The Perils of His Magic Circle

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William Maxwell, New York City, 1987; photograph by Dominique Nabokov

William Maxwell was a plain-speaking, seemingly realistic novelist who wrote autobiographical stories about middle-class life in small towns and urban neighborhoods. At first he tried to imitate Virginia Woolf’s lyricism, but he soon cleansed his style of ornament and exaggeration. He wrote in taut, laconic rhythms that evoked the spare speech of his native Midwest, and portrayed his characters’ inner and outer lives with economical clarity and nuance. His props and characters were indistinguishable from real settings and persons from Lincoln, Illinois, where he was born in 1908, and Manhattan, where he lived most of his adult life until his death in 2000. Almost every episode in his fiction was reconstructed from events in his life, rearranged for concision and elegance. In a few heightened moments in his novels and stories, he imagined what the furniture and fixtures in a room might say if they could speak among themselves, unheard by human ears, but he presented these moments as metaphors for the sad reality of human moods.

Maxwell had two separate careers as a writer; both overlapped his third career as fiction editor of The New Yorker. His first career, as a writer of realistic novels and stories, began when his first novel appeared in 1934 and continued in such books as The Château (1961) and So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980). In 1946, a year after he married a young painter, he began a second career as a writer of magical folktales in the style of Mother Goose and the Brothers Grimm. In these tales the magic hidden beneath the surface of his realistic fiction emerges with explicit and often comic force, and their world is partly the familiar modern one, partly a timeless fairyland, and wholly his own invention.

Once upon a time,” these tales typically begin. Then a talking bird transforms a woman’s life; or a family of aristocratic English moles, fleeing modern construction, burrows through the earth to China; or a country exists where all children are born wearing masks that they shed every year; or an angry toad curses a child by making her hate her parents. In Maxwell’s realistic fiction no one learns and no one changes. In his folktales, a queen spends a lifetime learning humility and love; a man who tries to be left alone learns to be treasured by many friends.

Maxwell called these tales “improvisations.” Many began as stories he told to his wife in bed at night; she sometimes shook him awake to ask what happened next. At first he thought they were not worth publishing. Then he had some of them printed in limited editions, little magazines, and eventually in the back of The New Yorker. The one book-length critical study of his work, Barbara Burkhardt’s William Maxwell: A Literary Life (2005), passes over them in half a paragraph, but they are his most complex and moving works, the ones nearest the heart of …

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