Yesterday I wrote about Eudora Welty, today I’m looking at a novella by her editor, William Maxwell. Maxwell was fiction editor at The New Yorker from 1936-1975 and a contributor until his death in 2000. He was editor to extraordinarily successful writers as well as a writer himself.
Image from here
I’ve abandoned the two novella posts I was ending this series with, because I loved this one so much I wanted it to have a post all to itself.
They Came Like Swallows (1937, 140 pages)
The title of this semi-autobiographical novella is taken from WB Yeats’ Coole Park:
They came like swallows and like swallows went,
And yet a woman’s powerful character
Could keep a Swallow to its first intent;
And half a dozen in formation there,
That seemed to whirl upon a compass-point,
Found certainty upon the dreaming air,
A woman’s powerful character is the central compass-point of this story. Elizabeth Morison is mother to Bunny and Robert, wife to James. The 3 parts of this novella are told from the point of view of each of the male members of the Morison family in turn.
It begins with Bunny, aged 8 and a sensitive child who takes things to heart, would prefer to be indoors than out, and suffers under his older, more rumbustious older brother. He is still of an age where his mother has the power to change everything and make it alright.
“Somewhere in the front part of the house a door opened so that his mother’s voice came up the stairs. A spring inside him, a coiled spring, was set free. He sat up and threw his covers to the foot of the bed. When he was washed and dressed he went downstairs. His mother was sitting at the breakfast table before the fire in the library.”
“While he stood waiting before her and while she considered him with eyes that were perplexed and brown, the weight grew. The weight grew and became like a stone. He had to lift it each time that he took a breath.
‘Whose angel child are you?’
By these words and by the wholly unexpected kiss that accompanied them he was made sound and strong. His eyes met hers safely.”
I thought Maxwell effectively captured a sense of childhood and just how hard it can be day-to-day, without ever lurching into sentimentality. He writes in a constrained way yet captures moments in their entirety; he shows the profound in the everyday.
That’s not to say he can’t be poetic, but it is a restrained poetry. When he chooses an image it is startling and evocative. Every word in this novella works hard, yet overall it flows with deceptive ease. I particularly liked this description of Robert reading:
“It began the way Robert liked books to begin, and by the second page he was submerged. The lamp cord was his only means of contact with the upper air. He clung to that, and shaped his words in silence as he read.”
Robert also adores his mother. Under Bunny’s point of view he seemed somewhat brutal, but in his section we learn how much he also relies on maternal love as he enters adolescence:
“With his mother Robert was almost never constrained or ill at ease. It seemed easy and natural for her to be talking about whatever was on her mind. She didn’t stop what she was doing. Hardly ever. And that way he felt free to tell her all sorts of things. Because he always knew she would go right on sorting the sheets and pillowcases.”
I’m about to go on to a massive SPOILER so skip the remainder if you don’t want to know, although I knew this at the start of They Came Like Swallows and it didn’t affect my enjoyment of it at all: Elizabeth Morison dies. She succumbs to the flu epidemic that swept through after the First World War, and so these 3 people are left reeling without their centre. Maxwell’s restrained style effectively captures the numbness of grief, and how the inexpressible is articulated in a society that does not encourage outbursts of emotion, particularly from men. James blames himself for taking his wife on a crowded train:
“He read the letters while he walked back and forth between the fireplace and the windows – read them over and over without retaining what he read. Then he threw envelopes and letters upon the library table and stood perfectly still, pressing his shoulder against the mantel.
For two days now (ever since they came into his room at daybreak to tell him) he had been getting on that train. And there was no way, apparently, that he could stop.”
I thought They Came Like Swallows was perfectly written. Part of what focussed me on novellas in the first place was exasperation at the baggy, overlong, overly-indulgent novels I kept coming across, that had me muttering to myself how they ‘needed a heavier edit.’ If Maxwell is an example of what happens when editors decide to write, more should do so.