912, this literary novel mainly concerns the lawyer Austin King, his wife Martha and their daughter Abbey.

Maxwell employs the omniscient point of view, understandably, as he is depicting several denizens in this small township, and entering into many of their heads. It’s a slow, measured narrative, words and phrases clearly considered over months if not years, certainly not rushed out in a few weeks or months; he probably allowed the characters to gestate and conduct their monologues in his mind over time.

Austin King has reluctantly invited the family of foster ‘cousins’ from Mississippi to stay in his house, against his wife’s wishes. They have never met the Potter family, but Austin feels he must do the right thing. He is plagued by that condition, and is hostage to always wanting peace. With the first paragraphs we appreciate the tension between the married couple. This is not the first time they’ve been at loggerheads.

There are several instances where Maxwell gives us an authorial aside (and a number of these asides are surreal, observations made by furniture and such like!); not from any particular character’s viewpoint: ‘It was not his failure entirely. Women are never ready to let go of love at the point where men are satisfied and able to turn to something else. It is a fault of timing that affects the whole human race. There is no telling how much harm it has caused.’ (p12) This is a telling conclusion to a chapter, excellent foreshadowing of harm to come.

Mrs Potter’s first appearance is colourful and described with amusing wit: ‘… so small, so slight, here dress so elaborately embroidered and beaded, her hair so intricately held in place by pins and rhinestone-studded combs that she seemed, though alive, to be hardly flesh and blood but more like a middle-aged fairy.’ (p14)

Maxwell is good at conveying mood, too. ‘… and the clock threatened once more to take possession of the room.’ An awkward silence fell between them and the clock’s ticking again intruded. Another example: ‘The front stairs creaked, but not from any human footstep. The sunlight relinquished its hold on the corner of an oriental rug in the study in order to warm the leg of a chair. A fly settled on the kitchen ceiling. In the living room a single white wheel-shaped phlox blossom hung for a long time and then dropped to the table without making a sound.’ (p71)

Time will darken most things, perhaps; or fade them, if left out in daylight. Take this description, for example: ‘The rooms were large and opened one out of another, and the cherry woodwork, from decades of furniture polish, had taken on the gleam of dark red marble.’ (p1`59). Good visualisation, indeed; you can almost smell the age, and the polish, of course.

Austin’s father was ‘the nearest the town of Draperville had come to producing a great man.’ Unfortunately for Austin, he was forever in the dead man’s shadow, but acquiesced, rather than ruffle feathers and change things.

There’s a clever piece of flashback employed, too. When Martha spends time unpicking the sewing of her dress, an expressed favourite of her husband’s, she unpicks her courtship with Austin and her running away from him when he first proposed. ‘Although so much time and effort have gone into denying it, the truth of the matter is that women are human, susceptible to physical excitement and the moon.’ (p75) She yearned for a man ‘who would give her the sense of danger, a man who would look at her and make everything go dim around her’ (p73). But finally she settled for staid upstanding Austin.

While the township gives the appearance of being genteel, it isn’t. Another aside tells us ‘The world (including Draperville) is not a nice place, and the innocent and the young have to take their chances…’ (p53)

To the local townspeople, the Potters seem almost exotic, and before long Mr Potter is inveigling certain prominent folk into investing in his cotton business. Their daughter Nora is besotted with Austin and declares her love for him, and instead of telling her not to be foolish, he does nothing save allow her to stay behind with neighbours when the rest of the family return south. The neighbours have their own fascination, whether that’s deaf Dr Danforth who feels cut off because of his affliction and then finds companionship and marriage unexpectedly, or the middle-aged spinster sisters Alice and Lucy Beach, dominated by their mother, or Austin’s senior partner, the relatively idle pompous Mr Holby, or the rumour-mongering card club ladies, or the Kings’ Negro maid and cook, Rachel, who suffered domestic violence.

Slowly, inexorably, a crisis approaches as Martha’s pregnancy comes to term, as a disastrous accident occurs, and as a possible suicide looms.

The world and characters created linger long after the last page has been absorbed.

A highly regarded author, Maxwell was a famous fiction editor of the New Yorker from 1936 to 1975. He wrote six novels and a great many short stories. He died in 2000, aged 91.

Minor editing comments

Surprisingly, even an accomplished editor and writer such as Maxwell uses the dubious phrase ‘His eyes rested uneasily on the design…’ (p2) Nowadays, we try to avoid eyes doing these surreal things. His gaze rested uneasily, perhaps. Later, ‘Austin’s eyes wandered to the clock…’ (p10). Minor quibbles; in this latter scene we’re easily caught up in the strained relationship, only lightened by the appearance of little Abbey.

‘On the mantelshelf there was a brass clock with the works visible through panes of thick bevelled glass, and several family photographs.’ (p159). Perhaps it would read better thus: ‘On the mantelshelf there were several family photographs and a brass clock with the works visible through panes of thick bevelled glass.’

Many of the most dramatic events are off-stage, and that can frustrate some readers, but on reflection I don’t believe it matters too much, as it is the consequences these individuals have to deal with, not the actual occurrences that drive the narrative.

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